capncosmo: Captain Janeway wants to know why you fail so hard (Janeway)
[personal profile] capncosmo
Or, how I learned 900 kanji in less than a year.

So! Today we are going to talk about the thing I've devoted the last ~9 mo. to AND SO CAN YOU: The Japan Kanji Aptitude Test, or Kanji Kentei (日本漢字能力検定)

Wait! Don't run away! Just because it's a kanji test doesn't make it really scary! I promise.

Why You Should Consider Taking the KanKen
There are a lot of really good reasons to take the KanKen.

#1 You learn kanji

This is pretty obvious, but it's important nonetheless to point out that as a learner of Japanese, the number one most positive benefit is that you learn kanji and how to use them. It's the second bit that most people have trouble with, because in school you're usually only taught that kanji and maybe a word or two it's in, but not the deeper meaning and, more importantly, the various situations you can use it in (unless you have far superior Japanese teachers to mine). A majority of the sections are geared towards making sure you can actually use the kanji you spent all that time stuffing in your brain.

#2 You learn about kanji

The bits of the test that aren't about practical usage require you to know things about kanji, like radicals and stroke order and stuff like that. I cannot stress enough how much this helps, not only with telling look-alikes apart, but also your penmanship. It also helps you ask for help when actually dealing with Japanese people, because you can actually say "the road radical" instead of "that squiggly thing." Knowing how kanji are formed and what sort of patterns they make helps you a lot with guessing at what ones you haven't seen before are, too.

#3 You learn to interact with Japanese in an organic way

Obviously everything for the KanKen is totally in Japanese, and is laid out the same way it would be in a Japanese grade school. Therefore, you're learning the way natives learn, which means you're learning to speak more like a native. This might actually be the best thing about the kanji kentei. In your home country, constraints on class time (my kids have at least an hour of Japanese class a day, sometimes two, plus calligraphy) coupled with the fact that you're adults means it's difficult to mimic the learning styles of actual Japanese people. While of course you still can't be exactly like a Japanese child, you can come much closer with studying for a test like this, and you can therefore interact with Japanese more like a native.

How to Prepare
So I've convinced you, have I? Good! Then let's start studying!

#1 Choose your level

The Kanji Kentei has 12 levels, from 10-1 (with pre-2 and pre-1), where 10 is the lowest and 1 is RIDICULOUS. One of the other great things about the KanKen is that it ranges from ridiculously simple to would-make-Confucius-cry difficult. Here are the levels:

LevelKanjiSectionsSchool Equivalence
10級80Reading/Writing/Stroke Order小1
9級240Reading/Writing/Stroke Order小2
8級440Reading/Writing/Radicals/Stroke Order/Okurigana/Antonyms/Multiple Readings小3
7級640Reading/Writing/Radicals/Stroke Order/Okurigana/Antonyms/Homonyms/3 Character Compounds小4
6級825Reading/Writing/Radicals/Stroke Order/Okurigana/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/3 Character Compounds/Compound Formation小5
5級1,006Reading/Writing/Radicals/Stroke Order/Okurigana/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/Error Correction/4 Character Compounds/Compound FormationElementary School Graduate
4級1,322Reading/Writing/Radicals/Okurigana/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/Error Correction/4 Character Compounds/Compound Formation中1
3級1,608Reading/Writing/Radicals/Okurigana/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/Error Correction/4 Character Compounds/Compound Formation中2
Pre-2級1,945Reading/Writing/Radicals/Okurigana/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/Error Correction/4 Character Compounds/Compound FormationMiddle School Graduate
2級1,945+Name Kanji(285)Reading/Writing/Radicals/Okurigana/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/Error Correction/4 Character Compounds/Compound FormationHigh School/College Graduate
Pre-1級~3,000Reading/Writing/Proverbs/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/Error Correction/4 Character CompoundsAcademic/Specialist
1級~6,000Reading/Writing/Proverbs/Synonyms and Antonyms/Homonyms/Error Correction/4 Character CompoundsGod

So! Even if you're a TOTAL beginner, you can still take the KanKen because the 10 is only 80 kanji! To get an idea, you can look here to see the elementary kanji (10級-5級) broken down by grade. You may also notice the test has not been changed to reflect the kanjipocalypse characters; I have no idea if they're planning to or not, given that all those kanji are covered on the Pre-1級.

