The Colorful History of Emoji



Did you get that? Chances are you were able to piece together that those colorful graphics, or emoji, depict a trip to Japan. Fitting, seeing as emoji (which stems from the Japanese word for ‘picture’ and ‘character’) originated in Japan. 

Emoji are used all over the world, adding emotional depth — and oftentimes a bit of fun — to digital communication. From the classic ❤️ to the hilarious 😂, emoji denote sentiment that texts and other forms of messaging can otherwise lack. With vibrant colors and seemingly endless variety, emoji are immensely popular — and it’s an incredibly big deal that these tiny characters are usable across devices regardless of brand or location. 


The Birth of Emoji 📱 

Emoji should not be confused with emoticons (short for emotion icons), which repurpose existing keyboard characters to create expressions like: 8-D , :- ) , :- ( , and perhaps the most complex, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ . Emoticons originated in the United States; when in 1982, American computer scientist Scott Fahlman introduced them to help denote tone in digital communication — mainly so that people could recognize when another person was joking. 

The colorful and highly detailed emoji have an origin all their own. J-Phone, a Japanese cell phone company, released the SkyWalker DP-211SW in 1997, which came with 90 characters we would now consider to be emoji. At that time, the cell phone wasn’t widely popular and the tiny digital images didn’t take off — at least not yet. 

We owe thanks to Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita who in 1999 sketched a collection of 176 images with the idea that they could be selected from a keyboard-like grid and used to convey information in a simple, concise way. On the development team for an early mobile internet platform from Japan’s main mobile carrier, DOCOMO, Shigetaka’s idea took off. Shigetaka focused on clear communication, like weather, modes of transportation, numbers, and of course, the iconic ❤️.

With the boom of texting and other forms of digital communication of the early 2000s, emoji gained such popularity that companies like Apple and Google soon took notice. In 2010, approximately 700 emoji were accepted into the Unicode Standard — a text standard managed by the Unicode Consortium, which acts like a United Nations of coding to ensure devices from around the world can operate together. Thanks to emoji being added to the Unicode Standard, a 😄looks just as friendly on every cell phone. 


The Culture of Emoji 😊

Emoji change culture. With their prolific use and colorful charm, emoji eventually spilled out of the digital world and onto store shelves in the form of toys, household items, stickers, school supplies, clothing and more. In 2017, they were the main characters of “The Emoji Movie” and have even received the honor of their own day, World Emoji Day, which just so happens to be 📆(July 17th). The 💩emoji caused quite a stir — with younger generations finding it comical and older generations not always finding the same level of appreciation. Notably, the original set of 176 emoji are held in such high regard that they are housed in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. 

Culture also changes Emoji. Today, the emoji library has expanded far beyond even the 626 initially added to the Unicode Standard, let alone Shigetaka’s original 176. Numerous expansions to the library — at times because of calls from users seeking greater diversity — have led to the representation of more skin tones, religions, physical abilities, family structures and more.

The Emoji of Japan 🇯🇵

While traveling in Japan, it may be helpful to know the meaning behind certain emoji. As the country of origin, there are numerous emoji that specifically depict Japanese life and culture. Emoji also offer a few kanji characters, some of which may be helpful to travelers. 


Flying with ANA 

🧳💺🛫🛬: Luggage, an airplane seat and departing and arriving flights 

🇯🇵: The Japanese flag  

🗾: Map of Japan


Places to Go 

♨️: Onsen, or hot spring 

💠: The symbol of Kawaii 

🗻: Mount Fuji

🗼: Tokyo Tower

🏯: Shiro, or castle

⛩️: Torii, a gate marking the entrance to a Shintō shrine


Culturally Significant

🌸: Cherry blossom

👘: Kimono, a traditional form of attire

🎐: Fūrin, a glass wind chime

🎴: Hanafuda card, a type of card game

👹: Oni, an ogre found in folklore

👺: Tengu, a mischievous being found in folklore

🎍: Kadomatsu, a type of New Year decoration

🎎: Hinamatsuri, set out on Doll’s Day to honor the royal family

🎏: Koinobori carp streamers, used to celebrate Children’s Day

🎋: Tanabata tree, the symbol of the Tanabata, or Star Festival

🎑: Tsukimi, or moon viewing, is a festival to honor the autumn moon 

🏮: Izakaya, a lantern often hung outside of bars


Captioning Dinner

🍣: Sushi, specifically nigiri

🍜: Ramen, a noodle dish

🍙: Onigiri, a rice ball wrapped in nori (seaweed) 

🍱: Bentō box, a meal of rice or noodles, protein and assorted vegetables

🍤: Tempura, Fried shrimp

🍲: Nabe, or hot pot 

🍘: Senbei, a type of rice cracker

🍢: Oden, fishcake stew that is often served on a skewer as street food 

🍡: Dango, a type of rice dumpling

🍥: Narutomaki, a spiral fishcake

🍮: Purin, a sweet custard pudding

🍧: Kakigōri, or shaved ice

🍵: Matcha, a type of green tea

🍶: Sake, rice wine  



🙆: Maru gesture, which means OK or yes

🙅: Batsu gesture, which means not OK or no

🙇: Dogeza, bowing


Often Unrecognized 

📛: A kindergartener’s name badge 

🔰: New or beginner driver 

💢: Anger, as seen in manga, a type of comic book or graphic novel 



🈯: Shi, or reserved

🈚: Mu, or free of charge

🈲: Kin, or prohibited

🈳: Aki, or vacancy

🈺: Ei, or open for business

🈵: Man, no vacancy


Emoji are much more than charming, colorful characters that accent our text messages. Their story and purpose are rooted in an effort to offer clarity in digital communication — and they’ve become a global language used and enjoyed by people everywhere.