Geeks logo

History of Emoji

The history of emoji shows just how large an impact technology has had on language.

By Stephen HamiltonPublished 8 years ago 5 min read

Emoji, those adorable little smiley faces or other symbols that are used for messaging, are swiftly dominating global communication. The seemingly innocuous pictures are often scoffed at for serving as the bulk of Millennial conversation, but abbreviations like “IDK” and “NSFW” have even become common articles for older cell phone-toting adults.

However, emoji, like many aspects of mobile technology, have their roots in Japan and have made talking with someone who does not speak your language much easier than we could have ever imagined. Whether it’s the seemingly bizarre “poop head” or those nifty Facebook stickers that appeared out of nowhere, emoji and emoticons have taken over the world after gaining momentum as Asia’s technological hieroglyphs.

Emoji Inventor Shigetaka Kurita

Image via Swift Key

Emoji were created in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, a developer of the i-mode project at NTT DoCoMo, a leading Japanese mobile company. At the time,Japan was transitioning from the use of pagers to feature phones, devices that resembled pared-down flip phones, while providing limited internet service.

Using a feature phone was almost as cumbersome as trying to type out a message on a pager, where numbers were used to represent letters. There were few symbols on most pager models, with the exception of hearts on some import models. Meanwhile, feature phones had small screens and information, like the weather, was expressed in words like “fine.”

The word emoji (stylized 絵文字) originally meant pictogram, a symbol that can be used to convey meaning due to its similarity to a physical object like icons on computers, but pictograms are also universal symbols like the male/female figures that represent bathrooms, whether you are in the US or a South Korean airport. Kurita was inspired by pictograms, the hearts used on pagers, and symbols that represent weather forecasts on Japanese television, to create emoji.

He also incorporated the symbolic language that is used in manga, where wide eyes can represent feelings of surprise. “Therefore, I started thinking that having pictures that can show expressions like hearts would be important for i-mode too,” said Kurita, in an interview with Ignition. “I passionately proposed to add emoji to i-mode.”

Emoji Take Over Japan

Image via Daily Dot

Early sets of emoji were used on Japanese phones but did not have the explosive reception of their present-day successors. Instead, many people continued to use symbols formed with text or emoticons, that were like pared down versions of ASCII art. Japanese students and housewives alike would express their enthusiasm with adorable text-based emoticons like o(*^▽^*)o , a figure which closely resembles Jigglypuff of Pokemon fame or the faces of thrilled characters in manga (Japanese comics).

Other parts of Asia adopted their own stylized mobile shorthand, including Korea, where ^_^ or ^^ continue to be widely used in messages, as a sign of happiness. In similar fashion, Americans would incorporate ASCII art in mid-90s email headers and signatures, adding whimsical touches like :) to communication that was delayed by dial-up modems.

Whimsy and kitsch are often frowned upon by Western society as childlike, but Asia fully embraces both concepts. In Japan, the word kawaii (かわいい) which literally means radiant face, is used to describe all things cutesy. Koreans use the word aegyo (애교) to describe adorable gestures (like making a heart by placing both hands together) facial expressions (batting one’s eyes flirtatiously) and vocalizations.

Cute Kawaii Culture Dominates the Internet

Image via Adweek

Kawaii is not limited to Hello Kitty and aegyo is not relegated to the world of K-pop (Korean pop), which explains some emoji that are baffling to many international mobile users, like the “poop head.” For example, Western audiences have placed negative connotations on the poop character, which was initially used to wish someone good luck or included in a message as a sign of good fortune.

"Before the digital age, it was still fairly common in Japan to look to deities known as banjo-gami, or privy gods, by keeping figures on top of or underneath the loo,” noted Dazed writer, Claire Marie Healy, in an article titled, "What does the stinky poop emoji really mean?"

"Gold poop charms are popular good luck tokens in Japan, as are sweets that resemble that Smiling Pile of Poop emoji."

In a similar vein, global expansion of emoji use increased calls for representation of different skin tones, beyond symbols depicting Caucasians, which were widely used even in Japan, Korean, and Chinese-speaking countries. Apple responded to the overwhelming feedback of its loyal legion of users by launching a diversity-focused line in February 2015.

Emoticons have also evolved over the years, thanks in part to the success of free international calling and messaging apps like LINE and KakaoTalk. They’re basically like WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, but their reliability as a free international phone both within and outside of Asia sets them apart from their contemporaries.

Line Spreads Emoji's Across the Globe

Image via LINE Corp

LINE is another wonder that is straight out of Japan, but with roots within the Korean company Naver, whose premiere product is a search engine similar to Google. In June 2015, LINE launched a keyboard app that features over 3,000 emoji and stickers, their equivalent of emoticons. While they are recognized for their adorable characters like Brown, KakaoTalk is blazing trails with emoticons that allow users to express their feelings with hilariously captioned photos of their favorite Korean pop, drama, and variety show stars.

The sense that emoji have become lost in translation is likely experienced by early adopters and those who feel that they are being overused, especially if they watch shows like Comedy Central’s @midnight, where Chris Hardwick delivers laughs with raunchy emoji mash-ups. Many have aptly questioned if emoji are contributing to the destruction of the English language. They cite the fact that, to millions of Millennials, text messages aren’t complete without the use of an eggplant emoji or, at least, a dozen smiley faces. This form of communication has been met with a lot of opposition because it has been argued that the use of emoji is ruining the English language.

This perspective is one that is experienced by both English and non-English speakers. However, the simplification of language through technology has its benefits, as long as users maintain the knowledge that “WTF smiley, smiley” is not always the most appropriate shorthand. Emoji rely on the assumption that the person who receives the message has the full understanding of the meanings of each symbol. What may be fine to use on Facebook or a dating app may not be the best way to reach out to a co-worker or grandparent. Drawbacks aside, emoji have completely taken over the way in which humans express their feelings, whether they are happy or grumpy because they have not had enough coffee.


About the Creator

Stephen Hamilton

Definitive movie buff. Quickly realized that it was more financially prudent to write about film than trying to beg for millions of dollars to make his own.

Enjoyed the story?
Support the Creator.

Subscribe for free to receive all their stories in your feed. You could also pledge your support or give them a one-off tip, letting them know you appreciate their work.

Subscribe For Free

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

    Stephen HamiltonWritten by Stephen Hamilton

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.