In 2017, I have taken and passed the JLPT N2 twice. From January to July, I studied with the So-matome series, and from July to December with the Shin Kanzen series. I didn’t know which one of the two series was best for me, so I ultimately bought and tried them both.
As I have the whole set of each method, I thought I would make a comparison of the two to help you decide which one you should buy if you are taking the test.
Don’t forget that there are a lot of other textbooks available, you are not limited to So-matome and Shin Kanzen!
Go for the Shin Kanzen Master series if… you want to pass the test no matter what and want to get the highest possible score. Overall, the Shin Kanzen series is more thorough and has more content. On the other hand, it also asks a lot of work on your part to digest it all. If you are serious about the JLPT and willing to put enough time and effort in it, the Shin Kanzen will be your best companion.
Go for the Nihongo So-matome series if… you would like to pass the JLPT but your life does not depend on it, you don’t care about the score and don’t think that it is worth stressing about. If you take the JLPT to know your level, challenge yourself or give you a goal, the So-matome will be a decent companion. It might not be as thorough as the Shin Kanzen, but it is more digestible, pleasant and light. If you study with the So-matome only, chances are that you won’t feel at ease to answer all the questions during the test, but I personally passed with the So-matome only so… Also, if you are not taking the test at all but are using JLPT textbooks to study Japanese, the So-matome is certainly a good option.
You don’t have to stick to one method for the 5 textbooks. Let’s compare each one of them separately:
So-matome vs Shin Kanzen: book by book
I will try to be as thorough as possible in this comparison so that you can decide by yourself which one is best for you. I will also give my personal opinion.
147 pages – ENGLISH TRANSLATION – around 1400 words
There are 8 chapters. Each chapter contains 7 lessons: 6 lessons introduce new words and have two series of exercises. The seventh and last lesson of each chapter is composed of JLPT questions only. The book allows you to learn around 1400 words.
The number of new words per lesson varies, but it is usually between 20 and 30 words. Most of the time, new words are introduced in a short sentence or phrase, so that you can see how they are used and in which context they are likely to appear. Most of the time, So-matome does not give you the translation for the word itself but the translation of the sentence in which the word appears (it’s not a problem to catch the meaning of the word).
Some lessons are devoted to a topic (work, money, computer…) but other lessons have a non-topical approach. For example, you will have lessons that introduce adverbs only.
The last three chapters introduce words that look similar. It is the まとめて覚えましょう approach of So-matome. For example, you will learn all the N2 words that contain the kanji 物, the kanji 日, and so on. You will also learn together words that have a similar meaning or you will learn the different meanings that a single word can have depending on the context.
The exercises that accompany each lesson are okay, but not enough in my opinion. You will only see JLPT questions at the end of a chapter, that is, when you study the seventh lesson. If you want to have a good preparation for the JLPT, you might want to study with a book of vocabulary drills.
While the So-matome has a pleasant layout and is easy to study with, it does not introduce enough words. It does introduce a little of everything (adverbs, onomatopoeia, idiomatic expressions, and so on), but it does not cover all you need to know to pass N2.
When I took the test in July 2017, I had studied with the So-matome textbook only. I found the questions of vocabulary very hard and I kept stumbling across words that I didn’t know. I felt a little betrayed and irritated because I had bought and studied entirely the So-matome, I had read that it was one of the best textbooks available and yet, I had a hard time answering the JLPT questions. This being said, I did pass. My conclusion is that the So-matome can make you pass the test, but it is not guaranteed. It certainly depends on the amount of vocabulary you already know or learn outside of the textbook. If you want to be sure to pass the vocabulary section, the So-matome textbook is not enough in my opinion.
207 pages + 32 pages (answers) – NO ENGLISH – NO TRANSLATION – NO DEFINITION IN JAPANESE – A lot of exercises – 2283 words
The book contains 37 lessons. They all have a similar structure: first, the lesson introduces new words. You don’t have any translation for them, but they often come in an short phrase, so that you can learn them in context and see how they are used. Then you have a whole set of varied exercises to see if you remember the words. The exercises have unique and interesting questions as well as JLPT questions. You will learn 2283 words.
