Drawing from the results of focus group interviews conducted between 2006 and 2010 in Japan, this paper examines the functions of emoji. Now that emoji have gained global recognition as seen in mobile applications, examining the way Japanese teens use emoji offers some insight into the way emoji use is practiced among teens in the global cultural context. The results highlight two functions of emoji in the context of mobile interactions: emoji allow Japanese teens to manage communication climate as well as to construct and express their aesthetic selves. Further research is needed to investigate to what extent these interaction norms, symbolic meanings, and electronic emotions are applicable to various cultural contexts in the era of smart phones. Such efforts will promote our further understanding of both current and future trends of teens’ mobile emoji use, emotional experiences, sense of the self, and relational concerns.
Mobile media plays a critical role in understanding teens’ media consumption and culture. In fact, teens have been one of the primary focuses in the field of mobile communication studies during the past decades and numerous case studies have reported on this in a variety of cultural contexts (e.g., Green, 2003; Ling and Yttri, 2002; Ito, et al., 2005; Oksman and Rautiainen, 2003a, 2003b; Skog, 2002). One of the essential components of mobile media consumption is the use of emoticons. In 1982, Scott E. Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University proposed the smiley ☺ to indicate jokes and humors and the frowny ☹ to indicate “not jokes” (Baron, 2009). Although the initial use of emoticons was in the context of computer-mediated communication, emoticons have been adopted and used widely in the context of mobile texting as well. Since then, numerous emoticons have been created and many of them represent facial expressions, which has contributed to the idea of emoticons as emotional expressions in technologically mediated communication.
However, the simple association between emoticons and emotional expressions is rather problematic. As Baron points out, the meanings of smileys and frownys developed and diversified just like the meanings of certain words (e.g., bad, wicked) change depending on the context. People managed to communicate in writing without emoticons in the past (e.g., formal letters), and as Baron puts it, “the status of emoticons in clarifying meaning has become increasingly questionable” . Dresner and Herring (2010) also point out that the common notion of emoticons as icons that convey emotions is limited, and propose the illocutionary force as an important communicative function of emoticons. Drawing on the speech act theory, they argue that emoticons “help convey an important aspect of the linguistic utterance they are attached to: What the user intends by what he or she types” . They also note that emoticons can be considered to be parts of text-like punctuation marks.
Despite the common use of emoticons across social media, their functions remain unclear. In order to discern various functions of emoticons, it is useful to consider what human emotions are. Damasio (2005) explains emotions and feelings, as well as their relationship with the body, with biological mechanisms. According to Damasio, “an emotion is a collection of changes in body state connected to particular mental images that have activated a specific brain system,” whereas “the essence of feeling an emotion is the experience of such changes in juxtaposition to the mental images that initiated the cycle” . Taking a sociological perspective, Illouz (2007) defines emotions as “the inner energy that propels us toward an act, what gives a particular ‘mood’ or ‘coloration’ to an act” , and allows us to “enact cultural definitions of personhood as they are expressed in concrete and immediate but always culturally and socially defined relationships” . Although each contains a slightly different emphasis, both conceptualizations highlight a close connection between emotions and the human body, and how emotions can affect human actions. It is, then, pivotal for humans to “manage the heart” (Hochschild, 2003) so that we can act properly within a given social, cultural, and relational context. At the same time, because emotions and the human body are so closely connected, we also put a high value on “the unmanaged heart.” As Hochschild puts it, “(t)he more the heart is managed, the more we value the unmanaged heart,” seeking “natural” and “authentic” feelings .
