Kaomoji history in a nutshell

If you have any Japanese friends, you know most Japanese love to use text emoticons. With chat applications, like LINE, providing an amazing range of stamps, digital communication will only get crazier from now on. In fact, you even have the opportunity to create your originals. 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 back to when the internet, as we know it today, did not exist. Communicating by text with a computer was something completely new. Sometimes it even 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.  The 🙂 emoticon was to be used for something that was meant as a joke. For the opposite, 🙁 represented something that was not. This marked the start of western emoticons.

Four years later, the first Japanese emoticon made its way to the screen thanks to Yasushi Wakabayashi in a correspondence through ASCII Net, a Japanese forerunner of the internet. Today, Japanese emoticon go by the name kaomoji. This literally translates to “face characters”.

Japanese Kaomoji

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.

The symbols 🙂 and (^_^) are both “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 emphasizes on the mouth, the Japanese tend to silently give a friendly nod. They express their joy with the eyes.

This is not just a hypothesis by the writer of this article. In fact, 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. Meanwhile, 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!