I am an unabashed lover of emojis. Just read anything I write, there’s almost always at least 1 emoji thrown in there somewhere. I can’t help myself, they are just so…apt. Do you know that the Full Emoji Data actually loads super-quick when I visit because I go there so often most of the data is cached my browser already. My state of mind was 🎉 when the 🤷 and 🤦‍♀️ emojis were released.

Have you scrolled through the entire list of emojis, got to the symbol section and wondered why those Chinese character symbols are there? No? It’s just me? Well, I ponder such deep questions often throughout my day.

Maybe if you don’t read any of the CJK (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) languages, these symbols mean nothing to you. But as a native Chinese speaker, I always wondered, why those particular words? I mean, there are literally tens of thousands of Chinese characters, so why those?

Some background (context is important)

Let’s go back to the beginning. The word Emoji is Japanese.

絵 (e) ≈ picture) 文 (mo ≈ writing) 字 (ji ≈ character)

Emojis were invented by Shigetaka Kurita as a solution to the 250 character limit on i-mode, NTT DoCoMo’s new mobile internet system (back in 1999). Most of the 176 original emojis were designed for the Japanese market, largely because nobody expected them to explode on the a global scale. Soon after their release, there was a proposal to encode these emoji in Unicode by Graham Asher in 2000, but nothing happened because people weren’t sure if emoji would be popular or not.

Turns out, they were a big hit in Japan, but every telecom company did their own thing with emoji encoding so incompatibility was a big issue. There was a high chance your emojis just wouldn’t display properly. Kinda like “tofu” characters when your computer doesn’t support East Asian languages. So in 2006, Google started converting them into Unicode private-use codes. Unicode itself is a fascinating topic so if you’re interested, read The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!) by Joel Spolsky.

Long story short, the private-use approach was problematic so another proposal was made to the Unicode Consortium to expand the scope of symbols to include emojis. According to the Unicode® Technical Report #51, the timeline for emoji development looks something like this:

  • 2000-04-26 - NTT DoCoMo Pictographs
  • 2006-11-01 - Symbols (scope extension)
  • 2007-08-03 - Working Draft Proposal for Encoding Emoji Symbols
  • 2007-08-09 - Symbols draft resolution
  • 2007-09-18 - Japanese TV Symbols (ARIB)
  • 2009-01-30 - Emoji Symbols Proposed for New Encoding
  • 2009-03-05 - Proposal for Encoding Emoji Symbols
  • 2010-04-27 - Emoji Symbols: Background Data
  • 2011-02-15 - Wingdings and Webdings Symbols

You gotta remember, emojis are just a small subset of all the Unicode symbols out there. Also, not all the emojis in a proposal will make it into the release either. Case in point, the proposal for Japanese TV symbols contained lots of Chinese characters that didn’t make it into the release (though a handful did).

So Unicode v6.0, released in 2010, was the version that included “support for popular symbols in Asia” (I’m literally quoting the headline of that post 🤷). That’s when most of the CJK character symbols were added. The Japanese are clearly the most active contributors in this regard, and so these symbols, though perfectly usable as Chinese characters, primarily have specific Japanese contexts.

After a few hours of research into the origins of these emojis, I was starting to get confused. The names of some of these emojis on the Emoji List didn’t seem to make sense at all. I even asked my Japanese friend, who replied she’d never seen anyone use them before. It was at the 🈯️ emoji that I realised I was being led down the wrong path by Emojipedia!

These emojis came from the Association of Radio Industries and Businesses (ARIB) in their TV symbols proposal. Television symbols! I was definitely barking up the wrong tree trying associate their origins to the context of everyday usage. But with that cleared up, this article almost wrote itself (not really, content creation takes effort, people).

The Dumpling Emoji Project

I must highlight the existence of this project. It was started by Jennifer 8. Lee and Yiying Lu who were appalled by the fact that we do not have a dumpling emoji (I love dumplings, so I’m appalled too). But when they looked into the emoji proposal process, they found that the Unicode Consortium was actually controlled by a handful of multinational American tech corporations. And membership is quite pricey.