I want to stress that you have several serious exercises coming with each lesson (contrary to So-matome which had interesting exercises coming only once per chapter). I think that you will have a solid preparation for the JLPT.
Be careful that the lessons are huge in terms of new words count. Most lessons introduce up to 60 words (twice as many as a lesson of So-matome)! It will also take you some time and energy to go through all the exercises. This is something that you should keep in mind when you are designing your study plan. You will certainly need more time than you think to go through the whole textbook.
My personal opinion:
First of all, the lack of English translation is annoying when it comes to vocabulary. This means you have to check all the new words in a dictionary which is extremely time consuming.
The Shin Kanzen introduces many more words than the So-matome. No matter the chapter (adverbs, expressions, vocabulary by topic…) the Shin Kanzen will have more words than the So-matome. If we compare the two, the Shin Kanzen makes the So-matoe looks very pale.
But, I found this textbook overwhelming. The exercises are great, and it is a solid preparation for the JLPT, but you know, having a good textbook is not all… you have to study it! If you find this textbook too overwhelming, you might end up not studying it, and worse, you could give up the idea of taking the test altogether, thinking that it is too difficult or that the preparation is taking too much of your time.
If you are studying Japanese as a hobby, and if the JLPT is not that important for you, listen to my advice: Instead of buying the perfect textbook and never open it, it is way better to buy a so-so textbook and study it entirely. Even if you don’t pass the JLTP, you will have learned hundreds of words during your preparation and improved greatly your Japanese level. Isn’t this what counts in the end?
But… if you need to pass the JLPT for your studies or work, then you can rely on the Shin Kanzen.
Kanji is certainly the part where both textbooks differ the most.
159 pages + 15 pages (answers) – 739 kanji – around 2200 words
Here again, 8 chapters, each chapter contains 6 lessons of new kanji and a seventh lesson of JLPT questions. Contrary to the vocabulary book, some new kanji are also introduced in the seventh lesson.
Each lesson introduces around 12 to 14 kanji. For each kanji, you have the “on” and “kun” reading with words containing the said kanji. There are up to 4 or 5 words given for one kanji.
Each lesson corresponds to a theme, and I think that this is the best point of this method: the authors made a real effort to group the kanji by topics so that you can remember them more easily. Personally, I think that it works.
Another good point is the number of new kanji per lesson: you won’t feel overwhelmed. The downside is that there are not enough kanji in this method, only 739 (the Shin Kanzen has 1046 kanji).
It is interesting to note that the textbook does not give the core meaning (or any meaning at all) for the kanji. The only thing you get is the translation of the words containing this kanji. It personally suited the way I learn the kanji (exclusively in words, not by themselves), but it might be frustrating if you are used to learning your kanji with its core meaning. In this case, you will have to use extra resources like a kanji dictionary.
Also worth noting, the textbook does not show you the stroke order. If you planned on using a JLPT textbook to learn to write the kanji, you might want to reconsider your plan.
Each lesson of new kanji comes with some exercises, but they are not enough to prepare you for the test. The lesson of exercises (the 7th lesson) that comes at the end of each chapters does contain JLPT questions.
The So-matome adopts a light formula, and is perfect if kanji is not your thing. The way kanji are grouped together is great, the illustrations are also useful to remember some words, and overall, it was pleasant to go through the lessons (rather than a list of kanji). I also liked how they focus on introducing the kanji in context, it really suited the way I like to learn the kanji.
79 pages (list of kanji and words) – 121 pages (exercises) – 38 pages (answers) – 1 CD (exercises) – 1046 kanji
The Shin Kanzen textbook for kanji is very peculiar. The main part of the book is composed of exercises only. There are two separate booklets, one with the list of 1046 kanji that you somehow have to learn on your own, and one with the answers to the exercises.
First of all, let’s see the list of kanji.
The list is divided into sections, each section corresponds to a series of exercises. What you want to do is to study the kanji of one section then do the corresponding exercises.
You don’t get anything more in this booklet to learn the kanji, you are entirely on your own: No core meaning, no translation for the words, no topic, nothing but a list of kanji classified according to their “on” reading (in alphabetical order).
