Issue 9 |

Kaomoji as expression: Japanese emoticons in digital communication

by on December 28, 2016

On September 19, 1982, at exactly 11:44 a.m., computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman published a message onto an online bulletin board. The board was a general message platform of the Computer Science community at Carnegie Mellon University, where Fahlman had been teaching at that time. Many of the posts were benign — general announcements, requests, civil discussions ranging from ‘abortion to campus parking to keyboard layouts (in increasing order of passion)’ (Fahlman, 2007). Yet, ever so often, an unsuspecting member would crack a joke, come off as sarcastic or aggressive, and be subjected to lengthy, anguished responses by the community.

Fahlman saw that as a problem. So at exactly 11:44 a.m. on September 19, 1982, Scott E. Fahlman published a message onto that board, titled “:-)”. It was a proposal of sorts: the character sequence :-) was to be used as a joke marker. An elegant solution to address the potential misunderstandings in online text-based messaging. You would immediately be able to tell if a person was serious, simply by checking if :-) ever appeared in their messages.

Upon reading Fahlman’s message, members of the board likely tilted their heads, and after some thought, realised that the character sequence :-), if read sideways, resembled a smiling face. They were likely intrigued by Fahlman’s proposal, and started incorporating it into their messages around the net. They may have even invented new character sequences of their own.

And indeed, within a few months, :-), the “smiley face”, found itself spreading rapidly across the net. Today, the smiley face falls under a common umbrella of sequences called emoticons — a visual representation of facial expressions using symbols on the keyboard, such as punctuation marks, alphabets, and numbers. The emoticon has become an indispensable part of online communication, an injection of emotion and expression in the otherwise stale and clinical text-based messaging services. And today, Scott E. Fahlman has gone down in history as the first person to ever send a smiley face on the net (Brisson, 2015).

Unofficially, Fahlman may not have been the true inventor of the emoticon. Mentions of the smiley face have appeared in stray advertorials and interviews. Notably, Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, was quoted during an interview, when asked how he “ranked [him]self among writers (living) and of the immediate past” (Pototsky, 2013):

I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

This was in 1969. While some have credited Nabokov as the originator of the idea of a smiley face, it was truly Fahlman’s message, some decades later, that took the net.

And Fahlman was certainly not the last. Unknown to him and most of the Western world, the ASCII-NET — an online web service — community in Japan was busy inventing emoticons of their own. Just four years after Fahlman, the first smiley face (^_^) appeared on the Japanese ASCII-NET. This beaming face would become one of the most popular symbols in the Japanese emoticon database (Kavanagh, 2012).

Unlike Western emoticons like Fahlman’s, the Japanese smiley face (^_^) is to be read vertically with the accompanied text. Kaomoji (顔文字), as the smiley face is called, is the Japanese equivalent of ‘emoticon’. This can be literally translated into face (‘kao’ 顔) character (‘moji’ 文字), or loosely — ‘the characters of the face’. And just like an emoticon, variations of (^_^) associated with other emotions exist. Commonly found are: crying/sadness (T_T), confusion/shock (o_o), and anger ( >д<).

When kaomoji initially made its foray into the net, its use was of a different kind. Kaomoji was to be placed after the sender’s name in their online messages, serving as an online signature of sorts (Kavanagh, 2012). However, as large Japanese network companies established themselves in the 1990s, more users were drawn to online messaging services (Kavanagh, 2012). More users learnt of kaomoji, and more users began to use it: not only in their signatures, but in the main text as well. Communication became so easy — gone were the days of the stiff formalities of text, of words resting on the screen, their meaning left to open interpretation and potential confusion. Now, one could read another’s messages and picture their expression and intent behind their words. Take these two sentences for instance:

  1. ワン:今日は楽しかった
    Wan: Today was fun
  2. ワン:今日は楽しかった(*´▽`*)
    Wan: Today was fun (*´▽`*)

 

Both sentences are exactly the same, with the exception of the kaomoji appended at the end of (B). Let’s imagine a scenario here. Say you’ve just gone for a movie along the streets of Shinjuku with your new friend, Wan-san, and you received text (A) from him at the end. How does Wan-san truly feel about your meeting? Is he saying he had “fun” out of politeness? Is it a formality? Is he being sarcastic? Based on the text alone, you could never tell.

Now say you received text (B) from Wan-san instead. With the appended kaomoji, you could almost picture Wan-san smiling as he relayed his message to you — how his eyes narrowed as he beamed, how his mouth opened in a grin, and how his cheeks flushed in joy. You’d likely conclude that Wan-san did genuinely had fun.

Such is the power of kaomoji. As the example has demonstrated, kaomoji can efficiently and effectively express the sender’s’ feelings by injecting a layer of emotional depth into the text-based relationship between sender and receiver (Tachikawa, 2005). Sure enough, people began to realize this as the internet began to proliferate in the 1990s. Soon after, the variety and number of kaomoji ballooned. Now, not only can Wan-san express happiness (*´▽`*)over his meeting, but sadness (╥_╥), anger(╬ಠ益ಠ), and confusion (゚ペ), among others, as well. Wan-san can even pretend that he is a puppy ₍ᐢ•ﻌ•ᐢ₎*・゚。.

To date, over 10,000 kaomoji exist in online databases (JapaneseEmoticons.me, 2016). It has become “an essential component” in Japanese online messaging (keitai mail) (Sakai, 2012). In light of this, as most Japanese “automatically use” kaomoji and “interpret them without special effort”, the kaomoji has become a “natural part in their language practices” (Sakai, 2012).

