First Monday

Cultural literacy in the empire of emoji signs: Who is crying with joy? by Alisa Freedman

Unicode emoji, originating in Japan but expanded through worldwide usage, is a means to assess how the globalization of Japanese popular culture promotes cultural literacy and awareness of multiculturalism. Emoji reveal discrimination and diversity within cultures, but emoji alone are “unreadable.” They need to be used together with established modes of expression to avoid misunderstandings. Literature, as one of the most intentional and nuanced forms of language, provides insight into this lesson. I propose a semiotic reading of emoji inspired by Roland Barthes and posit his Empire of signs (L’Empire des signes) as an analogy for the incorporation of Japanese emoji into world languages and literatures. To test this theoretical application of emoji, I analyze the findings of “Emoji Literature Translation Contests” held in my university courses.


Introducing emoji theory
Culture of emoji literacy
Empire of emoji signs
Emoji translation



Introducing emoji theory

Emoji (絵文字) is a Japanese product that has been managed and augmented outside Japan. As originally defined by the term, emoji (literally, picture characters) are pictograms added to text messages to ensure the appropriate emotional message is received and to share images without taking up much bandwidth. First available outside of Japan through third-party apps, and Google, cellphones, blogging platforms, and social media have mainstreamed these now instantly recognizable yellow faces, holiday symbols, foods, and other icons, many of which require Japanese cultural knowledge to be understood. Emoji globalized more rapidly after a complete standard set was incorporated into Unicode in 2010 and preprogrammed in iPhones in 2011 [1]. Unicode emoji consist of a base of 719 Japanese carrier emoji. New emoji characters, which are mostly objects, identities, and practices found worldwide, are continually added by the Unicode Consortium, a California-based technical group established in 1991 that strongly takes cultural sensitivity into account. Emoji are often crowdsourced, as users can submit petitions to the Unicode consortium [2]. To date, no emoji characters have been removed. Unicode 10, released in 20 June 2017, comprises 2,666 emoji. When Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzō Abe visited the United States in April 2015 to discuss increasing Japan’s military role in Asia, among other topics, President Obama thanked him for karate, karaoke, anime, and emoji. Although this joke can be read as cultural stereotyping (e.g., Abe probably would not thank Obama for the Kardashians and Marvel Comics), it demonstrates the political role of popular culture and the expanse of transnational fandoms (see Freedman and Slade, 2017). Yet many users do not realize emoji are from Japan.

Emoji are arguably the most common mainstream non-verbal communication tool able to accompany all world languages, to span generations, and to cross national boundaries. As of March 2015, half the text posts on Instagram included emoji (Davis and Edberg, 2017). In March 2013, the word was officially pluralized as “emojis” in the American Copyeditors Society’s Associated Press Stylebook (the standard usage guide for U.S. journalists), defying Japanese grammatical rules for collective nouns in favor of consistency with English (Kassel, 2014). (Here, I use emoji as a collective noun in a similar way to “anime,” “manga,” “kimono,” and “sushi.”) The Oxford English Dictionary chose the “crying with joy” emoji as the top English “word” in the media in the year 2015. Realizing emoji’s commercial potential, at least 13 American celebrities have sold their own emoji, starting with Kim Kardashian’s racy Kimoji (2015), the first to include the obscene middle-finger hand gesture. Since 2014, World Emoji Day has been celebrated on 17 July, the date on the calendar page emoji. Global tributes in 2017 included illuminating the Empire State Building in emoji face yellow, but, to date, little has been done to mark the day in Japan, where holiday marketing is a dominant trend (witness the rise of Halloween in recent years) and dates (read in the American format of month-day) form homophones for products. (31 August is Vegetable Day [8/31 = yasai] and Hatsune Miku Day [3/9 = miku]) Emoji have been used to encourage people around the world to “do things,” as exemplified by Twitter’s creation of a new emoji to remind subscribers to register by 7 June 2016 to vote for the EU referendum, and to unify communities (see, for example, Bruns, et al., 2013). Various media have been playfully created out of and “translated” into emoji, from famous paintings to world literature. While several emoji characters visualize aspects of Japanese culture, emoji’s national origins have largely been forgotten, bypassed, or ignored.

This being the case, do emoji present the possibility of global communication that transcends nations, or do they instead make national differences more apparent? I argue that Unicode emoji, originating in Japan but expanded through worldwide usage, is a means to assess how Japanese popular culture can promote literacy of Japan, as well as one’s own culture and awareness of multiculturalism. Emoji simultaneously reveal discrimination and diversity within cultures (Not all popular culture promotes cultural literacy; some trends instead exacerbate stereotypes, as evident by some Japanese manga and “idol” pop music groups.) But emoji alone are “unreadable.” They need to be used together with established modes of expression in order to avoid misunderstandings. Literature, as one of the most intentional, nuanced, and affective uses of language, provides insight into this lesson. This article explicates use of emoji in fictional narratives to assess their storytelling potential in addition to their mimetic functions.

