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<Jisho.org> often lists kanji with widely divergent Jōyō and JLPT levels, e.g. 矢. Jisho lists this as 2nd grade Jōyō; Henshall’s Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters lists it for 6th grade— both signifying elementary school. Yet Jisho describes the kanji as JLPT level 1 and #1,294 of the 2,500 most common words in newspapers, i.e. in the more-infrequent half of common words. The kanji is easy to write, but except for “arrow” most of the associated words that Jisho lists seem rather uncommon.

In contrast, 忙 is also easy to write and would seem like a more useful word for young children; but it is junior-high-school Jōyō and JLPT level 3.

Why do an apparently large number of kanji have widely divergent Jōyō and JLPT classifications?

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For one thing, the frequency of a word and the level of a kanji are different concepts. Any kindergartener who can't even write hiragana knows the word 誕生日 ("birthday"), and it's naturally classified as a JLPT N5 word. However, it has a rather difficult (and not very versatile) first kanji, and the kanji 誕 itself is supposed to be learned in the 6th grade.

According to this article and this article, the list of 教育漢字 by grade did not exist at first. The grade-by-grade list was introduced later out of concern for avoiding problems when students changed schools and textbooks in the middle of elementary school. There does not seem to have been any particularly detailed statistical consideration. Frequency was one of the factors, but the simplicity of a kanji shape was also considered. And that's why the grade-by-grade 教育漢字 list sometimes seems impractical to you. Japanese people naturally learn most of the JLPT N1 vocabulary before they turn 10, and even if they don't know many kanji, they have no trouble communicating. Even if they don't know the kanji 忙, the word いそがしい by itself is something they know from the age of 3. There may not be any particular reason to learn the kanji 矢 in the second grade, but there's no strong reason not to do so, either (its shape is simple, and it's frequent enough for an 8-year-old). If English is your native language, you have never bothered with level-specific vocabulary lists when learning English, have you?

The situation is different for a Japanese-as-a-second-language learner. If you want to acquire communication skills as quickly as possible, a practical vocabulary list by frequency and difficulty is essential. It's usually efficient to learn the word 忙しい along with its kanji. And JLPT levels are designed exactly for this purpose.

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  • It’s worth noting that this discrepancy between native and second language vocabulary organization is present for a lot of languages, not just Japanese. For Japanese though, it’s compounded by the fact that kanji are logosyllabic (they’re either whole words on their own, or large chunks of words), so it’s not always possible to understand how to read or write a word that you encounter for the first time (as compared to languages like Spanish or Hindi, where it’s generally pretty easy to derive pronunciation from spelling or spelling from pronunciation). Mar 26, 2023 at 12:50
  • @ naruto To be sure that I understand (yes, I am a native English speaker): JLPT comprehension means only that a person understands the meaning of a word when that word is spoken, e.g. "birthday"?
    – NattoYum
    Mar 26, 2023 at 15:18
  • @NattoYum I haven't taken JLPT myself (I'm a native Japanese speaker), but it looks like an N5 exam has furigana on most kanji. So when you take an N5 exam, you may have to know the word for birthday is たんじょうび, but you don't have to remember the kanji 誕 yet.
    – naruto
    Mar 26, 2023 at 15:30
  • @ naruto I will go to some sites related to JLPT to see whether they address this. When posing the original question, I hadn't considered that a lot of people on this site would have no reason to be familiar with JLPT :-)
    – NattoYum
    Mar 26, 2023 at 16:01

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