A Year in Japan Through Emoji

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On January 2, 2018
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Emoji Japan Photo by Becca Takano

In its most literal form, emoji is a combination of the Japanese words (picture) and 文字もじ (character) — adding just the right amount of visual sugar (or spice) to your text, tweets and online correspondence. The original 176 pictograms that were intended for Japan’s first mobile internet service have become a worldwide phenomenon.

Photo by Shigetaka Kurita, NTT DOCOMO

Shigetaka Kurita, NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176). 1998–99. Software and digital image files. Gift of NTT DOCOMO Inc., Japan

Now with over 2,600 emoji available, there seems to be one for every event, feeling and situation. As we count down to the new year, let’s take a look at the emoji that represent specific Japanese holidays, celebrations and special times of the year and the lingo that can go with them!


Jan. 1: New Year’s Day

Torii gate in Hakone.

Greet the new year with 🎍 outside your doorstep 🎍. Do like the locals and have a laid back New Year’s Day. Stay up to watch NHK’s annual red-and-white song contest Kouhaku Uta Gassen (Year-end Song festival) on Dec. 31 then wake up early to see the first 🌅  of the new year. Watch the 🎽 race on TV or head out for hatsumode, the first ⛩️  visit of the New Year.

🎽 = the jersey and sash are worn by runners in the famous ekiden (long distance relay) race

🌅 = hatsu hinode (sunrise) as watching the first sunrise of the new year is an auspicious event

⛩️ = torii (gates found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine)

🎍 = kadomatsu (decorations made of pine and bamboo placed in pairs outside the home to welcome ancestral spirits

Words to Tweet: ✨🎍あけましておめでとうございます🎍✨ (Happy New Year) to your followers when the clock strikes midnight.


Feb. 3: Setsubun

Roasted soybeans and an oni mask!

On Setsubun, the day before the first day of spring in the traditional Japanese calendar, there is the custom of mamemaki (bean throwing). Families throw beans to scare away 👹  and to bring 🍀 into the home.

🍀 = fuku or good luck (a four-leaf clover is not necessarily a Japanese symbol, it can work in this context)

👹  = oni (demon)

Words to Tweet: おにそと ふくうち (Demons out! Luck in!) to passive-aggressively vent some steam.


March 3: Girls’ Day

A post shared by 岩宮 まい (@iwamiiiya.0619) on


Also known as Hina Matsuri, on this day you’ll find 🎎 on display, a custom that dates back to the Heian period (794 -1185). Families typically put their dolls out for display sometime in February. It’s customary that the dolls be taken down before March 4, less one’s daughter marry late in life.

🎎  = hina ningyou (beautifully crafted ornamental dolls)

Words to Tweet: #おんあまれてよかった (Glad I was born a woman) whenever you take advantage of Ladies’ Day promotions (sorry fellas!).


Early- to mid-April: Cherry Blossom Viewing

A hanami in Kyoto.

Springtime in Japan truly begins when 🌸  bloom. Although these pale pink flowers are not officially Japan’s national flower, you’d certainly think so by the way they are so revered. Get your blue tarp, 🍱, 🍶 and your camera — and you’re all set for a cherry blossom viewing party.

🌸  = sakura (cherry blossoms)

🍱  = obento (Japanese lunchbox consisting of rice, fish or meat, vegetables, and Japanese-style pickles)

🍶 = sake (Japanese rice wine)

Words to Tweet: #おはな (ohanami) for all your gorgeous photos of cherry blossoms.


 May 5: Children’s Day

Koinobori

Koinobori streamers flown on a tall pole on Children’s Day.

If there’s a Girls’ Day, then there must be Boys’ Day, right? May 5 used to be, until it was renamed Children’s Day to celebrate the happiness of all children and to give thanks to mothers. From April to May, you’ll see 🎏  because the streamers look like carp swimming upstream.

🎏 = koinobori (carp streamers; the carp is used because of the strength and courage needed to swim upstream, traits desired in boys)

Words to Tweet: #こいのぼり (koinobori) to document the colorful carp streamers you find across Japan.


June: Rainy Season

A post shared by Dwi Ariwiguna Pinatih || (@dek_popo) on

It doesn’t rain every day during tsuyu (rainy season), but it certainly feels like it! While 🌀 typically occur in late July and August, don’t be surprised if your plans are derailed by an early typhoon.