I propose a semiotic reading of emoji inspired by Roland Barthes and posit his book Empire of signs (L’Empire des signes) as an analogy for the incorporation of Japanese emoji into world languages and literatures. As I will explain, Barthes interpreted the Japanese cultural signs he encountered in Tokyo through his own personal background, rather than through any in-depth knowledge of Japan, and thus interpreted them differently than their originally intended meanings. Although a gesture that might seem exocitizing, essentializing, distancing, and even orientalizing (vis-à-vis binaries analyzed by Edward Said [1979]), Barthes reiterated that he was not accurately depicting Japan itself but was instead describing a fictive land called “Japan” that he was first experiencing and unable to fully know. Similarly, using emoji used without attention to their Japanese context gives rise to secondary local meanings and misunderstandings of Japanese culture. Erasing Japan from emoji creates a methodology for measuring cultural literacy, the narrative and affectual implications of which are apparent through literature. I adopt aspects of Barthes’ writing style, replete with parenthetical information and asides, for additional layers of cultural understanding. Reading Barthes in a genealogy of the globalization of Japanese popular culture illuminates historical turning points and reveals what has changed or not in how Japanese trends have been appropriated worldwide.

In order to establish the theoretical applications of emoji, I will first trace the rise of emoji in Japan as an affective mode of communication to understand their appeal. I draw information mainly from blogs in English and Japanese, in part due to the dearth of academic publications on emoji but mainly because the blogosphere is the place where emoji have been most carefully monitored, catalogued, explained, and evaluated (e.g., on websites from Twitter’s real-time Emojitracker to the crowdsourced Emojipedia available in global languages). Most sources I have found are in English, reflecting the places where emoji are now most popular. I will then discuss how Unicode emoji, as a product that originated from Japan, represents patterns and contradictions inherent in Japanese popular culture and its global reception. Lastly, I will analyze the emoji translation of literature to understand the boundaries of cultural literacy and cross-cultural communication. Instead of explicating commercial emoji translations of known works (to date, few of which have been published in Japan), such as Emoji Dick, the OMG Shakespeare series (e.g., YOLO Juliet) and )A midsummer night #nofilter), and Bible Emoji: Scripture 4 Millennials, I will discuss the findings of “Emoji Literature Translation Contests” held in two of my University of Oregon courses: “Digital Age Stories: Literature and New Media in Japan and the United States” (mixed college and graduate seminar, fall 2015) and “Japanese Popular Culture in the World” (lower-division undergraduate seminar, winter 2017). These pedagogical exercises are a direct means to engage with literary texts and experience the merits and limitations of emoji. Much of my research on Japanese popular culture has been inspired by my teaching experiences (e.g., Freedman and Slade, 2017), given that students are the people most intimately surrounded by and involved with popular culture. In my classes, we put Henry Jenkins’ (e.g., 2010, 2006) notion of “participatory culture,” or active engagement with culture as producers as well as consumers, into academic practice: We both analyze and appropriate Japanese trends, to see how fan cultures extend over national boundaries and legal limits to better understand the role of digital media in the globalization of Japanese culture. My students, whether they realized or not, also put Barthes’ theories to the test.

My analysis relies on three theoretical approaches: First, I use the term “cultural literacy,” coined by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (1988), to denote the ability to understand and participate in a culture by being able to “read” its semiotic signs. Hirsch advocated that being culturally literate requires knowledge of the shared body of information underpinning a society, something that he believed children were not learning well enough in school. An understanding of history, beliefs, customs, arts, media, values, and idioms is also important, as spoken and written words are insufficient for social communication. Cultural literacy can be demonstrated through shared references and jokes, both of which cement societies and are integral to using emoji.

Second, to elaborate on my use of Empire of signs, Barthes believed that a society could be “read” and hence understood through its material culture, and I would add, popular culture, as semiotic signs for larger practices or “mythologies” that underlay metropolitan life. Reading semiotic signs requires cultural literary; Barthes demonstrates what happens when this is lacking. As a companion volume to Mythologies (1957), Barthes wrote Empire of signs (1970), in which he inscribes a set of meanings to the places and things that comprise his idea of Tokyo. Having visited the capital of Japan three times in 1966 and 1967 (the first trip at the invitation of his friend Maurice Pinguet, Director of the Franco-Japanese Institute in Tokyo to whom the book Empire of Signs is dedicated), Barthes was fascinated by the experience of not understanding Japanese language or culture. Although he saw evidence of Tokyo’s development, especially in its commercial culture and transportation networks, Barthes contrasts his view of an unchanging and unreadable Japan to Western (read: European) bourgeois urban life, which he believed to be overflowing with meaning. Barthes perceives his fictional Japan as a “system” of “empty signs,” things, gestures, and places detached from the ideas they signified. Barthes was struck by the silences, pauses, and seeming emptiness present in highly urbanized Tokyo, from foods to the city’s so-called “empty center,” which he believed to symbolize and suggest rather than directly represent. He read them as foils to European things and places, the referents for which he was familiar. Barthes was also influenced by Zen Buddhism, then in vogue worldwide. From Zen satori, he borrowed the notion that loss of meaning allows for the true nature of something to be seen [3]. In freely reading Tokyo signs, Barthes used Japan as a way to understand France and his personal life, as well as develop a new writing style. Barthes explained, “I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence — to me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of feature whose manipulation — whose invented interplay — allows me to entertain the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.” [4]. This moment of interpretation occurs upon the first encounter with seeming incongruities and illegible culture, “etymologically an adventure” [5]. As an analogy, using emoji can both expand cultural literacy, when used as “full signs” bearing weight of their social and historical context, or erase it, when used as “empty signs” and free-floating signifiers, leading to new meanings as well as new misunderstandings.