The decision makers along the way are overwhelmingly male, overwhelming white and overwhelmingly engineers. They specialize in encoding. Such a review process certainly is less than ideal for promoting a vibrant visual language used throughout the world.

So they came up with a Kickstarter project called Where Is the Dumpling Emoji? to raise enough funds to get non-voting affiliate membership in the Unicode Consortium, and eventually create a system where popular emoji requests (#emojirequest) can systematically bubble up and get transformed into proper proposals for the Unicode Consortium.

And by golly, they did it! With the amount of publicity their campaign generated and support from like-minded emoji-loving people, Unicode v10.0, slated for release in June 2017, will include the Dumpling, Takeout box, Fortune cookie and Chopsticks emojis. As a side note, I’m excited because the “Face with one eyebrow raised” emoji also made the cut.

I love a happy ending 🎊. Here’s the link to the actual Dumpling Emoji Submission that was proposed earlier this year.

Here’s the good stuff 💃

Because I hang out at the Full Emoji List page so often, I’m 95% confident I caught all of CJK character emojis (as of December 2016), but drop me a message if I did miss any. This list is going to cover Japanese characters as well.

Quick primer on written Japanese characters. There are 3 character types: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are syllabary, which means they represent the sounds that make up the words.

Hiragana is curved and flowing, and mainly used for native Japanese words and word-endings. Katakana is simple and angular, and mainly used for writing of loanwords, scientific or technical terms. Kanji are Han characters, adopted from Chinese characters. Now that that’s out of the way, here we go.

🈁️ Japanese “here” button

Also known as “Squared Katakana Koko”, read as “ko-ko”, and means “here” in Japanese. Written as ここ in Hiragana. Given this is a Japanese word, there’s only the Japanese context. It seems like it’s typically written as Hiragana in everyday use, like ここです (koko desu, meaning “it’s/I’m here”). Personally, I suspect the Katakana style is easier to render in the space of that tiny glyph.

🈂️ Japanese “service charge” button

Also known as “Squared Katakana Sa”, read as “sa”. Written as さ in Hiragana. Again, this is a Japanese word, with only the Japanese context. It’s one of the basic Japanese kana. Most likely derived from the word “service” as in “サービス”

🈷️ Japanese “monthly amount” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-6708”. It’s a Kanji character, read as “tsuki” in Japanese, and “yue” in Chinese, and can mean “monthly” or “moon” in both languages.

🈶️ Japanese “not free of charge” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-6709”. It’s a Kanji character, read as “yuu” in Japanese, and “you” in Chinese, and means “to have” in both languages. In Chinese, this word can be used standalone, for example, if someone asks you if you have any spare change (你身上有没有零钱?), you can answer with a simple 有,to say yes, you do have spare change. In Japanese, it’s used as part of a phrase, which can give you a myriad of meanings, like “有名” (famous) or “有用” (useful). I think this particular emoji came from the phrase “有料”, which means “toll” or “charge”.

🈯️ Japanese “reserved” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-6307”. It’s a Kanji character, read as “yubi” in Japanese, and “zhi” in Chinese, and means “finger” or “point” in both languages. It can also mean “toe” when combined with the word “foot”, so it’s “脚指” in Chinese and “足の指” in Japanese. Original television symbol for “designated hitter” or “指名打者” (yes, the baseball kind).

🉐️ Japanese “bargain” button

Also known as “Circled Ideograph Advantage”. It’s a Kanji character, read as “toku” in Japanese, and “de” in Chinese, and means “gain” in both languages. Again, it’s usually found as part of a phrase, which then modifies its meaning somewhat. Like “得意” means proud of oneself, in both languages.

🈹️ Japanese “discount” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-5272”. It’s a Kanji character, read as “wari” in Japanese and “ge” (hard G-sound) in Chinese. It means “split” in Japanese, and can have several other meanings when used as part of a phrase. It means “cut” in Chinese. This particular emoji comes from the phrase “割引”, which means “discount”.

