This article is part of Krys Suzuki’s series on preparing for the famous and infamously difficult Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
Studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a marathon, not a sprint. Especially when it comes to JLPT vocabulary! While kanji may be the most difficult thing to study for the test, vocabulary is the most voluminous, hands down! So how do you memorize literally thousands of new words in a matter of months (or in some cases, weeks?)
What You’ll Need
- JLPT Vocabulary List (for your level)
- JLPT Vocabulary Study Guide
- Notebook and (recommended!) colorful pen
- imiwa? app
- Anki app
Which Words to Study for Your Level
Because there are so many vocabulary words to learn for the JLPT, it’s important to know which ones are the most likely to show up at your level. This may not sound so bad if you’re studying for an easier level like N5 or N4, where there’s a lot less vocabulary words and therefore a lot more time to study them. But once you reach N3 (more than double the vocabulary of N4), and especially N2 and N1, vocabulary study can quickly become time-consuming and tedious.
Luckily, there are many study guides and vocabulary lists out there that do the heavy lifting for you and tell you what you need to know! All YOU have to do is develop your plan and get studying!
You can actually find all JLPT vocabulary by level on Wikipedia! But the layout is a bit sloppy (especially for N1), so for your convenience, I also put together level-specific PDFs for you (They’re available at the end of this article, free for Patreon subscribers!)
Number of JLPT Vocabulary You Should Know By Level
- N5: ~800 words
- N4: ~1,500 words
- N3: ~3,700 words
- N2: ~6,000 words
- N1: ~10,000 words
What’s On The Test?
As I mentioned in the previous article, there is no specific vocabulary-only section on the test. Instead, vocabulary questions are peppered in with kanji, grammar, and reading. I highly recommend previewing a sample test or two to get an idea of the kinds of questions you may see.
JLPT Vocabulary Questions You’re Likely to See
- Word definitions: you select the word that matches a given definition.
- Synonyms: you select the word with a similar meaning.
- Trick questions: you identify the correct word from a list of words that all look/sound similar but have different meanings or nuances.
- Context: you identify the correct word based on context/usage.
- Fill-in-the-blanks: you fill in the missing word in a sentence.
- Reading: vocabulary questions may also appear in the reading section.
Note: The reading section is in natural Japanese, meaning most of the words will be in kanji. Also, there’s no guarantee that you will have furigana as a crutch. This is why it’s imperative to study kanji thoroughly, too!
Using Your JLPT Vocabulary Study Guide
When studying something as time-consuming as JLPT vocabulary, it’s important to select the right guide for you so that you can stay focused and motivated. Not all study guides are the same!
One JLPT Vocabulary Guide, Two Different Experiences
To illustrate this, one Redditer explains their experience using one of the most popular JLPT study guides, Shin-Kanzen Master (新完全マスター). Unfortunately, for this person, it just wasn’t their cup of tea:
“I’m about to start studying for the JLPT N1 coming up in July, and I’m having trouble coming up with a good study plan for 語彙. I’m using the 新完全マスター books, and the set up for the one for 語彙 is kind of hard to work with… I’m 100% positive I won’t learn anything spending five minutes reading and copying down the lists, then another 10-15 filling in blanks for two pages… What were your tactics?… I actually want to learn, not just pass.”Reddit user
However, one respondent’s experience with the very same book was the exact opposite!
“I honestly loved the 新完全マスター語彙 books, though they expect you to put in the legwork on your own. It’s basically designed to help you make connections between words you already know and the new words in each list… for 新完全マスター my method was to go through one “lesson” a day, adding any new words to an anki deck.”Reddit user
As you can see, different methods do indeed work differently for different people. So how do you know which one will work best for you? To give you a better idea, I’ve done some of the legwork for you and bought both books myself to try each of the lessons. Here’s what I found:
JLPT Vocabulary Guide Breakdown
Shin-kanzen Master Series: Vocabulary
This study guide is as DIY as they come! Even I had to go through it a couple of times before I figured out what they wanted!
There are no lessons, however the entire book is divided into two parts, the first one with nine chapters, and the second with seven chapters. Each chapter focuses on vocabulary words related to a specific subject. You could divide these up yourself into “lessons” by aiming to study one chapter every 2-3 days. There are 16 chapters in total, so you could even focus on one per week.
The length of each chapter varies as you progress through the book. It starts out with four pages per chapter, and gradually increases in length, with some chapters themselves consisting of multiple parts.
To test it out, I went through Chapter 1 (for N1) thoroughly. This includes copying down all the lists, looking up and jotting down definitions from imiwa?, and doing the exercises. It took a little over an hour to complete the entire thing. (Easier levels may take less time).
