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

The first pagers were simple devices, designed only to receive numeric messages. The idea was that a sender would call a recipient’s pager at its own dedicated telephone number and then tap in their desired message as another string of numbers. This in turn would appear on the pager’s LCD display. Often, the message was as simple as the sender’s telephone number, but in the USA, where pagers had originated, younger users created a loosely-codified dialect comprising numeric codes, in-jokes, and more. “6000*843” can be just about read as “good bye”, for example; “99” meant “nighty night”; “831” (eight letters, three words, one meaning) stood for “I love you”; and so on.4

Across the Pacific, Japanese high schoolers had their own pager-cipher in which numbers could be pronounced either in Japanese or English to form sound-alike phrases. “724106” translated to “What are you doing?”, for example, while “114106” meant “I love you”.5,6 Still, though, there was demand for a more sophisticated pager experience. As such, when one of DoCoMo’s smaller rivals launched a 1995 model that could translate pairs of digits directly into Japanese characters, demand was so high that the company had to temporarily stop accepting new customers.3

DoCoMo had to respond. A year later, the larger company added a heart symbol to the repertoire of some of its pager models, and their younger customers went wild for it. Accessed by dialling “88” or “89” when leaving a message on a recipient’s pager, the heart became a fixture in high schoolers’ messages — but those same pager addicts were left bereft when, a few short years later, the ‘❤’ abruptly disappeared from the newest pagers. Some claim that DoCoMo ditched the symbol in order to attract more serious-minded business customers; others say that the heart took up valuable memory that was better used to support Japan’s expansive kanji script and the Latin alphabet. Subscribers did not care. They deserted DoCoMo in droves.7,8

In the event, DoCoMo’s unwonted heart surgery was the catalyst for something much larger. Elsewhere in the company, and aware that DoCoMo needed a new killer feature to replace the erstwhile ‘❤’, an engineer named Shigetaka Kurita was in the midst of developing the first mobile internet service for the operator’s cellphones. Kurita was disappointed by the drab, text-only applications available in the USA and elsewhere and dreamed of somehow elevating DoCoMo’s nascent “i-mode” internet service above these distinctly lo-fi offerings.8 But how? He looked to his environment for inspiration.

More so than in some other countries, Japanese culture and public life are suffused with visual symbolism. Comic books, or manga, are read avidly and universally, and many of them make use of common visual tropes that express concepts or states of being. An oversized drop of sweat on a character’s face represents anxiety or confusion; a lightbulb above their head is a moment of enlightenment. As the first host country in the modern Olympic era to use a non-alphabetic script, the Tokyo games of 1964 pioneered the use of symbols (🚴︎, 🚻︎, ⛵︎) rather than text to help foreign visitors find their way.10 And that same non-alphabetic script itself provided inspiration: in kanji, the ideographic script that Japan inherited from China, Kurita saw how powerful it was to be able to express complex ideas like “love” in a single character.11

Drawing on all these influences and more, Shigetaka Kurita designed a font containing one hundred and seventy-six monochromatic but lively icons — symbols such as smiley faces, thunderous clouds, cartoonish bombs and gibbous moons — and embedded it into DoCoMo’s new i-mode internet system. Emoji was born.8,12

NTT DoCoMo's original emoji
The original 176 emoji that have been added to The Museum of Modern Art’s Collection. (© NTT DOCOMO, Inc.)

Eyecatching though they were, Kurita’s creations were also a pragmatic addition to i-mode’s online services. On-screen menus used emoji to highlight paid services or train tickets; weather applications employed suns, clouds, umbrellas, snowmen and lightning bolts to provide comprehensive weather reports in a few lines of text; and 250-character limits on emails could be mitigated by judicious use of an emoji or two.14

