It Started In Japan: A Brief History Of The Emoji
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It Started In Japan: A Brief History Of The Emoji

By ELIZABETH GIBSON for The J-Pop Exchange

Before there was the heart-eyed smiley face, the cheesy slice of pizza, and the smiling poo emoji, the original digital pictograph was creatively constrained to a mere 12 x 12 pixels.

Those first emojis were created in 1999 in Japan by designer Shigetaka Kurita. He created a set of 176 simple, pixelated versions of what we now use so commonly today, including a heart, a smiling cat, and a face with x’s for eyes.

Inspired by comics, weather graphics and street signs, the name for the alphanumeric images comes from combining the Japanese words for picture (e-) and character (moji).1 (The similarity of the word emoji to the English words emotion and emoticon was just a coincidence.)

Today’s emojis have come quite a long way from the more simplistic, pixelated, pre-21st-century versions designed by Kurita.

There are more than 2,700 emoji in the official Unicode list today, and new ones — like more gender-, religion- and racial-inclusive emojis as well as emojis to represent people who have disabilities — are being added every year.

Users are now able to search, at least on some devices, through the vast sea of emojis via a search bar. From phases of the moon to several different modes of transportation; from sports equipment to musical instruments; from everything over and under the sun, there’s pretty much an emoji for anything.

Emojis still have a strong anchor to Japan. There are several emojis that are specific to Japanese culture, including a map of Japan (๐Ÿ—พ) which, interestingly enough, is the only country to have its own map in emoji form; there’s a bowing businessman (๐Ÿ™‡); and there’s also a white flower (๐Ÿ’ฎ), which, while as seemingly common as a daisy, is actually used by teachers in Japan to mark the best school work.2 There are also, of course, many emojis representing popular Japanese foods, such as ramen noodles (๐Ÿœ), dango (๐Ÿก), onigiri (๐Ÿ™), Japanese curry (๐Ÿ›), and sushi (๐Ÿฃ).

Mostly, though, emojis have a way of transcending languages. For example, the red heart emoji (โค๏ธ) to an English-speaking person carries the same meaning to a Japanese-speaking person: love and adoration.

Emojis have gotten hugely prominent in daily communication in the past few years, too. Oxford Dictionaries named the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji (๐Ÿ˜‚) the Word of the Year in 2015. The emoji is currently used an estimated dozen times on Twitter every single second.

Some party-goers dress up as emojis for Halloween every year. Plenty of politicians use them during campaign season on social media as an attempt to encourage young voters to the polls. Many millennials even prefer emojis to spoken language.

But most people around the globe — at least those who often partake in social media and enjoy text messaging friends and family on the regular — use emojis just as they were intended almost two decades ago: as an extension of emotion to better convey communication.


1. Taggart, Caroline (November 5, 2015). "New Words for Old: Recycling Our Language for the Modern World". Michael O'Mara Books.
2. Danesi, Marcel (November 17, 2016). โ€œThe Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internetโ€. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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