Is there an emoji that represents your country?
Say you’re British – or you’re not, but maybe traveling to the UK and texting a friend about it – why isn’t there a fish and chips emoji? Or one of Big Ben, a red phone booth, Stonehenge?
Sure, there’s a Queen’s guard 💂, a cricket bat 🏏 and the requisite Union Jack 🇬🇧. But this goes deeper than tourist landmarks – why aren’t there more emoji that communicate the tiny, goofy minutiae of daily life that might be specific to certain cultures or countries? After all, Japan has dozens and dozens of such emoji – so many of them, that people around the world constantly misuse them.
So if today’s world is so globalised and digital… what gives?
The answer is more complicated than it might seem. But a complicated process is not stopping governments and self-described “emoji activists” from rallying to get their designs into the official selection – and to get a slice of any potential geopolitical sway emoji might have.
Why are there so many emoji about Japan?
In 2015, US President Barack Obama visited Japan and thanked the nation for giving the world such cultural gifts as karate, karaoke, anime and – yes – emoji.
Meaning something akin to “picture” and “character” in Japanese, emoji originated in the 1990s as mobile phone culture exploded in Japan. Now there are more than 2,500 of them, and World Emoji Day is tomorrow. They even spawned last year’s (widely panned) film.
Since emoji were invented in Japan and entered mainstream use there, it makes sense that there are dozens of Japan-specific ones. Some are more globally recognised as tourism-friendly icons – Mt Fuji, sushi, sake – but there are plenty that depict smaller aspects of Japanese life and culture, which may not be instantly recognisable to non-Japanese.
There’s dango 🍡 (a pastel-coloured kebab of gelatinous rice cakes), oni 👹 (a grotesque demon from Japanese folklore), and even a love hotel 🏩 (an adult establishment which can be booked by the hour).
In other words: scores of fun little pictures that shine a spotlight on all sorts of facets of Japanese life. So why is there a bullet train and not an Italian gondola? Why a red paper lantern and not a menorah?
How emoji are approved
Emoji are treated like actual characters – in other words, our phones recognise every eggplant and poo as they do the letters A, B and C.
All characters of all fonts that appear on digital devices are approved and regulated by a not-for-profit based in California called the Unicode Consortium. They oversee the industry standard for encoding and handling all text in computing systems across the world. President Mark Davis reckons they add around 50 to 70 new emoji per year.
Emoji are never removed; each one can be used by all people across digital devices, forever
Davis says any additions approved by the consortium are permanent. Emoji are never removed; each one can be used by all people across digital devices, forever.
Spacing out new emoji in waves each year allows the technology to keep up: for example, phones being built with enough memory (emoji take up a lot more space than just letters), as well as predictive typing constantly improving to auto-fill emoji as you’re typing words in all available languages.
Jeremy Burge is founder of Emojipedia, an online emoji database, and the latest member to be initiated into the Unicode Consortium. He says that the visual nature of emoji also dictates that any new entry must be visually compelling and distinct.
One candidate for an emoji is the caffeinated Argentinian drink maté.
“Luckily for them, it has a distinctively-shaped cup,” Burge says. “Beverages are tricky – if you wanted to approve your favourite drink, how does that look different in emoji sizes?”
So if the standards are so rigorous, why are there so many Japanese symbols and icons that are totally foreign to nearly everyone outside Japan? It’s because all the original Japanese emoji were grandfathered in once the emoji keyboard became available abroad.
Emoji have afforded Japan a cultural soft power that extends around the world
As a result, emoji will likely always have a Japanese flavour, the experts say, and emoji have afforded Japan a cultural soft power that extends around the world and has boosted the nation’s “brand”. One could argue that to have an emoji related to your culture in the official line-up is to also have a spot on the world stage.
That’s why other countries are looking for a chance to shine.
The Unicode Consortium doesn’t promote any business or specific person: no logos allowed, and no likeness of any person living or dead. (“Kimoji”, Kim Kardashian’s line of “emoji”, aren’t official – they’re instead classified as “stickers”.)