The conceptualization of human emotions and their role in our social, cultural, and relational experiences raise an important point: the function of emoticons as an expression of emotions in the mediated social interactions appears to be debatable. The controlled nature of emoticon use as well as the seeming separation between emotions and the body due to the technological mediation highlight the limitation of emoticons as a form of emotional expression. At the same time, the relevance of emotions to emoticons is hard to refute. Here, the notion of electronic emotions sheds some light. Fortunati and Vincent (2009) explain the difference between mediated emotions and electronic emotions: mediated emotions are “emotions felt, narrated or showed to distant interlocutors via ICTs,” while electronic emotions are “emotions lived, re-lived or discovered through machines” . This suggests that the electronic emotions consider information and communication technologies (ICTs) as central in experiencing, and furthermore, embodying emotions. The notion of electronic emotions brings us back to the link among emotions, ICTs, and the body. In particular, this notion is fundamental in considering the use of emoticons via mobile ICTs given the close proximity between mobile ICTs and the human body (e.g., Fortunati, 2003a, 2003b; Katz, 2003; Sugiyama, 2013; Sugiyama and Vincent, 2013).
The case of the Japanese cultural context, which is often considered as a case where mobile communications developed in a unique way with technologically advanced mobile devices in wide use before the smart phone era, offer some insight into the functions of emoticons. In the Japanese mobile culture a decade ago, emoticons took two major forms: kaomoji and emoji. Kaomoji literally means “face (kao)-letter (moji).” This type of emoticon is made up of a combination of typographical symbols (e.g., colon, semi-colon, parenthesis, etc.) and typically indicates a facial expression (e.g., smiley face, upset face, sorry face, and so on). On the other hand, emoji literally means “picture (e)-letter (moji),” and includes numerous types of pictographs including smiley face, animals, flowers and trees, food and drinks, and so on. For feature phones, so-called “Galapagos keitai” , various emoji usually come with the mobile device even though there are slight differences across service providers. It is the emoji that seem to play an important role in the emoticon use for Japanese teens. Nowadays, mainstream social media users across the world have adopted the emoji, or so-called “stickers” in some cases, and different examples of facial expressions and cartoon-like visual icons are widely available in such social media as Facebook, Whatsapp, Viber, and Line, among others. As smart phones with globally adopted applications have become widespread, more and more people have access to the same type of emoji. Now that the emoji have gained global recognition, as we can see in the mobile applications, examining the way Japanese teens use emoji offers some insight into the way the emoji use is practiced among teens in the global cultural context.
Drawing from the results of focus group interviews conducted between 2006 and 2010 in Japan, this paper examines functions of emoji. According to Livingstone and Drotner (2008), in order to consider the consequences of children/teens’ global media consumption, it is critical that we understand how young people make sense of symbolic forms increasingly mediated by communication technologies . Taking the perspective of teens as the creative and playful agent of media consumption (Buckingham, 2008), the present paper examines some of the major use patterns of emoji as it relates to various forms of self-expression among Japanese teens.
The focus group interview data was collected between 2006–2010 in Japan. The method of focus group interviews has its strength in creating dynamics that are similar to those of everyday social discourse (Lindlof, 1995), which is beneficial for understanding the use patterns of emoji as explained in the participants’ own words. Four sessions of focus group interviews were conducted in 2006 and four sessions were conducted in 2010. For the 2006 interviews, all groups were composed of college students. For the 2010 interviews, two groups were composed of college students, one group was composed of graduate students, and one group was composed of young professionals. Since the focus of this paper is teens, only the results from the six focus groups of college students (total of 39 participants) were used unless the other interview results became relevant for highlighting the teen’s emoji use. Even though the focus group participants are college students that may borderline between teens and young adults, Japanese college students are still at the developmental stage in terms of major social and financial responsibilities and under significant parental supervision. Furthermore, they are able to report their recent recollection of their high school years with their mobile device. As a member of the more mature group of teens, they are also likely to have higher aptitude for articulating their personal experiences and reflections, which is an important consideration for selecting interview participants (Lindlof, 1995).
Each interview session lasted about one hour, taking a semi-structured approach. All focus group interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Once the transcriptions were completed, the data was analyzed using the grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). In this process, past literature and experience were used to sensitize the analytical perspective of the researcher, while minimizing the possibility of forced interpretations (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). Throughout the analysis, the researcher sought to discern phenomena, which are “repeated patterns of happenings, events, or actions/interactions that represent what people do or say, alone or together, in response to the problems and situations in which they find themselves” . In the present study, the researcher focused on some repeated patterns of the norms of the teen’s emoji use.