🈚️ Japanese “free of charge” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-7121”. It is a Kanji character, read as “mu” in Japanese and “wu” in Chinese, and means “nothing” in both languages. Original television symbol for “free broadcasting service”.

🈲️ Japanese “prohibited” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-7981”. It is a Kanji character, read as “kin” in Japanese and “jin” in Chinese, and means “forbidden” in both languages. Mostly used in signage that indicates something is prohibited, like “禁烟” (Chinese) or “禁煙” (Japanese) means “no smoking”.

🉑️ Japanese “acceptable” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-7981”. It is a Kanji character, read as “ka” in Japanese and “ke” in Chinese, and means “acceptable” in both languages in the context of the phrase “许可”. Almost always used as part of a phrase, like “可能” (possible) or “可爱” (cute).

🈸️ Japanese “application” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-7533”. It is a Kanji character, read as “saru” in Japanese and “shen” in Chinese, and means “application” in both languages in the context of the phrase “申請”. Fun fact, the word is also representative of the Monkey in the Zodiac system.

🈴️ Japanese “passing grade” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-5408”. It is a Kanji character, read as “go” in Japanese and “he” in Chinese, and means “unite” or “join” in both languages. This emoji comes from the phrase “合格”, which means “passed” in both languages.

🈳️ Japanese “vacancy” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-7a7a”. It is a Kanji character, read as “sora” in Japanese and “kong” in Chinese, and can mean “empty” in both languages. In Japanese, it can also mean “sky”. The concept of “空” is an integral part of Buddhism. One of the most well-known lines from the Heart Sutra is “舍利子,色不異空,空不異色;色即是空,空即是色。” which means “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”. This particular emoji comes from the phrase “空席”, which means “vacancy”.

㊗️ Japanese “congratulations” button

Also known as “Circled Ideograph Congratulation”. It is a Kanji character, read as “i-wai” in Japanese and “zhu” in Chinese, and means “congratulations” in both languages. It has a celebratory connotation, and is commonly used in the phrase “祝福”, which means “blessings” in both languages.

㊙️ Japanese “secret” button

Also known as “Circled Ideograph Secret”. It is a Kanji character, read as “hee” in Japanese and “mee” in Chinese, and means “secret” in both languages, from the phrase “秘密”. It is also used in several other phrases with completely different meanings, like “秘書”, which means “secretary”.

🈺️ Japanese “open for business” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-55b6”. It is a Kanji character, read as “ei” in Japanese and “yin” in Chinese, and as a noun can mean “camp” in both languages. This character is only used in Japanese, even though it is a recognised Chinese character, it is always written as “营”, with the exact same meaning. This particular emoji probably comes from “営業”, which means “business is operational” and its Chinese equivalent is “营业”.

🈵️ Japanese “no vacancy” button

Also known as “Squared CJK Unified Ideograph-6e80”. It is a Kanji character, read as “mitsuru” and “mun” (as in “bun”) in Chinese, and means “full” in both languages. This is also a Japanese only character, as the Chinese equivalent is “满”, which means the same thing. Its usage as part of other phrases is similar in Japanese and Chinese, like “満足” or “满足” means “satisfied”.

Wrapping up

So that’s 17 East Asian character emojis covered. Plus the short version of the emoji origin story and some unlikely (in my opinion) sources as well. I hope you also picked up some knowledge about the Chinese and Japanese language.

There are lots of people, like the aforementioned Jennifer 8. Lee and Yiying Lu, who love emojis. So here's a shout-out to 2 of my favourite emoji people. First is Jeremy Burge, Founder and Chief Emoji Officer at Emojipedia.

And Monica Dinculescu, who builds lots of wonderful emoji-related side projects and created the original emojis as a font that all of us can use if we want to.

2016 hasn’t been the best of years, to be honest. But let’s all hang in there. Here’s to the dawn that comes after the darkest of nights 🍷.

Emoji resources 🤓

Websites and documents

Articles

Credits: OG:image from New York Times article: Look Who’s Smiley Now: MoMA Acquires Original Emoji