#2 Learn the Kanji

The KanKen is fairly popular in Japan, and so there are lots of ways to choose from, up to and including a DS game. The only problem for you is, they assume you're going to school, so the vast majority of the materials are aimed at helping you pass the test, not helping you learn the Kanji. That is, except for one:

Kanji Gakushuu Steps

They make one of these for 10級-2級, and they are a lifesaver for the not-actually-in-middle-school among us. They break down the kanji into groups of 4-9 and give you everything you could possibly need to know about them.

When I use this book, I translate every compound they give me (as you can see), and I also circle difficult or unusual reading/radicals. The book tries to help you out too by putting unusual radicals/stroke orders in red. It will also usually inform you of other reading you will eventually need to know (marked with 中 or 高). The next three pages are devoted to exercises using those kanji (with a few review words thrown in), and then the next step. Every 5 or so steps, there's a practice test type review focusing on those, with a full-blown practice test at the end. There are 25-40 steps, so you can usually complete the entire book in a month or two.

Unfortunately, the only way to really memorize kanji is to write them a million times, so you're going to need a practice notebook as well. (The lower levels give you some practice space in the book, but that stops with 5級.) My recommendation is the same things the kids in school use:

They come in different sizes as printed on the front (I use 200 because it's the smallest = most practice on a page), and they look like this inside:

As you can maybe tell, they have a row on the right for yomigana and then the actual boxes for writing. I write one word for each reading for all the kanji in the step, and then I also write the things I got wrong in the exercises as sort-of error correction.

I don't know if these are available outside Japan, but IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, USE THE SQUARES. If you have to get graph paper, get graph paper. Why? Because it helps your proportions for the kanji. My handwriting got infinitely better just by having the lines to the left and right, especially because I wasn't used to having to do it seeing as English letters don't all have the same width. These things are really cheap, and I go through about one a month.

#3 Learn the other stuff you need to know

So you know the kanji! But that's not enough. At this point, depending on your test you need to start learning things like the dreaded 4 character compounds. My approach is to use the Handy Kanji Gakushuu.

This is a very small book designed to be extremely easy to carry and use anywhere. It has the answers printed in red and comes with a red study sheet so you can reveal the answers one by one by moving the sheet.

It's divided into sections, and one of the very best things about it is that it has a billion 4 character compounds (on those tests). Using the Handy I got my 4 Character Compound score up to 9/10 from 2/10 between the 4級 and 3級. It's also awesome for having a concise list of all the kanji in the back.

You can also use it on the train or bus or whatever, because you don't need a writing surface. (I used it on the plane to Australia; this was also an excellent plan).

#4 Review

About 2 weeks before the test I use the Kanji Bunya Betsu Mondaishuu, which has lots of problems broken up by section.

It starts each section with an explanation of the goals of the section

and then goes into problems.

There are also three practice tests at the back.

This is a really good review, and it also lets you focus on just areas you're weak in if you're running short on time.

There are also the past test collections

which are actual tests given in the past. I haven't used them before, but as with the Bunya Betsu book, just doing the problems are really good because the writers of the test definitely favor certain words in certain sections. You get one answer sheet you have to copy yourself.

And then the answers are in the back along with the average score among people who passed.

Extra: Other Books

You may have noticed all the books I've shown you are the same design, yellow on top and blue on the bottom. These are the official books put out by the people who make the test, and I have to say, it's exactly like the test. So these are the ones I use, especially because they're the only ones who make the Steps and the Handy.

There are other books they make, but I can only speak to the efficacy of one other: the Kanji Hikkei.

It comes in "2級" and "1級," and it's supposed to be the one resource you have if you have nothing else. I have the 1級 because it covers the name kanji (for which there are no steps), and because it goes up to the kanji you need for 1級 while still printing all the others too. (I have no idea why they even make the 2級, except I guess there are some people who are not crazy like me).

First is a list of all the kanji

and then there are special sections devoted to things, for example Kokuji

or 4 character compounds.

I honestly don't think you'd need this book until you were looking at 2級 or above, but it's a good resource if you are.

