If you’re someone who is interested in learning Japanese, then you’ve probably heard of the JLPT. JLPT stands for “Japanese Language Proficiency Test” and, as the name suggests, it’s a test of your Japanese abilities.
The test is split into 5 levels, with the lowest being N5 (Basic level) and the highest N1 (Advanced level). As one of the most internationally recognized tests of Japanese language skills, the JLPT is a great way both to test yourself, and to prove your abilities to others.
One element of Japanese that newcomers in particular struggle with is 漢字 (Kanji, Japanese characters). Whether it’s getting the readings mixed up, forgetting the meaning, or mistaking it for another kanji, kanji-related study can be tough. In this article, I’m going to take you through what information you need to learn about kanji, as well as discuss what kind of questions you can expect to see during the JLPT N5.
Originating from China, kanji became a key script in Japanese. Each character carries its own meaning, functioning like ideograms. Combine them, and new words blossom. Picture "electricity" merging with "car" to mean "train". Thousands of characters exist, with around 2000-3000 needed to easily read a newspaper. An essential set of 2136 characters is dubbed "everyday kanji".
Kanji paints nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. But unlike Chinese, Japanese isn't solely kanji. Combined with hiragana and katakana, you’ll get what a real Japanese text would look like.
You can learn more about Japanese writing systems and kicking off your Japanese learning by getting familiar with 6 easy steps for beginners to learn Japanese. Check it out!
In order to confidently pass the test, you will need to learn roughly 100 kanji. This may seem like a lot at first, but these kanji are an important first-stepping stone to building a solid vocabulary in Japanese. Not only do they appear in commonly used terms, almost all of them are also used in more advanced vocabulary too.
Japanese food vocabulary is basic, so let’s use 食 (Eat) as an example. In the JLPT N5, it is used in two words: 食べる (taberu, “to eat”) and 食べ物 (tabemono,”food”). However, it is also used in a huge variety of more advanced food-related terms too, such as 食料品 (shokuryouhin, “groceries”) and 外食 (gaishoku, “eating out”). By learning these kanji properly now, you will make your future studies easier.
One mistake that newcomers often make when studying kanji for the JLPT N5 is only learning the most common way to read a kanji, which can lead to a lot of problems learning new vocabulary with that kanji later. To effectively learn a kanji, it’s important to learn both the onyomi (音読み) and the kunyomi (訓読み) readings.
But what are onyomi and kunyomi ? Most kanji characters can be read with different pronunciations, with some being onyomi readings and others being kunyomi readings. Whilst it can be hard at first to figure out when to use which reading, generally onyomi are used together with other kanji to make nouns, whilst kunyomi often has ひらがな (hiragana, “Japanese syllabary”) attached to it to form verbs or adjectives.
Take 学 (“study”) as an example. It’s onyomi reading is がく (gaku), and it’s kunyomi reading is まな (mana). Three common words that it’s used in are 学生 (gakusei, “student”), 大学 (daigaku, “university”) and 学ぶ (manabu, “to study”). Do you see how it’s read がく (gaku) with other kanji, whilst it’s read まな (mana) with hiragana characters? In general, that’s how you decide which reading of a kanji to use.
So, to learn a kanji character properly, you should learn it’s meaning, its onyomi reading and its kunyomi reading. I normally make note of a few words that use the different readings, to help me remember which is which. If you do all that, then you’ll have properly learnt that kanji character.
The kanji related questions in the JLPT N5 tend to be placed at the very start of the test. Being able to answer them easily is a great way to settle any nervousness you have, so let’s take a look at the two kinds of kanji related questions.
The first type of question will ask you to choose the correct hiragana spelling of a word that contains kanji characters. The word will be underlined and put into a sample sentence, then you’ll have four hiragana spellings to choose from. Let’s look at an example.
新しい靴です。(atarashii kutsu desu, “these are new shoes”)
A: あたらしい B: あだらしい C: あらたしい D: あらだしい
This kind of question, provided you know your kanji, is pretty easy and makes for a nice warm up. The four hiragana spellings are normally very similar, so make sure to double check you pick the right one. (The answer here is A!)
The second type of question is the opposite of the first type. You’re given a sample sentence with a hiragana word underlined. The four answers will normally feature similar looking kanji, so look closely! Sometimes they use カタカナ (Katakana, “Japanese syllabary”) instead of kanji as well, so be prepared for that, too.
Lastly, let’s discuss kanji stroke order. With all kanji, there is a specific order in which you should write each individual line, as well as a direction that each line should be written in. Whilst there are exceptions, there are some general rules, which if you follow them, will let you write kanji correctly. Here’s a (very) summarized list of rules.
So, why is stroke order relevant? Well, most importantly, by writing in the correct order your kanji will end up being well proportioned and be legible. This might not be so obvious when writing in pencil, but it’s much more obvious in calligraphy where the brush shows the movement of the hand more clearly. I highly recommend getting into the habit of writing kanji correctly now, rather than later when you have developed bad habits.
That’s all for this article, I hope it’s answered your questions about both kanji and the JLPT N5. Good luck!
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About the author: Jake Hallows is a Japanese translator who has spent time working as an English teacher in Hokkaido, Japan. He passed the JLPT N2 in July 2019, and he is waiting to take the N1 at the next available opportunity following covid-19. He writes about Japanese language learning at vocab.chat.
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