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Column #13 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, December 21, 2001
"Testing, testing--kanji exams can be fun for all the family"

Students and aficionados of Japanese in 37 nations, including Japan, spent Sunday, Dec. 2 sitting the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT, Nihongo Noryoku Shiken). From morning to late afternoon, they sweated (or breezed, as the case may be) through the test. To have a shot at passing Level 1, (the highest of four), you need 2,000 kanji and a vocabulary of 10,000 words imbedded in your gray matter. Last year, the pass rate for Level 1 was 50 percent in Japan, with lower rates overseas. The JLPT costs 5,200 yen, and you are not allowed to take your test booklet home. Results don't appear until mid-February.

Now that the 2001 JLPT is over, you will have to wait another 12 months to take it again-- those kanji learners who are thinking "Well, thank goodness for THAT," please read no further!

If, however, you find regular kanji tests motivating and enjoyable, you may want to check out the Education Ministry-approved Kanji Proficiency Examination (Kanji Noryoku Kentei, abbreviated as Kanken). It is given three times a year--winter, summer, and fall-- at 118 locations in Japan as well as in 12 other countries. The next test date is February 3. The Kanken is not designed specifically for non-Japanese kanji learners, but we are perfectly welcome to have a go at it. Last year, more than 1 1/2 million people, aged 5 to 94, sat for the Kanken.

Unlike the JLPT, which has a multiple-choice format, Kanken challengers must also be able to write Chinese characters from memory. Passing this exam is one way for adult kanji users to assure themselves that, in spite of word processing technology, they can still write kanji.

Other skills tested include: pronunciations, stroke order, names of radicals, and four-character compounds. The Kanken measures kanji knowledge per se and, thus, does not feature long reading passages. The two lowest levels, 10 and 9, cover the characters taught to first-and second-graders. The most popular level, covering the 1,945 general-use characters, is Level 3; and so on up to "killer" Level 1, which requires knowledge of a whopping 6,000 kanji. Of the 1,250 brave test-takers at this highest level last June, a mere 208 attained the Holy Grail of kanji learning, a Level 1 certificate.

While taking Level 6, I found it humbling, but oddly enjoyable, to be seated in a room full of young Japanese children. The youngest was a 5-year-old who could barely see over her desk. While Mom waited anxiously outside the door, she whizzed through the test in half the allotted time. Four months later, I took Level 5, which can include any of the 1,000 kanji taught in the six grades of elementary school (kyouiku kanji).

The Kanken has a number of merits. First, the kanji tested at each level are clearly defined and there are excellent self-study aids available. Second, the exam is short-- one hour-- and you can even take two or more levels in one day because testing times are staggered. You will know how you fared immediately, as you are given an answer sheet as you leave the room. How user-friendly can you get? Moreover, the cost is relatively low, (1,500 yen or 2,000 yen), and you can register online.

For many Kanken enthusiasts, testing days are a family affair. Mama, Papa, all the kids--everyone comes out together three Sundays a year to challenge their own respective level. My Japanese husband and I are raising our children to be both biliterate and bilingual, and I want to be a good role model for them. My first-grader and I will be taking the June, 2002 Kanken together--he, the lowest level and I, Level 4. My husband is looking for a way to escape, but hopefully he will come around: I have a Level 2 preparation book wrapped up for him under our Christmas tree.

For detailed information on the Kanken in English, go here.
The homepage for Kanken is here.

At Reader Response (December, 2001) you will find a letter describing the experience of a Kanken test-taker.