By Reggie Thomson.
This is a short description of the Japan Kanji Aptitude Tests, which are approved by the Japanese Education Ministry. It also aims to give some hints for passing them.
The Japan Kanji Aptitude Tests are conducted three times a year, and vary from level 10 (80 characters) to level 1 (6000 characters). Levels from 7 upwards are Ministry approved. Though designed for Japanese students, it is equally possible for non-natives to take and pass these exams.
The exams test the kanji in the order that they are taught in schools. Thus the level 10 is the first year elementary school kanji, level 5 kanji are from elementary grade 6, and level 2 is the equivalent of the high school graduation kanji - 2000 characters. These characters are arranged in order of frequency and complexity. While many foreigners follow the order that kanji are presented to them in the various kanji books, using these exams as a target ensures that the kanji are learned in a practically useful order.
For those taking the Japanese Proficiency Exams, the Kanji Test level 8 is a good preparation for the Japanese Proficiency grade 3 test, while Level 5 is more than adequate for the Proficiency grade 2 test.
The exams test both the reading and writing of the kanji, as well as knowing radicals, stroke order and compound words. The number of kanji tested in each exam is:
Reading is tested with words in sentences. (eg level 7 この松は天然記念物だ。- てんねん)
The differentiation between on and kun (Japanese and Chinese) readings is initially a reading question (level 8) but progresses to a more difficult identification of on/kun readings in 2 letter words from level 6 up. (eg. 貸本 - 訓音).
There is usually a question on the stroke order and stroke count of the kanjis. Radical names and writing the radicals appears in the level 6 exams and above.
In levels 7 and 6 there is a question where you have to write the okurigana - the hiragana that follows a kanji (eg 絶＿＿ - える). This becomes a writing question from level 5 (eg あぶない - 危ない).
Writing is tested in straight sentences (eg level 4 事業をカクダイする計画だ。 - 拡大). It is also tested in the synonyms and antonyms section. In level 6 there are 3 letter words with one character to write, and in level 5 this becomes four-letter words.
Creating words can be from a list of kanji to put with another kanji (level 7) or from the meaning of the word, selecting two kanji from a box (level 5).
Knowledge of the meaning of the kanji within a two word compound is tested from level 6 up (eg level 6 切断 - 同じような意味 same meaning kanji).
Japanese has many words with the same sound but using different kanjis. This is also tested with progressively more difficult types of questions from level 8 up. In level 4 this becomes a question where you have to identify an incorrect kanji in a sentence with the same reading as the correct one.
With the increasing popularity of these exams among Japanese students, a number of books are now available. The Kanji Aptitude Testing centre produces its own set of practice books. These are available in most large bookshops. They also publish past exams for levels 7 upwards. There are also videos and CDROMS. Other companies such as ARC also have begun publishing materials for passing the kanji tests. These are all intended for Japanese students, but are equally useful for foreigners.
The method for learning the kanji by giving each part a unique English meaning, is best set out in "Remembering the Kanji I" by James Heisig (Japan Publications Trading Company). Studying the first 275 or so by the Heisig method, gives a good idea of how it works. Briefly, each part of the kanji has a clear English meaning, and when combined with others, creates a separate meaning. To link these, an image is created. For example 口 is mouth, and 日 is either day, sun or mouth with wagging tongue. Chant 唱 is therefore a mouth making no noise (the choir master) and two wagging tongues (you need two for a chorus).
Heisig recommends learning the form of all two thousand Joyo kanji, prior to learning their readings. However, once the method has been learned, there is no need to work through all these characters.
The method used by the author incorporated the Heisig method in a set of homemade kanji cards, one for each kanji. On one side was the English key meaning from Heisig at the top, the key meanings of the parts at the bottom, and a list of the meanings of the compounds using that word. The reverse side had the kanji, its on, kun and radical readings, and a list of compound words with their pronunciations. For reference, the kanji grade and Heisig number went on the Japanese side. One extra item that went on some of the kanji cards was the stoke order. At the top, a mark was made so that it was easy to check that cards were the correct way round. There is a set of cards for the Heisig books, though I ended up making my own using the computer.
For DOS/Windows users there is also a very good Japanese-English Dictionary available freely from the internet. See: www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/jdic.html. This is designed for people learning Japanese and now has about 60,000 words. It can display a single kanji and its roots or details, and then list all the words containing it.
The method I used followed the general pattern:
Personally, I worked up to stage 4 for about 70% of the cards, and didn't try stage 5 in my last exam. When maybe 30% of the words remain in the "writing" pile, and 50% in the "reading on/kun" pile, start working through the practice book. I went through the book twice, the first time circling the questions that I failed, and the second time just doing those questions. The set of past exams were attempted at regular intervals to measure progress, and also to point out areas of weakness. For some of the level 5 questions, it was necessary to ask a Japanese teacher to explain the meaning of some questions. However it is possible to prepare for these exams entirely on one's own.
For kanji that consistently failed, various memorisation techniques were necessary.
The Heisig method works very well for learning the form of the kanji from its parts. A few kanji in each level gave problems with the readings. Often this was because of similar sounding words. For example in level 5 I kept confusing 敬う (うやまう awe), 補う (おぎなう supplement), and 疑う (うたがう doubt). The first one, awe, has やま(mountain) in the middle of it - a mountain of awe. The third one sounds like 歌違う (うたちがう) without theち. The second one was different from these. The cards seemed to be very good at teaching the reading and correct writing. Often, at least up to level 5, one didn't need to understand the sentence in order to give the correct reading. Indeed, one didn't need to know the meaning of the word to get the correct answer.
For the stroke order, the stroke count and the radicals, if a mistake was made in a practice exam, the card was updated to contain the extra information.
There seem to be a limited number of synonyms and antonyms, and kanji that can be tested in these words. I compiled a list of the words and their synonyms or antonyms from the past exam papers, since the practice books don't seem to cover these well.
Also not covered well in the practice books from the Kanji Aptitude Centre are the words with the same sound. Again, a look through past papers gave an indication of the words affected. Then it was important to be sure of the difference in meaning or usage.
To take the exam, please contact:
The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation
Tel 075-391-7110 Fax 075-391-7116
If you write to, or contact this address, they can send an application form, and a copy of their latest magazine, which contains sample questions from levels seven upwards.
Taking these exams is a good motivation to improving your kanji, especially writing them. When you pass, you get a nice certificate to put on your wall - or show to prospective employers. It's worth it.
Reggie Thomson taught English in Japan for over five years. He has taken and passed the Kanji Ability Tests levels 7 to 5. He is a graduate of Cambridge University with a degree in Computer Science. For some of his photos of Japan and other travels, click here