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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

Using Pictograms and Emoticons to Express Oneself

[From July Issue 2010]

Many Japanese people use emoji (Japanese pictograms) when text messaging on their cell phones. Pictograms are emotional expressions and graphics that fit in one Japanese letter space. Smileys for happy feelings and crying faces for sad feelings can be inserted into any message. The frequency of pictogram use depends on each individual, but the general tendency is that women and younger people prefer to use pictograms more frequently than men and the elderly.

“When a friend sends a message without any pictograms in the text, I worry that something is wrong, or that the sender may be in a bad mood,” says 20 year-old TANAKA Miho. “I often use pink hearts in texts that I send to my boyfriend, but I use green and blue hearts in messages for other male friends. I don’t use any emoji in my work mail,” she adds.

“Many men of my generation do not like using pictograms,” says MURATA Shigeharu, a man in his 60s. “I like new things, so I use them more when I send to women rather than to men. When I see hearts in a text I receive from women, I think ‘they are really happy,’ but when I see a playing card heart, I think ‘they are just being polite.’”

The amount of available pictograms and the ease of text messaging are essential deciding factors when choosing a new cell phone. That is why cell phone companies pay careful attention to both. Previously, pictograms in text sent between different cell phone carriers would turn into garbled characters. But today, there are many pictograms that can be used across many carriers.

More people have started to create their own pictograms because they “don’t want to use the same pictograms as other people” and they “don’t want to use old pictograms created ages ago.” There are approximately 1,200 websites on the Internet dedicated to creating original pictograms. Some people use multiple sites to create pictograms for various uses, and some people upload pictograms created and received from friends, then alter them on these sites for their own use.

In March 2008, Roid Corporation launched a pictogram creation website. Here, anyone can create and use their original pictograms while also offering them to the public. Currently, there are approximately 140, 000 registered users. Moreover, communication between the users is very active; for example, people who use the shared pictograms often send thank you notes to their creators.

“There are many websites displaying new pictograms,” says OHTA Youhei, Roid Corporation’s media representative. “But using pictograms created by others is just another way of using the same pictogram as other people. So here at Roid, we developed a function where you can design your own pictogram. Registered users can now use pictograms that no one has owned before,” he explains.

At FutureScope Corp., they provide a service where photos taken by cell phones can be automatically processed into pictograms. Once a picture of your face or a friend’s face, or items bought or food ordered, is sent to Future Scope’s server, your converted pictogram will then be returned within 3 to 5 seconds. If a sent photo includes up to 20 people, their server can simultaneously process each face into a pictogram.

“The fundamentals of communication are to exchange feelings between known acquaintances, and to deepen trust,” says FutureScope’s Brand Strategy Division Manager, OGITA Yoshihiro. “It was a tough job to develop a function which automatically distinguishes facial parts, including hairstyles, from a photo and convert it into a cute icon. We have received positive feedback from people, especially those with children or pets. We also have business opportunities opening up outside of Japan, particularly in Asian countries like South Korea.”

Pictograms originated from kao-moji (emoticons), which use symbols to make facial expressions. Even though there are many pictograms available today, emoticons are still widely used in emails and on the web since they rarely turn into garbled characters. Even the more intricate ASCII art style (text-based art developed from emoticons) has its own dedicated fans. The biggest characteristic that distinguishes Japanese ASCII art and emoticons from its international counterparts is its use of more diverse letters.

Japanese input functions on computers and cell phones use kanji, katakana, and hiragana. Moreover, there is also zenkaku (full-width/two bytes) and hankaku (half-width/one byte) input styles. So, emoticons like (^^;)and (^^;) which use the same symbols but different byte-sizes have different looks for expressing detailed emotions; while (^^;)can mean “very embarrassed,” (^^;) can mean “a little embarrassed.”

HONDA Kenichi, who runs a web-based collection of ASCII art, says: “Take a look at the Japanese ASCII art. The way the letters are used differs for each artist. Since we have so many characters, the choice of symbols the artist uses directly reflects their style. It becomes the distinguishing charm of their work. If we only used the one-byte alphabet and numbers, the art would not be as diverse in character.”

“ASCII art is time consuming, so its creator must be very dedicated to it,” says Honda, who adds that “when you look closely at the forms of the symbols, you sometimes realize the uniqueness and the beauty within each character. For example, you hardly use kanji characters like “弋 (yoku)” and “卞 (ben)” in everyday life. But in ASCII art, it is a convenient and popular character often used to express roundness and dots.”

Some ASCII art became so popular that it developed into its own character, becoming the protagonist of a story. The ASCII-art-based cat, as well as other characters often appearing on online message boards, have become so familiar that they have even been given names. And, there are people who continue to create comic strips based on these characters.

In Japan there is a saying, “writing and nature often agree,” which means that, “one’s personality comes forth in one’s writing.” In this day and age when everyone types in their words, it may be that people are finding new ways to personalize their writing by using pictograms and emoticons.

Roid Corporation
FutureScope Corp

Text: SAZAKI Ryo


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