Third, the act of translation is more than (re)telling stories in a different linguistic register; instead, translation is the application of cultural literacy of both a text’ s original context and its new sphere of reception. As argued by Lawrence Venuti (1998), translation always reflects the dominant cultural values of the society into which it is received. Translators are responsible for making a literary text and its context accessible in another language, and they convey the experience of what it is like to read the original work. The translator is always forced to make choices and to constantly negotiate between literalness and readability. Accordingly, in addition to linguistic competency and writing skills, knowledge of cultures — both that of the source text and that of the target readership — is required. For example, Ivan Morris, a renowned scholar of Japan and prolific translator of Japanese literature, published a translation of Hayashi Fumiko’ s short story “Tokyo” (Dauntaun, originally printed in the Asahi newspaper in 1948) in Donald Keene’s Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (1956), one of the first compendiums of nineteenth and twentieth century Japanese fiction for American readers. The volume was published at a time when Americans were interested in Japan for political and cultural rather than financial reasons. Japanese objects and concepts, from sukiyaki restaurants to Zen Buddhism, were fashionable because they seemed “exotic” It was a time when Japan was re-emerging on the global scene as an ally against Communism, opening to international visitors (foreigner tourists first allowed to visit Tokyo in 1948), and becoming an exporter of new technologies. Culture was used to shed the impression of Japan as the former military adversary of the United States and to promote the idea of Japan as a peaceful and domesticated nation-state. This was the time before Toyota and Sony became common names, and students studied Japan out of interest in economics (1980s) and popular culture (1990s and beyond). For example, in the 1960s, American and European intellectuals and artists wrote guides to Japanese society, and as a contrast, even antidote, to their own socities (e.g., architect Bernard Rudofsky’s (1965) The kimono mind: An informal guide to Japan and the Japanese), a body of literature of which Barthes’ Empire of signs can be read as part and commentary. To help American readers understand the lives of ordinary people in immediate postwar Tokyo, in his translation, Morris changed cultural referents (turning soba noodles into “cold spaghetti”), abridged the protagonist’s internal monologue about her life choices, and shortened the names of the characters to be easier to pronounce (i.e., Riyo to Ryo) [6]. As a result, some cultural context and literary style was lost in favor of readability, while differences with the United States were accentuated.

My class faced similar predicaments in making their emoji translations accessible yet exotic, distinguished from other modes of writing. The act of translation became an experiment in cross-cultural communication in addition to a means to illuminate the qualities that define literature. We used emoji translations to assess how outsiders’ knowledge of Japanese culture has grown in the digital age and how popular culture has become a global flow of information in ways different from other media. Thereby, our act of translation was a barometer of our knowledge about Japan, my students knowing Japan differently in the 2010s than Barthes did in 1966 thanks in part to emoji.



Culture of emoji literacy

The use of emoticons is not new or limited to Japan. Since the days of typewriters, ASCII artwork (pictures comprised of letters, punctuation marks, and other printable characters) has been used to express emotion, cement reading communities through shared jokes, and expand the visual quality of the book page. This is as evident in various written media, from nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements to 1960s concrete poetry. Japanese authors in the 1920s creatively used Kanji characters to have a stronger emotional effect on readers. For example, Kawabata Yasunari (1988) repeats the character wife (tsuma), three times to create the image of a crowd of individual, lonely wives (妻妻妻) in “Rainy Station” (Shigure eki, 1928), one of his “palm-of-the-hand stories” (tenohira no shōsetsu, stories concise enough to nestle in the palm of your hand), and he uses the character “井” (pronounced ‘i’, meaning well for drawing water), to the depict a cross-hatched pattern of a kimono in his experimental novel Scarlet gang of Asakusa (Asakusa kurenaidan,1930). Emoji are not the first Japanese pictograms created for domestic use to enjoy global reception, as evident by the Running Man exit sign designed by Ota Yukio in 1979 now found worldwide. As a corollary, highly mimetic pictograms were designed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (two years before Barthes’ visit) to help international visitors navigate Tokyo (Martijn, 2014). Yet emoji have been the most ubiquitous and hotly debated set of emoticons because of their easy access on mobile media, aesthetic charm, sheer number, and susceptibility to misreading.

One of the first, and easiest to understand, emoticons among mainstream users was a heart mark ♥ available on the “Pocket Bell” in 1995. The Pocket Bell, first introduced by NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation) in 1968, was a stylish personal pager primarily among women and, in the mid-1990s, the least expensive, private communication tool. Users of Pocket Bells helped popularize SMS (Short Messaging Service), which were made up of 140 to 160-character text messages that altered customs of written communication. With its horizontal, left-right mode of composition, SMS overturned the traditional Japanese convention of reading/writing (i.e., right-left; up-down). SMS thus circumvented conventions of formal Japanese letter-writing, which has relied on seasonal greetings and polite words to soothe social relationships. Without these linguistic clues, it became difficult to read the right emotion into texts (Analogous to Barthes’ [7] misreading of Japanese stoic facial expressions as empty of “moral hierarchies”?).