What is great in this textbook is the main part: the exercises. Once you have remembered the kanji of the list, you can test your knowledge with interesting and unique exercises. Each section has a double page of exercises, but they are not, for the most part, JLPT questions.
Note that some exercises ask you to write down the kanji by memory, so you might not find this kind of exercise appropriate to you if you don’t learn how to write the kanji. Also, note that the exercises are a little more challenging than JLPT questions. JLPT questions are multiple choice questions, but the Shin Kanzen exercises are often open ones like: “give the reading of this word”.
I don’t like the list of kanji. I feel that I could have found this list on internet. If I am buying a textbook, it is because I expect the authors to help me to remember the kanji, for example by sorting them by topic and showing them in context through illustrations like the So-matome textbook does. Moreover, I hate the sorting by alphabetical order.
However, I love the exercises. It feels a little schoolish to be honest, but I think that this is the reason why I like them. I am not sure whether they are the best way to prepare for the JLPT, but they certainly are a good way to test your knowledge of kanji.
To sum up, this textbook is challenging, you have to learn a list of kanji in alphabetical order. The exercises will also ask you to write some of them. It is a good method if you like playing around with kanji and are looking for exercises. If you find it hard to remember the kanji on their own and need more context, then go for the So-matome.
So-matome and Shin Kanzen have a similar structure when it comes to grammar, but if you look closely, you’ll see that they each have their distinctive features.
146 pages – 191 grammar points – English translation
There are 8 chapters, each contains 6 lessons introducing new grammar points and one lesson of JLPT questions. Each lesson introduces 4 grammar points so you will learn around 192 grammatical patterns in total (I think the exact number is 191).
Something worth noting is that the grammar patterns are grouped according to their structure/appearance. Grammar patterns that look similar (but may not have the same meaning) will be grouped together in the same lesson.
For example, you will learn in the same lesson these three similarly looking grammar points, although their meaning is different:
Some people might like to learn similar patterns at the same time, but others might find it extremely confusing.
Each lesson also comes with two types of exercises, they are okay, but it is not enough to feel that you master the grammar.
For each grammar point, you get two or three example sentences, the translation of the sentences in English and an equivalent in easier or casual Japanese of the grammatical pattern. There is also an indication on how the grammar is used (with which form of the verb or adjective and so on).
What you don’t get is an explanation of the grammar: what it actually means, when it is used, what nuance it brings and so on. Usually, the example sentences are enough to understand the meaning of the grammar, but sometimes, you might feel a little lonely with your textbook. For example, some grammar might seem similar, and you would like someone to tell you how they differ. If you use the So-matome, you should be ready to check online to get more information about a particular grammar or use a grammar dictionary.
I like the So-matome for grammar and particularly enjoy the equivalent they give in easier Japanese. To me, this is the best feature of the book.
I don’t like the way grammar are grouped together, to me it makes things really confusing, and I had a hard time remembering the difference between similar patterns because I had learned them at the same time.
Sometimes, I also felt that I needed more explanations concerning a grammar point. I guess that So-matome suits learner who can easily get an “intuitive” knowledge of what something means by seeing it in context…? Personally, I am more on the “explanation” side, I like things, especially grammar, to be explained to me. I would also have liked to have more example sentences per grammar.
211 pages – 211 grammar points – additional lessons on grammar – no translation
The Shin Kanzen introduces 211 grammar points. There are different parts and chapters, and some chapters are really useful to pass the JLPT.
First, you have 26 chapters that introduce the N2 grammar. Each chapter contains 5 to 6 grammar points. The grammar points are not classified by pattern (appearance), but by meaning, intention or nuance. For example, the grammar points that mean “but” or “if” will be in the same chapter. Same for grammar who allows you to emphasise what you want to say, or show your emotion.
To compare with the So-matome textbook, in the Shin Kanzen, you will find the following grammar in different chapters:
- 上に in the chapter 6 with grammar meaning ～だけではなく・それに加えて
- 上で in the chapter 3 where you find grammar meaning 後で
- 上は in chapter 17 with grammar meaning ～だから (理由)
For each grammar, you have an explanation of the grammar’s meaning in Japanese. It is short and easy to understand. There are also further information concerning when to use or not use this grammar, what is likely to come next in the sentence, what nuance it brings, what it tells about the speaker’s intention and so on.
