One of the most confusing answers I ever received came from a simple question — “Where are you now?” — that I sent via text message.
The reply was: “🗿” — the “moai” statue, an emoji version of the huge, carved human figures on Easter Island.
Unsurprisingly, the person I was talking too wasn’t trying to express her love for Polynesian ancestor worship but was trying to save time by denoting the south exit of Shibuya station, which has its own moai figure there.
In her own words, when I phoned her to ask what exactly she was trying to tell me: “I was trying to save time.”
While this was a pretty unusual experience for me, it’s actually pretty common (at least according to a recent study titled A Contrastive Analysis of American and Japanese Online Communications: A Study of UMC Function and Usage in Popular Personal Weblogs).
This analysis discovered that the use of emoji has a high potential to cause cultural misunderstandings, especially between the Americans and Japanese people that they studied. Many of the uses of emoji that the Japanese people took for granted are — very likely — different in your country, too.
When you first encounter the more commonly used emoji, it’s often pretty easy to work out their meanings, lulling you into a false sense of security. You can probably guess what 🍡, 🍥, 🍙 , 🍛 and 🍣 represent, for example. (For those that don’t read emoji-ese, they are dango rice balls on a stick, fish cakes, onigiri rice balls, Japanese curry-and-rice and sushi.)
The meanings of these are relatively easy to guess because they look like the thing being talked about. Strangely, these emoji can often cause misunderstandings. The Japanese people you are texting with might make the mistake of assuming that just because something looks exactly like what it represents that its meaning is easy to understand.
For example, the 🏮 emoji is easy to understand if you’ve lived in Japan a while. If so, you’d correctly infer that the sender is referring to an 居酒屋 (Japanese tavern) as these lanterns were traditionally hung up in front of these drinking establishments.
Similarly, most short-term visitors may not understand the meaning of the 🎒 emoji. After you’ve been in Japan awhile and seen countless kids wearing these ランドセル (backpack) on the way to school, it becomes pretty easy to guess that this emoji means school.
So those are still things that most people could pick up pretty quickly, right? However, sometimes the idea may be a little different to a foreign way of thinking. What would you think, for example, if the emoji 🎌 was sent to you? Two Japanese flags? In fact, the most likely answer is that the person is letting you know that the day they are talking about is a 国民の休日 (national holiday) since these flags are often raised in celebration of welcome (or not) reprieves from work.
The imploring 🙏 isn’t the only 手 (hands)-related icon used when texting. Another common one is the hands touching over the head — 🙆. In Japan, this makes an O-shape that means “okay.”
This confused when I first saw it, but apparently, it comes from elementary schools in Japan. The O-sign is an easy way to check that the kids are understanding and listening to the teacher. I’ve heard from people in other countries that this means “okay” to them, too, so perhaps it’s just me who thinks this is strange!
Manga is such a popular culture force in Japan that it’s had a big influence on most visual media and naturally, emoji, too. While there are countless influences both subtle and overt, one of the more interesting is this character: 💢.
While 💢 may not look like much, its meaning is a lot easier to understand once you learn that it is supposed to look like veins bulging on an angry person’s forehead. Originally, this was drawn by a 漫画家 (manga artist) in red next to an angry character’s head, but is now more commonly used by itself to mean that you are “livid with rage.”
This is not the only item appropriated from manga, as 💠 also has its roots in the art form. This emoji is supposed to represent a blue flower that implies someone (or something) is かわいい, or cute, in manga. Unfortunately, perhaps because it’s so easily misunderstood, it’s becoming less common to see this one recently.
This is not the only flower emoji in common use, though. The 💮 (white flower) resembles the 花丸, a circle sketched to look like a flower often drawn on students’ exceptionally good work. So it’s used to denote doing some “brilliant homework” or acing the test. This can also be represented as 💯 for obvious reasons.
Another very easily confused Japanese emoji is 🔰, the 初心者 (beginner) emoji that looks like an open book. This strange character has nothing to do with reading or literature but instead is supposed to represent the mark that is attached to cars driven by newly qualified drivers. You will often see this mark used to indicate a beginner even in fields unrelated to driving.
My favorite example is easily 💫. This is used to represent dizziness however many cultures link it to fantasy or magic. It means something similar to the tweety birds that fly around character’s heads when they hit their head in Western cartoons.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning the Japanese habit of including the first kanji of a word sent as part of an emoji as a way to denote the entire word. Examples of this include sending 秘 to mean 秘密 (secret), 有 to mean 有る (to have), 営 to mean 経営 (open for business), 禁 to mean 禁じる (forbidden), 無 from 無し (nothing) to convey negative things such as “I don’t have anything” or “I have to turn you down” and the 割 of 割引 to indicate a discount or good deal.
Of course, some of you may be thinking: “Heh. Look at this old man talking about ‘emoji.’ We use animated mega-colorful, practically movie-quality GIFs and stickers for replying now.”
Well… this may be true, but the basic principles remain the same. Even my latest stickers have things like the 🙏 and 💢 emoji characters, they’re simply animated and moving.
Who knows? With a little practice maybe you too can become fluent in emoji or at least conversant enough to describe your entire year in emoji.
Have you received any emojis that confused you? How about a time you misunderstood an emoji? Let us know in the comments!