Abbreviations developed to save space and communicate feelings but placed the expectation of communal knowledge. For example, SKY, for Supā Kūki Yomanai, meaning “super clueless,” was a popular SMS slang in 2007. Other slang extended common practices, such as reading numbers as sounds (e.g. “39” pronounced “san-kyū” as “thank you” or “Mmi-ku” to refer to the animated singer Hatsune Miku). Text languages, to which new words constantly have been added, can be viewed as an extension of the shared vocabularies that solidify social groups (see, for example, Miller, 2017). In addition, Japanese cellphone users popularized “kaomoji,” (顔文字) or “face characters,” often called “smilies” in American English, that had been written on textboards like ASCII Net since the 1980s [8]. While American smilies :) are vertical, Japanese kaomoji are horizontal (^_^), perhaps due to conventions established on earlier textboards. Kaomoji globalized on Japanese language keyboards on iPhones and other platforms. Possible global antecedents to kaomoji include a newspaper transcript by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 with a drawing of a laugh with a semi-colon and parentheses that might have been printer’s typo (Lee, 2009).

A comprehensive set of colorful emoji, including faces and foods, was developed around 1999 by NTT designer Shigetaka Kurita. It was preprogrammed into cellphones, starting with the DoCoMo i-mode units. (NTT established DoCoMo — from “do communications over the mobile network” and a pun for “anywhere” (dokomo) — in 1992 and opened i-mode mobile Internet in 1999.) Other service providers encoded the same set of characters in slightly changed styles, complicating transmission among sets of subscribers. Although incompatibility issues in sending emoji from different providers have been resolved, aesthetic variations continue, as exemplified in Apple and Google’s designs, with applications like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram using those supported by Apple’s operating systems. One difference playfully debated over social media in October 2017 is the placement of the cheese in the burger emoji — Apple placed the cheese above the patty whereas Google placed its cheese below. (e.g., Cooper, 2017). Differences in the size and shape of mouths of the face emoji can cause the emotions behind texts to be misread, leading to more serious misunderstandings. Researchers at University of Minnesota’s GroupLens research lab found that around 40 percent of the 334 participants surveyed confused the sentiment of emoji due to differences in platforms, as the toothy grin on Google looks friendlier than that on Apple (Larson, 2016; Miller, 2016). The smiling eyes of Japanese emoji (carets in (^_^) kaomoji), might seem less happy to people from other countries. The embarrassing results of sending an emoji with facial features that do not match the intended emotion is parodied in The emoji movie (Leondis, 2017), an attempt to capitalize on the success of The lego movie (2014) and other animated films based on well-known commercial products.

Lack of preprogrammed emoji was one factor that hurt sales of iPhones in Japan when they were first released in 2008; their presence added to the cache of Japanese 3G phones (third-generation mobility technology starting in 2001). On one hand, the term “Galapagos Syndrome” (garapagosu-ka), denoting a strain of a global product with features only found locally, was coined in reference to Japanese 3G phones that were too advanced to be used elsewhere; this syndrome reflects both Japan’s reputation for fashionable technology and anxiety about being an isolated “island nation” (Tabuchi, 2009). On the other hand, Japanese cellphones have been on the vanguard of global trends, with features such as photo transmission, (first provided by J-Phone, now part of Softbank, in 2000) ringtones, and emoji. The word “sumaho,” short for “smartphone” touch-screen phones did not become a common media buzzword in Japan until 2011, three years after the iPhone Japan release. In Japan, brands, names, and terms are often abbreviated to their first syllabus after they become widely used, as evident in “sutaba” for Starbucks, “burapi” for Brad Pitt, and “seku hara” for “sexual harassment.”

Even as they globalize, emoji require Japanese cultural knowledge to be understood. Icons like the bowing man, receptionist woman, masked sick face, and foods like dango and oden are included in Unicode Standard. Because these objects are culturally specific, not everyone worldwide can read all the emoji preprogrammed in their phones. The Japanese government has taken action to make pictograms more understandable to foreigners, especially to encourage tourism for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Japanese Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry (METI) has considered revising the appearance of around 90 emoji (Let’s Emoji Project, 2017; Murphy, 2016), including those that are also common Japanese symbols. One of the most contentious choices is the emoji for “hot springs” (onsen), premised on the mark used on building signs, tourism posters, and goods throughout Japan, even on the official seal for Atami City. In July 2016, METI proposed adding seated people to the current depiction of three lines of steam rising from a circle. In a similar gesture of erasing requirements of cultural literacy, standardized symbols for the functions of Japanese toilets were announced in January 2017 (Byford, 2017). These efforts strive to reduce the kinds of illegible signs that made Barthes feel lost in Tokyo.

The inability to read universal meanings in emoji has given rise to secondary meanings in local contexts. For example, the clasped hands emoji, meaning “thanks” or “please” in Japan, has come to symbolize prayer in the United States. The Japanese New Year’s decoration of three pieces of bamboo, the middle one higher than the other two, has been adopted as the obscene middle-finger gesture (for those users who do not have Kimoji). Other emoji that have been used in unintended ways include the smiling poop, eggplant, clam, and peach. The frowning poop was one of the new characters being considered for Unicode Standard 11, perhaps more an international nod to emoji’s quirkiness than a reference to the prevalence of anthropomorphized poop in Japanese culture. (See the best-selling series of Unko-sensei [Professor Poop] Kanji character learning guides for Japanese children [Bunkyosha, 2017].) These local interpretations have not been imported into Japan, unlike American variants on Japanese foods like California roll sushi, unless part of a larger international joke or artwork. Apple has used emoji for inside jokes and sly corporate messages, largely unnoticed by users. The text on the Apple version of the open book emoji is from Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign of the late 1990s and early 2000s; the same text is written on the clipboard emoji but is addressed to “Kate” (most likely not an allusion to Kate Pinkerton, the American wife, in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly and its various adaptations set in Japan). Unicode emoji have been added with attention to multiculturalism and diversities within cultures. For example, among the emoji added to Unicode in October 2015 were icons of world religions; June 2018 saw the addition of icons representing Chinese culture. Among the emoji under consideration for Unicode 12 (2019) are 13 icons representing physical disabilities.

