Updated January 25, 2024
Do you need to pass the JLPT to work in Japan?
If you’re planning a future in Japan as a foreigner, you’re bound to cross paths with the "JLPT".
The JLPT, or the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, is the official exam that certifies foreign Japanese learners’ proficiency levels. And sometimes passing a certain level of the JLPT is required jobs that are open to foreign candidates in Japan.
So, what level of JLPT is required to work in Japan? And can you work in Japan without taking the JLPT? These are exactly the kind of questions I’ll answer today.
So let’s talk about what the JLPT is, what it entails, and whether you even need it to find a job in Japan.
What Is The JLPT?
As I mentioned, JLTP stands for “Japanese Language Proficiency Test”, and it simply evaluates your comprehension and your command of the Japanese language as a non-native speaker.
According to your performance in the test, you’re granted a certificate that proves your level of Japanese skills, called JLPT levels, which I’ll explain in detail below.
Essentially, the test is comprised of two main sections: language knowledge/reading and listening.
The questions in the first part evaluate your vocabulary and grammar knowledge. Your ability to read Kanji as well as your ability to form sentences and understand contextually-defined expressions are some of the major things you’ll be tested at here.
In addition, you’re also required to read paragraphs of text and answer questions accordingly as part of a reading section. This part will largely challenge your ability to retrieve information from context and your integrated comprehension skills.
In the second part, where you’ll listen to audio clips and answer multiple choice questions, the test assesses your task-based comprehension skills, quick response abilities, and your understanding of verbal expressions.
Unlike other common language proficiency tests, like the TOEFL or the IELTS, which evaluate English language proficiency, the JLPT doesn't have a writing or speaking section. This is a blessing, as these tend to be the more performance-focused and, therefore, stressful sections of the two tests I mentioned.
Can You Work in Japan Without Taking The JLPT Test?
Before moving any further, let’s answer this simple question: Can you work in Japan without taking the JLPT test?
Yes, you very well can.
It’s not actually about whether you’ll be able to get a job, but how high you want your chances of getting a job to be.
Yes, there are plenty of companies that don’t require Japanese at all and have English as their primary language. In fact, you can check out some really good ones here on Japan Dev.
That said, we recommend taking the JLPT because we support the idea of learning Japanese as a resident here, and preparing for the test provides you with a clear structure to progress through.
Still, you may hear that taking the JLPT won’t guarantee you a job. This is true. But if you want to increase your chances of getting hired, we recommend aiming for the N1 level, N2 at the very least.
For one, the JLPT is a mostly passive test, and doesn’t offer any information about the candidate’s speaking abilities, which is arguably the most important skill at first glance. Those who pass even the N1 level vary greatly in speaking ability.
In addition, the test may be well-known among foreigners but isn’t well-known by Japanese companies, and most have their own language exams in the first place. If Japanese skills are really important, they’ll definitely want to test your skills themselves.
With all this in mind, let’s now talk about the specifics.
The When and The Where: Signing Up For The JLPT
If you’re planning on taking the JLPT, you’ll need to plan accordingly.
You may forget to do so, as some language proficiency tests have sessions available frequently, but keep in mind that the JLPT is only administered twice a year.
While the two sessions are held in July and December, another thing to keep in mind here is that this isn’t the case everywhere. Some locations abroad may offer only one exam in a single year, so check the official list of overseas test cities to make sure.
Here, you’ll find the official host institutions in all countries where the JLPT is offered and information on how to reach them.
Another thing to keep in mind here is the general hiring schedule that’s adopted by most traditional companies in Japan.
You can read all about this system in my post on the Shinsotsu (new graduate recruitment) system, but essentially, the practice of hiring collectively during a specific period of the year is common in Japan, and if you want to cast a wider net, it’s recommended to sign up for the JLPT accordingly.
As companies usually start their new employees on April 1st, a month after the majority of senior-year students graduate in Japan, taking the test in December is a good idea. This will allow you to apply to both traditional and modern tech companies, like the ones we feature on the Japan Dev company list.
