July 11, 2019

Emojis That Doesn't Mean What You Think

July 17th, World Emoji Day, is approaching! Rarely a day goes by that we do not see emojis. They are everywhere. They are not limited in text messages and social media anymore. We see them in press releases, merchandise such as emoji on t-shirts and phone cases, and even in  tattoos. But did you know that the original meanings of some of the emoji were lost in translation?

Emoji has been used in chatroom conversations since they were first invented by a Japanese mobile carrier in 1990. Furthermore, emoji spread to people all around the world at a speed of light when Apple added their first emoji keyboard to iPhones in 2011. In 2015, for the first time in history, Oxford Dictionaries recognized a pictograph as the Word of The Year, a smiling face with tears emojitearsjoyemoji.  Facebook revealed that more than seven hundred million emoji are used in Facebook posts and over five billion emoji are sent every day. A research even says 92 percent of all people online use emoji.

As a Japanese recently moved to the U.S., I have discovered a fun fact that sometimes my American friends use emoji in a meaning I could never have imagined. For example, my good friend Manu chooses emoji of a monkey with two hands in front of its eyesmonkeyemoji conveying embarrassment in a playful way. This gesture originally embodies one of the three wise monkeys from an old Japanese proverb, “see no evil” which means “I do not want to see what I should not.”
She also likes to use the folded hands emoji  as a gesture of prayer.foldinghandsemoji It was intended to represent apologizing or saying “please” from Japanese body language when pleading for forgiveness. (I have heard it is also called high-five emoji in the U.S., the depiction of which I like very much.)

Here are some of the emoji that are often interpreted as something completely different than what they are meant to be used for!  

gesturingokemoji   Many people interpret this emoji as a sign of surprise, or even as a posture of a ballerina. But it actually wants to tell you that everything is okay! A person making a circle with their arms above their head is an OK gesture because a circle represents “true” or “good” in Japan. Check our blog post for more detail

instructionemoji   This poor lady is widely misunderstood that she is a sassy woman flipping her hair like she just doesn’t care at all and chosen to accompany sarcastic remarks. But originally she was created to illustrate someone working at an information desk, raising her hand to express helpfulness as if asking, "how may I help you?"

bowemoji   People often use this emoji to represent that they are thinking hard or being serious about something. However, the original meaning of the emoji is strong apology intending to depict dogeza, an act of apologizing to prostrate directly on the ground and bow.

 narutoemojiThe first time I saw this emoji used as an @ sign, I laughed out loud that it was so creative and fun. This is actually fish cake usually added as a topping in a ramen bowl.

nafudaemoji   I think this emoji is the best example that every Japanese immediately understands the symbol that leaves non-Japanese in a fog. Do you have any idea what it means? No, it is not fire. No, it is not a burning tofu either. It is a name badge! The tulip-shaped name badge is the most common design found at Japanese kindergartens. It is supposed to be used beside our name when we introduce ourselves, for example, in a group message.

onsenemoji   It almost looks like a steamy hot plate, but it actually is a circular tub with steam rising out of it. The emoji is the official map symbol of hot spring which you will see everywhere throughout the country when you visit Japan.

   staremoji   If you understand the original depiction of the emoji immediately, you must be an anime fan! Often mistakenly used to represent that something is gorgeous and sparkly like a shooting star, it is actually a dizzy emoji. In Japanese comics, a circling star is used to express being light headed or confused about their orientation as if you were hit so hard on the head that you see stars.


Emoji sweeps our electronic communications. They are cuteheartemoji  and addictive hearteyescatemoji. Knowing that sometimes in a different culture they could have a different interpretation makes using emoji so much more funbeamingemoji!


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