Japan’s Emoji Creator Saw Nuance in Pictures

The tiny smiley faces, hearts, knife-and-fork or clenched fist have become a global language for mobile phone messages. They are displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They star in a new Hollywood film.

The emoji is heir to a tradition of pictographic writing stretching back millennia to Egyptian hieroglyphics and the ideograms used to write Chinese and Japanese.

Despite their ubiquity, they started in 1998 with one man: A 25-year-old employee of mobile phone carrier NTT DoCoMo who created the first set of 176 in one month as he rushed to meet a deadline.

"I happened to arrive at the idea. If I hadn't done it, someone else would have," said Shigetaka Kurita, who now is a board member at Dwango Co., a Tokyo technology company.

Kurita's challenge: NTT DoCoMo's "i-mode" mobile internet service limited messages to 250 characters, which cried out for some kind of shorthand.

A message that said, "What are you doing now?" could be menacing or nosey, but adding a smiley face softened the tone.

"Digital messaging was just getting started, and so I was thinking about what was needed," said Kurita.

Following i-mode's launch in 1999, that nuance made emoji an immediate hit in Japan, where the demands of courtesy make for a complex art and a tiny mistake can prove costly. Emoji combines the Japanese for "picture," or "e'' (pronounced "eh"), and "letters," or "moji" (moh-jee).

Kurita collected common images including public signs, weather symbols, the zodiac and comic book-style pictures such as a light bulb or a ticking bomb.

With simple lines, he made five faces -- happy, angry, sad, surprised and perplexed. The heart and a smiley face are still his favorites.

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