JLPT Journal #5: How I learn the kanji for N1, part 1

Last entry in my JLPT N1 series: Vocabulary, Grammar and Kanji! 


First of all, I would like to say that I have never learned the kanji thoroughly. I only learn the kanji in context, i.e. when I learn a new word, and I have never worked with a specific method like RTK. When I prepared for N2, I had the kanji textbook, but I didn’t know how to study with it, and I have finally skipped learning the kanji for N2 (which didn’t prevent me from passing the test).

This year, however, I have decided to be as thorough as possible. I have spent the whole month of January studying the N2 So-matome textbook. February has been a long month of trials and errors, but I have finally made up my mind to:

  • Use Anki to study the kanji and create my own deck.
  • Stick to my method “learning in context”. I don’t learn the kanji by themselves, I only learn words.
  • Create a JLPT oriented deck that challenges me on typical JLPT questions.
  • Share the deck when it is done.

I plan to create an Anki deck as thorough as possible to pass the JLPT N1. It will take me the whole year to complete, but I hope that in the end, it will be useful for other people too.

One textbook: So-matome

For now, I only have the So-matome textbook for N1, but I plan to buy other textbooks later in the year.

The So-matome textbook for N2 had the same structure throughout the chapters, but the N1 textbook is different. This is, very roughly, how it is divided:

Week 1: Kanji with the same component will have the same “on” pronunciation.
Week 2: Kanji with the same component can have different “on” pronunciations.
Week 3: Some words have the same kanji but different “kun” pronunciations.
Week 4: Same kanji, several pronunciations, unexpected pronunciations or special pronunciations.
Week 5: Homonyms: different kanji share the same pronunciation (with similar meanings or not)
Week 6: Synonyms: words with similar meanings: when to use which one?
Week 7: Several ways to remember the kanji
Week 8: Reading the news: kanji and words that often appear in the news.

I think that the best way to tackle the different lessons is to use different methods. My plan is to use different types of note in Anki to match the different lessons of So-matome.

How I study

I have only reached the lessons of week 2 for now. I don’t really study with the textbook, I only use it to create my Anki notes, and then I only use Anki to study.

Week 1 and Week 2 are similar. They show you that if several kanji share the same component they are likely to have the same pronunciation (week 1), but you should also be aware that they can also have different pronunciations (week 2).

I am using the same type of notes for the kanji of Week 1 and Week 2. One note generates two cards:

First, you should know how to pronounce the kanji:

This is the first card of all the notes from Week 1 and Week 2. I have to say the pronunciation and the meaning of the words.

The second card of the notes from Week 1 is:

All the kanji listed on the front have the same pronunciation, the point is to know which one I should use in this word.

The second card for the notes of week 2 is slightly different:

So-matome wants to show you that usually, the kanji that share the same component have the same pronunciation, but sometimes, one or several kanji that have this component can have a different pronunciation.

All the kanji listed on the same line have the same pronunciation, the kanji on the second line has a different pronunciation. Sometimes, there are more than one kanji on the second line:

I still have to decide whether I want to have the pronunciation and the meaning on the front or the back of the card. What annoys me is that the meaning of “warship” helps me to choose the right kanji in the example above. In the end, I might put both the pronunciation and the meaning on the back:

I still have to work more with these cards to see which layout is best.

To be honest, I still don’t know if it will work well. I have lost a lot of time in February looking for a good method, and this deck is very young.


Everything that I do to prepare for N1 (learning vocabulary and grammar, practice reading and listening…), I do it more to improve my Japanese than to pass the test. I don’t really need to pass the JLPT, it is just a pretext that I use to motivates me throughout the year.

The kanji, however, are different. This is 100% JLPT oriented. If I don’t do that, I will end up skipping the kanji altogether like I did for N2. Why? because I don’t really need to have such precise knowledge of kanji to read novels, so I don’t see the point in doing kanji oriented study. What motivates me this year, is the prospect of sharing my Anki deck and do something useful!

Book Review: 『誰か』by Miyuki MIYABE


Title: 『誰か』(Somebody)
Author: Miyuki MIYABE (宮部みゆき)
Published by 文春文庫

Miyuki MIYABI is a famous author of mystery and science-fiction novels. 『誰か』is a mystery novel and the first book of the series featuring Saburo SUGIMURA (杉村三郎シリーズ).