In examining teens’ use of emoji, two major concerns for self-expressions are identified: concerns for relational maintenance and concerns for constructing self-image. For both concerns, we can see that experiences of emotions serve as an undercurrent.
Concerns for relational maintenance
Not surprisingly, the interview participants reported that they express themselves using emoji in order to maintain positive relationships with others. Interviewees commented on how they use certain emoji to avoid creating a “cold” impression or to avoid their friends thinking that they are angry for some reason. In particular, female participants mentioned how meiru  without any emoji can easily trigger the impression that “something must be wrong.” In a culture where expressions of negative emotions are considered as a social taboo, this is a major concern in negotiating social relationships.
There were some who said that they tend not to pay much attention to the amount of emoji they use with their close friends, but exert special care to the emoji use with those who are not very close in order to make sure that they create a friendly and favorable impression. This trend was also found in discussing how participants tend not to use many emoji when they are sending meiru to their mothers. As one of the participants described, her meiru to her mother tends to be “all black” because the emoji, which comes in all the different shapes and colors, is not incorporated into the meiru.
Female 1 : When there is so much to say, I tend not to use emoji. The meiru exchanges between my mom and me are black! [laugh]
Moderator: Because emoji are in all different colors?
Female 1: Yes.
Moderator: You use a lot of emoji? But all black when corresponding with your mom?
Female 1: [laugh] All black with my mom. I use emoji when I have some yutori (emotional space/relaxed in time).
Moderator: You use emoji?
Male 1: Yes, I use them.
Female 1: When there are so many things to say, [my meiru] all end with period. [laugh] Or [end with] an exclamation mark!
Male 1: An exclamation mark?
Female 2: Yes.
Female 1: But I never fail to use emoji with friends.
She does not have to worry about creating some friendly impression with colorful and cheerful emoji when it comes to meiru to her mother. On the other hand, she emphasizes the importance of using emoji with her friends; relationships with friends require constant monitoring and work to maintain. A mother-daughter relationship also takes great effort to maintain, but as a young daughter, she seems to assume her mother’s unconditional love and understanding, thus allowing her to feel more relaxed and to focus on the message content rather than the overall relational maintenance via meiru. Other FGI participants also commented that they make sure that they send friendly and upbeat meiru to their friends.
They also commented on how they try to balance their use of emoji with use by a particular interactant. For example, if they use a lot of emoji and the other replied without any emoji, they feel somewhat embarrassed because they feel they came out as too excited. This suggests that they need to negotiate proper forms of self-expression via emoji in everyday interactions. Using too few emoji will run the risk of creating a cold and unfavorable impression of the self, while using too many will risk creating an overly enthusiastic impression. This proper amount of emoji use is essential to maintain pleasant relationships. Here what we note is that emoji are used to express certain emotions, such as excitement or an upbeat mood, but it does not mean that they use an emoji of an “excited face.” It could be a sparkly star that conveys excitement for instance, complicating the relationship between a particular emoji and what it conveys.
Then, it comes as no surprise that not only the amount of emoji but also the types of emoji are of great concern. One focus group had participants that all reported that some animals such as a cat, rabbit, chick, and turtle have become part of the repertoire of their meiru. For example, the following conversation illustrates how a cat (neko) and chick (hiyoko) are useful for creating a mild and calm communication climate:
Male 1: I use ... like a neko (cat) .
All: Yeah, a neko! Neko is convenient!
Female 1: Hiyoko (chick) is also convenient!
[Others get excited showing agreement.]
Moderator: Why are a neko and a hiyoko convenient?
All: I wonder why ...
Female 1/Male 1: After a question mark, put a neko.
Moderator: A neko after a question mark?
