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What Are Emoji and Where Did They Originate?

If you have been on any social network or sent a text message at any time in the last five years, you must have seen emoji. But do you know what they are or where they came from? I must admit I didn’t until I began researching this piece. I was actually surprised by what I found.

We all use emoji, whether to express our feelings, call someone a jerk without actually saying it or something else. They are huge, used millions of times per day by pretty much everyone on every social network and cell service in the world.

What are emoji and where did they come from2

What are emoji?

Emoji and emoticons are different. That is the first thing I learned. Emoticons have been around much longer than emoji and are made up of keyboard characters. Emoji are graphical images that have been specially designed. An obvious difference when you think about it.

Then there were Wingdings. Do you remember those strange Microsoft symbols introduced in the 1990s to allow keyboard users to express different things using symbols? Much less successful and now pretty much disappeared from the human consciousness. They are similar to emoji but not quite there.

The original emoji were designed by one guy, who I will discuss further in a minute. Once incorporated into the global protocol standard, other artists and designers began designing their own emoji with their own style and flair. This snowballed until present day where there are literally millions of different emoji encompassing every possible emotion and more besides.

Where did emoji come from?

As the name suggests, the origin of emoji is Japanese. According to Android Authority [1], the Unicode Consortium, the global organization that oversees communications protocols brought an existing niche idea from Japan and standardized it so everyone can use it.

An enterprising engineer who worked at NTT DoCoMo (large Japanese cell provider) by the name of Shigetaka Kurita designed a set of Manga-oriented mages to use alongside standard text messages to express different ideas and emotions. He was working on i-mode [2] which is a Japanese version of mobile Wi-Fi.

Japanese culture dictates long-winded letters full of honorifics and fluff before you get to the heart of the matter. This obviously wouldn’t work for SMS, so Kurita came up with emoji as a solution. A single graphical icon that summed up a single or collection of emotions to convey feeling fast and for a medium with character constraints.

A stroke of genius really. Apparently, the name comes from ‘picture’ (e) and character’ (moji). More detail on how Kurita developed emoji can be found on Storify [3].

Kurita did this back in 1999 and it wasn’t until much later, when the Unicode Consortium got around to standardizing Japanese protocols that they discovered a whole new set of expressions that they hadn’t come across before.

The Unicode Consortium takes regional messaging systems and aligns them into a global standard. This allows someone in China to message someone in Chattanooga and their respective phones to be able to make sense of things. It is a machine code standard that ensures computers and electronic devices can communicate regardless of the language being used.

What are emoji and where did they come from3

How did emoji get to America?

The Unicode Consortium decided to include these very niche characters into the protocol standards and there they sat unnoticed until Apple came along in 2007.

Apple wanted to leverage the iPhone in the notoriously tough Japanese technology market and wanted a secret weapon to help do that. They included emoji into iOS and things began to change. Fast.

As more people began using emoji, more people became aware of them. Other handset manufacturers adopted them. Android adopted them, Microsoft Phone adopted them and they quickly became ubiquitous across electronic devices. Apple lost the edge of being the only phone to include them but it gave them enough of a head start to make inroads into the Japanese market.

While there is a global standard for emoji, the graphical interpretation can differ. Different companies and designers create different icons for the same thing so while the overall meaning is the same, the actual graphics will change depending on how the artist or organization interprets the idea. So far, most emoji you can find online keep the original intent front and center.

So it is safe to say that emoji are graphical devices to express emotion without saying it. But what they mean is entirely down to how they are used and the two people using them. They are fantastic for fast messages that say so much more. It is such a simple idea, yet so powerful. I mean, where would text messaging be without them?