This article on the JLPT reading section is part of Krys Suzuki’s series on preparing for the famous and infamously difficult Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
The JLPT reading section is likely the most difficult part of the entire test. (Yes, even more difficult than the kanji). Why? While all other questions are relatively straightforward, reading comprehension questions tend to be abstract.
What Makes the JLPT Reading Section Difficult?
What makes the JLPT reading section so difficult is that, unlike kanji and vocabulary questions, there isn’t always one concrete answer. Reading comprehension questions have plenty of room for curveballs. Not only are the passages difficult to understand, the questions can be pretty vague, too. Because of this, choices will often leave you feeling as if more than one is correct.
As if that wasn’t enough to balk at, you’ll only have about an hour to get through the entire section. And there is a LOT of content to cover in a mere hour.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to read every JLPT study guide out there. (I’ve done that part for you!) Once you know the types of questions you’ll see and how to answer them, you’ll be on your way to acing that test!
What’s On The JLPT Reading Section?
You will see questions that ask you…
- To identify the author’s main point or opinion
- What the author is referring to by a certain word or expression
- Content-specific questions
- Grammar-specific questions
- What the author wants to say the MOST
- What the author is NOT trying to say
- To identify similarities and differences in two separate pieces on a similar subject
- About the relationships between people in an email
- About specific information from articles/fliers/advertisements
- What option a person should or shouldn’t choose from a flier based on preferences
Testing Your Japanese (Without Testing Your Japanese)
As you can see, the reading section questions don’t actually test your knowledge of Japanese. While knowledge of advanced Japanese is essential to understanding the texts, many of the questions aren’t language-specific at all. Rather, questions tend to be about less concrete concepts, such as an author’s intent or opinion, similarities and differences between the viewpoints of two different authors, and my favorite, “What does the author want to say the MOST?”
Some questions may even consider the relationship between people/companies, which tests your knowledge of keigo, the most polite form of Japanese. (These are more common on higher levels, like N1 and N2).
How to Pass the JLPT Reading Section
Below I will show some common question styles. I’ll also include tips to avoid common pitfalls. The best way to pass is, after all, to recognize the patterns and develop study habits that help you find specific information.
Read the Question First
The last thing you want to do is select the correct answer… to a completely different question!
One of the most common pitfalls is selecting an affirmative choice to a question that’s really asking what the author is NOT trying to say. In order to avoid this, pay attention to the question, too!
Familiarize Yourself With Question Styles
Do plenty of practice questions to get an idea of what they might ask you. Most people probably anticipate questions about opinions and perspectives, but how many people would anticipate this?
The question asks what should go in the blank. In order to understand this, you have to be familiar with the Japanese notice format. You’ll also have to know that they’re asking for the most appropriate title. (Another similar question might ask you to select the subject line of an email).
Learn Grammar Inside and Out!
Without a doubt, the thing that will help you get the most out of the reading section is grammar. Many times it’s the subtle difference between particles or passive forms that make the difference. And you can be sure an answer that suits all cases will appear to throw you off.
Here’s an example from one of my favorite JLPT reading study guides, Jitsuryoku Up! N1 Yomu (実力アップ！N1読む). The question asks you to fill in the blank.
As per the explanation, you need to understand that the しかし at the beginning of the sentence means it will contrast with the previous sentence. The sentence in question (blue underline) roughly translates to, “However, every time we see signs of sea levels rising, desertification, and climate change, ______ people who realize the need for the world to come together and do whatever they can to protect the environment.”
The choices are as follows:
- we can’t say there are many
- there seems to be few
- there shouldn’t be many
- there are many
The preceding (yellow) sentence roughly translates to, “…(people) insist that living an eco-friendly lifestyle isn’t enough to save the world.”
Of the three choices, 4 is the only one that creates a contrasting sentence.
“…(people) insist that living an eco-friendly lifestyle isn’t enough to save the world. However, every time we see signs of sea levels rising, desertification, and climate change, there are many people who realize the need for the world to come together and do whatever they can to protect the environment.”
Use Process of Elimination
If all else fails and you absolutely do not know the answer, one trick that sometimes works is process of elimination. In some cases, more than one choice will have similar meanings. For example, in the above question, the first three choices all mean “a few.” By process of elimination, you could guess that the answer would be 4.
Rule out similar choices for a better chance at selecting the right answer.
General Tips for Passing the JLPT Reading Section
Here are some other general tips to remember on test day:
Don’t skip/skim! Although you may be tempted to, I must stress (especially for the N1), DON’T SKIM! Many answers require context from previous paragraphs. Speed read if you must, but don’t skip over sentences. You may find yourself having to go back and read the whole thing anyway!
Allot 60-70 minutes: Although the test is timed, you won’t have a time-keeper keeping you on track. In some cases, there won’t even be a clock on the wall! That’s why you’ll need to bring your own watch, and track your own time. Grammar, vocab, kanji, and reading are all in the same section, so time management is critical.
Use a marking system: Mark important information as you read for easy reference. I like to circle conjunctions and adverbs (but, however, because, etc.), and underline information related to the subject of the question.
