Former Senior Research Fellows  

Florian Coulmas

Director 2004-2014

( October 1st 2004 - September 30th 2014)


Research activities,   past and present

Current interests
My research about happiness is concerned with the influence of culture and language on empirical investigations and measurements. Some thoughts about the intellectual history of the concept of happiness in Europe and East Asia have been published in a little book entitled, Die Illusion vom Glück. Japan und der Westen, while an empirical project, jointly conducted with Wolfgang Jagodzinski, continues. It has often been argued that the East Asian understanding of happiness differs from that of Western societies because Asian societies tend to be more collectivist, while Western societies put a premium on individualism, and that, therefore, happiness in both cultures is difficult to compare. One way of investigating to what extent Western and East Asian societies differ with regard to happiness-related cognitions, evaluations and emotions is to examine lay theories of happiness. This project involves a survey about happiness carried out among Japanese and German students. Based on the results of the questionnaire and a Semantic Differential about 幸福な人and ein glücklicher Mensch it analyses the structure of beliefs about the causes of happiness and well-being.
Past work
Aging is central to human experience. As we grow up, we acquire language, and as we grow old, our language adjusts to changing requirements. In the process of being passed on from one generation to the next languages change. This is a well-known fact, true of every language. However, little is known about the actual process and velocity of linguistic change, whether some languages change faster than others, and, if so, why. Are a speech community's average age and life expectancy significant variables in this regard? The effects of demographic changes on language are largely unexplored.

Greying Japan now has the world's oldest population. How can the effects of the aging society on the Japanese language be observed, described and explained? Average life expectancy since Meiji has almost doubled. What is the impact of social aging on intergenerational communication, and how does it affect the extent of linguistic differences between co-existing age cohorts? These are questions of considerable theoretical interest. However, in the context of the all-encompassing transformation Japan is undergoing at the present time the effects on language constitute no more than a minor facet of a large picture. Yet, they highlight the pervasiveness of the ongoing changes that leave nigh on no arenas of social, economic, political and cultural life unaffected. The present transformation of Japan is driven by recent demographic trends: the democratisation of longevity and declining fertility. These trends are themselves the outcome of a complex interplay of social, economic, political and technological developments. The investigation of language change in aging Japan is just one small piece to a big jigsaw puzzle. The deeper currents of the big transformation we are witnessing today we can only understand by carefully looking at the pieces and trying to assemble them to yield the larger picture. In this sense I hope to contribute to DIJ's research focus, "Challenges of Japan's demographic change."

I studied sociology and general linguistics at Freie Universität Berlin with Renate Mayntz, Wolf Lepenies, Hans-Heinrich Lieb and Dieter Wunderlich from 1969 to 1974. During this time I spent a semester at Oberlin College, Ohio, studying logic and philosophy, assisted by a scholarship of German-U.S. student exchange. After receiving my Master’s degree, I had the opportunity to teach German linguistics at the Hiroshima University from 1975 to 1977 during which time I wrote my doctoral dissertation about language comprehension which I defended at the Bielefeld University, Werner Kummer being the chair of my committee. I then took a job as a Wissenschaftlicher Assistent in the Department of Linguistics of that university. In 1978 I was offered a five year-contract as an assistant professor at the Technische Universität Berlin which I turned down in favour of a research grant I received from the DFG (the German Research Foundation) for a research project on conversational routine in Japanese which I carried out at the Lehrstuhl (chair) of Dieter Wunderlich, General Linguistics, Düsseldorf University. The results of this project became my Habilitation dissertation which I defended in 1980. I was subsequently offered a tenured position at the same department which I kept until 1987.

During this time I helped initiate, together with Hartmut Günther, Konrad Ehlich and Otto Ludwig, a research group on writing and written language at the Werner Reimers Stiftung, Bad Homburg where we organized various workshops and met twice a year for a decade or so. With funding I received from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, I spent the three year-period from 1981 to 1983 at the National Language Research Institute (as it was called at the time, presently National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics) in Tokyo. Upon my return to University Düsseldorf (HHU) I was appointed professor.

A Heisenberg Fellowship by the DFG enabled me to spend the academic years 1984/85 and 1986/87 as a visiting professor at Gakushuin University, Tokyo, and Georgetown University, Washington D.C., respectively.

