Writing in 2014 for New York Magazine, journalist Adam Sternbergh memorably described emojis as an invasive cartoon army of faces and vehicles and flags and food and symbols trying to topple the millennia-long reign of words’. While he was being tongue-in-cheek, there’s no doubting the seismic impact these quirky little symbols have had on mass communication in the 21st Century. Yet, their origins actually go right back to the late 1990s, when ingenious innovators in Japan started to experiment with a whole new system of electronic expression.
Of course, before emojis there were emoticons – rough approximations of facial expressions made using standard characters on a keyboard. Think the ‘:-)’ smiley face. These have been with us a lot longer than many might imagine. In the late 1960s, Vladimir Nabokov – famously highbrow author of Lolita and other landmark novels – mused that ‘I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.’ Fast forward to 1982, and American computer scientist Scott Fahlman originated and popularised the first emoticons as we know them today. He suggested they be used as ‘joke markers’ so people’s tones wouldn’t be misunderstood on early computer network bulletin boards.
So did emojis naturally and directly evolve from emoticons? Not quite. For one thing, emoticons originated among computer scientists in the United States, while emojis were born in Japan. Contrary to popular belief, the words don’t share the same root either. While emoticon is a contraction of ‘emotion icon’, the word emoji has nothing to do with the English word ‘emotion’, stemming instead from the Japanese for ‘picture’ and ‘character’.
The general consensus is that emojis were pioneered on an early mobile phone released by Japanese company J-Phone in 1997. This phone, the SkyWalker DP-211SW, came loaded with 90 examples of what we would now call emojis – including the now-iconic smiling face. However, as that phone didn’t really sell widely, this was not the start of the age of the emoji. And, as the identities of the designers behind these early J-Phone pictographs remain obscure, the historical limelight has instead fallen squarely on Shigetaka Kurita, the man who really set the emoji train in motion.
In the late 90s, while working at another Japanese telecommunications company called NTT Docomo, Kurita became involved in the launch of an innovative mobile Internet platform called i-mode. The service would allow users to access emails, news bulletins, weather forecasts and games on their mobile devices, and Kurita thought it would be beneficial to offer a series of images users could send as a form of shorthand.
He came up with 176 such images – a remarkable feat of single-handed creativity. While the J-Phone set may have come first, Kurita’s creations are regarded as the first emojis to truly ‘take off’ and set us on the path to the emoji-filled world we inhabit today. Such is the significance of Kurita’s original set that it has since been added to the collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Speaking to CNN in 2018, book publisher Jesse Reed emphasised the greatness of Kurita’s achievement, saying: ‘If you were given the challenge of translating 176 ideas, including people, places, emotions and concepts into 12-bit symbols, all within 5 weeks time, most designers would faint at the idea.’
Only a few of Kurita’s emojis depicted facial expressions – most of his set was given over to symbols relating to sport, the weather, and the like. This was because it was primarily intended as a way for users to quickly convey tangible information to others, rather than garnish their texts with quirky signifiers of mood and emotion. But, as i-mode took off and emojis became hugely popular in Japan, things slowly evolved.
Soon, the likes of Apple and Google began to incorporate emojis into their operating systems. The Unicode Consortium – a regulatory body which standardises how text is represented across different software platforms – officially recognised emoji characters in 2010, heralding a massive, global rise in emoji use.
Since then, emojis have become important enough to attract their share of controversy and critical debate. For example, headlines were made when major tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple decided to replace the realistic gun emoji with a cartoonish water pistol emoji – a reaction to widespread anxieties about school shootings and gun violence in general. There has also been much discussion about how to improve diversity and inclusivity in the world of emojis – both in terms of representing different ethnic backgrounds and also having a fair spread of cultural signifiers, such as foods from across the world.
The story of emojis is far from over, with many more symbols to be added in the years to come, and greater layers of complexity sure to be added. Its huge significance is an affirmation of how the craftsmanship spirit is part of Japanese history, and continues to make its mark on the world.