The setting

Saburo SUGIMURA, the protagonist of this book and the whole series, works for his father-in-law’s company Imada Konzern. He lives with his wife and daughter and has nothing to do with detective work or investigation. But everything changes when his father-in-law’s private chauffeur dies in an accident. Sugimura will help the chauffeur’s two daughters to write a book on their father’s life, and an unexpected investigation will start.

Why I liked it but read it slowly

What I liked the most in this novel is the protagonist Saburo SUGIMURA. Sugimura does not have any particular skills, but he is kind and has a strong sense of justice, and it is easy to identify with him. I want to know how Sugimura will evolve so I will definitely read the other books of the series.

I found that the book had a realistic touch that might be frustrating for the amateur of detective novels. Sugimura is not a detective and while he does “investigate”, some or most of his work leads to nothing. On the one hand, it allowed me to identify with the protagonist and eventually like him, but on the other hand, I found that the plot was not engaging enough for a mystery novel.


While 『誰か』is not one of my favourite books, it made me want to read the other books of the series. To me, the characters are more important than the plot, and I will prefer a slow-paced plot with characters I like rather than a suspenseful story with characters that I cannot understand or with whom I cannot identify.

On my reading list: 『名もなき毒』!

Language diary #4

In this post, I am talking about some highlights of February and the books I am currently reading.

Interview with Koipun

The highlight of these past days is without a doubt my interview with Gabriel from Koipun. If you don’t know Koipun, it is a site dedicated to learning Japanese, it provides reading guides for manga and games (upcoming) and Anki decks for the textbook Genki.

I participated in the interview series on learning Japanese. I wrote more about me and how I have learned Japanese during this interview than I have ever done on my blog! If you are interested in knowing more about how I started reading in Japanese, you can have a look at my interview with Koipun!

My first novel in Korean!

The second recent highlight is that I have finished my very first novel in Korean by a Korean author. I have learned Korean, but my reading level is much lower than my Japanese reading level. I have read 2 or 3 translations into Korean of American best-sellers, but I have never been able to read a Korean author before.

The book I have read is a detective novel by Jayeong YUN (윤자영) called <교동회관 밀실 살인사건>. I loved it and I wrote a review about it. I am currently working on a new blog for Korean books!

I have finished 『誰か』by Miyuki MIYABE (宮部みゆき)!

Third highlight: I have finished the novel『誰か』! I started it in December 2018 so it took me 2 months to read! I liked it, but I didn’t find it very engrossing and I took long breaks between the chapters. The review is still on the making!

Currently reading

As usual, this is an overview of the books that I am currently reading in Japanese:

Harry Potter

I am still reading Harry Potter and The Chambers of Secrets in Japanese. It was published in two volumes in Japanese and I have finished the first one. While it does not mean anything (because it is still the same book), it is somehow rewarding to reach the end of a volume!

『スマホを落としただけなのに』by Akira SHIGA (志駕晃 )

This book is, I think, a best-seller since there has been a film adaptation by Hideo NAKATA. I purchased the audiobook some months ago, and I have listened to it twice since then. I am very pleased with it because I can understand it well.

I have decided to also buy the book and read it while listening to the audiobook. It is a good exercise to improve both my reading and listening level. There are a lot of things that I did not understand when I listened to the audio but that I understand while reading.

As I already know the story, I am not reading the book every day so it will certainly take a while before I finish it. I will write a review of both the book and the audiobook when I finish it.

『向田理髪店』by Hideo OKUDA (奥田英朗)

This is another book that I am reading slowly because each chapter focuses on a different story and I tend to take a break when I finish a chapter. I have read three of the six stories.

『誓約』by Gaku YAKUMARU (薬丸岳)

This is my most recent acquisition! I have never read Gaku YAKUMARU before, and I have chosen this book because the summary was very appealing to me. It is about a buried past that comes back to haunt the narrator’s present life.

I have just started it, but this book looks engrossing and easy to read so maybe I will finish it before all the others!