In 1987 I moved from Georgetown University to Chuo University, Tokyo, where I stayed until 1999. During this time I became a member of the founding committee of the Faculty of Policy Studies where I taught sociology of language and minority issues in the division of Cross-Cultural Studies from the time it first accepted students in 1993 until I retired from my post in 1999. The academic year 1994/95 I spent as a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Institute for Advanced Study.

In 1999 I moved to the Institute of East Asian Studies (InEast) of Gerhard Mercator University Duisburg (as of 2003 University of Duisburg-Essen) where I was offered a chair in modern Japanese studies, expecting to spend the rest of my academic career there. However, three and a half years later the opportunity arose to direct the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo (DIJ) which after serious consideration I decided to accept. In autumn 2004 I thus moved back to Tokyo.

Throughout the years I held part-time teaching positions in various academic environments, including Bielefeld University, University Düsseldorf, the Linguistic Society of America’s Summer Institutes at Georgetown University and The University of Arizona, The University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, University of Essen, Saitama University, The University of Tokyo, and Gakushuin University.

In 2004 I began my work at DIJ by gradually establishing a new research focus: Challenges of Demographic Change. For several years the general questions of which social and economic processes brought about and were affected by population dynamics dominated the institute’s research agenda, resulting in numerous publications.

It became clear as the result of our work that demographic ageing not just changed the population structure of Japan, but also had a bearing on the society’s wellbeing. I therefore launched another research focus entitled, Happiness in Japan: Continuities and Discontinuities, which was progressively established as of 2008.

During my tenure as director I reviewed grant proposals for various scientific organisations, including the German Research Foundation (DFG), Volkswagen Foundation, and the Danish National Research Foundation.


Most of my research revolves around the interaction of society, culture and language. The Sociology of language, literacy, writing in the electronic age, language politics, Japanese Studies, Ethnochronology, Demography, and population ageing and language are fields in which I have been or am actively involved.

Sociology of Language

My interest in literacy and writing is grounded in the study of diverse writing systems and the variable social conditions and cultural patterns of communicating with written language. Research in and about writing in South Asia, East Asia and in Western countries using the Latin alphabet has convinced me that social rather than linguistic variables determine literacy rates; which casts doubt on popular evolutionist theories that consider the Greek alphabet and its Latin derivative the inevitable apex of the history of writing. It has often been argued that the simplicity of the alphabet made mass literacy possible, although a causal relationship between the structure of writing systems and literacy rates is hard to establish. It is here that my research about the nexus of society and writing is localised.

Japanese Studies

In the field of Japanese Studies, I have a long standing interest in time, its cultural meaning, rhythms and social significance, as well as the time Japanese spend on various activities and on this planet. In the end, all of culture can be reduced to the description and analysis of how much time people spend doing what. The amount of time devoted to various activities changes, which is one way of describing how cultures change. The fact that nowadays the Japanese spend more time living than they ever did before has multifarious repercussions for society and culture. The coincidence of life expectancy gains, fertility decline and, of late, depopulation are the most consequential developments for Japan since World War II. They fundamentally change Japan’s economic dynamics and social structure with far-reaching consequences for the objective and subjective wellbeing of the population. These intricate mutual influences warrant thorough investigation. While similar developments can be observed in other highly advanced countries, putting a stain on public finances and forcing business practices to adjust, they have not led to cultural levelling. The transformation of Japanese culture in the hyper-aged society, therefore, continues to be a worthy object of study.


I am associate editor of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language and editor of Contemporary Japan. Journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo. I am also involved in five other journals, as a member of the editorial board: Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, Language Policy, Ebisu. Études japonaises, Writing Systems Research, and Scripta.

My publications include three textbooks for undergraduate and graduate level courses, Writing Systems of the World (Blackwell), Writing Systems. An introduction to their linguistic analysis (Cambridge UP), and Sociolinguistics. The study of speakers’ choices (Cambridge UP). My most recent book publications are a monograph, jointly written with Judith Stalpers, about the Great East Japan Earthquake, 3.11, Fukushima. Vom Erdbeben zur nuklearen Katastrophe (C.H. Beck, 2011) and a book about Writing and Society (Cambridge UP, 2013).

Since knowledge about Japan outside Japan is mainly restricted to specialists, I have also tried to devote some time to writing about Japan for a general audience, in books and for the media. A complete list of my publications is here.