There are also indications on how to form the grammar (with verbs, adjectives…) and 3 or 4 (sometimes more) example sentences.
Each lesson comes with a double page of exercises that are similar to JLPT typical questions. These questions are often tricky and are an excellent preparation for the JLPT. Same as for vocabulary, I would like to stress that you have a whole set of great exercise coming with each lesson. (So-matome has this kind of exercises only once per chapter).
Following, you have 7 chapters that come back on some of the grammar points you learned but taking a different approach. For example, they will put together the grammar using もの and the ones using こと so that you can be sure you will not mix them up during the test.
After that, you have 3 lessons that focus on the construction of the Japanese sentence and show you what comes after the grammar points you have learned. For example, some grammar points are necessarily followed by a negation, some are followed by a noun…
Finally, 12 additional lessons will deepen your overall knowledge of Japanese grammar. You will not learn new patterns, but review the things you think you already know. For example, transitive and intransitive verbs, direction (くれる・あげる) and the like, the utilisation of こ・そ・あ or は・が.
Lastly, you have two mock tests (only the grammar part).
To me, the Shin Kanzen grammar is a very solid preparation for the JLPT, especially if you can go through all the additional lessons. From my experience, I would say that it is not that difficult to tell which grammatical pattern you should use in a sentence. What I find very hard in the JLPT is when they ask you whether you should use こと, もの, わけ or ところ. Similarly, it is often hard to tell which particle you need between は, が, に or で. It sounds easy, but it’s not!
In comparison with the So-matome, the Shin Kanzen has more grammar points, more explanations, more example sentences and more exercises. It is way better in every aspect. The only thing that I like more in So-matome is that they give an equivalent in easier Japanese.
The down side of the Shin Kanzen is the layout. You have a lot of information on each page, and studying it might feel discouraging at times.
Reading and Listening
First of all, I would like to give a personal advice: you will pass the reading and listening sections if you are used to reading in Japanese and to listening to Japanese in your everyday life. I don’t think that going through one textbook only, especially if you start some weeks before the test, will allow you to pass.
Contrary to vocabulary, grammar and kanji, the reading and listening skills are not something you can learn by heart, it is something that you acquire through practice and time.
My own experience is that I got 60 points at reading when I took the test in July after my preparation with So-matome. And I got 59 points in December after having gone through the Shin Kanzen. No matter which textbook I chose, I got a good mark because I was reading a lot in Japanese outside of my JLPT preparation.
On the other hand, the listening part of the test was a nightmare. I felt that I understood nothing and picked half of the answers randomly. It was a nightmare in July (So-matome), and it was a nightmare in December (Shin Kanzen). I had this feeling even though I had studied two textbooks of listening preparation. The reason is simple: I don’t listen to Japanese regularly, I don’t watch drama, I don’t watch anime or TV shows.
So my conclusion is this: how well you do during the test depends on your usual routine, on the amount of spoken and written Japanese you absorb in your daily life. It does not depend on the textbook you choose.
Of course, you still want to pick at least one textbook or simply do practice tests because it is vital that you get used to the type of questions you will have, especially for listening. For example, the last questions of the listening part will demand you to take notes or you won’t remember important information. It is not difficult, but you have to get used to it before the test.
So a lot of practice on a daily basis + one textbook or practice tests to get used to the JLPT format. But once again, the textbooks are not magic, they cannot make up for a total lack of daily immersion, studying a whole textbook before the test will not guarantee you to pass.
Now let’s compare the two methods:
You have 6 chapters, each contain 6 lessons that teach you how to read difficult texts and a seventh lesson that contains JLPT question.
So-matome tries to make practicing reading as pleasant and painless as possible. Let’s say it plainly: practicing reading for the JLPT is not amusing. So-matome makes things easier with different layouts, strangely shaped characters that accompany you throughout the book, various fonts, illustrations…
It also takes you by the hand with step by step lessons. First you have some vocabulary or other pieces of information that will be useful to understand the text, then you read a dialogue between two people discussing the topic. And then you have the text in itself with questions. It is a progressive, step by step formula.