Now, I’m someone who does prefer self-study, however when I’m also spending about an hour on kanji, and another hour on reading or listening, that time really adds up! If you don’t have much time on your hands, then I do NOT recommend this book. While it is extremely thorough, the extra time spent for looking everything up might not be sustainable for some people. And the last thing you want is to fall off track due to time constraints or lack of motivation!
Shin-kanzen Master: At A Glance
- No lessons; DIY structure
- 16 total chapters
- No English definitions or explanations
- More time consuming but you WILL learn after putting in all that work!
Shin-kanzen Master: Chapter Structure
- Warm-up: Several questions to consider about the chapter’s topic.
- Vocabulary: Completely DIY! You’ll see 4-6 words or short expressions in a box with a blank space. Underneath is a list of new words that fit those blanks. (This is as close as you’ll get to a definition! I recommend using imiwa? app to look them up yourself). Pay attention to how the words connect in the sentences (for example, is it a “-na” adjective? Does it come after a verb?) They won’t tell you, so you’ll have to notice this yourself, too!
This example: “___人が好き・嫌いだ” (I like/dislike ___ kind of people). The words on the list are all different kinds of personality traits that you can fit into that blank. The first word is “几帳面な・大ざっぱな” (English: punctual/careless) can be plugged into that sentence to mean: “I like/dislike punctual/careless people.” Go through this entire section plugging in the words to the example expression.
- Word Formations: This section shows word stems and the words that use them. Note that while some words are from the previous list, there are some new ones, too.
- Example sentences: Even more new words in example sentences. Again, no definitions or sentence translations, so use imiwa to look them up. (Bonus points if you copy down the sentences and color-code them with your colorful pen!)
- Paragraphs: Read the paragraph and fill in the blanks with the correct word from all the new ones you just learned.
- Matching: Complete a sentence or expression by matching words from the first column to the second. The particle at the end of the first column word will give you a clue (something you’ll focus on more with grammar).
- Definitions: Choose the correct word from the choice box.
- Similar Meanings: Select the word with the similar meaning to the underlined word.
- Kanji compounds: Select the correct kanji character to complete the word.
Practice questions, similar to what you might see on the test!
Nihongo So-matome: Vocabulary
This guide takes all the guesswork out of your study. The entire book is clearly structured with daily lessons (only two pages per day!), with eight weeks of lessons. Chapters are shorter, and there are English explanations and definitions, which means you’ll be able to complete them much faster.
When I did the first chapter of this book, it only took me about 30 minutes. I copied down all the words and definitions and did the activities. Some of them even had example sentences, which I also copied.
One thing to note is that with shorter lessons, that also means less vocabulary. To compensate for this, I also bought the Sou-Matome vocabulary companion, Sou-Matome N1 Vocabulary 3000. This book is more like a dictionary, so it doesn’t have lessons; however, it is divided into sections and chapters (14 chapters, 5 parts each). I went through the first part after doing the daily lesson for some extra vocab.
Nihongo So-matome: At A Glance
- 7 lessons per week, 8 weeks
- Vocabulary includes definitions and examples
- Example questions with explanations
- Each lesson is only two pages long!
- May not be enough on its own for higher levels like N1 (only 1,300 words for N1); you may want to supplement it with the vocabulary companion (3000 words for N1)
- Day 7 has a practice test section to review everything you learned that week
Nihongo So-matome: Chapter Structure
- Vocabulary List: All the words, complete with definitions. Some even have example sentences and expressions!
- Practice Part 1: There are six questions. You select the correct word.
- Practice Part 2: Only two questions here. Just fill in the blanks!
And that’s it! You’re done for the day!
If you don’t have a JLPT vocabulary workbook…
While I recommend getting a workbook, you can still self-study without one! It’ll just take a little more dedication and commitment. (But for those that need structure like our Reddit friend above, I strongly suggest investing in a workbook).
You can download and print the JLPT vocabulary list for your level, and divide the words similarly to how you would for the workbooks. Then, study your set number of words per day, looking up definitions and example sentences in imiwa? Be sure to write them all down in a notebook so you can go back and review.
Finally, add each word to an Anki list at the end of each session, and make sure to practice with the app daily!
Other Methods for Studying JLPT Vocabulary
SRS (Spaced Repetition System) – Anki
Even if memorization isn’t your strong point, don’t underestimate the power of flashcards! Anki works in a way that introduces new words, has you review them, then shows them to you again at different intervals depending on your familiarity. This is what is called SRS, or a “Spaced Repetition System”. The more you forget a word, the more you will see it, until you’ve seen it so much, you no longer forget!
