JLPT Book Haul: Nihongo So-Matome VS. New Kanzen Master

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I am hoping to take (and pass haha) the JLPT N1 Level this year. In the past, I have stubbornly stuck to my own ways and did not get even a single of the typical books most people use to review for the test. In fact, I used only three apps to study for the N2. Though that strategy worked for me and I was able to pass in a matter of just 17 months, I figured that N1 is a whole other level. I haven’t actually taken the time to hit the books in more or less two years so given the current state of my Japanese and study habits, passing N1 within the year is a very ambitious task. And if I’m being honest, my mindset this time is vastly different from the one I had before. I was just having fun, thinking it would be cool to learn something new. At this point in my life however, mastering Japanese and getting that N1 Certification would mean a higher chance for me to enrich my son’s life as he is half-Japanese and living in this country. It would also mean opportunities for professional advancement so I can provide more for my baby. So, yeah, in a word, this time I am more ‘desperate’. Whether that would work to my favor or not, we’ll find out soon enough; but I’m banking on that desperation to finally give me the patience and perseverance to really study effectively.

This brings me to today’s topic (sorry for the long intro haha) – my JLPT N1 book haul. There seems to be an ongoing debate amongst JLPT takers out there – some of them prefer the Nihongo So-Matome series while others prefer the New Kanzen Master books. Browsing through threads on the internet though, a lot of those who have successfully gained an N1 certification did so by employing a combination of both materials – and some. From what I understood, So-Matome has the advantage of being more ‘user-friendly’, with lessons that are easier for the learner to digest. Kanzen Master, on the other hand, is ‘heavier’ to process but because of that, it has the advantage of preparing you better for the test in terms of its actual level of difficulty and content. Online, there are also many who shared their experiences and suggested exclusively using Kanzen Master for one topic (example: Kanji) and then using Nihongo So-Matome for another. I actually thought this was very useful information and that following it would not only save me time and money but also make sure that I thoroughly go through each material. But I don’t know, I just couldn’t bring myself to dismiss one book for another just because it worked better for someone – what if it’s not the same case for me? I should at least try to actually check it for myself. I know, I’m OC that way. So short story is, I got myself the entire New Kanzen Master N1 Series as well as the entire NIhongo So-Matome N1 Series – 10 books. So help me, God.

Now on to my quick initial review and comparison of the 2 series. Please note that this is ‘initial’ and written after I’ve taken only the first lesson of each book and understood the structure of each material by reading the introduction.

Pricing

Both series are priced about the same. The base price for each book is  ¥1,200. The Listening Comprehension (聴解) books from both series, however, are priced at ¥1,600 – I guess because they come with a CD? The Reading Comprehension book for the New Kanzen Master Series costs ¥1,400 – I’m guessing because it’s thicker than the other books. Of course, that’s the price on the cover and you’re still going to need to factor in tax.

Because they’re heavy and I don’t live near a bookstore, I decided to order my books from Amazon where they’re priced 10% more (paid ¥1,320 for books priced ¥1,200 and so on). I am an Amazon Prime member so delivery was free.

Appearance

You can skip this part if appearance is not the sort of thing you care so much about when it comes to your books but since it’s the first thing you see, let me start with it anyway. The So-Matome books all have a blue and white theme. The front cover of each book has an illustration of a different animal. I have to say I found these illustrations quite cute. The New Kanzen books, on the other hand, all differ in color. Each book also has a different pattern printed on the front cover. Although the patterns are all pretty, I don’t really care for them as front covers.

To be honest, for some reason, I like the cover of the So-Matome books. That said, I can see the merit of the chosen cover for the New Kanzen Master books. Since they are of different colors, once you have familiarized yourself with them, you could very easily and very quickly grab the book that you want just by looking at the spine or at the book from afar – if you are in a hurry or something.

Kanji Books

The So-Matome Kanji book is meant to be studied for eight weeks (all So-Matome books are) and the Kanjis are presented based on their similarities. For the first lesson, for example, each group of Kanjis have similar radicals. On the first six days of each week, you will study the Kanjis and on the seventh, you can take practice exercises modeled on the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test. Though you have the ‘big test’ on the seventh day, each lesson also ends with a short ‘practice’ section. It is also worth noting that all So-Matome books come with English, Chinese and Korean translations.

None of the New Kanzen Master books have any foreign language translations. For this series’ Kanji book, there are three chapters. The first chapter consists of eleven lessons and introduces the Kanjis with their Kunyomi readings. On the second chapter, we learn the Onyomi readings as well as Kanjis with ‘special reading’. The Kanjis are later grouped thematically (ex.: IT related, plants, food etc.) but the first few lessons introduce verbs which are assigned Levels (A to C). Level A verbs are vocabulary that belong in the N2 or lower levels but whose Kanjis are N1 Level. Level B are vocabulary that belong in the N1 Level but whose Kanji are N2 or lower. Finally, Level C are words and Kanji that are included in the N1 Level. Unlike the So-Matome, the lessons come with some (not a lot) illustrations related to the words introduced.