🌀 = taifuu (typhoon)

Words to Tweet: なんで台風たいふうてるのにやすみにならないんだよ!🌀 (Why is it that we never get a day off when a typhoon comes?)


July 7: Tanabata

A post shared by Merv (@asuramaru7) on

A tale of literal star-crossed lovers, Tanabata, or the Star Festival, celebrates the one day of the year where Orihime and Hikoboshi cross 🌌  and reunite. Write down a wish and hang it on a 🎋. (Please note that some Tanabata festivals are held at different dates throughout the year.)

🎋 = sasa kazari (a bamboo tree on which you attach pieces of paper with a wish written on it)

🌌 = ama no gawa (the Milky Way)

Words to Tweet: 今日きょう七夕たなばた🎋🌌 織姫おりひめ彦星ひこぼしえるかな💕 (Today is Tanabata. I hope Orihime and Hikoboshi can be together!)


 August: Summer Festivals & Fireworks

Fireworks are all over Japan in the summer!

Summer in Japan can be a hot and humid mess. If the sound of 🎐 isn’t refreshing, don a yukata or jinbei and head out to your neighborhood matsuri for 🍧  to cool down. At night, watch the 🎆for an unforgettable summer evening.

🎐  =  fuurin (wind chimes)

🍧  = kakigoori (shaved ice)

🎆 = hanabi (fireworks)

Words to Tweet:  #カキこうり (kakigoori) for all your Instagram-worthy shaved ice photos.


Sep. 24: Mid-Autumn Festival

A post shared by Masahiro Kimata (@masahirokimata) on

This old-school festival celebrating the fall harvest is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The day is also known as 🎑, as the moon is at its roundest and brightest this time of the year. Use this day to brush up on your Sailor Moon mythology and the legend of “tsuki no usagi,” the rabbit who lives on the moon.

🎑 = otsukimi  (Moon Viewing Festival)

Words to Tweet: #中秋なかあき名月めいげつ (mid-autumn moon) with a favorite festival photo.


Oct. 31: Halloween

Photo by Hideya HAMANO

Yes, people do dress up for halloween and party. Here is the scene in Shibuya.

Each October, Halloween is starting to trend in Japan, though the trick-or-treat tradition is unlikely to catch on. Whether you decide to be a 👻  or 👺 don’t miss the opportunity to dress up — as many Japanese and foreigners alike do — and take photos at Shibuya’s iconic zebra crossing.

👻 = obake (ghost)

👺 = tengu (a Japanese mythological being that lives in the mountains)

Words to Tweet:トリックオアトリート (trick or treat) with a photo of yourself in costume.


Nov. 3: Culture Day

Nagoya Castle.

Culture Day was originally the Meiji Emperor’s birthday, but nowadays it’s intended to foster appreciation of the arts and academics. Check out some famous works of art like 🌊  at the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo or visit one or a few famous castles 🏯 in Japan.

🌊 =  Kanagawa-oki nami ura, (“The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” the iconic ukiyoe or woodblock print by world-renowned ukiyoe artist Katsushika Hokusai)

🏯 = shiro (Japanese-style castle).

Words to Tweet: 文化ぶんかってなにするの? (What are you supposed to do on Culture Day?) to get suggestions from your followers.


Dec. 25: Christmas

You know that birthday cake (🎂) you always insert in your “Happy Birthday!” tweets? It’s actually a shortcake: a layered, strawberry and whipped cream-filled sponge cake topped with whipped  frosting. Come Christmastime, the beloved shortcake becomes a Christmas cake, the staple of the holiday season! Don’t forget to reserve your 🍗 dinner!

🎂 = sho-to ke-ki (shortcake, Japan’s most popular cake)

🍗 = furaido chikin (fried chicken, a staple of Christmas dinner in Japan)

Words to Tweet: メリー クリスマス (Merry Christmas) and dig into your cake.


Hopefully that should be enough emoji ammo to last you the whole year. Add this post to your favorites and return whenever you need to reload for more social media rounds!

Did we miss any useful Japan-specific emoji? Let us know in the comments!

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Freelance writer, blogger and kindergarten teacher in Tokyo.

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