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The History of Emoji

Majority of us use emoji in our everyday lives. They’re handy when you can’t express feelings into words, convenient when you’re running out of character space, entertaining to use, and so much more. The use of emoji have become part of messaging culture but really, are people aware of their history? Read on to find out!

Let’s get things straight first — what is an emoji exactly? You’re probably thinking right now, aren’t emoji the same as emoticons? Well, I’ve got some big news for you. Emoji are entirely different from emoticons. Emoji makes use of images and symbols rendered on devices while emoticons, on the other hand, are expressions created with keyboard characters.

The emoji was first created in Japan by Shigetaka Kurita in 1998. According to an interview with The Guardian, Shigetaka Kurita was working in NTT DoCoMo and spent about two years crafting the first emoji for the company’s launch of i-mode, their mobile internet system. Kurita then explained that before mobile phones, pagers called Pocket Bell saw prominent use in Japan. They were highly popular among the youth, mainly due to the inclusion of a heart symbol.

When DoCoMo released a more professional, business-like version of the Pocket Bell and removed the heart symbol, their sales dropped, and customers left for other carriers. It was then that Kurita realized how valuable symbols were in messaging.

Kurita took inspiration from the symbols used in weather forecasts and from the Kanji characters used in Japan. The word “emoji” is a combination of the Kanji “?” or “e” which means picture, and “??” or “moji” which means character. Combining those then, we end up with the meaning of “picture character”.


(The first emoji set via MoMa)

In the interview, Kurita noted that “At first, there were about 200 emoji, for things like the weather, food and drink, and moods and feelings. I designed the ‘heart’ symbol for love. Now there are well over 1,000 Unicode emoji.”

Since the 200, 12×12-sized pixel emoji were too simple, DoCoMo wasn’t able to secure a copyright, and so, telecommunication companies in Japan began offering emoji as well. Japanese users appreciated how cute the characters were and how emoji made it possible for them to convey their feelings without words.

When Apple’s iPhone was about to go on sale in Japan, Masayoshi Son, the president of SoftBank, made a direct request to Steve Jobs to make the iPhone capable of inputting emoji. It wasn’t until 2011 when the emoji keyboard in iOS became available worldwide. Katy Perry’s 2013 lyric video for her song “Roar” also had a hand in making emoji popular outside Japan.

It’s been years since emoji came to worldwide prominence and until now, most of us make full use of them. Every year, more and more emoji are approved and added into the Unicode Consortium’s emoji list. They just announced an additional 230 characters to the emoji list of 2019. Users are becoming incredibly creative with their emoji use, and there’s no doubt they’ll get to do more with the new emoji sprouting up.

We hope that enlightened you about the roots of emoji! Are there any histories of tech you want us to discuss? Let us know in the comments!


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