What I Think:

After taking the first lesson, I felt that the way the So-Matome book groups the kanjis based on their radicals is great in terms of remembering the On-reading for each Kanji. The meaning of the Kanjis themselves are not introduced so the accompanying vocabulary (2 words or phrases for each) are not that easy to remember even if they share the same Kanji. Of course, in any case, you should not limit yourself to only using one book and should consult at least the internet for further information. Introducing the Kanjis this way is also great practice for differentiating those that have similar radicals – a common type of question in the JLPT.

At first, the New Kanzen Master’s first Kanji lesson seemed far heavier than the So-Matome’s. There were 3 sets of A Level verbs introduced – totaling to 45 as opposed to the So-Matome’s 35 Kanjis on the first lesson. Aside from the fact that they are all A Level verbs, I also could not discern any similarity among the vocabulary listed unlike the ones in the other series which were grouped based on the radicals. I thought this would be another reason why it would be more difficult to commit the material to memory. However, here’s the thing, where the So-Matome only gives us words/phrases as examples for using the Kanji, the Kanzen Master makes use of entire sentences (one for each). There are no direct explanations of the Kanjis either but these sample sentences make it easy to understand their meaning (though double-checking with other resources is still a must-do) and are a great help for recalling the vocabulary. I expected the illustrations provided to be nothing but a cute addition but they’re actually also very helpful in understanding and memorizing the Kanjis.

For now, I prefer the New Kanzen Master’s N1 Kanji Reviewer but not enough that I’m willing to drop the So-Matome just yet because I can also see merits to it that the former can’t provide.

Vocabulary Books

Just like the other So-Matome books, the series’ Vocabulary Reviewer works as an 8-week reviewer introducing 20-40 words a day totaling to about 1,300 for the entire course. These vocabulary are grouped based on the context you could possibly use them in. On the first lesson, for instance, we learn expressions used to describe one’s personality. Within the day’s lecture, the vocabulary are further divided into how you can use them in a sentence (ex.: expressions that go with ‘人に’ or ‘人を’ etc). Following the list of words, there’s a very quick practice test (8 items for the first lesson).

Similar to the other series, the vocabulary in the New Kanzen Master reviewer are organized based on their usage. In fact, the first lesson covers the very same topic – describing people. In addition to the adjectives, the reader is also given other related expressions (affixes, adverbs and others). This book also provides examples of how you might use the expressions in a sentence. For some of the expressions, it provides antonyms, synonyms or ‘strong’ ways of expressing the same idea. Actually, this is also done in the So-Matome but in far less cases.The accompanying test for every lesson is also significantly longer than on the other book. For the first lesson, you get more than 2 pages of different types of exercises. It also has an attachment of a practice exam once you have finished all of the lessons.

What I Think:

Between the two Vocabulary reviewers, I prefer the New Kanzen Master. I liked that there are batches of expressions presented that work as antonyms and synonyms because I felt that it’s a great way to remember more in one go. I think the longer practice tests are also a great way to really etch the lesson into your memory. I am seriously considering dropping the So-Matome book altogether because I think the other book covers most (if not all) that it has to offer… plus more.

Grammar Books

The So-Matome groups the grammar points based on similarities in the meaning/expression used. Lesson 1, as an example, deals with grammar points that make use of the expression ‘こそ’. Every day, there are 3-5 grammatical structures that you need to learn. For each, 2 or more examples are given. Since this is So-Matome, the examples of course come with English (Korean, Chinese) translations but in addition to that, you also get a Japanese sentence which is the ‘simpler’ way of stating it. There is also a corner where the formation of the grammar point within a sentence is summarized. Following the lesson, you get a short review quiz.

As for the New Kanzen Master, it groups the grammar points according to the topic you might use them with. For instance, the first lesson covers those related to time. Before the actual lessons, there are a couple of pages dedicated to giving and explaining examples of different types of grammar questions in the JLPT. For each grammatical point, 3 or more sample sentences are given. Those are followed by the pattern for how to use it in a statement. Lastly, there is an explanation about the context why you would use this grammar as opposed to the others introduced such as ‘this grammar expresses a sense of shock on the speaker’s side’. Again, there is a practice exam once you have taken all of the lessons.

What I Think:

I think the New Kanzen Master Grammar Book was very well-thought-out. It’s straightforward and gives you all of the information needed. Somehow though, I like the way the So-Matome gives you grammar points that use the same expressions. For me, it’s a lot easier to remember and to not confuse similar sounding expressions. I am torn at the moment and might just continue using both simultaneously.