Female 2: Becomes a bit kawaii (cute) ... maroyaka (milder).
Male 1: Yeah, maroyaka! It creates a feel of odayaka (calmness).
Moderator: I see, like odayaka.
Male 1: When I want to express funwari (softness).
Moderator: Neko and hiyoko?
Female 1: Yes.
Female 2: We can use them for any occasions.
Female 1: When I’m happy or I’m a bit troubled, it’s like “well, let’s use them anyhow at the moment.”
Male 1: For anything. [laugh]
Moderator: I never thought that a neko is convenient.
Female 2: Also, a kirakira (sparkle) is convenient.
All females: Yeah, a kirakira!
The concerns expressed in the conversation highlight a keen awareness of a given communication climate: participants have to pay close attention to the meiru they exchange in terms of its message content and the overall mood it conveys. In this regard, the emoji of fluffy animals like cats and chicks become handy for them according to the focus group participants. The role of cats in the contemporary Japanese society has been analyzed in recent years. Drawing on the novel by Yoshiyuki Rie (Chiisana kifujin or in translation The little lady, 1981), Roquet (2013) highlights the cultural image of cats as cool, calm, cute, and noble, serving as ideal companions that do not trigger a risk of too much emotional attachment. Plourde (2014) explores how cats became one of the most important healing commodities in the contemporary Japanese society by analyzing the cat café phenomenon. Drawing on the notion of affective labor (Hardt and Negri, 2000), she argues that cats engage in the immaterial affective labor in the case of cat café. Both works explicate how the desire for emotional comfort became such a prevailing sentiment in the post-bubble Japanese society. These cultural analyses of cats offer an insightful framework for understanding why the emoji cat is being used to create a calm, soft, mild, and cute ambience among Japanese teens. They are the generation of the post-bubble Japan. Although keeping harmonious relations with others is not a new trend in the post-bubble era, the societal context in which they were raised can certainly accentuate concerns for a calm and non-confrontational communication climate.
By discerning the subtle messages at the content level as well as the relational level, these Japanese teens are able to properly participate in the mobile-mediated interactions with their friends. In these proper interactions based on the particular culture of Japanese teens, use of emoji plays a critical role. Emoji are not necessarily used to tell their friends that they are smiling or crying; it is an integral part of the message to set the tone of a given relationship. In the case of Japanese teens, emoji is not used to supplement their emotional expressions or to make their meanings and intentions clear, although it might be used like a punctuation mark. Emoji carry much more complicated and rich meanings. An important function of emoji that emerges here is to create and recreate a pleasant tone of communication, which is critical in social interactions in Japan. There is a Japanese expression kūki o yomu, literally translated into “reading the air.” This expression is used to indicate the importance of grasping the overall mood of the situation, something that resembles the idea of communication climate. Those who cannot “read the air” are understood as having a negative personal character. In Japanese culture where blank space is highly valued, as suggested in the concept of ma (in-betweenness), people grew up learning to pay close attention to things that are not concretely expressed. The practice of using emoji is like constantly fine-tuning the invisible “air” that surrounds a given relationship. Interactants co-construct the pleasant “air” between them by carefully incorporating appropriate emoji. This co-constructed communication climate could be closely related to the background feeling that Damasio speaks about, “a minimalist in tone and beat, the feeling of life itself, the sense of being” and “corresponds instead to the body state prevailing between emotions” .
Concerns for constructing the self-image
Many participants reported their concerns for expressing their taste with emoji including not only some typical facial expressions such as a smiley face and a angry face, but also flowers, animals, a thunderstorm, and so on. Female participants, in particular, tended to note how they pay attention to the overall visual aspect of their meiru by making sure that their emoji are not all in the same color. For example, one female participant explained that if she used a yellow emoji once, she avoids another emoji in yellow so that the overall look of the meiru is nicely color-coordinated. They pay attention to such a visual aspect because they believe it express their personal taste and aesthetic sensibility. Use of a series of carefully selected emoji including animated ones, along with balanced color coordination, needs to fit to the image of the person who sends the meiru. Simultaneously, sending such a visually pleasing meiru “fashions” the image of the person.