Book review: 『ジャッジメント』by Yuka Kobayashi


Title: 『ジャッジメント』(Judgement)
Author: Yuka KOBAYASHI (小林 由香)
Published by 双葉文庫 (Futaba bunko)

『ジャッジメント』is Yuka KOBAYASHI’s first novel. It is a short novel of 284 pages. While it has a single narrator that evolves throughout the chapters, each of the five chapters is devoted to a different and independent story.

The setting

The story is set in a fictive Japan where two justice systems coexist. The law as it is now, and the law of retaliation that was implemented to respond to the increase of violent crimes in the last years. The injured party (mostly, the family of the victim) can choose between the two systems. If they choose the law of retaliation, they can avenge themselves on the guilty party in a special facility for executions. Our narrator, Ayano TORITANI, works there. He is in charge of the injured party, follows them as they make their choice and supervises the execution.

Why I loved it

I chose this book because I like reading novels about justice and morality, particularly novels that question the death penalty. By creating a fictional setting where the law of retaliation is implemented, Yuka KOBAYASHI initiates interesting discussions about what is right and what is a good justice.

While the setting and the cover made me think that the novel would contain elements of violence, this book is not at all a horror story. On the contrary, the novel uses the themes of vengeance and retribution to analyse the complexity of human relationships, especially inside the family. I was surprised to see that the book has much more depth than I expected.

The five stories are told from the point of view of the victim’s family or close relations. I found each of the story very sad, and the book is certainly not a light-hearted read. While it reads like a page-turner, I often had to close the book and take a break!

This book is thought-provoking and won’t leave you indifferent. I was sometimes sad, sometimes angry, and I sometimes wished that the characters had made another choice. In any case, I loved 『ジャッジメント』and I will certainly read Yuka KOBAYASHI’s second novel 『罪人が祈るとき』.

JLPT Journal #4: How I study N1 grammar

I am writing three JLPT posts on how I study vocabulary, grammar and kanji. This is the second one, and it’s all about grammar!

Two resources

I am using two resources to learn N1 grammar. The first one is So-matome grammar and the second one is the dictionary 『日本語文型辞典』.

I use the So-matome mainly for its structure. I like that similar grammar is grouped together and the quantity of new content in each lesson is perfect for me.

However, I think that the book lacks explanations, and I am often unable to understand the difference between two different grammar points, or even, to tell exactly what a grammar rule means. This is where the dictionary is useful.

How I study new grammar

I am studying 2 or 3 lessons of So-matome per week.

First of all, I read the whole page and decide whether or not I understand the grammar in it. For example, I understood the grammar くらいなら at once, and I didn’t think that I needed further explanations. The example sentence そんなことをするくらいなら、死んだほうがましだ (I would rather die than do that) was clear enough.

In this case, I only read the example sentences twice, make sure I understand them well and start creating my physical flashcards (see the section below).

But to be honest, most of the time, I don’t understand the grammar well. So-matome does not give any explanation concerning the grammar points. The book gives an equivalent in Japanese and a translation in English. While it is enough to understand what the sentence means, I don’t think that it is enough to really master the grammar point. When is it used? What nuance, what meaning does it convey? What is the intention of the speaker when using this grammar?

Moreover, I find that the So-matome book tends to present several different grammar points as if they were the same. It certainly comes from the compact layout of the series.

In this case, I need to study with the dictionary. I look up all the grammar that I don’t understand and take notes on a loose paper sheet.

To give you a concrete example:

The lesson of week 3 day 1 presents three different grammar points using まで. The problem is that the book presents several different grammar points in the same section. The best example is the first “grammar” called までだ. This is how the book looks like:

As you can see, the example sentences have very different meanings. The first one means “I just wanted to…”, the second one and the third one have the meaning of “I don’t have another choice than to…” and the last one means “it is not useful at all”. I was very confused about what exactly the grammar meant. When I looked up the dictionary, I realised that there were three different grammar points here: Vる+まで, Vた+まで and それまで.

Explaining these grammar points is not the point of this post, so I will just show you the kind of notes I take:

I always try to explain the grammar in my mother tongue (French) and give an equivalent in French. More importantly, writing these three columns really made things clear to me: three different grammar points, three different meanings.

