• Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Main guest

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.


June 16, 2016


*You will leave the NHK website.

What’s in an emoji? Well, as host Peter Barakan learned in this edition of Japanology Plus, quite a lot, actually.

Complexity begins with the word itself, which is sometimes erroneously used as a blanket term to cover all sorts of visual devices used in text-based online communications.


In the late 1990s Japanese mobile providers developed an extensive range of emoji icons.

Let’s begin with a little clarification. “Emoji” refers to single-character-sized graphic design elements such as the smileys and other pictographs that nowadays come installed with the text-input systems of most mobile telecommunications devices.

This globally recognized term gives away this technology’s roots in Japan by combining the Japanese for “picture” (“e”) and “letter” (“moji”). The earliest emoji as we know them today was a simple heart icon that emerged from Japan’s 1990s pager boom. The palate was broadened later in the decade as internet-ready cellphones emerged.

“Emoticons,” meanwhile, employ letters, numbers and punctuation marks to create pictures that lend character to a message. As they are used across much of the world, these will typically be rather simple constructs, presented side-on to the body text, such as :-) for a smiley face, or :-( for a frown.

The Japanese emoticon palate, though, is much larger and more dynamic, and centers predominantly around “kaomoji,” which represent faces.

Since the earliest confirmed usage of (^_^), a rather bashful-looking smile, on computer bulletin boards back in 1986, imaginative netizens have come up with complex assemblages to communicate almost any action or sentiment you can imagine.

When running late for a meeting with a friend, you might suffix your message with ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=┌(; ̄◇ ̄)┘to indicate you are making every effort to get there as quickly as possible.

When someone has failed to respond to your last couple of texts, ┃  ┃ω・`) pictures you peeping round a corner, wondering what they are up to.


Three cheers for emoticons (or kaomoji).


Many mobile devices in Japan now come pre-programmed with numerous emoticons for one-touch use.

Whereas once such images would have been painstakingly entered one character at a time, various websites gradually arose to spare users’ aching thumbs with copy-paste ready examples, and the Japanese text-input system of most mobile devices now features a hearty selection of one-touch emoticons.

Finally, “stickers” (known as “stamps” in Japan) are a more recent phenomenon, which today’s expert, our regular reporter Matt Alt, sees as the next step in the evolution of emoji.

These pictures have become the new lingua franca of instant messaging services, and, unlike emoji, offer the expressive use of well-known characters, along with the original creations of less-well-known designers, including many amateur-turned-pros.


Stickers are a common feature of many instant messaging services. 


Many users freely mix stickers and emoji in their communications.

Emoji, emoticons, stickers. All three either have their origins in Japan, or evolved to become what they are now amid this nation’s unique digital ecosystem.

Before the smartphone era, the term “garakei” (Galapagos mobile) was coined to refer to the fast-paced evolution of cellphones in the isolation of the Japanese market, but is there a deeper cultural dimension at work?

Along with their love of all things cute, the people of Japan are known for a strong visual sensibility. Not only has the aesthetic language of manga and anime become widely recognized and co-opted around the world, Japanese design and fashion also enjoys a very positive reputation.

And thanks to the multitude of ideographic radicals that make up the kanji characters that form the centerpiece of the Japanese language, a strong pictographic element comes naturally to the written word.


Matt fills Peter in on the background of emoji and their cousins, emoticons and stickers.  

There are also historical precedents for complex design motifs filling in in the absence of words -- in part four of this series of Japanology Plus we learned about the crests once used in lieu of family names by much of Japan’s populace.

Add to this the context-dependent, often ambiguous nature of the Japanese language, with its tendency to omit presupposed information, often right down to the grammatical subject and object of a sentence.

While lengthier writing provides enough background information to skirt misunderstandings, and direct conversation -- either in person or over the telephone -- enables listeners to glean supplementary hints from a host of non-verbal cues such as facial expression or tone of voice, the truncated nature of discourse in the information age presents extended scope for confusion to arise. 

The earliest text-based mobile communications devices such as pagers and SMS-ready mobile phones forced users to work within a character limit, and this tendency has continued with the favored brevity of mobile messaging and even certain microblogging platforms.

How to make sure the subtler nuances and emotional intent of your missive are adequately communicated? That’s where emoji, emoticons, and stickers come in.

And even without the availability of colorful stickers and emoji, good old-fashioned text-based emoticons can add bundles of personality and emphasis to even the most mundane day-to-day conversations.

Take, for example, the following exchange between Okasan (mom) and her (presumably teenage) son Hiroshi about tonight’s evening meal:


Hiroshi:  I’m really hungry. ~(´Д` )
                What’s for dinner tonight??
Okasan:  Tonight it’s curry! (^_−)−☆
Hiroshi:  Yessss! (^O^)/
Okasan:  Made with Omi beef!
              ♪( ´ ▽ ` )
              Although I did use your
              pocket money for that! ψ(`∇´)ψ
Hiroshi:  ∑(゚Д゚)

The final entry is the perfect example of emoticons being used to convey something that can not be neatly encapsulated in words, in this case Hiroshi’s open-mouthed horror at the seeming trade-off of his allowance against a tasty supper.

Even in the digital age, Japan, it would seem, truly is the country of nonverbal communication. But let us hope that Hiroshi didn’t arrive home to present his own silent-yet-furious recreation of the “chabudai gaeshi” (table flipping) emoticon!


“That does it!”

*You will leave the NHK website.