When you get caught up in the struggle of mastering Japanese, it’s easy to think you aren’t doing well. Your efforts are failing. You are going slow. You are doing something wrong. Others are just doing it better. But you probably have come way further than most people, and taking a look at the numbers may reveal some positive news for you.
**Warning**: numbers that don’t contain a resource link are very loose estimates based on various assumptions I’m making. They may be completely wrong. This was written for fun and I’m sure a bunch of holes can be poked into the logic :)
How many people are interested in Japan and Japanese stuff?
Japan had around 32,000,000 international tourists in 2019. An interest in manga and anime probably also shows an interest in Japan, and according to some broad analytics of anime and manga, there are at least 20-30 million fans of these (though I would assume this number may overlap some with the tourist number).
People who are interested in Japan and Japanese stuff: 50,000,000
How many people want to study Japanese?
Liking Japanese stuff doesn’t necessarily mean you want to study Japanese. But I would think around 20% eventually develop the desire to. This is going to be the base number, with all percentages below working off of it.
People who want to study Japanese: 10,000,000
How many people are studying Japanese?
The progression from wanting to study Japanese and actually studying Japanese is a big deal. Which is why if you have already made the effort to start, you need to give yourself an early pat on the back.
It’s easy to get scared away by the complexity, the image of an impossible language, and the fear of being inadequate or looking stupid. My freshman year of college I wanted to study Japanese. It took me almost 4 years to gain the confidence to start.
Several years back, an academic survey revealed around 4 million people were studying Japanese. This number isn’t really accurate because it doesn’t include the self learners who never attend any kind of academic studying. Also, the numbers have been trending upwards and it’s been almost a decade since the study. I’m going to add an extra million to that figure. 50% of people who want to study Japanese actually attempt to do so.
People who actually attempt to study Japanese: 5,000,000
How many people make it past beginner
5,000,000 people study Japanese. That doesn’t say much because that means you might have taken one class, or opened one textbook and then stopped there. Trying to figure out how many people make it past beginner can be worked with a little bit of help from some JLPT figures.
In 2018, there were around 1,000,000 test takers. The numbers have steadily risen every year, and since the July test takers of 2019 was around 550,000 (up from 470k in 2018), I’m going to assume the number is closer to 1.15 million for 2019. That means around 22% of learners take the JLPT (very close to what I said 9 years ago!)
Assumption: if you take the JLPT, you probably made it past beginner level. But what about all the people that take the easiest level (N5)? Wouldn’t that skew things a bit? Surprisingly N5 test takers are in the minority.
In 2018, of the 1,009,074 that took the test, the breakdown of levels is as follows:
N5: 105,033 -> 10.5%
N4: 135,695 -> 13.5%
N3: 244,077 -> 24.1%
N2: 304,238 -> 30.1%
N1: 220,031 -> 21.8%
Random fun fact
Most Japanese learners in Japan don’t take N5 or N4. Maybe because it doesn’t have the career/visa boost that N1 or N2 has. Or maybe because there are just more higher level learners living in Japan.
Random motivating fact
In 2018, 1,009,074 may have taken the exam, but 1,168,000 people applied for it. Which means that 158,926 or 13% of people dropped out. While part of this number accounts for illness, injury, and other life situations, I would assume other people couldn’t go through with it. So if you actually sat for the test, regardless of how you did, you stared something scary right in the face and fought back.
How many post-beginners?
I kind of went off on a tangent there, but out of the 1,000,000 people sitting for the exam, only around 35% actually pass. However, just because you didn’t pass doesn’t mean you aren’t higher than beginner, and there are still all the other non-test takers to account for.
Considering all of the above, with my own personal observations of Jalup users over the past decade, I think around 10% of people who want to study Japanese make it past beginner.
People who get past beginner: 1,000,000
How many people go beyond Intermediate?
For anyone who has ever seen the transition of a beginner college course with 20-30 people to an intermediate course of 5-10 people, you know big changes happen here. Intermediate level is the great filter.
The Great Filter in science is a theory why there aren’t any super advanced alien races running around our galaxy trying to make contact with us (or destroy us). The theory also ponders the ultimate fate of humanity.
As life forms continue to evolve and advance, there reaches a breaking point (series of breaking points) that will either cause the life form to be destroyed (or destroy itself), or achieve advanced civilization status. The big question is whether humans are before the filter (signaling our impending doom), or if we already have passed it, making us ridiculously special and on our way to supreme status.
I like to think of Intermediate level as the great filter of Japanese learners. It causes the fiery death of many, but those that overcome it usually are well on their way to fluency. 4% of those who want to study Japanese make it past intermediate.
People who get past intermediate: 400,000
How many people make it past advanced level and get to fluency
While you’d think you are in the clear, many people still get stuck at the higher levels, and never reach fluency. This is the high-level blues. 1% of people who want to study Japanese make it to the finish line.
People who get to fluency: 100,000
This number feels about right. In 2018, 68,506 passed N1. That doesn’t mean fluency though, but there are all the other people who never take the JLPT that add to this.
What am I trying to say?
No matter how far you’ve come, you’ve overcome many obstacles that others couldn’t before you. Take a moment to realize that you are already achieving good things even if you aren’t exactly where you want to be just yet.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.