Reading Comprehension Books

The So-Matome Reading Comprehension book follows a 6-week schedule (not the usual 8). Much like the other books in the series though, the first 6 days of the week are still dedicated to learning key skills or phrases to help you understand and pass the test while the 7th day is a longer quiz simulating the actual exam. Each day covers a different element which would assist you in pinpointing the correct answer in a timely manner. Topics covered include understanding opinions structured as interrogatives, expressions frequently used in long statements and others. The way the books helps you ‘ease into’ mastering these skills is by giving you 4 passages a day – each longer and more difficult than the one before it. The last week, however, is dedicated to helping you dissect long-form essays and is thus an exception with its constant lengthy passages.

As for the New Kanzen Master Reading Comprehension book, it is divided into 3 chapters. The first two chapters are meant to help you learn strategies for finding the correct answer to different kinds of questions that will come up in the JLPT. Strategies like answering questions that are asking for reasons or those that are are asking for examples. On the third chapter, you get to exercise the skills and strategies you’ve learned by answering ‘real’ questions that are formatted like the ones in the JLPT. This also comes with a practice exam at the end to see how far you’ve come. Unlike the other book, the New Kanzen Master’s lessons automatically starts you off with full-sized examples and then gives you additional passages to practice with.

What I Think:

As someone who hasn’t been seriously studying for a significant amount of time, I knew that reading comprehension would be the most challenging thing to study because I might find the sheer amount of words, kanji, grammar that I have to take in in one lesson overwhelming. True enough, once confronted with long passages, my brain starts shutting down and I would almost always find myself doing my unconscious mind’s favorite way of dealing with stressful situations – dozing off (which is a massive waste of time). For this point, I appreciate how the So-Matome eases you into reading the material and practicing the strategies by presenting passages that gradually increase in terms of length and difficulty. My worry though, is that that’s not how the real test goes. In the real test, you are bombarded with long and/or difficult passages nonstop. I feel like if this is the kind of material I focus on while practicing, the actual JLPT would just be too difficult for me. So then, I think the New Kanzen Master would better equip me for the test. That plus a lot of practice using other materials outside of the two series! Another thing that I really like about the New Kanzen Master book is that the answer key does not only indicate the correct choice but includes an explanation why each of the other options was wrong. You have no idea how helpful this is! Not only does this help clear up possible misunderstanding of a specific passage, it really brings light to the kind of mistakes you commonly make and the tricks of the JLPT that you easily fall for. For this reason alone, the New Kanzen Master Reading Comprehension reviewer is a true winner for me. I just really have to learn to control myself and stop napping, for God’s sake.

Listening Comprehension Books

By studying 2 pages a day, you can finish So-Matome’s Listening Comprehension book in a matter of just four weeks. This book is divided into five chapters, each dealing with a specific skill that you have to learn to pass the test. The 2nd chapter, for example, helps you get used to the different patterns of questions that might come up while the 3rd chapter exposes you to the varying kinds of conversations that might be played. The first chapter is a ‘preparation’ chapter and deals with topics like dealing with word contractions. The book comes with a CD attachment but you may also download the audio materials online simply by providing the book’s ISBN on the designated website. Each daily lesson starts with study notes about the specific topic. This is then followed by the practice test. The answer key attached at the back of the book also comes with a script.

At first I actually thought that you can’t download the audio materials for this book from the web because although it says so in the cover, they really don’t make it easy for you to access it. While the So-Matome provides you with the web address, QR code and serial code to easily get the audio online, I had to dig through a Reddit thread to finally find the Kanzen Master’s downloadables. As for the contents, the book is divided into 3 sections. The first one introduces the five types of questions in the test and the strategies to solve them. The second chapter provides you with more exercises to practice those strategies but starts off with lessons reviewing the distinctive features of Japanese pronunciation so you can get used to them. As with other New Kanzen Master books, there is a practice exam at the last part that is designed after the actual JLPT. The accompanying answer key also contains the script.

What I Think:

At this point, I feel like both books try to teach the same strategies for someone to do well in the JLPT Listening Comprehension Test. The New Kanzen Master does seem to present more difficult, realistic ( to the test) questions. I’m just really bummed that it doesn’t come with downloadable audio. Though I have since secured a CD player, I just can’t seem to get past this point.

Conclusion

After trying out the first few lessons on both materials, I have decided to first focus on finishing all books in the So-Matome series as a sort of ‘warm-up’. Ideally, I should be able to do that within at most 2 months. By that time, depending on how much I think I have improved, I would either proceed to the Kanzen Master reviewers exclusively or simultaneously study the Kanzen Master books while also reviewing all of the So-Matome books. Fingers crossed. Wish me luck.

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