NOTE: Changes in format to the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) are scheduled for July, 2010. Read details.

Column #87 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, August 21, 2007
"Prepare to do battle with look-alike kanji on the JLPT"

Most of us currently experiencing the summer heat of Japan are too busy sweating buckets to think about what we will be doing this December. But if you, like a projected half million other Japanese learners worldwide, plan to spend December 2 tackling one of four levels of the annual Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT, with Level 1 being the highest), you had better get your application in by September 11 and dig deeper into your kanji studies in the days ahead.

In addition to the listening comprehension and reading/grammar sections, 25 percent of the JLPT is devoted to questions on vocabulary and gwriting.h This latter is actually a misnomer: Rather than producing written Japanese from memory, test-takers pencil in little black dots on their multiple-choice answer sheets. Still, the writing sections at all four levels of the JLPT are cleverly crafted to determine if you are intimately familiar with the components comprising kanji.

On last year's test, for example, Level 2 challengers, who are expected to know 1,000 kanji, were asked to determine which of the following is used to represent ogina-u, meaning gsupplementh: Y, , , . Careful examination reveals that the right-hand component of each of these near-clone kanji is identical, with their left-hand components setting them apart. A test-taker who is adept at analyzing the components of kanji will be well-armed to determine the correct answer (). She may have memorized the meaning of the five-stroke left-hand component (meaning gclothingh) of , and incorporated it into a mnemonic she created for remembering the meaning of the whole character. Or perhaps she discovered one of several existing kanji learning systems that take a logical, building-block approach to mastering the shapes and meanings of all the general-use kanji, including the additional 1,000 characters she will need to have under her belt in order to tackle Level 1 next year.

Here are examples, all taken directly from 2004-2006 JLPT tests, of the kind of writing questions Levels 1, 2, and 3 test-takers can be expected to face. Try answering them yourself. (Answers are at the end of the column).

Level 3
1. a. b. c. hayashi, gforesth Hint: The correct character contains more than one gtreeh () component.
2. a. b.o c.n ane, golder sister.h Can you find the component meaning gmarketh in the correct kanji? The gwomanh () in the family who goes shopping there is the older sister.

3. a. b. atsu-i, ghot.h The gsunh components at both the top and bottom of the correct kanji offer excellent clues to its meaning.
4. a. b. kotori, glittle bird.h The component at the bottom of the second character in the correct compound features the gfireh used to roast the bird for dinner.

Level 2
5. a. b. oku, ghundred million.h The two-stroke left-hand component of the correct kanji means gperson,h here a wealthy individual possessing tons of money.
6. a.W b.W boshuu, gaccepting applications.h The bottom component of the first character in these compounds sets them apart. features (gclothh) and includes (gpowerh). Employers generally prefer strong applicants.
7. a.s b.s koudou, gaction.h To distinguish between (gmoveh) and (gworkh), look for the two-stroke gpersonh doing the work. Hint: gMoved to action.h
8. a.G b.K c.H suiteki, gdrop of water.h A component meaning gwaterh appears in the second character of the correct compound.

Level 1
9. a. b. c. sa-keru, gavoid.h The component meaning groadh can be found in the correct kanji (i.e., moving down the road to avoid something unpleasant or dangerous).
10. a.͔| b.͔ saibai, gcultivation.h Look for the component meaning gearth/soilh in the second character of the correct compound.
11. a.ϑ b. kansoku, gobservation.h The first character in the correct compound includes a component meaning glook.h
12. a.R b.R nenshou, gburning.h The first character in the correct compound smolders with not one but two components meaning gfire.h

Speaking from my own experience, spending a whole Sunday doing battle with the JLPT is a grueling, albeit rewarding, experience. As you exit the testing center at the end of the day, you may fear you wonft be receiving a certificate of passage in the mail. But assuming you have adequately prepared yourself to quickly analyze the shapes of kanji, you should be able to confidently say, gAt least I aced those writing questions!h

To learn more about the JLPT, visit
Here is another column about the JLPT.


1.c 2.b 3.a 4.b 5.a 6.b 7.a 8.c 9.c10.a 11.a 12.b

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