A post from Shady Characters

Emoji, part 1: in the beginning

This is the first in a series of thirteen posts on Emoji (😂). Continue to PART 2 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

Sex! Conflict! International standards bodies! The brief history of emoji is far more interesting than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be taking a look at where the world’s newest language* came from, how it works and where it’s going.

It started with a heart.

In the mid-1990s, Japan found itself in the grip of a pager boom. Sales of “pocket bells”, or poke beru,1 ran at over a million per year, with the country’s largest mobile network, NTT DoCoMo, taking the lion’s share.2 Elsewhere in the world, pagers were the preserve of businesses and hospitals where they called trauma surgeons to the emergency room or managers to the telephone. In Japan, however, pocket bells were increasingly sought after by teenagers: by 1996, almost half of all female high school students owned one, and peak pager hours had shifted from during the working day to the late evening, when the airwaves buzzed with teenagers’ illicit messages.3



Lippit, Tamiko. “Japan Teens Flip for Private Pagers”. International Herald Tribune.


Ito, Mizuko, Misa Matsuda, and Daisuke Okabe. “Youth Culture and the Shaping of Japanese Mobile Media: Personalization and the Keitai Internet As Multimedia”. In Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, 41-60. MIT Press, 2006.


NARRATOR: But is emoji really a language? Stay tuned. 

4 comments on “Emoji, part 1: in the beginning

  1. Comment posted by Adam Rice on

    At risk of being accused of a punctilious attention to detail (which would be completely out of place here), the first three digits in a 7-digit US phone number do not make up the area code, they’re the exchange, which is purely historical concept at this point.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Adam — thanks for the comment! I’ve updated the post to use “phone number prefix”. How does that sound?

    2. Comment posted by Phillip Helbig on

      Right. The seven-digit number can (and in many cases must) be preceded by three more digits; these are the area code.

      With regard to exchanges, originally 535 was JE5 (that’s why there are letters next to the numbers), for example JE standing for Jefferson Heights, the corresponding neighbourhood.

      555 is a common exchange in movies and television, because if a real number is used, there are enough bozos who will call it. Read up on 8675-309. :-)

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Phillip – thanks for the further clarification! Phone numbers (and postcodes) are fascinating studies in pre-computing systems design.

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