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How emoji conquered the world

The story of the smiley face from the man who invented it

In 1995, sales of pagers were booming among Japan’s teenagers, and NTT Docomo’s decision to add the heart symbol to its Pocket Bell devices let high school kids across the country inject a new level of sentiment (and cuteness) into the millions of messages they were keying into telephones every day. Docomo was thriving, with a bona fide must-have gadget on its hands and market share in the neighborhood of 40 percent. But when new versions of the Pocket Bell abandoned the heart symbol in favor of more business-friendly features like kanji and Latin alphabet support, the teenagers that made up Docomo’s core customer base had no problem leaving for upstart competitor Tokyo Telemessage. By the time Docomo realized it had misjudged the demand for business-focused pagers, it was badly in need of a new killer app. What it came up with was emoji.


Shigetaka Kurita is the man who created emoji, and during his time at Docomo he saw the shift happen first-hand. He was part of the team working on i-mode — a project that was just beginning to take shape, but would be the world’s first widespread mobile internet platform, combining features like weather forecasts, entertainment reservations, news, and email. i-mode would prove so popular that it would completely engulf the country, giving Japan’s mobile internet a nearly 10-year lead internationally. Initially, though, the i-mode team needed ideas, and in order to get a look at other work already being done on mobile internet applications, Kurita and others visited San Francisco in 1998 to check out AT&T’s Pocket Net.

It was the first service in the world to provide amenities like email and weather forecasts over a cellular network, and using AT&T’s new cellular digital packet data (CDPD) service, it was capable of transfer speeds of 19.2Kbps. (In comparison, an average US LTE connection today is around 9.6Mbps, or about 500 times faster). “At the time, the specs on the devices were really poor, so they weren’t able to display images, for example,” Kurita explains. Pocket Net had weather news, but things like ‘cloudy’ and ‘sunny’ were just spelled out in text. The lack of visual cues made the service more difficult to use than it ought to be, and Kurita recognized that AT&T’s mobile experience would benefit majorly from some extra characters to show contextual information.

The promise of digital communication — being able to stay in closer touch with people — was being offset by this accompanying increase in miscommunication

Windows 95 had just launched, and email was taking off in Japan alongside the pager boom. But Kurita says people had a hard time getting used to the new methods of communication. In Japanese, personal letters are long and verbose, full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions that convey the sender’s goodwill to the recipient. The shorter, more casual nature of email lead to a breakdown in communication. “If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling,” says Kurita. “You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head.”

Face to face conversation, and even the telephone, let you gauge the other person’s mood from vocal cues, and more familiar, longer letters gave people important contextual information. Their absence from these new mediums meant that the promise of digital communication — being able to stay in closer touch with people — was being offset by this accompanying increase in miscommunication.

“So that’s when we thought, if we had something like emoji, we can probably do faces. We already had the experience with the heart symbol, so we thought it was possible.” ASCII art kaomoji were already around at the time, but they were a pain to enter on a cellphone since they were composed with multiple characters. Kurita was looking for a simpler solution.

He just needed to create a complete set of 176 12-pixel by 12-pixel characters that could cover the entire breadth of human emotion

Not being a designer himself (he was an economics major), the young Docomo employee’s plan was to draft some ideas to show manufacturers like Sharp, Panasonic, and Fujitsu — large companies with the design resources to throw at the problem. But he was surprised to find that the they didn’t immediately share his zeal for the project. “They were like, ‘please, you design them.’ They had a lot of reasons — these were the first devices that supported i-mode, they didn’t have the resources, that kind of thing,” he explains. Faced with few options, he grabbed some paper and a pencil, gathered his team, and, without really knowing what he was doing, got to work. He aimed to create a complete set of 176 12-pixel by 12-pixel characters that could cover the entire breadth of human emotion.

For inspiration, Kurita looked to different elements of his childhood, including manga and kanji. “In Japanese comics, there are a lot of different symbols. People draw expressions like the person with the bead of sweat, you know, or like, when someone gets an idea and they have the lightbulb. So there were a lot of cases where I used those as a kind of hint and rearranged things.” From kanji, he took the ability to express abstract ideas like “secret” and “love” in a single character.


In order to display the glyphs, Docomo decided to exploit an unused region of the Shift JIS Japanese character encoding scheme. Each two-byte code would correspond to a unique image, all of which would come loaded on Docomo cellphones like any other character. Users would then be able to add them to their messages just by selecting them from a grid inside the mail app. Docomo wasn’t only targeting email with emoji, though — the easily accessible images also let content providers dress up their i-mode websites. Zagat and Pia were some of the first to provide content for Docomo’s experimental new service, entitling them to a special perk — their logos were part of the original set of emoji installed on the company’s phones, although they were removed after the first contract expired, a year or two later.