In discussing their concerns for expressing their taste with emoji, the teens spoke about kawaii meiru, and they seemed to have a shared understanding of what constitutes such a cute meiru. Kawaii is a critical aesthetic value in the contemporary Japanese culture. Yomota (2006) traces the origin of kawaii aesthetic value to the Makuranosōshi in the eleventh century. He lists the characteristics of kawaii: something small, nostalgic, delicate and fragile, immature, lovable, pretty, magical, and so on . It is difficult to find an equivalent translation in another language, and as Yomota puts it, kawaii is like the “magic powder” that can give positive values to even most mundane things, people, and actions . At the same time, this magical power of kawaii allows one to take the edge off things, people, and actions in everyday life, depoliticize them, and thus, create a non-threatening mood. In this way, everything can be described as kawaii, including a certain type and use of meiru.
The kawaii aesthetics are an important part of fashion because it has a considerable power in defining a norm of female appearance in contemporary Japanese culture. The fundamental notion of fashion as a form of self-expression and group-identity (e.g., Crane, 2000; Davis, 1992, 1985; Kaiser, 1990) has been applied to mobile communication studies in the past. For instance, the mobile phone’s appearance (composed of its shape, color, decoration, and user’s body) has been analyzed from the perspective of fashion among the Japanese youth (e.g., Sugiyama, 2010, 2009). Fashion is one of the critical concepts in explaining mobile phone related behaviors (e.g., Ling, 2003; Fortunati, 2003a, 2003b, 2002; Katz and Sugiyama, 2006), and Japanese youth define and express their selves as well as perceive others’ sense of the self via a mobile phone’s appearance. In the same way, the focus group participants suggested that the use of emoji in the kawaii manner is an important part of defining and expressing their selves and is used to construct and manage their self-images. In this construction and expression of the self and group identity, kawaii aesthetics have become a central theme; it is something that should be kept in mind in understanding dynamically changing fashion trends.
The aesthetics of kawaii is particularly relevant to female teens. On the other hand, the kawaii meiru are not favorably perceived if used by male teens. In pointing out that male teens tend to use fewer emoji, the following conversation occurred:
Female 1: Boys these days tend to use more emoji.
Male 1: Yes, herbivorous .
[Other girls echo him, “herbivorous!”]
Moderator: Boys use them often these days?
Male 1: Yes.
All females: Yes, they use!
Moderator: You’ve been using emoji from the beginning like junior high or high school?
Male 1: Yes.
Several females: Ah really?
Female 1: Really?
Moderator: Do you feel that you receive meiru with too many emoji from boys?
Female 1: Yeah! Increased!
Several females: Yes, increased!
Male 1: Like receiving a super kawaii meiru from a huge guy.
All females: Yes, right!
This conversation suggests that the kawaii meiru with a lot of colorful emoji does not match the image of a boy, perhaps an athlete with huge muscles in particular. Katz (2003) posits that machines have to become us; machines have to match the self-image of the user. Kawaii aesthetics that are small and fragile that are conveyed via certain emoji use do not become a boy with a large body, certainly larger than the girls who participated in the focus group.
Not only for teens but also for young adults are the kawaii aesthetics for emoji use important. The following conversation took place in the FGI session of young adults indicating the similar points emerged in the teens’ FGI:
Female 1: Men don’t use emoji that much.
Male 1: Yeah, it’s too much trouble.
Female 1: It’s like ... men don’t use them [laugh]. If a man uses a lot of emoji and [sends me] kawaii meiru ... [it would be awkward].
Male 1: Things like an exclamation mark, I use. Or smileys.
All females: Those are ok.
Female 1: If there are a lot of emoji [when I receive a meiru from a man], it’s startling, isn’t it?
[Other female participants agree.]