Applying for and Taking the KanKen
So now you want to take the KanKen! Yay! Well, first you're going to need to apply.


Visit the KanKen Website, click on 個人受験 to the right there and go for it! The deadlines are always the top thing in the center column, so make sure to pay attention to them too. If you have specific questions about the application process, you can ask in the comments :D


There are a few testing sites outside Japan (listed here), and you have to talk to them directly instead of registering on the Japanese site.


The KanKen is also offered in a computerized format (CBT) much more often than the paper tests. You can click on CBT from the main site (above) to see where and when you can take it. The only thing I'd caution you with is, make sure you know the material frontwards and backwards and frontwards again, because unlike the paper test that gives you word boxes with things that are only used once each, the computer test just throws out problems, which means you can't use that as a tool to help you. Also, using the tablet is a HUGE PAIN, that too :P

So! You've applied! Now what?

#1: Wait for your postcard

You will get a postcard about the week or two before the test confirming everything and giving you your test number. It will include a map and directions to the testing location.

#2: Get your stuff together

You need: that postcard, pencils, eraser, WRISTWATCH, ID. That's it. They don't even usually check the ID. Like other standardized tests, things more complicated than wristwatches for telling time are not allowed, and if your cell phone rings you're out.

The test is given in one sitting, and it only takes an hour, so it's not a terrible hardship unlike some other tests that take HOURS. There should be lots of signs around, and pay attention to the one on the door of your testing room, because it will include a seating chart by test number that you're going to need to check before sitting down. There should be a waiting room for last minute cramming, so don't worry if you're early.

#3: Take the test

The people will instruct you on how to fill out your personal information and stuff on the testing sheet. Then, because you're already used to the problems from that studying above, it's just doing the same thing on the test!

IMPORTANT POINT: You will be allowed to take the questions home with you, so write all your answers on that paper as well. I actually write it there first, and then check my answers as I copy it onto the answer sheet.

#4: Go home and check the test

Obviously you can't check some sections, but the large majority you can know if you were right or wrong, and you might even get to know if you passed right then! The official answers will come in the mail about a week after the test, so you can know your score for sure then.

#5: Wait for your scores

Not long after the test (it's a really fast turn around!) you will receive either a small envelope (fail) or a large envelope (pass) in the mail. The large envelope will have a certificate enclosed certifying how awesome you are!

In both envelopes will be a summary of how well you did and also the average scores. It will give you advice on how to improve for next time, and, if you pass, give you sample questions from the next level up.

And then, rinse and repeat!

Special Explanation: The Compound Formation Section

There is a section of the KanKen that I found exceptionally hard to understand (still do a little), so I'll explain how to do that section specially just for you.

This section has a whole bunch of compounds and box to the right instructing you to classify those compounds based on how they are formed ア through オ (sometimes カ).

ア The two characters mean the SAME eg. 岩石 (boulder and rock)
イ The two characters mean the OPPOSITE eg. 高低 (high and low)
ウ The top character DESCRIBES the bottom eg. 洋画 (western art)
エ The top character ACTS UPON the bottom character eg. 着席 (sit (in a) seat)
オ The two characters are SUBJECT and MODIFIER eg. 地震 (earth-quake) (only used sometimes)
カ(or オ) The top character NEGATES the bottom character eg. 非常 (un-usual)

The first two and last one are all pretty straightforward (esp. because there are a finite number of "negating" characters), but it gets tricky in the middle.

My best advice is, think of ウ like an adj. + noun.
Other examples: 凸版 必携 本絹

Think of エ as, bringing the bottom to the top and putting an を(or appropriate relational) in there.
着席 = 席に着く
出廷 = 廷に出る
滅菌 = 菌を滅びる
難遭 = 難しさに遭う

オ is the hardest, but generally it applies to compound words or two-word phrases in English. You can also kind of use process of elimination, because there tend to be two of each on each test (although not always!).
地震 = earthquake (compound)
県立 = prefecture-owned (two word phrase)
天授 = god-given (two word phrase)
村営 = village-run (two word phrase)
鶏鳴 = chicken call (not anything. I hate this one.)

In conclusion, I hope this will be helpful to all of you out there studying Japanese! Please tell me if there's anything I've forgotten in the comments :D
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