Skip difficult questions: If one question is wracking your brain, skip it! Fold the page corner or jot the number down on scrap paper. Then, come back later. Don’t miss out on easier questions by spending all your time pondering a difficult one!
Do easy ones first: Consider working backward. The last few questions are usually fliers and ads, therefore short and sweet. Do those first, then the short and medium passages, and save the long ones for last.
Read questions first! This bears repeating because it is such a common pitfall. Remember to look out for affirmative/negative words (している／ない).
JLPT Reading Section Study Guides
Now let’s take a look at some popular study guides for the JLPT reading section. Below I review the two most popular books, So-Matome and Shin-kanzen, as well as two others. I really enjoyed both So-Matome and Shin-Kanzen for this subject. I recommend choosing whichever works best with your study style.
So-matome does a great job breaking down the reading section and focusing on question styles. Each lesson explains a different style with study tips and lists of key words and expressions.
Example from So-matome N2:
Each day’s lesson is rather short, however, so make sure to do your own timed practices for longer reading selections!
Shin Kanzen does the same thing, but in a slightly different way. For one, all explanations are entirely in Japanese. (So I suggest this book only if you’re comfortable with Japanese explanations). However, it is super thorough, with tons of examples for each question type!
Since there is no lesson structure like So-Matome, there are two ways you can study. One way is to go through it from beginning to end, doing a few pages at a time. Another is to do a few examples from each question type, move on to the next subject, and return to the unfinished questions later as a review.
Depending on how many (or few) questions you do per day, you could finish the book in 1-2 months.
Jitsuryoku Up! N1 Yomu
This is the series I used to pass N2 (on my first try!), therefore I highly recommend it. It doesn’t have a schedule or specific lessons, so go at your own pace. I recommend one or two passages every day or two depending on length. Explanations are in Japanese, but it also includes English vocabulary definitions. They also include helpful grammar points and expressions.
Nihongo N1 Bunpo/Dokkai
The grammar/reading book I mentioned in the previous article bears mentioning again. This book teaches grammar points in the context of text passages. It also includes grammar examples explanations, and full English translations of the test.
This book isn’t specifically geared towards the reading section, so there are no test-specific questions. Feel free to quiz yourself by searching for the author’s main point as you read!
Making every minute of your day revolve around study will quickly lead to burnout. So in order to avoid that, I recommend reading sometimes just for fun! No questions, no timers. There are some really great bilingual books out there that lay out the English and Japanese side-by-side. One series I enjoy is Read Real Japanese. There are two books, one with short stories and one with essays – exactly the kind of content you’ll see on the JLPT, minus the stress!
JLPT Reading Study Apps
This series has individual apps for each level. I’m using JLPT N1 Test, and love it for the sheer amount of practice questions they have! It’s also perfect for getting in some practice during your commute, at an office, or anywhere else you don’t want to bring books with you.
It has three categories: short paragraphs, medium paragraphs, and finding information. You can do the short questions for free, as well as upgrade for $5 to access all questions. The only downside is that it doesn’t offer explanations. However, it does include examples of all questions styles, including emails and fliers!
This is the best app for real-world reading practice. Read real news articles from actual sources (including NHK, TBS, and Asahi), then study! The single app includes lots of study functions for all levels. You can also toggle furigana on or off, translate the text, and add vocabulary words to study lists and flashcards.
Colorful lines under vocabulary words also indicate the word’s JLPT level. (Blue = N5, Green = N4, Yellow = N3, Orange = N2, and Red = N1). Every time you read an article, all words are automatically added to their respective list (by level). Choose which ones to study by selecting that level.
You can also gauge an article’s difficulty before reading it by paying attention to the colorful bar underneath. For example, the ramen article (below) has a longer blue underline, which means it has many N5 words and is easy to read. The article about Tokyo hospitals, however, has a much longer red underline, meaning plenty of N1 vocabulary!
JLPT Kanji Study Update
If you’ve been following this series from the beginning (thanks, by the way!), you’ll remember we started with kanji. Since then, I’ve put together another great kanji study resource that I hope will help those of you studying for N1.
Introducing my (un)official JLPT N1 Kanji Study Deck on Anki! I started putting this together for myself while studying for the N1, but recently decided to upload and make it public for everyone else!
It currently has about 700 kanji (I add 10 new ones every day as I study them), and will have a total of 1017 by completion (due around mid-October). Using screenshots from my favorite app, imiwa?, I break down each kanji’s radicals and components, as well as include similar kanji to help you avoid confusing them.
Please feel free to download it and check it out. Also, don’t hesitate to offer comments or alert me of any issues/mistakes.
As of now, only N1 is available, but I do hope to add other levels in the future.
Unseen Japan’s Recommended Study Guides
Study guides for every level available for purchase HERE!
Download Krys’s (SunDogGen) Anki Flashcards Deck HERE!
Other Pieces in Our JLPT Series:
See the rest of Unseen Japan’s JLPT Study Series HERE!
Recommended JLPT Study Resources
- Official JLPT Study Guides: https://jlpt.jp/e/reference/books.html#book2012
- JLPT Self-Evaluation:https://jlpt.jp/e/about/candolist.html
- JLPT Practice Tests: http://www.jlpt.jp/e/samples/sample09.html