I have a lot of similar notes. It does take some time to look up the dictionary and write things down, but it is this process that really makes me understand and remember the grammar. I remember that at school, our teacher would tell us to re-write our lesson using our own words, instead of just reading it over and over. This is exactly what I am doing, I am re-writing the So-matome in my own words, using my mother tongue, using my own structure and layout. Only then can I say: I know exactly what this grammar means.

How I review the previous lessons

Reviewing the grammar has always been a challenge to me. Until now, I could not find a good method to review the lessons I had learned, and I always had the feeling that I was forgetting the previous rules as soon as I was learning a new one.

This year, I finally found a method that works for me: using physical flashcards. I have never been into physical flashcards, and I have always considered it unpractical. I have used Anki extensively to learn vocabulary and grammar, and two years ago, I would probably have created an Anki deck for grammar. But some time ago, I saw someone showing their physical flashcards on Twitter and thought that I could give it a try myself. I have been using this system for a month now, and I can say that it works and that I will stick to it.

This system allows me to reduce the time I spend studying Anki. While I love Anki and could not do without it, I don’t like spending too much time with it. If I were to learn vocabulary, grammar and kanji with Anki, all my study time would be spent adding new notes to Anki and studying one deck after the other.

Physical flashcards vs Anki flashcards

While physical flashcards do not provide a spaced repetition system, they also have advantages:

  • First of all, I like having the cards in my hand and physically touch them. It might sound strange, but I remember a grammar point or sentence more easily if I have it in my hand, written in my handwriting. The physical contact somehow supports the memorising process.
  • I don’t have an SRS (Spaced Repetition System), but I still can create a system to roughly manage my cards. I keep it simple and only have three groups of cards: the new cards that need to be reviewed quickly, the cards I don’t know well and that I need to review regularly, the cards I know well and can review only once in a while.
  • I don’t review grammar every day, so not using Anki is a plus here. Sometimes, I even spend 3 or 4 days without reviewing the grammar. When I do, I just grab some of my cards (the new ones or the ones I don’t know well) and review them. I don’t feel overwhelmed with 200 cards waiting for me in my Anki deck.
  • Sometimes, I have 5 or 10 minutes of inactivity between two things. It is easy to grab a pile of cards and review some of them for 5 minutes. I could open Anki and start a custom study, but I don’t usually do it.
  • I know that there are tags in Anki, but I still find it easier to group and manage the flashcards on paper. Sometimes, I want to keep several grammar points together and study them together because they are similar. It is easily managed with physical flashcards, just group them together in a single pile. I have never taken the time to master tags in Anki.

I am not saying that physical flashcards are better than Anki or Memrise, but it is a different way of studying and while learning on paper is the old method, after years of using Anki it feels quite new. I would never prefer physical flashcards to Anki when it comes to vocabulary (I would end up with thousands of cards!), but as far as grammar is concerned, it is manageable and offers a bunch of advantages.

How I create the flashcards

I have always reviewed grammar through example sentences. I think that it is the best way to remember both the meaning of the grammar point, how it is formed and in which context it is used.

To create my flashcards, I use the example sentences of So-matome. On the front side, I write the sentence and leave a blank space for the grammatical pattern. I also write the equivalent in easier Japanese (provided by So-matome). On the back, I write the answer with the grammatical structure in a different colour.

The underlined part is the answer. I write the grammar (in bold in So-matome) in colour on my flashcard. I use the equivalent given in Japanese as a hint. I don’t write the English translation.
I use rubber bands of different colours to group my cards: new cards in green, cards I need to review regularly in yellow and cards I know well in pink.
I find that Instax mini are perfect to separate the cards I want to study together. I also thought of using a blank card and drawing something funny and encouraging on it.

Track N1 grammar in native resources

The most interesting part of the process is to track the N1 grammar in native resources (mainly novels in my case). For most of the N1 grammar, there is an easier way to convey a similar meaning so it might be frustrating to learn these grammar points, especially for the purpose of speaking. If you already know one easy way of conveying something, why learn another complicated grammar rule?

But N1 grammar is widely used in Japanese media, and this becomes obvious when you start reading in Japanese. While I have been learning the N1 grammar for only a little more than a month, I have already seen several occurrences of the grammar I have learned in books.