What JLPT Levels Mean
After taking the JLPT, you’re provided with a certificate that contains your results, which usually takes approximately two months to arrive. Your results will not only show how well you’ve done in individual categories, but you’ll also get an overall score as part of the assessment.
This is called a JLPT level and is indicated by five scores, which are N1, N2, N3, N4, and N5.
If you’ve ever been on a job hunt in Japan, for which I have a separate guide that I strongly recommend checking out, you’re bound to come across one of these indicators.
You may assume that the one with the biggest number is for the highest level, but it’s actually the opposite. To briefly explain what each level means:
N5: Beginner level proficiency. Being able to read Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana at a basic level, and understand basic daily vocabulary and sentences.
N4: Being able to follow basic texts in common, familiar topics, and listening to and following basic conversations in everyday life.
N3: Being able to listen to daily conversations and read on everyday topics with ease, as well as summarize the main points of texts and conversations.
N2: Being able to follow conversations and read on a wide variety of topics and forming opinions on the context using conversational-level grammar.
N1: Native speaker proficiency. Being able to understand and speak on more complicated topics and expressing sophisticated thoughts using formal grammar.
The first two levels N5 and N4 are considered to be classroom-level Japanese, while N3 serves as a preparation level for the more technical and complex levels N2 and N1. So, to find a job in any way, shape, or form in Japan, it’s safe to say that you’ll at least need to pass N5 and N4 levels.
Let’s expand on this.
What Level of JLPT is Required to Work in Japan?
As you may have realized by now, it’s generally hard to come by a specific requirement for N5 and N4 levels in most job applications.
In fact, even if you’re looking for temporary student jobs or mini-jobs that don’t require much qualification or prior education, you’re required to have a proficiency level of N3 at the very least.
But to be able to apply for jobs that are primarily in Japanese and require skills and specific qualifications, you’ll need to aim for even higher.
A quick Google search may tell you that if you’re looking for jobs in Japanese, N3 is a good starting point, but I say this is only partially true, and you’d be severely limiting your chances if you took this at face value.
Yes, if you’re an extremely desirable hire with lots of experience and specific expertise, the company may hire you at the N3 level, usually on the basis that you’ll continue taking classes and improve your Japanese. However, this doesn’t apply to most candidates, and the job market is tough.
So, if you want to guarantee a job as a Japanese speaker here, you should aim to become at least N2 level. After all, it all depends on how unique your skillset is and how important of a hire you are to the company, but most companies that operate primarily in Japanese will definitely be more comfortable with an N2 or N1 level candidate, and will prefer these over N3 level ones in most cases.
Jobs That Require N1 and N2 JLPT Levels
While the descriptions are clear enough, it may be hard to tell the practical difference between N1 and N2 levels when it comes to getting hired.
So, before I go, here are a few examples of jobs you can realistically get at the N2 level, considering they require Japanese.
Administrative staff and assistant jobs
Service work in tourism and hospitality
Elementary and high school teacher
Customer care and sales support
As you see, even as a qualified and skilled worker, your chances of getting a job with a corporate career aren’t that high at the N2 level if you’re applying for companies that have Japanese as their primary language.
At N1 level, however, the world is your oyster. You can pretty much apply to any job as long as you’re qualified. That said, here are a few jobs where it’s safe to say that N1-level Japanese is a prerequisite:
Business intelligence analyst
As you see, most technical jobs and those in managerial positions require N1-level Japanese, but as I said, it all depends on what you bring to the table.
Exceptions for IT Professions
While it’s not possible for jobs in the medical field for obvious reasons, if you’re a candidate with an attractive enough resume, you may very well get hired for software engineering, data science, product manager, and UI/UX designer positions even with a lower level of Japanese proficiency.
In fact, these jobs are unique in that candidates can even find jobs in Japan where they can work entirely in English. This is especially the case for software engineers. As you can see on Japan Dev, there are plenty of engineering jobs that don’t require Japanese.
That said, for the latter half of these titles, product manager and product designer, learning Japanese may unlock many more opportunities. These titles usually require communicating with people and understanding the Japanese market, so, speaking Japanese is more often a requirement than it is in the engineering space.
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