JLPT Failure: Life Lessons, Culture Clash, and Sunburn

Life will send you important lessons to learn. And sometimes life has to send them again because you didn’t learn your lesson the first time. That is what happened last weekend when I went to take the N4 JLPT. I studied for months and took two Japanese lessons per week so I could pass the exam.

I was confident in the visible growth in my Japanese. I could understand and respond to everyday conversations. I could read a lot more kanji than when I took the exam the first time. Overall, I just felt better about my ability to pass the test. And this time wasn’t going alone. My friend Itty was also taking the N4 with me.

It was the two of us and four other ALTs taking various levels. We decided to carpool with two other ALTs to save money and gas. We arrived about 30 mins early but because examinees are not allowed to park at the university we had to walk about 15 mins to the test building. And that’s where life reminded me:

Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.

Upon arriving at the building we see a giant board with the exam levels and their assigned room numbers. We read, N1, N2, N3, N5……but no N4. This was the exact building I took the N4 exam in last year. I was sure this was the place. Our test cards said Saga University on them. We thought we might be in another building. A few Japanese women were at the door so we asked them if they knew where the N4 exam was.

Her response (translated) was as followed:

“The N4? Oh, dear. It’s on the Nabeshima campus.” She looks at her watch. We asked her where that was. “It’s a twenty-minute drive north.”


We were flabbergasted. How? How could we have made such a mistake? We only had fifteen minutes before the exam started and if you aren’t in the room when the door closes you are disqualified from taking any part of the four-hour exam. There was no way we could make it in time.

The real irony here is that I had been nagging my friend to sit the N2 exam she had signed up for but didn’t want to take. She sat the exam while I sat in a park. We had wished them luck and then found a shady park to wallow in for four hours.

We weren’t angry. We were disappointed, embarrassed, and resigned. Both of us are well traveled and travel teaches you that things go wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you prep or double-check, sometimes things don’t work out and you have to deal with your lot. This was an avoidable human error. You learn your lesson and move on.

The Cultural Difference

As we sat in the park we reflected on our situation. I started to fall into the trap of “at an American test, they would have tried to keep the test in the same building or at the very least on the same campus. Why would you move only one level to a completely separate campus? That’s really stupid.”

Itty reminded me that there was a cultural difference here. One that he experienced in France. In both Japan and France, the test examiners have the final say. It doesn’t matter what is convenient for the customer because you have already paid for the product. If you want the product you paid for (in this case a test) you will go where ever they tell you to go. End of story. Didn’t read the instructions properly? Not our problem.

In America, if the building didn’t have enough room for all of the examiners they would probably try to move it to a nearby building or find a new test site that could accommodate everyone.

Neither one of these thoughts is wrong. They are just different.

I made an honest mistake by assuming this Saga University was the same campus as the Nabeshima medical campus and that even if it wasn’t in the same building it would be in the area. So, I learned my lesson. I will read the entire test card next time. I will look up the address on a map. I will arrive at the test site an hour in advance just to be safe.

And maybe next time I pack some sunscreen, too. Just in case I get stuck in a park again for four hours at high noon. I look like a lobster.

On the bright side, I wasn’t alone.


  1. Lol, your “in America…” points sounds exactly what I was also responding with to you that day. Glad you were able to see it under different light and not beat yourself up (too much) about it =P

  2. When will this test be offered again? I remember having to take the ACT college entrance test back in high school when I was sick with mumps, because there were no other dates available that were close enough to drive to.

  3. Guess you all will be really really ready by December. Hope they won’t conflict with Ellen’s wedding.

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