To give you some examples, I saw the grammar Nだの…Nだの in a novel the day after I studied it. Honestly, when I learned this grammar, I had this suspicion that many learners have when studying advanced grammar “what’s that? I never saw this structure before?! It’s probably never used! I’m learning useless grammar points!!”. And the day after that, I saw this sentence: 「あんた、本当にカフェだのラジオ局だので、町が蘇ると思ってるべか?」. In the novel, people are discussing several ways of giving a new life to the deserted mine coal town they live in. Someone is dismissing the idea that the town can find vitality again through cafés or radio stations. (『向田理髪店』by Hideo Okuda, p49.)

Another example is the grammar point なり. It has different meanings depending on the grammatical pattern in which it is used. Since I learned it, I saw an occurrence for two of its meanings. The first one is the structure Vる+なり which means “as soon as”. I saw this structure in Harry Potter, The Chamber of Secrets (p.132). When Harry and Ron arrive at Hogwarts in Ron’s father’s car, they are first confronted by Snape. Then professor McGonagall comes and “as soon as she enters” the room waves her wand: 「部屋に入ってくるなり、先生は杖を振り上げた。」(spoiler: it was just to light the fire.) 

In another novel, I saw the expression “自分なりの答え”, which would certainly be translated by “one’s own answer”. I find the nuance given by なり hard to explain, but I somehow understood it better thanks to the context of the novel. In the novel, the family members of a murder victim are asked whether they want to choose the retaliation law to avenge themselves on the murderer. They usually start talking about the victim to find their “own” answer. (『ジャッジメント』by Yuka Kobayashi, p. 183.)

Finding N1 grammar in native resources is the fun part of studying grammar. In these moments, I feel that I am not working for the purpose of the JLPT only, but that I am improving my level in Japanese and becoming better at reading.


This is my system to study and review the grammar. I will stick to it as long as I am studying the So-matome textbook. I don’t know it this system will change when I skip to another textbook (probably the Shin Kanzen), but I think that I will keep making and reviewing flashcards until the end of the year!

Book review: 『継続捜査ゼミ』by Bin Konno (今野敏)

Bin Konno’s novel『継続捜査ゼミ』was first published by Kodansha in 2016. The pocket edition I have read was released in 2018.

『継続捜査ゼミ』 is the first book of the series 継続捜査ゼミ and the second volume, 『エムエス 継続捜査ゼミ2 』was published at the end of 2018.

See the publisher’s page of the novel for a presentation of the book and the characters.

The setting

Ichiro KOBAYAKAWA has retired from the police and is now a professor at a women’s university. Kobayakawa is in charge of a seminar called 刑事政策演習ぜみ or more casually 継続捜査ゼミ. Five students are in the seminar. Together, they will study an unsolved murder case that occurred 15 years ago.

Mysteries also happen on the campus and our little group will investigate.

A lot of dialogues

The feature that sets this book apart is its structure: the book is almost entirely composed of dialogues. It makes it easy to read and it is one of the reasons why I have read it so quickly (it took me less than a week).

Despite the lack of descriptions and narrative passages, you get to know the characters well and have a good picture of each student’s personality through their dialogues. The way they talk, what they say and how they react tell a lot about them. Telling a story almost only through dialogues feels very refreshing to me, and I thought it was brilliantly done.

What I love the most in detective stories is the moment when the characters sit down and discuss the case. Well, 『継続捜査ゼミ』 is almost entirely composed of people who sit down to discuss the case. If you are looking for action, investigation and clues, you will be disappointed with this book. On the contrary, if the idea of sitting down at a seminar table and discuss an old murder case with a retired detective is appealing to you, then you must read this book!

Relatively easy to read

I found this book relatively easy to read for a Japanese learner. The beginning is a little challenging because they discuss the 公訴時効 (statute of limitations – thanks Kazen for the translation!). At this stage, difficult vocabulary appears, but it is just the beginning. The rest of the novel is much easier to read, mainly because it is based on dialogues.


I loved this novel, it was easy to read, and it felt refreshing to read a detective novel where discussions are the core of the investigation. I also liked the characters. In the end, I felt like I knew them well and was myself a participant to the seminar. I will definitely read the second volume of the series. I am just waiting for a pocket release!