Yet, as much as kaomoji has been incorporated into the vocabulary of those who employ it, its sheer range and nuance in its usage can also exclude the uninitiated from being privy to layers of meaning in an online conversation. For instance, let’s consider these kaomoji:

  1. (^.^)
  2. (o^_^o)
  3. (^-^)
  4. (^^;)

 

All of these kaomoji are smiling ones. Even to the uninitiated, if they squint long and hard enough, they would likely be able to infer that these kaomoji express happiness. They would likely be able to distinguish the kaomoji’s face — represented by the brackets, and its beaming eyes, represented by the caret symbol (^). They might notice the variations between the different kaomoji: the use of a semi-colon in (4), the curious addition of the letter ‘o’ in (2), the full-stop in (1), and may think nothing of them. Or they might come up with various hypotheses of their possible meanings.

However, without sufficient knowledge of kaomoji, they would be hard-pressed to realise that the use of a full-stop ‘.’ to represent the mouth in (1) symbolises a “high-class, snobbish laugh” (Markman and Oshima, 2007). Or that the ‘o’s present in (2) depict the character’s blushing cheeks, symbolising youth, affection, or a more feminine sender. Or that (3) is a popular kaomoji, reflecting a generic smile, while (4) indicates a “wry/bitter smile”, as inferred from the semi-colon, commonly used to represent cold sweat (Markman and Oshima, 2007). And even then, that’s just one interpretation of the above kaomoji. In a different cultural context, the smiling kaomoji may even be interpreted differently.

Let’s bring Wan-san back again. Consider these two text messages from him:

  1. ワン:今日は楽しかった (^^;)
    Wan: Today was fun (^^;)
  2. ワン:今日は楽しかった (^.^)
    Wan: Today was fun (^.^)

 

Now if you had received text (C) from him after your movie outing, you would begin to suspect Wan-san’s intentions behind his words. You would question if the semi-colon — the cold sweat — meant some kind of unaddressed anxiety or bitterness. On the other hand, if Wan-san had sent text (D) instead, you would picture Wan-san laughing at you snobbishly. You would possibly consider him an arrogant prick.

If Wan-san was unaware of these nuances, then you can clearly see how misunderstandings can occur even though kaomoji were meant to clarify the meanings behind text messages. Without an initiation into the context and culture of kaomoji, Wan-san is likely to burn many bridges.

Yet, it is because of this complexity that kaomoji is so interesting and compelling. The range of facial expressions does allow for an individual to accurately express their feelings towards a certain situation that cannot be fully captured in text. This hinges on both the sender and the receiver associating the used kaomoji with similar meanings. Moreover, kaomoji also serves as a means for expressing one’s uniqueness, as its extensive range allows for some degree of customisation in an individual’s text. In other words, even though (^-^) and (^_^) may technically mean the same thing, I may be adamant on using only (^-^) simply because of personal preference. And this choice that I can make in my text messages is what makes me singularly unique.

________

Naturally, using kaomoji does not resolve all misunderstandings that can arise with text-based messaging, and its complexity and extensiveness can be confusing. Alternatives have arisen in Japan, attempting to better clarify text-based online messaging. Most notably, the emoji, pre-defined graphic images, compared to the text-based images of kaomoji. Introduced in 1999 by Shingeta Kurita, the emoji — a fixed set of 2,000 graphic images — was meant to reduce the complexity of visuals accompanying text messages, while still expressing additional meaning behind the text. However, while it did spread across mobile communication in Japan, kaomoji remains by far the more popular option there (Kavanagh, 2012).

In 1986, Scott E. Fahlman posted the first smiley face on the net. On the messaging board where his message lay, you would see a :-) large and bold as the message’s header. As you read the sequence, you would close your eyes, and you swore you could almost see Scott Fahlman smile.


References

Brisson, Claire Marie. (2015). Hieroglyphs at Our Fingertips: Language, Semiotics, and Communication through Emoji. Wayne State University, USA. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/12568625/Hieroglyphs_at_Our_Fingertips_Language_Semiotics_and_Communication_through_Emoji

Fahlman, Scott. Smiley Lore. Retrieved on 13/12/2016 from https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~sef/sefSmiley.htm

Japanese Emoticons. JapaneseEmoticons.me, 2016. Retrieved on 13/12/2016 from http://japaneseemoticons.me/

Kavanagh, Barry. (2012). A Contrastive Analysis of American and Japanese Online Communication: A Study of UMC Function and Usage in Popular Personal Weblogs. Tohoku University, Japan. Retrieved from http://ir.library.tohoku.ac.jp/re/handle/10097/59657

Markman, Kris. and Oshima, Sae. (2007). Pragmatic Play? Some Possible Functions of English Emoticons and Japanese Kaomoji in Computer-Mediated Discourse. In the Association of Internet Researchers meeting 8.0: Let’s Play!, 1–19

Pototsky, Dan. (2013). Nabokov – the one who gave birth to the smiley. RBTH, Russia. Retrieved from https://rbth.com/news/2013/09/19/nabokov_the_one_who_gave_birth_to_the_smiley_29987.html

Sakai, Noboru. (2013). The Role of Sentence Closing As An Emotional Marker: A Case of Japanese Mobile Phone E-Mail. Discourse, Context and Media 2, 149–155

Tachikawa, Y. (2005). The use of emoticons in mobile e-mail by youth: a text analysis of e-mail. Gobun 122, 108–123.

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