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.
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.