Twitter has used emoji to measure the national zeitgeist in Japan and other countries in order to propose ideas for new emoji and to assess public responses to historical events and trends, without perhaps accounting for use of emoji for memesis or sarcasm. According to Twitter, by mid-2015, the most tweeted emoji worldwide was the “crying with joy” face; in 2016 the beating heart was most tweeted in Japan, while the tired face was prevalent in the United States and Canada (Gil, 2016). This can be read as part of a larger movement by media outlets and publishers, like Japan’s Jiyū kokumin-sha that compiles the compendium of Basic Knowledge on Contemporary Terminology (Gendai yōgo no kiso chishiki) and the Oxford English Dictionary, to track prevalent buzzwords to map the flows of public opinion, another impulse aligned with Barthes’ semiotic readings of signs to understand dominant values.

These polls are further evidence of how emoji has become a global set of signifiers, despite the necessity of understanding emoji’s local cultural contexts and corporate origins. Technology has accelerated the ability to experience global products, with the Internet, smartphones, and instant translations continuously mixing Japanese popular culture with the culture of the world. Even emoji characters that are hardly used outside Japan have also been incorporated into the Unicode standard. As such, emoji reveals contradictions inherent in the globalization of Japanese popular culture, while demonstrating the educational value of trends in teaching cultural literacy.



Empire of emoji signs

Emoji provide insight into one form of Japanese culture that can be easily globalized, and incorporated into local contexts: culture which is grounded aspects of Japanese society, history, politics, aesthetics, storytelling conventions, and belief systems yet which can be understood, although in its entirely, abroad. Another prime example is the Pokémon franchise, which includes characters seeped in Japanese aesthetics and introduces global consumers to Japanese marketing strategies like “media mix,” the release of the same product in different media formats (Allison, 2006; Steinberg, 2012). Many products have globalized because they emit the right “cultural odor,” a term coined by Iwabuchi Kōichi (2002) to explain the amount of cultural context a product carries. Some products, like the Sony Walkman in the 1980s, were made to blend seamlessly into global contexts (see Allison, 2006), while others have become popular because they seem somehow “Japanese,” like some forms of J-pop music, television dramas, and anime. It can be said that Barthes was overwhelmed by Tokyo’s strong cultural odor, while still able navigate the city thanks to his knowledge of infrastructural elements generally found in large metropolises, such as stations and stationery stores. Another model is the removal and recalibration of cultural context. As analyzed by William Tsutsui (2017), Godzilla is a franchise that takes on new meanings when it is localized, by erasing or inventing political subtexts, adding layers of interpretation through dubbing, and becoming available in different formats. Emoji proliferated during a time of large-scale globalization of Japanese trends, often through efforts by fans, whose commercial patterns encouraged corporations and the Japanese government to play larger roles in promoting Japanese culture abroad (McLelland, 2016). Emoji were initially part of this movement, as users created third-party platforms for utilizing emoji. After their incorporation by Unicode, more smartphone users, regardless of their feelings for Japan, have relied on emoji.

The global adaptation of emoji disrupts the ways in which popular culture has been marketed in Japan. As a medium of communication that first spread internationally through fan use, rather than commercial promotion, emoji circumvent Japanese marketing programs that are premised on binaries of domestic/foreign and male/female (e.g., kinds of creative industries supported by Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s 2012 “Cool Japan strategy” and girls/boys (shojo/shonen manga). Emoji challenge dominant Japanese business strategies inf(l)ected with the Galapagos Syndrome, such as not exporting projects for which the domestic market is strong enough, as the case for commercial television dramas. Emoji demonstrate how Japanese popular culture both “belongs” to Japan and has become “international,” linking consumers around the world. Emoji question the use of the nation-state as an organizing principle for the categorization of popular culture and show that the designation “Japanese” in Japanese popular culture is more an associative starting point, rather than a marker of exclusivity or locus of origin for what are a globalized set of phenomena (Freedman and Slade, 2017). Japan in the emojiverse is analogous to Tokyo in Barthes’ fictive Japan.