Female 1: [in discussing meiru from female friends] There are some emoji with good taste. Sometimes it appeals to my heart. Kawaii! Overall.
Moderator: What is a meiru with good taste like?
Female 1: Like color. Insert unexpected emoji in the unexpected place. Somehow kawaii, I like it.
Female 2: [to a male participant] What do you think of a meiru with no emoji, not friendly? You don’t want to become a friend?
Female 1: You must prefer kawaii meiru, no?
Male 1: Sure, perhaps it’s better that meiru is kawaii than not kawaii.
Female 2: No emoji, all black from a girl, makes me wonder if she is in a bad mood.
Male 1: I never thought in that way.
It is interesting to note that female participants here are very conscious about kawaii image that they and their female friends convey via emoji. On the other hand, the male participant is rather oblivious about such concerns. Female 1 further commented that one of her friends is always kawaii with her use of animated emoji and she is always impressed by her friend’s capacity to construct such kawaii meiru. In response to a focus group participant, Female 1 said that she also tries to send kawaii meiru because meiru convey what type of person the sender is. Once again in this FGI as well, kawaii meiru is not suitable for the proper image of a man. As the quoted FGI conversation indicates, female participants joked about kawaii meiru with a lot of emoji by male friends, and a male FGI participant needed to defend his manliness by receiving an approval of his use of emoji.
The present paper highlights two functions of emoji in the context of mobile interactions: emoji allow Japanese teens to manage the communication climate as well as to construct and express their aesthetic self. The former includes emotional expressions but the emotional expression is not necessarily used to convey the emotions these users felt; it is the emotions that they need to convey in order to construct and maintain pleasant relationships. In this way, teens engage in a sort of affective labor via emoticons. Teens are constantly managing their heart and conveying socially appropriate emotions with carefully selected emoji. This helps them monitor and fine-tune background feelings of themselves and their interactants, contributing to an amiable communication climate. This type of emotional expressions can be effectively analyzed not as mediated emotions but as electronic emotions; these emotions expressed via emoji become real, and furthermore, become embodied emotional experiences via mobile phone. In this way, Japanese teens are participating in the techno-emotional circuit that Barile and Sugiyama (2015) speak of. The latter suggests that emoji serve as an aesthetic expression rather than an emotional expression. By carefully inserting emoji in proper places in the proper amount, Japanese teens as well as young adults express their taste and construct their aesthetic self. This aesthetic aspect of emoji use appears to be quite gendered. The use of emoji is an essential part of fashioning the self, as the aesthetic aspect of the meiru with emoji becomes a part of how they define and redefine themselves just like mobile decoration.
Even though this paper focused on the case of Japanese teens, the findings can offer some insights into the way young people use emoji in the global context. The main findings point to teens’ intricate social interactions imbued with group-based interaction norms and symbolic meanings, highlighting some of their playful yet carefully controlled social interactions with their mobile phones. This point offers an additional support for the hyper-coordination theory (Ling and Yttri, 2002), which can now be considered a classic mobile communication theory. Further research is needed to investigate to what extent these interaction norms, symbolic meanings, and electronic emotions are applicable to other cultural contexts in the era of smart phones. Such efforts will promote our further understanding of current and future trends in teens’ mobile emoji use, emotional experiences, sense of the self, and relational concerns.
About the author
Satomi Sugiyama (Ph.D., Rutgers University) is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Franklin University in Switzerland. Her research interests include mobile information and communication technologies (ICTs), culture, and fashion processes. Her work has appeared in several edited books as well as academic journals including New Media & Society, intervalla, and the International Journal of Social Robotics.
E-mail: ssugiyama [at] fus [dot] edu
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Received 21 January 2015; revised 29 July 2015; accepted 4 September 2015.
Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Satomi Sugiyama. All Rights Reserved.
Kawaii meiru and Maroyaka neko: Mobile emoji for relationship maintenance and aesthetic expressions among Japanese teens
by Satomi Sugiyama.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 10 - 5 October 2015
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.