There’s been demonstrable interest in diversifying the emoji collection. Earlier this year, it was announced that emoji depicting differently abled people in wheelchairs and using hearing aids would be added. A hijab-wearing emoji, various skin colours and same-sex couples and families also appeared in recent years.
Many organisations and individuals are pushing for more representation, specifically to showcase their home countries and cultures
But for some, it’s not enough. Many organisations and individuals are pushing for more representation, specifically to showcase their home countries and cultures. A recent example is Finland, which has lobbied to create Finland-themed emoji since 2015.
The person leading the effort is Petra Theman, director of public diplomacy at Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who got the idea in 2015 when an emoji was named Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. Theman wanted a way to talk about Finland in a social media-friendly way that appealed to a younger audience. “Emoji was the obvious choice,” she says.
She says the government pitched dozens of ideas to Unicode – two main ones were Finland’s iconic sauna, plus any kind of winter clothing, which at the time was being dwarfed by the huge amount of summer clothing in the official line-up.
In the end, woolly socks and sauna made it in. But the sauna design was tweaked. Instead of the pitched image of two naked characters sitting in a sauna, it was changed to a more general, heads-up view of a person with a towel wrapped around their hair and surrounded by steam. This was very deliberate – Davis and Burge say the consortium aims to make emoji as accessible as possible.
There’s also an avoidance of any kind of redundancy. Finland, a mecca for heavy metal, pitched emoji of big-haired rockers but were told the “rock on” 🤘emoji already communicated that sentiment.
Still, the woolly socks and adjusted sauna emoji were a victory. Finland was the first nation to lead a successful emoji campaign.
“You really want to see yourself represented,” Theman says. “Emoji is such a big part of communication, [especially] for young people.”
It’s not just specific countries – it’s broader cultures, too.
Jennifer 8. Lee is a journalist who helps run a group called Emojination, which has the motto “emoji for the people, by the people”. After a two-year campaign, she helped get the dumpling emoji approved, and worked with a 15-year-old Muslim girl in Germany to get the hijab emoji approved. Lee is also a member of the consortium.
“Some people say you can just do stickers,” Lee says, which is the route the “Kimoji” took a couple years ago. But stickers are not the real deal: there’s something different about “a formal recognition into a system when it’s on basically all mobile devices and is recognised as text”.
Lee points to items like Australian boomerangs that are tied to specific countries, but have transcended to become global symbols. She reiterates that many designs that get picked to be emoji are visually distinctive – like that maté cup. But sometimes, emoji that mean certain things to certain cultures get used in entirely different ways by people outside those cultures.
Though many of the Japan-centric emoji don’t meet current requirements – is the fish cake 🍥 really a visually distinctive global icon, for instance? – they remain because they got in early and at the right time. And despite a soft power boost as a social media mainstay, there’s no evidence to suggest that the sheer volume of Japan-focused emoji has brought geopolitical or fiscal benefits to the country.
Different interpretations might show that emoji really are being treated as language
If anything, the fact that many of Japan’s emoji aren’t recognisable to the wider world has allowed people to use them in new ways (even if they are misusing them). The different interpretations aren’t limited to the more obscure Japanese emoji, either – we all know what the eggplant and peach emoji have come to symbolise. That might show that emoji really are being treated as language.
And they can be malleable, like Finland’s tweaked “sauna” emoji: Mt Fuji can be used to represent any snow-capped peak. The winking emoji can mean flirtation in some cultures and not in others. And this swirly shooting star 💫 might be used by Westerners as a symbol of whimsy and fantasy, but it actually symbolises dizziness in Japan.
Plus, consider the technical roadblocks of trying to include an emoji for everyone: there are already a lot of emoji for us to scroll through. What might that look like on our phones as we swipe through hundreds of categories with hundreds of entries each?
“You could have thousands of more emoji if there were more intuitive ways to filter them,” says Jeremy Burge. “Maybe you could add a set that are only for your country if you want to see those.”
For now, the endless march toward total representation continues.
“So far what we’re seeing is a cautious, maybe cherry-picking of the most obvious and most requested emoji first and every year adding more until we see what happens in 10 years,” says Burge.
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