Since the invention of typed communication, people have been making faces with punctuation, letters, and numbers. Even back when telegrams were around, people were still finding ways to make faces with what characters they had available to them.

Since then, they’ve entered our vocabulary as a normal part of everyday life. It’s pretty common to see emoticons in texts, emails, Facebook posts, and pretty much anything you can type into.

In the century since the birth of the emoticon, they’ve come a long way. I think a lot of credit is due to the Japanese, who have seemingly elevated the emoticon to an art form. While in the US we were patting ourselves on the back for giving the smiley face a nose, the Japanese were integrating characters different languages to create emoticon masterpieces.

In Japan, they’re called kaomoji (顔文字) and range from huge, happy faces (*・゜゚・*:.。..。.:*・'(*゚▽゚*)'・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*) to sad, despairing faces
( ;´Д`) to a guy farting across the room (ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=┌(; ̄◇ ̄)┘).

It’s not just the elaborate, multilingual kaomoji that make the Japanese the undisputed champions of emoticons; they also seem to be able to do more with less. Sometimes, it’s the emoticons that are simple and leave a lot to the imagination that are the most impressive.

What Japan Thinks posted a survey a few months back about Japan’s more abstract emoticons, the ones that take a little bit of imagination to visualize. Here are the top five, see if you can see what they’re supposed to represent:

  1. ぬす (flying trapeze artist)
  2. (droopy-eyed couple kissing)
  3. チ゜フ (cat)
  4. むU (dog)
  5. でわ (a mouse looking over its shoulder)

In recent years though, emoticons have evolved into something else entirely.


After decades of fumbling around with existing characters, humanity has decided to cheat a bit and create characters that represent the faces and actions that we’ve been trying to recreate all these years with numbers, letters, and punctuation.

They’re called emoji, or 絵文字 in Japanese, “picture character.” Instead of figuring out which characters to combine together to make a smiley face, you can just actually write a smiley face (☺).

We’ve talked before about how you can write some special characters in Japanese like music notes (♩ ♫ ♪ ♬), arrows (→ ← ↑ ↓), and playing card symbols (♠ ♣ ♥ ♦), but proper emoji goes way beyond that.

Here are just some of the emoji out there:


Over the years, emoji have gone from an informal cell phone to an honest-to-God international standard. Emoji have been integrated into Unicode, and earlier this year, three of Japan’s biggest cell phone companies agreed to standardize their emoji.

It warms my heart to know that there are technology professionals working hard to make sure that when I send you two emoji representing a cat farting, it will show up perfectly on your phone.

How Do You Get Emoji?

If you’ve ever wanted to text your friend a little picture of a turd (yes you have), then you’ll be happy to hear that you too can join the emoji revolution. I’ve rounded up some instructions on how to enable emoji on your phone or computer.


Emoji are already built in to most iPhones. Open up the settings menu, go to General Settings, and add the emoji keyboard. Now whenever you’re typing, press the little globe button in the bottom left of the keyboard to cycle through international keyboards, including the emoji keyboard.


It’s a bit tougher for those of you on Android. It’s not actually officially supported on most Android phones at the moment, so your best bet is to scrounge the Google Play store to see what third-party apps can give you an emoji keyboard.


If you’re on a Mac, it’s all pretty much built in. Just press Command (⌘) + Option + T, which brings up the Keyboard and Character Viewer.


Emoji support is a little more spotty on Windows (especially older versions), but it looks like Microsoft is getting its shit together for Windows 8, and even backported it to Windows 7.

Of course, for pretty much every device and operating system, support is still kind of sketchy and new emoji are being added all the time, so don’t be too surprised if your phone or computer if missing your favorite face, animal, or sign. You can still rest easy that one day, maybe even soon, we’ll all be able to send emoji to each other, and maybe even avoid words altogether. 😃

Header image by Yahoo! Blog

  • Yuume

    I think my favorite kaomoji are the ones that incorporate kana into them. I always use the one for Oyasumi ^_^

  • koichi

    Kaomoji > Emoji

    Kaomoji4Life, YO. v(<°>ਊ <°>)v

  • zoomingjapan

    I don’t think about emoji a lot anymore.
    I’ve been surrounded by them for almost 10 years or so.
    If people ever hang out in 2ch than they get an overdose anyways. It’s so amazing what you can create with just a few characters!

    I guess I also watched “Densha Otoko” too often! ^-^;


  • カレー王子

    For those using android devices, a search for Google Japanese Input Beta wil net you a decent Japanese keyboard with kaomoji input. やった!(●^o^●)

  • Joe Simpson

    CyanogenMod 10 for Android is as simple as: Open Messaging (built-in) and on the message screen, press menu -> insert emojji :P

    Facebook Messenger has them built-in too

  • Joe Simpson

    Oh, and GO SMS does this too! :)

  • 古戸ヱリカ


  • wegw

    lol I thought you guys were going to talk about more “complex” advaned emoji like . anyways I love the typing japanese thing on iphone because I can use emoji + register new ones using the applications かおくん and 特殊顔文字帳

  • Tora.Silver


  • Joel Alexander

    My iPad’s Japanese keyboard has emoji already installed. Or at least, some of them, in any case. For example, if I type in でんしゃ, then 🚃 pops up as one of the possible kanji options.

  • linguarum

    I was very surprised to learn that basic emoticons like :-) are not generally even understood in Japan. That’s how advanced the Japanese emoji is. If you have to tip your head to get it, forget it.

  • kuyaChristian

    Hey, watch your language there, sir! There are kids in here.
    …yeah, like I care. Great article!

    I like doing kaomoji if only I know how to type those things out. I don’t wanna copypasta it.
    It’s only a matter of time people stop using ツ as smiley faces. Major pet peeve.

  • Hannah

    Glad to see Softbank’s staying out of the agreement. I’ve been using their emoji for year; I have no desire to change. XD

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I agree. シ makes for a much better smiley face.

  • Kiriain

    You did not tell us how to send our friend a little picture of a turd.

  • Easily Amused in NC

    I just texted my husband a smiling turd. Thank you so much for this! :)

  • Hashi

    My job here is done.

  • Hashi

    Once you have emoji enabled on your phone/computer, it should be no sweat :)

  • Hashi

    Sorry, in the future I will watch my usage of the word “turd.”

  • kuyaChristian

    HAHAH, it doesn’t matter really :P. Like I said, “like I care…”
    We read Tofugu for the cool and sometimes the odd side of Japan. You know how weird Japan gets…which I’m pretty sure it’s more crazy than the language used in this article. You’re cool, Hashi.

  • koichi

    “get textfugu decks for free by downloading in Anki Search”-koichi

  • FoxiBiri

    My favourite…


    (^-^)…nuff said.

  • Emoji My Face

    I just launched a new iOS app, Emoji My Face, that lets you put your own face into the emoji shapes. Take a look, have some fun; it’s free:

  • ZA다ルﻣ

    i custom edited this one:
    while the original looked like this

  • Koichi from the Future

    Someone should make kanjimojis. Up for the challenge, Koichi-kun lad?

  • Elli


  • Kadett Júnior
  • Kadett Júnior