The story of emoji

Do you ever find yourself desperately trying to find the right emoji? 

Just scrolling and scrolling through the hundreds they’ve added over the years?

I mean, honestly, there’s an emoji for almost everything these days. 

Well, it wasn’t always like this. 

Way back, in a time before smartphones, people’s entire emoji library consisted of love hearts and, if you were lucky, a smiley face. 

So, where did emoji begin?

And where’s it going?


The term “emoji” is often used interchangeably with the word “emoticon”, but they’re actually two different things. 

An emoticon is a facial expression delivered in text only. 

For instance, a colon and a bracket make either a smile or a frown, depending on which bracket you use. 

Emoji, on the other hand, are actual pictures of facial expressions – among other things – that are treated like their own character set within your phone or computer’s operating system. 

The word itself comes from the Japanese words for (e) picture and (moji) character, and loosely translates to pictograph. 

But the similarity between the two words in English is apparently coincidental.


In the late 1990s, sales of pagers were booming, and the ability to send a love heart to someone digitally had been created and had shaken up the Japanese market.

It provided a glimpse of what was possible – making dry text, all of the sudden, emotional. 

Telecommunications company NTT Docomo was the first to include the symbol on its Pocket Bell device, sending its popularity soaring. 

At one point it attained a 40 percent market share, which is unheard of today. 

But when they abandoned the love heart in favour of adding more standard features for the Kanji and Latin alphabets, their popularity plummeted. 

That’s where Shigetaka Kurita comes in. 

An employee of Docomo at the time, Kurita was given the task of finding a solution. 

He began by diagnosing why that original love heart was so, well, loved. 

The answer? Because it was expressive.

“So that’s when we thought, if we had something like emoji, we can probably do faces,” he told The Verge in 2013. 

“We already had the experience with the heart symbol, so we thought it was possible.”

He approached manufacturers like Sharp, Panasonic and Fujitsu in the hopes of using their design resources to work on the project, as he himself was an economics major not a designer. 

But for various reasons they said no.

So, he did it himself. 

With paper and a pencil, he and a small team of others created 176 12 pixel by 12 pixel characters that could cover a large variety of emotions and expressions, and add a sense of humanity to text. 

The original set would be inspired by manga comics from Kurita’s childhood. 

The face with a bead of sweat over it is a good example of this.

Once him and his team were done, he brought the finished product back to the manufacturers that had initially rejected him, expecting them to refine his designs and incorporate them in their own ways. 

But, to his surprise, they took the set as it was and implemented it without making alterations.

“…the good thing about that was that everyone’s emoji were identical,” he says.

“If each manufacturer had added its own originality to the characters, the emoji would have been all mixed up and inconsistent, even inside Docomo.”

However, due to the fact the Docomo wasn’t able to copyright designs as small as 12 pixels by 12 pixels, its competitors AU and J-Phone – which eventually became SoftBank – decided to create their own versions to lock in customers. 

This meant sending a message with an emoji from one device would often result in a sentence with a blank space in it when it arrived on another. 

Nonetheless, the use of emoji in Japan continued to grow. 

And it quickly became a standard part of communicating in the digital age.

Google steps in it

With the rapid rise of the mobile phone, and thus the rapid rise of texting, by the early 2000s emoji had become second nature. 

Yet it wasn’t until around 2007 that emoji caught on in the west.

And Google was one of the first big US tech companies to notice. 

Interested in making their Gmail product more appealing to countries like Japan, part of that team took on the task of standardizing a set of emoji. 

A pretty simple idea, right? 

Well, kind of. 

See, the search giant had reservations about the inclusion of one particular emoji now considered a staple.

Yes, the debate over whether or not to include the poop emoji in their standardised Gmail set caused much controversy around the company’s Mountain View headquarters, for fear of offending its western users.

“It’s basically like getting rid of certain letters of the English alphabet,” a Google engineer who worked on the project told Fast Company

The team pushed hard for its inclusion, going to the head of Gmail, and even doing a large-scale analysis of which emoji were statistically most popular in Asia. 

“Poop” was among the top. 

When Google’s emoji debuted in October 2008, poop debuted right along with it. 

By November of that year Apple had welcomed emoji to iOS as well – poop included.

The future of emoji

Emoji have now become an ingrained part of digital culture. 

Since 2010 they’ve been an accepted industry-wide language after being approved by the Unicode Consortium – a non-profit that ensures the code for emoji is consistent across devices and operating systems, so that when you send, say, a thumbs up to someone on another device they don’t get a thumbs down.

Asked about his feelings towards the movement he began back in the 90s Shigetaka Kurita is happy but sees room for continued development. 

“I’d really like to know to what degree they’re used in the same way, and to what degree there’s a local nuance,” he told The Verge

“I think the heart symbol is probably used the same way by everyone, but then there are probably things that only Japanese people would understand, or only Americans would understand… It would be great if we could compare and have that lead to people starting to use things in the same way.”

As our dependence on them grows the criteria we set for emoji continues to become more nuanced. 

Unicode rolled out different skin tones for human emoji in 2015. 

Apple has developed Memoji, which allows you to make custom emoji versions of yourself.

And brands and celebrities are getting in on the action too with products like Kimoji, allowing you to fill your library with Kim Kardashian’s face in various states of emotion. 

From the tongue out emoji to the poop emoji, different images mean different things across the globe. 

But, hopefully, there are a few emoji whose meanings stay the same. 

A smile’s a smile. A heart’s a heart. And an eggplant’s an eggplant, and nothing else, right? 

Published by Dom Hennequin

RMIT Graduate Diploma of Journalism student

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