DIJ Projects
Completed DIJ Projects


Tokio. Vom Glück urbanen Lebens. München: C.H. Beck. 240 p.
Writing and Society. An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press. 180 p.
Sociolinguistics. The Study of Speakers' Choices. Second Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press. 307 p.
Die 101 wichtigsten Fragen: Japan. München: C.H. Beck. 160 p.
Die Illusion vom Glück. Japan und der Westen (The Illusion of Happiness. Japan and the West). Zürich / Darmstadt: Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Primus Verlag. 112 p.
Sociolinguistics. The Study of speakers' choices. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. 263 p
Writing Systems. An introduction to their linguistic analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 290 p.
Die Deutschen schreien. Beobachtungen von einem, der aus dem Land des Lächelns kam. Reinbek: Rowohlt Verlag. 188 p.
Japanische Zeiten [日本の時間]. Eine Ethnographie der Vergänglichkeit [流動性の民族誌]. Reinbek: Kindler. 383 p.
Japan außer Kontrolle. Vom Musterknaben zum Problemkind. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. 142 p.
Das Neue Asien. Ein Kontinent findet sich selbst. Zürich und Frankfurt/M: Neue Zürcher Zeitung. 192 p.


International Journal of the Sociology of Language 224. Fluid Borders - Languages and Varieties in Flux. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 227 p.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 218. Language Identification Reconsidered. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 223 p.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 212. Untrodden Paths in Linguistic Identity Research. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 208 p.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 206. Challenges to Sociolinguistic Theory: Realiltiers on the Ground. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 292 p.
[With: Shōji, Hiroshi] Nihon no gengo keikan (Japan’s linguistic landscape). Tokyo: Sangensha. 206 p.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 199. Multilingualism and Language Politics: New Challenges. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 156 p.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 189. Authenticity and Linguistic Heritage in the Age of Globalization. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 174 p.
Language Regimes in Transformation. Mouton de Gruyter. 216 pages. Numerous fig.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 170. Focus on Africa: Sociolinguistic Changes in a Changing World. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter. 190 p
International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 2nd edition. "Writing and Literacy", Topic editor. New York: Oxford University Press.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language. Special Issue. Linguistic Choices by Individuals, Organizations, and Speech Communities . Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 237 p.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 152. Language Contact Issues.. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 146. Problems of Multilingualism and Social Change in Asian and African Contexts. . Mouton de Gruyter.
[With: Tiefenbach, Tim] Civil Society and Happiness: Japan and Beyond. In: Voluntas. February 2015, Volume 26, Issue 1 (Onlineversion: 10.10.2014). pp. 1-4.   DOI: 10.1007/s11266-014-9547-x
Writing systems and language contact in the Euro- and Sinocentric worlds. In: Applied Linguistics Review. 2014; 5(1). pp. 1-21.
[With: Guerini, Federica] Literacy and writing reform. In: Spolsky, Bernhard (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 437-460.
Social Practices of Speech and Writing. In: Hogen, Patrick Colm (Ed.) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 35-45.
Freiheit und Sitte. Aspekte der Naturkatastrophe in Japan. In: Lettre International 93. Sommer 2011. pp. 43-46.
[With: Lützeler, Ralph] Population Implosion: Coping with the Unknown. In: Coulmas, Florian; Lützeler, Ralph (Ed.) Imploding Populations in Japan and Germany. Brill. pp. 1-32.
The Bitter Fruits of Success. In: Schad-Seifert, Annette; Shimada, Shingo (Ed.) Demographic Change in Japan and the EU: Comparative Perspectives. Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf University Press. pp. 17-36.
The Ethics of Language Choice in Immigration . In: The Right to Move (Sophia University 12./13. December 2009 Conference Paper).
Back to the future: Literacy and the Art of Writing in the Age of Cyberspace. In: Consani, Carlo; Furiassi, Cristiano; Guazzellio, Francesca; Perta, Carmela (Ed.) Atti del 9˚ Congresso dell’Associazione Italiana de Linguistica Applicata. Perugio: Guerra Edizioni. pp. 93-113.
[With: Backhaus, Peter] Introduction: aging and language. In: Backhaus, Peter; Coulmas, Florian (Ed.) International Journal of the Sociology of Language 200. Social Aging and Language. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp.5-10.
Schatten von Nagasaki. In: Bigg, Charlotte; Hennig, Jochen (Ed.) Atombilder. Ikonografie des Atoms in Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit des 20. Jahrhunderts. Göttingen: Wallstein. S. 118-125.
Language and Economy. In: Li, Wei; Cook,Vivian (Ed.) Contemporary Applied Linguistics. Volume 2, Language for the Real World. London & New York: Continuum Int. Publishing Group. p. 28-45.
An Essay on the Question of Linguistic Identity. In: Inagaki, S.; et al. (Ed.) Studies in Language Sciences 8. Tokyo: Kurosio. p. 3-12.
Linguistic Landscaping and the Seed of the Public Sphere. In: Shohamy, E.; Gorter, D. (Ed.) Linguistic Landscape: Expanding the Scenery. London & New York: Routledge. pp. 13-24.
Milder Moloch. In: Rühle, Alex (Ed.) Megacitys. Die Zukunft der Städte. München: C.H. Beck. pp. 145-150.
The case for choice - language preferences in Japanese academic publishing. In: Coulmas, Florian (Ed.) Language Regimes in Transformation. Mouton de Gruyter. pp.155-172.
