To many of us, even those of us who have lived in a country heavily influenced by Japanese culture, Emoji – a colorful symbol alphabet that contains nearly a thousand images of cute animals, food items and expressive smiley faces can sometimes convey what words cannot – are a confusing mess of overly cute meaning that can often lead to miscommunication.
“In Japan, there was a similar, interesting moment when you started to see older folks and men start using these kind of cute aspects — these emoji — that originally came from middle-school girl, mobile-phone culture,” said Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies how young people use digital media in Asia and the United States. “Now, as emoji are seeing more adoption in the U.S., you’re seeing a form of communication being used that was clearly developed and marketed to a different demographic.”
Emoji date back to 1995, when people used pagers instead of smartphones and NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s biggest cellular phone operator, added a small heart icon to its pagers. The heart spread rapidly among Japanese teenagers because it allowed them to express an emotion that was almost impossible to portray in small snippets of text.
“We discovered that in the Asian culture, the expression on an emoji face isn’t necessarily what conveys emotion. It’s the context of where that face is located,” Mr. Marra said.
In Asian cultures, an emoji face in dark clouds would show that someone is sad and having a bad day. A face on a beach with the sun glaring means they are happy. In the United States, the emotion on the face tells the story, not the surroundings. Also, “stars for eyes could mean something completely different in Asia than using dots for eyes,” he said.