Kaomoji history in a nutshell

If you have any Japanese friends that you correspond with through internet, it should be no secret that most Japanese love to use emoticons. With chat applications as LINE providing an amazing range of stamps and even the opportunity to create your own originals, things only become crazier from now on. And only to think that it all started with some simple combinations of symbols typed out on the keyboard. Yes 🙂 and (^_^) , I am talking about you guys!

The first use of emoticon dates bake to a time when the internet did not exist yet as we know it today. Communicating with text by a computer was something completely new, and sometimes resulted in conflicts, as it was hard to tell if someone was serious or not just by reading the text. That’s why in 1982, Scot Fahlman was the first to propose the use of emoticons.  🙂 was to be used for something that was meant as a joke, and 🙁 for something that was not. This marked the start of western emoticons as we know them today.

4 years later,  the first Japanese emoticon was put on screen by Yasushi Wakabayashi in a correspondence through ASCII Net, a Japanese forerunner of the internet. Today, Japanese emoticon are known as kaomoji, literally translated as “face characters”.

Emoticons as cultural icons

Western emoticons and Japanese kaomoji have had two significant differences in style from the start. First of all, while western emoticons as 🙂 are looked at sideways, kaomoji as (^_^) can be understood without tilting the head. This difference might be pure constructive, but the second difference indicates cultural characteristics.

🙂 and (^_^) are both so called smileys, but why do we know that they are smiling? The western emoticon obviously has a smiling mouth, but its Japanese variant does not. However, the eyes of the kaomoji is expressing joy. While in western culture smiling is always done with the mouth – often while laughing out loud – the Japanese tend to silently give a friendly nod, expressing their joy with the eyes.

This is not just a hypothesis by the writer of this article. The Japanese language has actual phrases that show there is truth to this statement. Me wo hosomeru (narrowing one’s eyes), for example, is a synonym for smiling in the language.

Joy is not the only feeling the Japanese express with their eyes. The following list of emoticons indicates that western people tend to read a person’s expression by the mouth, while the Japanese focus more on the eyes.

Sad face: Western 🙁 Japanese (>_<)

Sorry face:                 Western  :‑c                                 Japanese m(_ _)m

Crying face:                Western ;-(                                 Japanese (T_T)

Angry face:                 Western :-@                              Japanese (ーー゛)

The next time you are talking or chatting with a Japanese in real life, try to see if you can read his or her eyes, be it virtual or real pupils!