If reading is not your strong point and if you find N2 texts intimidating, So-matome is a great way to learn how to tackle those texts. But once again, don’t rely entirely on the textbook and read as much as you can in Japanese.
Contrary to So-matome, Shin Kanzen does nothing at all to make JLPT readings more enjoyable. On the other hand, it offers a much better preparation.
The book is divided into 4 sections.
The first section teaches you how to recognise key elements in argumentative texts: you will learn how to spot comparisons and metaphors in a text, understand when and how the author reformulates something or uses examples, and so on. It teaches you to read the text in order to answer JLPT questions which are often “what does the author want to say?”.
The lessons have a text and one typical JLPT question. The textbook takes you by the hand to help you answer the question. It shows you step by step how you must read the text: what are the key words, how the author used stylistic devices, how we can sum up the text… In addition to these guided question, you also have practice texts where you must answer on your own.
The second section is all about finding key information in notices, mails or commercials. Here again, you have lessons with step by step answers and practice texts where you must answer on your own.
The third section is a series of practice texts that you will find in the JLPT.
The fourth section is a practice test (reading section only).
I find that the Shin Kanzen book is extremely well structured and has very good content. At the N2 level, reading questions are tricky. It is not enough to be able to say what the text is about, you have to understand what the author really wants to say. The Shin Kanzen textbook is a good preparation. However, don’t forget to practice reading outside of the textbook. If you never read in Japanese, going through the Shin Kanzen textbook will be challenging and might even be discouraging. The textbook is mostly composed of texts that you have to read. If you feel at ease to read in Japanese but find the JLPT questions tricky, this textbook is perfect for you. If you don’t feel at ease to read in Japanese, go for the So-matome.
In other words, So-matome helps you to learn how to read difficult texts in Japanese. The step-by-step guideline is there to prepare you to read the text (first learn key vocabulary, then read a dialogue about the topic, then read the text). On the contrary, Shin Kanzen helps you to answer the JLPT questions. The step-by-step guideline is here to prepare you to answer the questions (first read the text, then learn how to extract important information). You also have a lot of texts that you must answer on your own.
My personal advice to pass the reading section would be to read a lot of things in Japanese in your daily life (light novels are a perfect choice) and study with the Shin Kanzen to get used to the JLPT format and practice reading argumentative texts.
If you don’t feel like reading tons of JLPT texts and just want to improve your reading skills during your preparation, then the So-matome is good.
There are 5 chapters, each contains 5 to 7 lessons. In each chapter, the last lesson is a series of exercises that are not JLPT questions. The 5th chapter is composed of a set of JLPT questions, there are no lessons in this one. The book is very thin, only 70 pages. There is also a supplement of 54 pages for the scripts and answers.
The first chapter starts with the basics. You will start with exercises on how to correctly recognise pronunciation, grammar or spoken expressions. The following lessons are more interesting and start to give you advice for the test. The third chapter in particular has a strategic approach and shows you what kind of dialogues you are likely to find during the JLPT N2.
The fourth chapter is also useful because it gives key expressions and terms you are likely to find in a given situation or place, for example: if the dialogues happens at the dental clinic, these are the words and expressions you might hear.
I think that the So-matome is well structured and has good content, but it also looks very light. For example, the part where you learn expressions likely to appear in this or that place/situation is a good idea, but you won’t learn enough vocabulary and expressions in my opinion. So-matome is a great textbook if you want to practice listening in a pleasant way, the lessons are short and you can finish the textbook relatively quickly. However, if you study with this textbook only, I think that you will be surprised by the actual JLPT test when you take it. You will find it much harder than anything you have learned in So-matome. If you want to study with this textbook, I recommend that you also listen to as many JLPT practice tests as possible and study with them in parallel.
The book has 103 pages + 46 pages of script and answers.
The book opens with a detailed presentation of the JLPT listening section. It might sound like a detail, but I highly recommend that you read it carefully.