When making your own lists, make sure to only put the Japanese word on the front, with the reading and definition on the back. You may also want to include an example sentence or two on the back for context!
Words in Context: “i+1” sentences
Note: As I said earlier, you shouldn’t learn isolated words but rather entire sentences containing the word you want to learn.
Another study method is the “i+1” sentence method. This is one way to learn JLPT vocabulary with context, where you create sentences in which you can understand all but the one new word.
If you have trouble coming up with your own sentences, YouGlish.com is a video dictionary where you can search for a word, and watch video clips of that word in action! Videos start playing immediately from the first mention of the word, so you don’t have to watch an entire 10-minute clip searching for it. There are no translations, but most videos have subtitles on the bottom for you to follow along with.
Here’s an example using one of my new words from today’s N1 lesson: 几帳面 (English definition: methodical; punctual; precise).
Note: Make sure you select Japanese from the language menu, or it will turn up with zero results!
Use JLPT Vocabulary Apps
Finally, there are a ton of helpful JLPT Vocabulary apps, too! The following is a list apps (in no particular order) that I personally tried and enjoyed. Don’t overwhelm yourself by using ALL of them! Try each one out, and select your favorite one or two.
Favorite JLPT Vocabulary Apps
I mention Anki a lot, and for a good reason! Anki uses the SRS system I mentioned above, and is one of the most popular options for learning Japanese vocabulary. I recommend curating your own deck, however it does have plenty of JLPT decks, too, including workbook specific ones!
(There’s even a Kanji Radicals Deck, which I forgot to mention in the last article. That one’s here, if you’re curious!)
Japanese Vocab Kanji Kana Hero
This is the vocabulary version of the Kanji Hero app I mentioned in the last article. The structure is the same: a game in which you select the kanji compounds to form a vocabulary word. Many of the words are in both versions of the game, but what I like about this one is the ability to select packs by JLPT level. You can try the first pack in each level for free, and afterward, decide if you want to invest about $30 to unlock all levels. (This is a good investment if you’re planning to take higher JLPT levels in the future!)
Renshuu allows you to study vocabulary in context, complete with example sentences. It even explains how to use the words grammatically!
The app includes all levels, and you can choose to remove words you already know, and save precious studying time by focusing on the ones you still need to learn! It also includes grammar and kanji practice!
This app is great because it quizzes you on vocabulary, kanji, and grammar with questions similar to the ones you’ll see on the actual test. You can even see answer explanations! It’s a great way to study while also getting a feel for the actual test.
Regular quiz questions are free, however, you can purchase a subscription for access to extra quizzes with extra features (such as context) at $18.99 for 3 months, $21.99 for 6 months, or $29.99 for the year.
This one is similar to the two mentioned above, with multiple choice and fill-in-the-blanks similar to the questions on the JLPT. It has all levels and also includes kanji and grammar. Try them all out and stick with the one you like best!
For Beginners! Eazy Japanese
This app only has explanations in Vietnamese, however, I’m recommending it for the fun crossword puzzle! The puzzle has beginner-friendly vocabulary, and you can toggle the language settings here for English. It may not be a lesson, but it’s a fun game to play during your downtime!
For Beginners! Kawaii Dungeon
This one’s specifically for beginners aiming for N5. If you like anime and all things kawaii, then you’ll probably enjoy this one! The game is RPG-style where you learn hiragana and katakana while fighting villains in a cute anime world. I didn’t play the entire thing through, so I don’t know if you can eventually unlock kanji or advanced vocabulary, but for beginners, it may be worth finding out!
How NOT to Study JLPT Vocabulary…
Finally, a parting word of caution: what I DON’T recommend for studying JLPT vocabulary!
General language study apps, such as Duolingo, are great tools in general, but are NOT designed for the JLPT. You cannot select your level or which words to learn, and the questions are nothing like the exam. If you’re relying on Duolingo or similar apps for the JLPT, I strongly suggest switching up until your test. You can always go back after you pass!
Downloadable JLPT Vocabulary Lists by Level
Below are Krys’ curated JLPT vocab lists, each corresponding to a level of the test. These are a bonus for our Patreon patrons; if you’ve signed on, you should be able to see them directly below.
Other Pieces in Our JLPT Series:
- See the rest of Unseen Japan’s JLPT Study Series HERE!
Unseen Japan’s Recommended Study Guides
- Study guides for every level available for purchase HERE!