It’s like a national spelling bee chiefly held for native-speakers of all ages (something that English-speaking countries should consider introducing!)
Currently over 2 million people take the Kanji Kentei tests annually (held for 12 levels of difficulty), with only around half passing. Japanese people seem to love exams, and qualifications/certificates.
For foreigners studying Japanese, there is the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), but even passing the highest level (level 1) does not ensure native-level proficiency in Japanese (I passed it last millennium). There is a glass ceiling.
Also, since Japanese people don’t take JLPT (to my knowledge), most are unfamiliar with it.
I first started taking the exam in 2007 as a way to refresh my rusty Japanese, starting with level 5 (level 10 is the easiest, level 1 is for genii).
Over the years I have continued taking progressively harder levels of the exam, with some levels requiring repeated attempts, until finally I passed Level 2. This level is considered suitable for “people who have graduated (Japanese) high school.” Therefore, although I receive high praise from Japanese people for having passed level 2, I believe it means my kanji ability is equivalent to a high school graduate.
I can highly recommend the tests for people wanting to improve their Japanese. It definitely builds your vocabulary and comprehension skills. The language covered is by no means obscure. Some people see it as a fetish for Kanji nerds, but aside from level 1, the vocabulary tested is used in regular newspapers up to level 2 and encountered in more technical or literary writing in the case of pre-level 1. All very practical.
For me, it provides SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals to work towards, which is important for private study.
I’ll post soon about some materials and techniques I have used when studying for the exams.