The structure of the book is a little complex, but let’s say that it has an overall strategic approach. The book teaches you how to find the information you need depending on the type of questions you will get. For example, some questions will ask you what a person needs to bring to a certain event, and you will have specific exercises on this topic. Another lesson will make sure you can find relevant information in a dialogue or information that matches certain conditions (for example, someone needs to book a reunion room, but it has to be so and so).
The textbook also teaches you how to take notes while listening, and overall, how to be active while listening. It contains a lot of exercises that are not JLPT questions, but targeted exercises to improve different skills relative to listening.
There is also a mock test (listening section only)
My personal opinion
I would say that the Shin Kanzen is more thorough, it has a lot of exercises and a strategic approach to the JLPT. I have a personal preference for the Shin Kanzen when it comes to content, but here again, So-matome has a more pleasant layout and is easier to go through.
But to be honest, I find that both textbooks are too easy. In 2017, I found that the real JLPT test had almost none of the situations and dialogues I had studied in the textbooks (casual conversations between friends or colleagues, discussions inside the family, between teacher and student…) As I recall it, the dialogues of the real test were almost all work-related or had technical terms in them.
No matter which textbook you choose, you should also listen to as many practice tests as possible and to study the dialogues that you did not understand well. Listen to the dialogues several times, try to repeat what they say, read the script and look up unknown words, understand what you did not understand and why, and even, learn the dialogue by heart.
What would I choose today if I were to take N2 again?
If I were to take N2 again, I would choose a very different approach than I did in 2017…
For vocabulary, I would definitely stay away from the Shin Kanzen. This textbook demotivated me, going through it was a nightmare, and I couldn’t bear to open my Anki anymore. However, I find the So-matome a little too on the light side. So for vocabulary, I would go for the So-matome first and then use another more thorough textbook, or I would use another textbook altogether.
I would also simply skip studying the kanji. This is a very personal approach, but I don’t like to study the kanji for themselves (learning a list of kanji, their pronunciation, their core meaning, and a bunch of words in which they appear). I prefer to simply learn words and if an unknown kanji appears in these words, I will check it out in a kanji dictionary, see what its core meaning is and in which other words it appears. (Or sometimes, I would simply just learn the words and don’t really care whether I know the kanji in it or not.) This is something that I can do using a vocabulary textbook only so I don’t think that I need a kanji method.
For grammar, I would definitely use the So-matome first. It can be daunting to learn so many new grammar points in some months only, and the light, pleasant layout of the So-matome makes things easier. However, I don’t think that it is enough. After completing the So-matome, I would certainly pick another resource, either the Shin Kanzen grammar, or another one.
For reading and listening, I would go for the Shin Kanzen textbooks, but I would also be sure to practice a lot by using practice tests, especially for listening.
I hope that I was able to give you some kind of insight into these two methods.
To me, the Shin Kanzen series is a much better series to prepare for the JLPT than the So-matome. It is perfect for learners who really want or need to pass the test or students who major in Japanese.
However, we are not all willing to spend hours studying Japanese. Some of us would like to pass the JLPT, yes, but will never sacrifice the fun and joy of language learning to it. You might be learning Japanese as a hobby and take the test to check out your level or get additional motivation. Maybe you cannot afford to spend several hours per week to study Japanese. So-matome is designed for self-taught learners and fits a wide range of learners and learning styles.
Once again, if you are studying Japanese as a hobby, what is the most important thing? Pass the test or improve your Japanese? If you choose a good but challenging textbook, you might feel discouraged and demotivated after 1 or 2 chapters, give up the JLPT and your preparation. In the end, you will not have taken the test, you will not have prepared for it, and most importantly, you will not have improved your Japanese by preparing for the test.
On the contrary, if you choose a pleasant and light textbook that you can study entirely, you will have learned tons of vocabulary and grammatical patterns and practiced reading and listening during your JLPT preparation. Even if you don’t pass the test, your Japanese will have improved a lot.
So ask yourself what kind of learner you are, what amount of time and effort you are willing to put into the JLPT preparation, and what your ultimate goals are. And don’t forget that there are a lot of other good textbooks for the JLPT, you don’t have to stick to one series!