A History Of Emoji

Adam Sternbergh explains where those ubiquitous cartoons come from:

Emoji were born in a true eureka moment, from the mind of a single man: dish_emoji Shigetaka Kurita, an employee at the Japanese telecom company NTT Docomo. Back in the late 1990s, the company was looking for a way to distinguish its pager service from its competitors in a very tight market. Kurita hit on the idea of adding simplistic cartoon images to its messaging functions as a way to appeal to teens. The first round of what came to be called emoji – a Japanese neologism that means, more or less, “picture word” – were designed by Kurita, using a pencil and paper, as drawings on a 12-by-12-pixel grid and were inspired by pictorial Japanese sources, like manga (Japanese comic books) and kanji ­(Japanese characters borrowed from written Chinese).

Kurita wound up with 176 crude symbols ranging from smiley faces to music notes. This feature proved so popular that the other Japanese telecoms adopted it. In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone – and the global smartphone market boomed. Apple and Google both realized that, in order to crack the Japanese market, they would need to provide emoji functions in their operating systems, if only for use in Japan. So Apple buried an emoji keyboard in the iPhone where North Americans weren’t intended to find it. But eventually tech-savvy users in the U.S., who were curious about the Japanese emoji phenomenon, figured out that you could force your phone to open this hidden keyboard by downloading a Japanese-­language app, and voilà—suddenly you could bejangle your texts with a smiling Pile of Poo.

(Image by Niels Heidenreich)