Abe Clausewitz. Japan vor der Änderung seiner pazifistischen Verfassung. In: Kommune 2/2007. pp.44-45.
Japan im demografischen Wandel: Kinderlos und ratlos . In: politische ökologie 104: Demografischer Wandel. Neue Spielräume für die Umweltpolitik. München: oekom verlag. pp.27-28.
Bevölkerungsalterung und sozialer Wandel: Stolpersteine auf dem Weg in Japans überalterte Gesellschaft. In: Japan nach Koizumi. Wandel in Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Baden-Baden: Nomos. S. 227-240.
Japan's Bid for a Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council. In: Schucher, Günter (Ed.) Asien Nr. 100, Juli 2006. Special Issue. Reflections on Asia in the 21st Century. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Asienkunde e.V.. pp. 18-22.
The power to choose and its sociolinguistic implications. In: Pütz, Martin; Fishman, Joshua A.; Neffvan van Aertslaer, JoAnne (Ed.) Along the routes to power : explorations of empowerment through language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 55-71.
Economic Aspects of Languages. In: Sociolinguistics. An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 1667-1674.
Changing language regimes in globalizing environments. In: Coulmas, Florian; Heinrich, Patrick (Ed.) International Journal of the Sociology of Language 175/176. Changing Language Regimes in Globalizing Environments: Japan and Europe. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 3-16.
Die Zeit in Engelbert Kaempfers Zeit. In: Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) und die kulturelle Begegnung zwischen Europa und Asien. Lemgo: Institut für Lippische Landeskunde. p. 169-184.
[With: Makoto Watanabe] Japan’s nascent multilingualism. In: Li Wei, Jean-Marc Dewaele, Elex Housen (Ed.) Opportunities and Challenges of Bilingualism. Berlin. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 59-62.
Der Westen auf dem Siegeszug? Das Internet wirft die Frage nach einer Universalschrift auf. In: Leseforum Schweiz. Bulletin 11. Zürich: Leseforum Schweiz. p. 11-14.
Monolinguistic Assumptions under Pressure – Perspectives on the language of Tokyo from the points of view of the economics of language and social psychology. In: Asien. Hamburg: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Asienkunde e.V.. p. 8-18.
Europa mit chinesischen Augen. In: DAMALS. Das Magazin für Geschichte und Kultur. Leinfelden-Echterdingen: Konradin Medien. p. 44-45.
Language masters: defying linguistic materialism. In: mouton classics – from syntax to cognition, from phonology to text. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 719-730.
Comment: Writing is crucial. In: Joshua A. Fishman (Ed.) International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 157. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 59-62.
Impacts of globalization on cultural identity. In: Wolfgang Dorow, Timo Parra, Yoshiaki Takashi (Ed.) A Cultural Forum - The Impact of Globalization on Cultural Identity in Business. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann. p. 30-37.
Sociolinguistics. In: Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller (Ed.) The Handbook of Linguistics. Malden, Massachussetts: Blackwell. p. 563-581.
Reviews in Academic Journals
Nanette Gottlieb. Language policy in Japan. The challengees of change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012. In: Coulmas, Florian (Ed.) International Journal of the Sociology of Language 218. Language Identification Reconsidered. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. S. 220-223.
Sealed for eternity? Review of ‘Unsealing the Indus Script. Anatomy of its Decipherment’. Malati J. Shendge. Niw Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2010, 402 p.. In: Writing Systems Research. Vol 2, No. 2, 2010. pp. 169-171.
Japan after Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present. Edited by Tomiko Yoda and Harry Harootunian. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2006. In: Pacific Affairs. Vol 80, No.1. pp. 105-106.
Roy Harris: Rethinking writing. London: Athlone; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. In: Written Language and Literacy. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 215-218.
Other Reviews
Takashi Nakanishi: Crime prevention pocketbook for the 60 plus. Tokyo: Shueisha shinsho, 2004. 203 p . In: DIJ Newsletter. Tokyo: Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien / Stiftung D.G.I.A.. p 6.
Working Papers
Scientific social responsibility and happiness.    Working Papers 13/3. Tokyo: Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien / Stiftung D.G.I.A.. 22 p.
The Quest for Happiness in Japan.    Working Papers 09/1. Tokyo: Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien / Stiftung D.G.I.A.. 31 p.
Newspaper Articles
Drei Jahrzehnten Asean. In: NZZ Fokus Nr 31. Asiatische Tigerstaaten. Im Windschatten der Giganten China und Indien. pp.8-11.
Hiroshima und Nagasaki. Über den ersten und einzigen Einsatz der Atombombe vor sechzig Jahren . In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Montag, 8. August 2005 Nr.182. p.23.
September 11th 2014
Time and Culture. Time and Culture.
May 23rd 2013 - May 25th 2013
Social commitment, market principles and happiness – the view of science. Civil Society, Political Participation and Happiness
November 10th 2011
Welcome remarks. Care Robotics in the Aging Society: Integrating Users, Developers and Technology
September 13th 2005 - September 14th 2005
The Case for Choice. Language Preferences in Japanese Academic Publishing. Language Regimes in Transformation. The Future of Japanese and German in Science, Economy and Politics
November 16th 2004 - November 17th 2004
Welcome Speech. The Normative Core of Modernity and its Cultural Contextualization
January 1st 1970
Time and Culture.
January 1st 1970
Time and Culture.


