記事トップ

Anyone who’s serious about studying the Japanese language will soon encounter that seemingly insurmountable wall known as kanji. Many of those people will inevitably think, “Just how many of them do I have to learn to be able to read Japanese?” Well, to put it simply, it depends on to what degree you want to be able to read like a native speaker.

Of course, the meaning of “to read like a native speaker” is also up for debate. In search of this answer, we had four adult members of our Japanese staff take three different levels of a kanji aptitude test. How do you think they fared?

To begin, the name of the test that our staff took is the Japan Kanji Aptitude Test (日本漢字能力検定/Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei), which is also known colloquially as the “kanji kentei” (漢字検定) or the “kanken” (漢検) for short. The kanken is the staple “go-to” kanji aptitude test in Japan for anyone who’s looking to prove his or her kanji might or assess their ability.

The kanken‘s English Wikipedia entry states:

“There are 12 levels (levels 10 through 3, pre-2, 2, pre-1 and 1) with level 10 being the easiest and level 1 the most difficult. The test examines not only one’s ability to read and write kanji, it also examines one’s ability to understand their meanings, use them correctly in sentences, and to identify their correct stroke order. Although the test was originally developed for native Japanese speakers, non-native speakers may also sit for the test.”

Now that we have some background info, keep reading to learn a bit more about the test’s difficulty levels:

“Native speakers pass levels 10 through 7 at better than an 80% rate, whereas level 1 is so difficult that fewer than two thousand people take it each time it is offered, and fewer than 15% of those pass. Level 2 is as high as many Japanese, even those with higher education degrees, tend to go. Passing level 2 can be an advantage when applying for jobs, etc. Passing levels pre-1 and 1 is especially rare even among native speakers.

▼”Wait–how many characters are you saying I have to memorize before becoming a kanji master!?”

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Being the unsympathetic fiends that we are, we made four of our Japanese staff members suffer through not one, not two, but THREE levels of the test–the three highest levels, in fact:

  • The level 3 kanken is targeted at junior high school graduates and tests their knowledge of 1,607 kanji. 
  • The level 2 kanken is targeted at high school graduates and tests their knowledge of 2,136 kanji.
  • The level 1 kanken is targeted at kanji scholars and tests their knowledge of approximately 6,000 kanji (including classical, archaic, and literary characters).

For each level of the test, we had our staff complete 60 questions drawn from both the reading and writing sections (30 questions each) of the actual 2013 exam (oh all right, we didn’t want them to suffer too much…).

▼Our four Japanese staff members who took the tests (yes, that’s Mr. Sato in the bottom left).

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Without further ado, here are their scores, plastered on the internet for the world to see. Remember, for our purposes each of the sections is out of a maximum possible score of 30:

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Ouch! It seems that the level 1 exam is so hard that even the average Japanese person has trouble answering a single question correctly. After taking the test, all of our test-takers remarked that they had never even seen most of those kanji before.

▼A level-1 answer sheet left almost entirely blank, save for one incorrect answer

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Level 3, on the other hand, was quite doable for them, although they seemed to have more trouble on the writing questions than on the reading questions. Regarding this phenomenon, Man A (in his twenties) added an interesting observation:

“People in my generation typically spend a lot more time typing on computers or smartphones nowadays, so we don’t have as much need to write kanji by hand anymore. Even if we can recognize kanji by sight, more and more of us are having trouble writing them accurately.”  

▼Case in point: Just because you can read a kanji doesn’t necessarily mean that you can recall it from memory and write it correctly (as this writer can definitely relate…).

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We forgot to mention one thing–we also asked three foreigners who are working in Japan to take the test. Let’s see how their results stacked up:

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Man A’s Japanese study history: six years
Man B’s Japanese study history: nine years
Woman A’s Japanese study history: seven years

Hmm, we guess they’re still on their way to becoming kanji masters. But serious props to Man B who answered one question correctly on the level 1 test!

▼A level 3 answer sheet completed by one of the foreigners

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All right, so we bet you’re just DYING to take the kanken for yourselves at this point. Let us guide you in the right direction by providing you with links for the exact same versions of the test that we gave to our staff and the foreigners:

Kanken Level 3 

Test

The questions that we used:

  • [Reading] Section 1: Questions 1-30
  • [Writing] Section 7: Questions 1-5, Section 8: Questions 1-5, Section 10: Questions 1-20

Solutions

Kanken Level 2

Test

The questions that we used:

  • [Reading] Section 1: Questions 1-30
  • [Writing] Section 8: Questions 1-5, Section 9: Questions 1-25

Solutions

Kanken Level 1

Test

The questions that we used:

  • [Reading] Section 1: Questions 1-30
  • [Writing] Section 2: Questions 1-15, Section 3: Questions 1-5, Section 9: Questions 1-10

Solutions

Ganbatte, everyone! Let us know how you did in the comments section below.

Images: Pokémon Wiki, RocketNews24