In addition, emoji exemplify the dynamism of cultural translation, as users are immediately faced with the need to interpret the meanings of Japanese icons; therein also lies their pedagogical potential. The pleasure of popular culture lies in its easy consumption, without needing to think too deeply; yet trends like emoji can potentially instruct (correctly or not) about society, economics, and politics, when users learn their backstories, appearances, and circulation. For example, emoji disclose Japanese gender stereotypes and historical limits on women’s progress into the Japanese workforce. Until 2016, the only women workers depicted in emoji were either in the entertainment or service industry (e.g., dancers, receptionists, and Playboy bunnies). Google was among the first providers to include emoji characters of female professionals (i.e., in jobs demanding university degrees), but these icons were not added until Unicode 11, after the addition of multiracial skin tones (Unicode 8, 2015) and same sex couples (Unicode 6, 2010). This shows that gender advancement often comes later than advances in multiculturalism. In addition to teaching cultural content, emoji can familiarize consumers with Japanese aesthetics. For example, the original 719 characters in Unicode emoji also express the Japanese aesthetics of “kawaii,” or cuteness, which is premised on the object’s vulnerability, often, characterized by a big head, the lack of a nose or mouth, and large eyes to show emotion.

Yet emoji demonstrate that popular culture is neither politics nor economics; although they are a measure of global values and symbol of global movements, emoji and other forms of popular culture have not improved international relations. While popular culture has economic and political ramifications, the attempt of using it as a reliable tool of political influence is flawed, as evident in the top-down promotion of “Cool Japan” around 2012 that failed in part because of the inability to control the images of Japan promoted in manga and other cultural texts exported by fans (METI, 2012; McLelland, 2016). In addition to the difficulties of turning culture into political currency, emoji show how the brand of “Japan”continues to face the law of unintended consequences, as popular culture circulates and is put to originally unintended uses by global fans.

My class mobilized the above traits of emoji in their literary translations to determine if the globalization of popular culture extends cultural literacy. On one level, we tested if students would use emoji as “full” or “empty” signs, namely, how much they would rely on understanding emoji’s cultural meanings. On another level, we questioned if emoji would provide new possibilities for storytelling in the digital age or would instead illuminate and solidify the stylistics qualities that make literature an art form, as distinguished from the reproducibility and easy consumption of popular culture. We acknowledged the significance Barthes placed on the act of writing as a means to understand the “emptiness of language.” We also used emoji to query the historical divide between so-called “popular culture” and “art” (encompassing literary arts), as two forms of culture that globalize differently but both figure into Barthes’ Empire of signs. For the sake of argument, we adopted the historical and conservative definition of art as the enduring, elite, and sublime culture of museums, human creative production that is not easily reproducible, and the historical positing of popular culture as its opposite. The 1999 set of emoji has exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (December 2016), showing how the two categories have been blurred.



Emoji translation

Artists, such as China’s Xu Bing in his Book from the Sky (four volumes, 1987–1991), have experimented in writing texts entirely in pictograms in order to depict the history of literacy and the power of the acts of writing and reading (see, for example, Ames, 2011), but, to date, no commercial literary work from any country has been written entirely in emoji. In 2004, American Lauren Myracle’s ttyl, the first volume of her “Internet Girl” series, became the world’s first bestseller entirely written in SMS-text-message format. Three fictional high-school friends tell each other their troubles through texts that use few emoji. Texts are color-coded to distinguish the protagonists, whose texting styles are similar. In 2014, Myracle updated the look of the page and included emoticons, which were mostly heart marks. ttyl topped lists for banned books in 2009 (third in 2008) and was suggested for banning in 2010 and 2011 because of offensive language and sexual content (Banned Library, 2016; Flood, 2015). The text-based format added to the immediacy of the narrative, which makes the reader feel as if she is privy to a conversation occurring in “real time.”

The first book for adults to be written exclusively in text messages and to extensively use ASCII art as both emoticons and illustrations, along with visual slang, was Japan’s Internet novel Densha otoko (Train Man), an inspiring romance created from carefully selected posts in a discussion on 2channel between March and May 2004. (Internet novels are stories created and first available online). Train Man was adapted into a bestselling book, film, television series, stage play, four manga, and even adult video, all within the same year. As I have analyzed elsewhere (Freedman, 2009), in addition to changing notions of books and furthering the marketing trend of cross-media promotion, Train Man popularized and mainstreamed a certain kind of otaku — here, avid fans of manga, anime, games, and computer technologies. The story encouraged debates in the mass media about Japanese men and marriage during a time of national concern over falling birthrates. Train Man was concurrent with and helped promote “cellphone novels” (keitai shōsetsu), novels written on cellphones and serialized for free subscriptions on specialized Web sites. (e.g., Magic Island [Mahō no i-rando, “i” in “island” a pun for i-Mode digital services], opened in 1999, one year before Several cellphone novels became bestselling print books between 2004 and 2007, pivotal years in the spread of the Internet and the globalization of Japanese popular culture, and were adapted into manga, television dramas, and films and inspired spinoffs. Consumed by a different demographic and using less slang and fewer emoticons than Train Man, cellphone novels represented an alternative mode of collaborative writing, as authors took reader feedback into consideration while serializing stories (Freedman, 2017). With the exception of stars for emphasis and flair, heart marks to show love, and musical notes for ringing phones and arriving messages, most Internet and cellphone novels have few emoticons. Thus the literary trends exemplified by ttyl, Train Man, and cellphone novels demonstrated the potentials of writing in text-message format to expand storytelling capabilities and appeal to new audiences, although the trend waned in popularity after around 2008 in part because it was no longer new and alluring; concurrently, they underscored the impossibility of telling stories, replete with new information for readers, solely in emoji (Freedman, 2017).

