There are 845 emoji installed on the latest iPhones. The set includes sixty-odd ‘smileys’, not all of them smiley: round, lemon-yellow faces that express different emotions, from joy to grief to affection to terror. A new smiley, coming with the 2017 update, was inspired by Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey and portrays a sort of wrily amused disdain. You can express more emotions in emoji than some people can express with their actual real-life faces.
Emoji didn’t become popular in the West until Apple installed them on the iPhone in 2011, but they first appeared in Japan in the 1990s.
The word ‘emoji’, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t have anything to do with emotion: it’s an amalgamation of the Japanese words for image, e, and character, moji. Emoji’s Japanese origins account for the existence both of a 🍢 (an oden, a Japanese winter stew; the emoji depicts the Shizuoka variation, in which the ingredients are skewered) and a 🍡 (a dango, a dessert of sweet, skewered dumplings).
They also explain why there’s a 👺, a mask representing a tengu (a demon from Japanese folklore) that is used by Japanese people to express conceitedness, by Westerners to express disgruntlement, and by me to express self-conscious hauteur. A new book, The Story of Emoji by Gavin Lucas, traces the creation of emoji to an employee of the Japanese telecommunications company NTT Docomo. In the mid-1990s, Docomo produced the Pocket Bell, a pager which allowed users to attach a small ♥ to their messages; it became very popular with flirty high school kids.
When the company invented i-mode, the world’s first widespread mobile internet platform, a young engineer called Shigetaka Kurita decided to extend the Pocket Bell’s vocabulary of images. He created a set of proto-emoji using a grid of 12 by 12 pixels. The Story of Emoji suggests that the popularity of Kurita’s creation had to do with the specific needs of the Japanese business community, which had been upset by the introduction of email in 1993.
Traditionally, Japanese businessmen and women had sent one another long, verbose letters that were full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions and included a lot of contextual information: ‘The absence of all of these cues in emails and texts meant that the promise of digital communication … was being offset by an accompanying increase in miscommunication.’
Kurita’s characters helped the sararimen stop accidentally disrespecting each other.
The most important proto-emoji, though, is the smiley itself,😊, which wasn’t invented by Forrest Gump as Hollywood would have you believe, but by a graphic designer called Harvey Ball in 1963 on the occasion of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts’s merger with the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio. Ball was hired to produce a cheery design for buttons and posters that could be distributed internally because company morale was low. The State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts merged with the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio, and the world was shaken to its core. The smiley rebelled against corporate culture and became a hippy symbol, then the symbol of acid house.