When American Bret Mayer passed the highest level of the Kanji language aptitude exam in Japan, he became the first foreigner "outside of the kanji culture sphere" to be certified in the prestigious exam.  What started his interest in learning Japanese in the first place? How did he master the difficult language?

The Kanji Kentei is an official Japanese exam that tests and certifies one's knowledge of the thousands of Chinese characters that are adopted and incorporated into the Japanese language.

It stars from level 10, which only tests for 80 characters, with increasing difficulty until level 1, which requires the knowledge of about 6,000 characters. 

Since a high-school graduate generally knows about 2,136 kanji to pass level 2, those who can pass level 1 demonstrate an advanced knowledge of the language. Therefore, only a very small percentage of those who take the test can pass the highest level. 

In 2012, Bret Mayer, an American from New Jersey, joined that exclusive group. 

How did he do it?

First of all, Bret revealed that he acquired an interest in Japanese when he fell in love with the anime Dragon Ball Z. “That series basically launched my whole Japanese career. I picked up a bunch of random books from the bookstore and just started studying,” said Bret when he was interviewed by a Japanese reporter from Nippon.com.

He arrived in Japan in 2008 and started studying in a more structured discipline. Because the Kanji Kentei exam divided the characters into groups of increasing difficulty, he was able to study in a more organized manner. He passed his first test, level 8, on first try. He eventually achieved the distinction of the first foreigner "outside of the kanji culture sphere" to pass level 1 in 2012.

Besides perseverance, he also attributed his success to writing the characters to practice and learn. He recalled, "Some people swear by flash cards or spaced repetition apps, but I could never get into it. I need tactile methods, so the most important thing for me is writing practice. I went through over 50 notebooks, just filling them with characters and problems, and color-coded everything by word, reading, and meaning. One of my favorite sounds is the crinkling of a kanji-filled page as I flip through my notebooks.”

Today, Bret is a kanji instructor certified by the Japan Kanji Testing Foundation and Ritsumeikan University. He owns BuSensei Translation and Consulting and has appeared on Japanese radio and TV to discuss the meaning and history of kanji characters

Watch this fun video from Bret explaining the first kanji character ever made!


Bret Mayer's achievement makes him a role model for anyone who aspires to learn and master a foreign language, and especially one that is based on a completely different system from Western languages.

Are you interesting in studying another language? Which one?


If you are interested in learning Chinese, check out my series on Watch Dramas to Learn Chinese:

1. Watch Drama to Learn Chinese: Fall in Love Like a Star

2. Watch Drama to Learn Chinese: Love O2O

3. Watch Drama to Learn Chinese: To Be A Better Man and Scarlet Heart: Ryeo

~ NancyZdramaland

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