The most common literary use of emoji has been to playfully render famous world plots, familiar enough to be understood without line-by-line reading, in new ways for readers who are adept with digital media. A prime example is Emoji Dick, compiled and edited by engineer Fred Benenson. Crowd-funded through Kickstarter in 2009, the translation of Emoji Dick was outsourced through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The plan was for one team of workers to translate each of the book’s sentences three times and for another team to select the best option; 800 people were paid five cents per translation and two cents per vote (About Emoji Dick, 2009). The book became available in print in 2010 and was the first emoji novel accepted into the Library of Congress. Benenson’s goal was to test the impact of digital media on language and literacy rather than to convey the literary qualities of Melville’s fiction in an innovative way. He stated:

“I’m interested in the phenomenon of how our language, communications, and culture are influenced by digital technology. Emoji are either a low point or a high point in that story, so I felt I could confront a lot of our shared anxieties about the future of human expression (see: Twitter or text messages) by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter” (quoted in Law, 2009).

Perhaps unintentionally, Benenson measured the limits of emoji literacy in addition to the endurance of literature as an art form. Emoji have also been used to attract young readers. In 2015 and 2016, Random House published the four-volume “OMG Shakespeare Series,” and Bible Emoji: Scripture 4 Millennials became available through Apple iBooks and iTunes in 2016. In this version of the King James Bible, an anonymous translator, represented by the sunglasses face emoji, used software to match 200 words with 80 emoji; as a result, only 10 to 15 percent of the text is in emoji (Cuthbertson, 2016). Machine translation led to mistakes, such as inserting the emoji angry face in the word “stranger.” Most emoji translations have been of works available in the public domain without the need for copyrights; the few examples in Japanese are further evidence that emoji are more popular outside Japan.

Between 2015 and 2017, I held “Emoji Literary Translation Contests” in my seminars to explore “literary” narrative and aesthetic qualities gained and lost by rendering novels in emoji, to experiment with cross-cultural mash-ups, to see the boundaries of cultural literacy, and to assess how students read emoji. Students had an additional 72 new emoji characters, especially faces, people, animals, nature, drinks, and foods, to use after the upgrade to Unicode 9.0 in June 2016. Students were given the choice of translating at least two sentences of one of their favorite literary or popular culture works into emoji or to write parts of original stories in emoji; almost all students opted to translate. Some students translated books we read in class, relying on shared references and in-jokes to promote their translations. The classes then voted on the winners of two categories: 1) Best Translation Style and 2) Best Overall Translation. As added incentive, winners received gift cards to campus restaurants and bookstores. The vote was held in class: I projected anonymous entries on two sets of Power Point slides, those with and without the source texts identified.


Best overall emoji translation 2017 Detective Conan (Meitantei Konan) Anime
Figure 1: Best Overall Emoji Translation 2017: Detective Conan (Meitantei Konan) Anime.



Emoji translation of Natsume Soseki, I Am a Cat
Figure 2: Emoji Translation of Natsume Sōseki, I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905).


Some students mimetically used emoji to represent words and concepts, as evident in the Best Overall Translation from 2017: the first episode of the popular anime Detective Conan (Meitantei Konan, which was mentioned but not studied in class). [See Figure 1.] The class voted for the translation because it captured the plot and mood of an entire episode in a few lines and was easy to understand. To the student translator, the largest impediment was a lack of emoji to sufficiently tell the story: “Unfortunately, my phone doesn’t have some of the emoji that I wanted so I had to substitute for something less accurate. (Rather than a gun, it should be a baseball bat, etc.)” (University of Oregon student). Other translations were more literal and substituted emoji for words, like the runner up for Best Translation Style 2015: the first two lines of Natsume Sōseki’s 1905 I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru). [See Figure 2.] In this translation, the student repeats the same emoji for emphasis, a technique common in text messages and found in literature, like Kawabata’s (2005) The Scarlet gang of Asakusa, and uses icons based on Japanese language, like the character mu, meaning “emptiness” or used as a negator, to show the national origins of the source text. That mu is the guiding Japanese character of Barthes’ Empire of signs and his notions of Zen-inspired emptiness adds another layer of meaning to the translation.


Best Translation Style Winner 2015 Murakami Haruki Norwegian Wood
Figure 3: Best Translation Style Winner 2015: Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no mori).



Climactic scene of Mishima Yukio Patriotism
Figure 4: Climactic Scene of Mishima Yukio’s Patriotism (Yūkoku). Created using Snapchat.


Other students summarized book plots through single picture emoji, as exemplified by the Best Translation Style Winner 2015 of Murkami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no mori, 1987, included in the course syllabus. [See Figure 3.] Students appreciated how this visual mapping of emoji allowed the story to unfold linearly, while accounting for plot twists and subplots. It captured the dichotomy of space in the novel, which is divided between 1960s Tokyo student life and a quiet recovery facility in the woods of Kyoto. The student represented Murakami’s framing of the narrative by the first chapter, in which the thirty-something narrator remembers his university days while hearing the song “Norwegian Wood” while boarding an airplane; the rest of the story is told from memory. In a similar spirit, a student in 2015 depicted the climactic suicide scene of Mishima Yukio’s novella Patriotism (Yūkoku) through a single pane emoji created through Snapchat. This emoji turns the novel into a singular semiotic sign. [See Figure 4.]