Each symbol measured just twelve pixels by twelve — a scant one hundred and forty-four dots to represent a hospital, an incoming fax, or a movie camera — and some icons came out of Kurita’s digital wash cycle either shrunken or simply inscrutable. As such, when Kurita sent his finished designs to DoCoMo’s hardware partners for inclusion on their mobile phones, the response was tepid: Sharp, Panasonic, Fujitsu and others were more concerned with getting i-mode right than they were in polishing Kurita’s icons of cocktail glasses and snowmen. When emoji went out into the wider world as part of the launch of the i-mode platform, each of its symbols retained the same quirky, pixelated design in which Kurita had first drawn it.11

By contrast, DoCoMo’s competitors understood the promise of emoji right from the start and, moreover, saw that Kurita’s symbols could benefit from a nip here and a tuck there. Responding to the 1999 launch of the Fujitsu F501i, DoCoMo’s first i-mode smartphone and the first phone anywhere to support emoji,15 rival networks KDDI AU and J-Phone each duplicated Kurita’s uncopyrightable 12 × 12 icons before giving them fresh coats of paint and adding a few new symbols of their own.11 The rest is history: after a wildly popular debut, DoCoMo’s i-mode service finds itself today to be the AOL of Japanese mobile internet providers, active only in its home market and largely the preserve of the over-50s. Emoji, on the other hand, were a bona fide hit. The affair of the heart was forgiven.

As a postscript, the pagers that sparked the emoji boom have themselves been memorialised in emoji form. The ‘📟’ icon has its own unique number on each major emoji platform: Apple, Facebook and Mozilla all display telephone numbers starting with Hollywood’s favourite fictional phone number prefix: “555-3215”, “555-1212” and “555-5555” respectively; Google’s pager reads “88888”, mimicking an LCD display with all of its segments turned on; and Samsung’s displays “SUNMOON”.16 Twitter’s pager emoji has a more substantive message: “40404” was and is the SMS number via which many Twitter users interact with the service.17,18

Nicholas D. Kristof, “Japan’s Favorite Import From America: English”, The New York Times, 1995. 
Tamiko Lippit, “Japan Teens Flip for Private Pagers”, International Herald Tribune, April–1995. 
Mizuko Ito, 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, 2006, 41-60. 
Joe Mozingo, “Teens Create Language of Pager-Speak”, Los Angeles Times, November–1997. 
“Goroawase: Japanese Numbers Wordplay”, Tofugu, 2011. 
Adam Pasion, “Nippon’s Digital Numerology: The Pocket Bell”, Japan Daily, 2015. 
Colin M. Ford, “Emoji: A Lovely History – Making Faces (and Other Emoji) Part 1”, Medium, 2016. 
Justin McCurry, “The Inventor of Emoji on His Famous Creations – and His All-Time Favorite”, The Guardian, October–2017. 
“Tokyo Telemessage Seeks Protection from Creditors”, Japan Times, May–1995. 
Shigetaka Kurita, Mamiko Nakano, and Mitsuyo Inaba Lee, “Why and How I Created Emoji”, Ignition
Jeff Blagdon, “How Emoji Conquered the World”, The Verge, 2013. 
Mayumi Negishi, “Meet Shigetaka Kurita, the Father of Emoji”, Wall Street Journal, March–2014. 
“Emoji”, Oxford Dictionaries
“生みの親が語る「ケータイ絵文字」14年の軌跡と新たな一歩”, Nikkei Trendy, 2012. 
Taro Matsumura, “F501i, the First Smartphone in Japan 1999”, Mobile Native, 2009. 
Jeremy Burge, “Pager Emoji”, Emojipedia
Dom Sagolla, “How Twitter Was Born”, 140 Characters, 2009. 
“About Supported Mobile Carriers”, Twitter Help Center
NARRATOR: But is emoji really a language? Stay tuned. 
Tokyo Telemessage, the rival whose wildly successful katakana pagers had prompted DoCoMo to add the ‘❤’ in the first place, kept the symbol as part of their pagers’ repertoire even as DoCoMo abandoned it. Ironic, then, that Tokyo Telemessage went bust in the same year that DoCoMo’s emoji-capable Fujitsu F501i arrived to save its 🥓.9 
The word is Kurita’s own, marrying e for “picture” and moji for “character”.13 

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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