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Emojis: A Story that Began in Japan




Emojis have imbedded themselves in our smart phone-obsessed culture. The Emoji Movie may have received a less-than-stellar critical review (currently holding an impressively low 8% on Rotten Tomatoes and stumbling its way into winning the Razzie for Worst Movie in 2017), but the symbols themselves continue to grow in popularity. 


They can represent anything from what you’d like for lunch to feelings of romance, travel plans, LGBTQ+ issues (see what occurred in China earlier this year), religious expression, and even national pride.


The Unicode Consortium—which includes the likes of Apple, Google, and Microsoft—currently lists 2,666 emojis. Make what you will of the number. Apple has recently proposed the addition of 13 new emojis that represent people with disabilities, while it spearheaded a 2016 campaign that “killed off” the gun emoji—metaphorically speaking, of course. It’s now a squirt gun.



However, this all begs the question: where exactly did emojis come from in the first place? This story, which I hope will be better received than the movie, began in Japan during the 1990s.




A Brief History of Emojis 💾


Back in a distant era when pagers were cool and Windows 95 had just launched, NTT Docomo, a Japanese mobile carrier, added heart symbols to let high school kids across the country personalize their messages on its extremely popular Pocket Bell device.


Before Docomo’s initiative, standard pager code was often used, playing off names in the Japanese numbering system. This can be somewhat confusing—basically the number nine can be read as either ku or kyu. Most numbers in Japanese have two readings, although some have three or more. So, the numbers 0906 would be read as o-ku-re-ru, the Japanese equivalent of “Running Late.” Other, usually more complex phrases involved counting letters. For example, 143 meant “I Love You.”



It is completely understandable that the heart symbol gained popularity with teenagers, who sent millions of messages daily. That being said, Docomo abandoned this feature in newer versions of the Pocket Bell.


A member of the company’s team named Shigetaka Kurita, who was working on i-mode (a project, which eventually became the world’s first widespread mobile internet platform), continued to see the importance of characters displaying contextual information for users. Working on a rather limited 12x12 pixel keyboard–like grid in the i-mode’s programing, he created a set of 176 emojis that displayed basic human feelings.



Going International 🌐


The originals of Kurita’s emojis can be seen in a permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He claims he was inspired by manga from his childhood, as well as by kanji. The name “emoji” originally meant pictograph—combining the Japanese words for picture and character—since that’s essentially what Kurita had designed. This differs from emoticons that popped up in the 1980s, which use punctuation marks, letters, and numbers to express feelings. Think of those as proto-emoji.



The growing popularity of emojis would see other Japanese carriers—like au and SoftBank—create their own version of these symbols. However, this resulted in a lack of uniformity, which only worsened as emojis expanded overseas. We’ve all seen those white blocks appear at least once while reading a message. It’s not the result of some alien language, however, but rather improper coding.


So, a consortium known as Unicode was established, which in late 2010 began to standardize emojis (and other images) for international use. Today, the Unicode Standard contains almost 137,000 characters, including thousands of emojis. Not all platforms have adopted Unicode, which means the occasional error still occurs, and the specific design of emoji characters can still be decided by software makers. This explains the differences that can be seen between Android and iPhone users. Thankfully, the Oreo update has improved the design for Samsung devices—even if the blob emoji was killed off.


Having originated in Japan, plenty of references to Japanese culture still can be seen through emojis. Let’s explore a few of these in a bit, or should I say 8-bit (really bad joke), more detail.



👹 Oni / Namahage

There’s a bit of confusion here, with some claiming this emoji represents a Japanese oni, a supernatural creature from Japanese folklore, and others pointing to a hefty ogre-like being from Akita Prefecture called a namahage. Officially, its Unicode name is “Japanese Ogre.”



Make of that what you will, but it does resemble the masks—which represent oni—worn by people for Setsubun, a holiday celebrating the new year according to Japan’s old, lunar calendar. Throw soybeans at it!


👺 Tengu

Supposedly the ghosts of angry or heretical priests, tengu are yet another emoji that can be classified as yokai, supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore. Originally, tengu had a bird-like appearance with feathers, but over time it was anthropomorphized, and the beak eventually became its outrageously long nose.


🎌 Crossed Flags

Japan is the only country to have two flag options: the standard variation and this one with two Japanese flags crossed at the base. It should be noted, though, that some Samsung devices previously displayed two crossed South Korean flags as well.


🗼 Tokyo Tower

Located in the nation’s capital, Tokyo Tower is the second-tallest structure in Japan, measuring some 332.9 meters tall. Its design closely imitates the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, which has caused some confusion among emoji users.



🎏 Koinobori

A streamer that represents a carp, which traditionally is flown to celebrate Children’s Day in Japan. The carp swimming upriver symbolizes the growth of a child. Usually, a flag is displayed for the father, mother, and each child, with color denoting their age.


🎋 Tanabata

Also known as the Star Festival, this Japanese holiday is based on Chinese folklore, which describes two lovers who can only meet on the seventh day of the seventh month. People often celebrate by going to festivals and writing poems or wishes on small, colorful pieces of paper called tanzaku, which are then hung on bamboo stalks.


🏮 Chochin

This red paper lantern resembles the kind hanging outside izakaya or small bars, which can be found across Japan. They often have a special kind of flowing calligraphy that is designed to attract more customers.


🍙 Onigiri

The quintessential onigiri or rice ball is a Japanese staple that can be found in convenience stores like 7-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart. However, higher-quality onigiri can be ordered from restaurants. Don’t believe what you probably saw on Pokemon during the 90s, this isn’t a donut.



🍣 Sushi

Another icon of Japanese cuisine, sushi generally consists of slices of raw fish on rice. However, plenty of variation exists—including vegetarian options!


🍥 Narutomaki

This pink, swirly thing is a fish cake typically found in bowls of noodles, like Tokyo-style ramen. Sometimes just called a naruto, it resembles the Naruto Whirlpools off the island of Shikoku and likely inspired the name of a certain manga character. Guess who?


🍛 Curry Rice

Okay, so it’s probably not the first thing you associate with Japan, but curry has become something like Midwestern comfort food in modern Japan. Originally introduced by the British—who borrowed from India—Japanese curry is often less spicy than its South Asian forbearer and comes with rice. That being said, you can always find exceptions to that “less spicy” rule.


Of course, there are even more Japanese-inspired emojis, from Mt. Fuji 🗻 to torii gates ⛩️, bento boxes 🍱, dango🍡, and ramen 🍜.



What’s your favorite and, with new emojis being added, what do you think should come next? Personally, I’m voting for a kappa emoji. Share your ideas using #NextEmoji on Twitter, for more details click here. 👈


Patrick Kelly is a reporter with JAPAN Forward. He currently is living in Tokyo, Japan.