At the N5 level, the kanji that is introduced is very rudimentary. You only need to know around 100 characters. That doesn’t give you much to work with. You learn most of the numbers you will need, which is the first thing you need to know in any language. And there are few basic characters for your family members, actions, and some adjectives.
But you are pretty limited with what you can do. In some ways, it makes it difficult for you to read the passages on the test because they use so much hiragana. That was one of my problems when I took the test. I had taken a more natural way of learning Japanese and hadn’t focused on learning only the kanji for my level.
Previously, you really couldn’t make much use of radicals because the kanji were so simple. But now you can really start to use them to build mnemonics so that you can lock these characters in. It’s important to try to make your own mnemonics, too. I’ve always found that if you struggle to build that connection it lasts a lot longer.
The N4 level has somewhere around ~300 kanji that you need to know. After learning all the N4 kanji you will still have a hard time reading native Japanese material, but there will be some subject areas that you should be able to survive, like ordering at a restaurant. These kanji cover a lot more areas, so there are a lot more groups to consider.
You have a lot more adjectives at this level. For example, there are a lot of the common colors, and feelings that you can use to express yourself more. You can talk about the weight of something (軽い, light) strength (強い, strong, 弱い, weak), and distance (近い, close 遠い, far).
同 広 弱 強 悪 早 明 暑 暗 楽 短 自 重 赤 軽 近 遠 青 黒 特
Okay, so not all of these kanji are directly related to art, but most have to do with creating something. With the following kanji, you can talk about things like drawings (図, map or drawing), colors (色), and characters (字). Keep in mind ‘colors’ can sometimes take on the meaning of attractive. For instance, 色っぽい can mean attractive or sexy.
図 字 文 映 写 歌 画 紙 色
Of course at this lower level of the test, you will be doing a lot of talking about daily life. Using these kanji you can open things (開く), cut things (切る), and use things (使う). There are also some more general use kanji like 事 (thing, generally figurative), 物 (thing, generally more concrete), and 質 (quality). These are used in a variety of compounds like 食べ物 (food), 仕事 (work), or 質問 (question).
乗 切 事 住 使 合 帰 始 引 持 有 服 止 歩 洗 集 開 走 起 質 台 物 着
At the N5 level, you were introduced to a lot of the common family kanji, like 母 and 父. At the N4 level, you will be able to expand your ability to write about other family members like your brothers (弟, 兄), your sisters (妹, 姉), as well as your parents (親).
兄 妹 姉 弟 族 親
Thoughts and Feelings
You will finally be able to write about thinking (思う) and considering (考える) as well as what you like (好き). There is also figurative heart (心), which can also be used to talk about your figurative mind. In English, we might say “heart and mind” as in “winning the hearts and minds of the people”. However, in Japanese these two concepts are covered with one word – 心.
好 心 思 意 正 考
Are you hungry? You can finally write about beef (牛) or other kinds of meat (肉). There are also vegetables (菜) and the general words for food (飯), which often just means rice. You can also grab some tea (茶) to drink. お茶 by itself, typically means green tea, whereas other kinds of tea add something to the front like Oolong tea – ウーロン茶.
味 牛 肉 茶 菜 飯
Most of you reading this are probably human, so you’ll probably want to talk about yourself. You can finally write I (私) at the N4 level, as well as talk about some handy body parts like neck (首), head (頭), and body (体), which can also be used to talk about forms in general. You can also write about your house (家) and your dog (犬).
太 声 家 体 死 民 犬 病 私 頭 顔 首
This is a pretty general category that covers everything from actually moving (動く) to the counter for flights that is also used to refer to mail and packages (便). You can also depart (発), send things off (送る), make progress (進む), transport something (運ぶ), and commute to work (通う). Notice that those last 4 kanji use the same kanji to the left. In general, a lot of ‘motion’ kanji use this radical. But, be careful 運 can also mean luck.
便 旅 発 転 送 通 進 運 別 動
Most of the fundamental nature kanji was covered at the N5 level like weather. But, you still see a few of the more complicated kanji. For example, the material silver (銀), which is used in the compound for bank (銀行). You have wind (風) as well as more elemental kanji like power, strength (力) and light (光).
光 銀 野 音 風 鳥 力
N4 doesn’t introduce any new kanji for numbers. Most of them are covered at the N5 level. But, the useful ‘than’ kanji is introduced. This is used in compounds like 以上 (and up, over) and 以下 (and under). Notice that these compounds include the number, so 6以上 refers to numbers 6 and higher. The exception is 以外(except). You can also borrow (貸す) and lend (借りる) at this level.
以 低 借 貸
There are numerous new kanji introduced at this level for places. You have urban places like 市 (city), 区 (district), 京 (capital), 町 (town), and 村 (village). There are some rural places like 森 (forest), 林 (woods), 田 (rice field), and 海 (sea). There are also places inside, like 室 (room), and two kanji for halls 館 (large building) and 堂 (hall). You can also talk about districts like prefectures (県), or divisions (部).
京 堂 場 区 市 屋 地 室 所 村 林 森 池 洋 海 漢 町 田 界 県 都 門 院 館
Prefixes and Suffixes
Finally at the N4 level, you learn non and un~ – 不. This is a handy kanji that gets put in front of some compounds to negate them. For example, 不全. 全 means whole or complete. Put 不 in front of it and you get not complete. Another handy prefix is 真 (true, reality). It shows up in compounds like photograph (写真), lit. reflection, true. But you can use it to mean pure or totally like 真っ暗 (totally black), or 真ん中 (true center).
不 主 真 方 者
At this level, you can write about the seasons – spring (春), summer (夏), fall (秋), and winter (冬). Also, you can write about the past – 去. Or you can write about how many times you do something – 回 and 度. What’s the difference? 回 is used for things with clear beginnings and endings like chin-ups, championships, or button presses. 度 is used more for things without clear beginnings or endings, like lives or conversations. And you also get a few more handy times of day like night (夕) and morning (朝).
去 回 元 冬 夏 代 世 夕 夜 寒 度 待 急 春 昼 曜 朝 秋 終
You can now teach (教える) someone something. Also, it’s important to learn (習う) and take tests (試験). It is also important to answer (答える) problems (問題), and do research (研究).
教 医 知 理 研 究 答 問 題 習 英 薬 試 説 験 勉
Almost everybody has to work (働く). You might have to make something (作る) like a product (品). Or maybe you sell (売る) or you build buildings (建てる). Whatever you produce (産), I’m sure it has a use (用).
仕 作 品 働 員 工 売 建 料 業 注 用 産 計
Once you have learned the JLPT N4 kanji, you have a good base of kanji. At this level, you will probably start to get a feel for how kanji is used. You might want to try reading some native material to see how much of it you can understand. Good luck studying for the test!