  • happy
  • surprised
  • smelly
  • dizzy
  • dirty
  • clean
  • nostalgic
  • hungry
  • sweet
  • aww
  • stuck
  • awake
  • sleepy
  • yuck
  • sour
  • shocked
  • intrigued
  • hurt
  • uncomfortable
  • tastey
  • good
  • relaxed
  • uneasy
  • bad
  • shy
  • sad
  • jolly
  • laughter
  • salty
  • nostalgic
  • cute
  • gross
  • tired
  • love
  • happy
  • surprised
  • smelly
  • dizzy
  • dirty
  • clean
  • aww
"the emoji would have been all mixed up and inconsistent, even inside Docomo."

With only a 12-by-12 grid to play with, Kurita had to be economical with the use of space in his designs, and the resulting characters were exceedingly simple. For example, the original grinning face has a rectangular mouth and upside-down Vs for eyes. The characters for “art” and “jeans” are barely recognizable. The bullet train is lopsided. In fact, the original emoji look so different from the yellow smilies that people outside Japan usually associate with the word, it’s a little surprising that they’re even considered the same thing. When I ask Kurita what he thinks of Professor Scott Fahlman, widely credited with inventing the emoticon, saying that emoji are ugly, he's quick to distance himself from other companies’ glossier creations. “Yeah… these are a little ugly, honestly,” he says. While AU and others tried to make their characters more like images, Kurita always envisioned emoji as symbols — something closer to letters, that wouldn’t feel out of place if you slipped them into a sentence. “I partly agree with what this guy is saying, but part of me wants to ask him, what about these?” says the designer, jokingly, as he points to his own, more restrained handiwork.

When he had the finished designs in hand, Kurita thought that the manufacturers that had rebuffed him earlier would be able to add some finishing touches, turning them into something more professional. “But every single one just took what we had and implemented it the way it was,” he says, laughing. “Then again, the good thing about that was that everyone’s emoji were identical. If each manufacturer had added its own originality to the characters, the emoji would have been all mixed up and inconsistent, even inside Docomo.”

That consistency wouldn’t last for long, though. Docomo wasn’t able to get a copyright on its emoji designs (“they’re only 12 blocks by 12 blocks,” the company was told), which meant that competitors AU and J-Phone (what would later become SoftBank) could have simply piggybacked on Docomo’s success when they launched their own emoji. Instead, they both decided to do their own thing, adding more (and more detailed) images, along with animation, in an effort to lock in customers. What could have been a single, uniform set of characters became a jumble of different proprietary approaches, and emoji sent from one carrier wouldn’t display on competitors’ phones. It wasn’t until 2005 that the three carriers began to map the incoming signals to their own character sets. Finally, in an overdue step toward standardization last year, AU decided to redesign its primary group of characters to look like the original Docomo designs, an effort that Kurita helped with. But even still, there are multiple sets of characters in the wild depending on your carrier and phone. Docomo’s expanded set numbers around 250, without counting animated characters. Some devices display more than 800.

“I’d really like to know to what degree they’re used in the same way, and to what degree there’s a local nuance."

As we talk more about standardization, I ask Kurita how he felt when he heard that emoji had been adopted into Unicode, the computer industry standard for encoding and displaying most of the world’s writing systems. He explains that, having already left Docomo, he was happy about the milestone, but disappointed that the various implementations were so fractured. And he’s not too crazy about the Unicode Consortium’s choices for designs. “KDDI decided to make all of its emoji the same as Docomo’s. It would have been great if they became the standard,” says Kurita.

But while Japan’s carriers haven’t managed to standardize on a single set of characters, it hasn’t stopped emoji from catching on overseas. Apple’s iPhone supported a variant of SoftBank’s emoji set beginning with the iOS 2.2 update, at least in Japan. But with the release of iOS 5 in late 2011, they made their real international debut. As people found out how to enable the characters on their phones, little pictures of guardsmen and faces with stuck-out tongues started sprouting up all over Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. Today, you see the characters everywhere — from the texts you get from your mom to projects and memes like Narratives in Emoji and Emoji Art History. Fred Benenson's Emoji Dick, an emojified version of the Herman Melville classic, was just added to the Library of Congress collection. And while the smileys in places like Google Talk and Skype are their own thing, they look similar enough to emoji to feel like part of the same expanse of yellow.

I ask Kurita how he feels about spawning an international movement. “I’m happy, but to be honest, it’s not something I’m really cognizant of. It’s just too big, you know,” he replies. He goes on to say that he’s curious how similarly the characters are used by people from different cultures. “I’d really like to know to what degree they’re used in the same way, and to what degree there’s a local nuance. I think the heart symbol is probably used the same way by everyone, but then there are probably things that only Japanese people would understand, or only Americans would understand… It would be great if we could compare, and have that lead to people starting to use things in the same way.” A kind of body language for the web. “The whole time, everyone has just been using these characters — I’d be really happy if I could do the opposite and learn from everyone else,” he says.

The allotted time is winding down, and Kurita has to get back to work, managing video game company Bandai-Namco’s push into web comics. As I get up to leave, I ask the creator of emoji the eternal question — what does it mean when a girl sends you a heart symbol in a text? “I wouldn’t know if she liked me or not,” says Kurita, laughing, “but I’d think it was a good thing. I wouldn’t think it was a negative.”