Curriculum Vitae


  • 1980
    University of Düsseldorf, Habilitation, venia legendi (qualification of full professor) General Linguistics
  • 1977
    University of Bielefeld, Dr. phil. General Linguistics
  • 1974
    Free University of Berlin, M. A. Linguistics and Sociology
  • 1972/73
    Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
  • 1969/70
    Sorbonne, Paris
  • 1968/69; 1974/75
    Free University of Berlin

Professional Experience

  • 2004 -
    German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo, Director
  • 1999 - 2004
    Professor of Japanese Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, University Duisburg-Essen
  • 1987 - 1999
    Chuo University, Tokyo, Professor of Sociology of Language
    University of New Mexico, Albuquerque Visiting Professor Summer of 1995
  • 1994/95
    Institute of Advanced Study, Berlin, Fellow
  • 1986/87
    Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Visiting Professor
  • 1984/85
    Gakushuin University, Tokyo, Visiting Professor
  • 1981 - 83
    The National Language Research Institute, Tokyo, Researcher and Lecturer
  • 1979 - 87
    University of Düsseldorf, Assistant Professor, Professor
  • 1977 - 78
    University of Bielefeld, Assistant Professor
  • 1975 - 77
    Hiroshima University, Lecturer

Academic Awards

  • 1994/95
    Fellow Institute of Advanced Study Berlin
  • 1983
    Heisenberg-Fellow of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
  • 1982
    Japan Foundation Grant
  • 1980
    Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
  • 1974
    Ph.D. scholarship, Free University of Berlin

Scholarly Journals

  • 2010
    Editor Contemporary Japan. Journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies
  • 2009
    Editorial board Writing Systems Research
  • 2007
    Editorial board Scripta
  • 2004
    Editorial board Journal of Language, Identity, and Education
  • 2003
    Editorial board Language Policy
  • 1999
    Editorial board Current Issues in Language Planning
  • 1997
    Editorial board Written Language and Literacy
  • 1988
    Editorial board Journal of Asian Pacific Communication
  • 1986
    Associate editor International Journal of the Sociology of Language
  • 1984
    Editorial board Journal of Psycholinguistic Research
  • 1981
    Editorial board Journal of Pragmatics