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NOTE: Beginning in 2010, substantial changes were made in the levels of the JLPT. Please refer to the official JLPT homepage at http://www.jlp.jp/e/ for more information, and to the following excellent online study guides designed to help you prepare for the test:
Jonathan Waller's guide to the revised JLPT, including level checker

JLPT Study Page for Levels N2-N5

Column #29 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, November 22, 2002
"The 'Great Leveler'-- going for your black belt in kanji"

Linda Yanagida (柳田 willow trees/rice fields) folded her morning Asahi Shimbun and glanced out the window at the multicolored leaves of fall. They reminded her of reviewing frantically a year ago for Level 1, the highest level of four, of the Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken, also known as the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

The annual JLPT is given the first Sunday in December in 39 different countries and in 10 cities across Japan. Last year, Linda was one of over 32,000 learners of Japanese as a second language residing in Japan who did battle with the most popular level-- the "Great Leveler," big No. 1. (A mere 17,000 test-takers in Japan took all the other three levels combined). She had easily passed Level 2 the preceding year, but Level 1 covers approximately 2,000 kanji--double the number required for Level 2.

This working mother, a New Zealander, had chuckled when she read on the official JLPT website (www.jlpt.jp/e/) that the number of hours of Japanese language study recommended for tackling Level 1 was 900 hours. There was no distinction made between test-takers from kanji-using countries (especially China and Taiwan) and those who hail from countries where kanji are largely confined to signs announcing Japanese and Chinese restaurants. She had surely spent thousands of hours over the previous five years, memorizing and reviewing the shapes, meanings and pronunciations of Japan's 1,945 general-use characters.

A long-time resident of Japan, Linda felt confident facing the 45-minute listening section of Level 1. Her confidence waned, however, when it came to quickly and efficiently digesting reading passages of various lengths in the 90-minute reading comprehension/grammar section. And since kanji pronunciations were her weakest point, Linda particularly dreaded the 45-minute writing/vocabulary section that would begin the marathon day of testing.

The test was about to begin. Palms sweaty, Linda repeatedly fiddled with her unopened test booklet, the multiple-choice mark sheet and the pencils on her desk. She looked out over the roomful of other nervous test-takers, who were overwhelmingly Chinese. She asked herself, "Why are you spending 5,200 yen--and a full Sunday away from your family--to be here?"

"Hajime! (Begin!)" boomed the voice of the proctor, and all dove in.

The first 40 problems in the writing/vocabulary section dealt with kanji. For starters, there were sentences containing three or four underlined kanji or kanji compounds each. Test-takers had to choose the correct pronunciation, from among four choices written in hiragana, for each of the underlined items.

Linda grappled with the likes of 怪獣が人を襲うというのは架空の話しだ (Talk of monsters attacking people is pure fabrication). The pronunciation of the first compound, 怪獣 (which she knew meant "monster"), was the rare freebie: The choices (in hiragana) were yaken, yajuu, kaibutsu, and kaijuu, and she had heard her Japanese husband refer to their growing children as "kaijuu" many times. She could not remember what 襲う meant, however, and all four choices seemed to make sense: Ubau (monsters steal people), osou (attack people), kurau (eat people), or sarau (abduct people). Although unfamiliar with the word 架空 (kakuu, fabrication), our brave test-taker was able to guess (correctly) that 架 is pronounced ka (its top half is a character with the reading ka) and that 空 is read kuu, as in 空港 (kuukou, airport).

The next five problems utilized homonyms to test her knowledge of kanji pronunciations. Test-takers had to choose, from among four kanji compounds, the one with the same pronunciation as the compound underlined in a sentence. One read 白い旗は降伏 のしるしだ (A white flag is a sign of surrender). Ms. Yanagida knew that 降伏 (surrender) was read koufuku, but she was at a loss if its homonym was 光沢, 拘束, 後悔, or 幸福. (The correct answer was 幸福).

Next up were sentences with individual kanji or compounds written in hiragana, in which test-takers were asked to select the correct kanji used to write them. For mastering kanji Linda had employed a "component analysis" approach, which enabled her to easily recall the minute differences between nightmarishly similar characters like 魅, 塊, 魂, and 醜. For み力的 (miryokuteki, attractive), she confidently selected 魅 for み.

The final assaults on her kanji confidence were cleverly crafted questions that required Linda to come up with the characters used to write 10 compounds without the benefit of any choices written in kanji. Relief came as the kanji questions ended and the vocabulary-related ones began. "Owari! (The End!)"

Linda was winded. After recovering during the long lunch break, she faced her afternoon bouts with listening and reading comprehension/grammar.

Back home, Linda honestly did not know how to answer her husband's query: "Well, darling, did you pass?" But two months later she -- along with 43 percent of the total Level 1 test-takers in Japan--received her "kanji black belt," certification that she had passed. It hangs, framed, in the entryway of the Yanagida home for all to see.

The examples used here are taken from the 2001 Level 1 JLPT.
Here is another column about the JLPT