The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is offered by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services, and is the most well-known test of Japanese language ability. The examination began in 1984 and is today offered twice per year—in July and December—in Japan and at designed tests centers around the world. In 2015 the JLPT was taken by approximately 650,000 people worldwide.
The examination is offered in five levels—N5 to N1, N5 being the easiest and N1 the most difficult. The structure of the examination differs slightly by level but essentially consists of vocabulary, grammar, reading, and listening. There is no speaking section and all questions are multiple-choice (4 possible answers).
Before 2010 the examination consisted of only four levels, but the difficulty gap between N2 and N3 led to calls to introduce an intermediate level—the current level N3. Along with this change it was decided that official lists of required kanji, grammar, and vocabulary for each level would no longer be published in order to discourage rote learning:
We believe that the ultimate goal of studying Japanese is to use the language to communicate rather than simply memorizing vocabulary, kanji and grammar items. Based on this idea, the JLPT measures “language knowledge such as characters, vocabulary and grammar” as well as “competence to perform communicative tasks by using the language knowledge.” Therefore, we decided that publishing “Test Content Specifications” containing a list of vocabulary, kanji and grammar items was not necessarily appropriate.
As a result, the lists of grammar, vocabulary, and kanji for the JLPT that can be found on the internet relate to the pre-2010 examinations. Nevertheless, except for the newly-introduced N3, the levels remain broadly similar in terms of difficulty so these lists still provide a useful guide of the requirements for examinees. The “Can-do Self-Evaluation” breakdown found here shows how successful examinees by JLPT level perceive their own Japanese language ability and should provide some indication of what can expect to be able to do at each level.
The JLPT uses a scaled-score method for marking which adjusts the examinee’s raw score to reflect variations in the difficulty of each test. For a pass to be awarded an examinee must (1) score above the sectional pass mark in each section of the test and (2) score above the overall pass mark on a total basis. Sectional pass marks are just over 30% and overall pass marks range from approximately 45% to 55%.
Pass rates for the JLPT levels range between 30% and 50%. The below table shows combined statistics from the July and December 2015 examinations.