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


  • 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.

Author Biography

Alisa Freedman

Professor of Japanese cultural studies 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).




How to Cite

Freedman, A. (2018). Cultural literacy in the empire of emoji signs: Who is crying with joy?. First Monday, 23(9).