When asked the rational for their votes, students answered that they most highly valued innovative use of emoji and the ease of recognizing the source texts. The most immediately understandable translations were the highest ranked. Concurrently, students enjoyed seeing emoji emptied of their original meanings and used in innovative ways. They felt that translations done in Apple emoji were less approachable than those in Google emoji and this distancing made them feel more detached from the texts. Students were impressed by the difficulty of writing and writing sentences solely in emoji. As one student commented:

I have a five-hours-old analogy for this! My 17-year-old brother texted me today to tell me that he’s reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost in his AP English Lit class:

By the way ... Have you read paradise lost? It’s got really weird phrasing. Ah, phrasing makes this book like 10x harder than it needs to be tbh xD Then again ... The dude was blind and he had his daughter write it so ... Blame her?

Emoji stories are to me as Paradise Lost is to my brother ... Phrasing is confusing (University of Oregon student, 2015).

While agreeing that emoji translation helped them to better appreciate the literary qualities of written texts, students acknowledged their limits in conveying literary form and style. We questioned how to use emoji to craft literary devices, like metaphors and personification, and to convey different moods. How to distinguish between first, second, and third-person narration and different character voices using emoji? Are irony, parody, and sarcasm possible in emoji, comprehension of which is driven by mimetics? We questioned the differences a text message, literary story, and other texts, such as the June 2015 Chevrolet automobile advertisements written in emoji (#CHEVYGOESEMOJI). Other impediments to emoji translation included lack of enough emoji for diverse storytelling and the limitations of vocabulary. For example, until 2016, authors could write a story about a robot who rides a spaceship to the post office but not about a female professor who writes an article on emoji. We discussed how, as pictograms, emoji are predominantly nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs.

To a certain extent, Japanese culture inherent in emoji hindered their use in English translation. For example, the visual orientation of emoji reflects their Japanese origins: side-facing emoji look toward the left, for Japanese writing has historically been from right to left and have been structured as reason result instead of result reason. Thus emoji face the wrong way for writing sentences in languages other than Japanese, making it look if subjects are walking backward. Students generally avoided using emoji too apparently grounded in Japan, such as holiday symbols and foods. Even when translating Japanese literature, they used the emoji best known in the United States and reliant on secondary American readings (like eggplants in Figure 3.) To my students, emoji were both empty and full signs, depending upon how well they understood them.

As seen through this exploration of emoji as a trend that easily globalizes while grounded in Japan, system that reflects historical changes in knowledge about Japan, mode of affective communication, and written language with literary limits, popular culture, if properly contextualized, can potentially promote cultural literacy (of Japan and one’s own culture). While the usage of emoji in Japan may have dwindled due to the proliferation of more elaborate stickers (full-bodied, animated emoticons) available through free apps like LINE, their increase on Unicode has led to new possibilities for promoting multiculturalism and understanding of worldwide identities and practices. The growing repertoire of emoji, on one hand, exemplify conventions particular to Japanese cellphone and Internet use, including access patterns, visual languages, gender conceptions, and corporate tie-ins. On the other hand, emoji, preprogrammed into most smartphones, exemplify how Japanese popular culture is transforming global communication and reflect the zeitgeist of different populations and places. Although developed to make text messages more readable, emoji have frustrated communication by the need for shared knowledge. Emoji need to be used along with written expressions to avoid misunderstandings, a lesson taught through literature and its translation. Unicode emoji are a helpful theoretical tool for analyzing cultural literacy in the digital age. Yet emoji ultimately affirms the domination of the written word in this time of visual narratives and the continued influence of local contexts on the consumption of global culture.

Using emoji as an “empire of signs,” without accounting for their original Japanese referents and while taking for granted their nods to global cultures, can lead to new pleasures of the text, but users who look closely at the icons they embed in writing language, from text messages to translations, find themselves faced with new requirements for cultural literacy. In Empire of Signs, Barthes includes examples of French-Japanese translation, in part to contrast how the two cultures use language differently to directly express or suggest meaning. One can only imagine how he would have used emoji. End of article


About the author

Alisa Freedman is a Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies, Literature, and Gender at the University of Oregon and the Editor-in-Chief of the U.S.–Japan Women’s Journal. Her books include Tokyo in transit: Japanese culture on the rails and road (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011), an annotated translation of Kawabata Yasunari’s The Scarlet gang of Asakusa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), and co-edited volumes on Modern girls on the go: Gender, mobility, and labor in Japan (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013) and Introducing Japanese popular culture (New York: Routledge, 2017).
E-mail: alisaf [at] uoregon [dot] edu



I would like to thank Adana Lindsley, Madeline Punches, Elise Choi, Gaby Burkard, and Beni Rose for emoji translations and insights. Joel Gn, Crystal Abidin, two anonymous readers, and Christopher St. Louis provided valuable feedback.



1. Outside this article are the myriad commercial emoji and stickers inspired by the success of Unicode emoji.

2. For example, while sending text messages about participating in women’s marches after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Florie Hutchinson realized that the only women’s shoe emoji was a red stiletto heel. She then petitioned to Unicode and worked with a designer to have a blue flat shoe added to Unicode 11 (see, for example, Brahampour, 2018),

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Editorial history

Received 8 August 2018; accepted 9 August 2018.

Copyright © 2018, Alisa Freedman. All RIghts Reserved.

Cultural literacy in the empire of emoji signs: Who is crying with joy?
by Alisa Freedman.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 9 - 3 September 2018