Japanese Emoji: Explained

Did you know that the word emoji doesn’t have anything to do with emotions like it seems like it does in English? Emoji is actually a Japanese word, 絵文字, which means “picture letter”. Emoji evolved from kaomoji, 顔文字, which means “face letter”. These kaomoji are called emoticons in English (which actually is related to the word emotion!), and are the typed faces like :-), =D, and 🙁 and the Japanese (>_<), (*^^)v, and (;一_一).

Emoji can now be found everywhere online, but there are so many of them that it’s hard to know what they all mean! Emoji first started in the late 90’s in Japan by a man named Shigetaka Kurita. The first emoji were inspired by people out and about, which is why there’s a lot of emoji for signs and with kanji! We’re going to go through those emoji, as well some (relatively) newer emoji that originated from and are culturally relevant in Japan.


People

  • 🙇‍♂️🙇‍♀️🙇 Dogeza: Translated as “to prostrate oneself”, dogeza is kneeling down as a deep apology or to ask a big favor. There’s a couple dogeza poses, but the head is usually facing the ground.
  • 🙅🙅‍♂️🙅‍♀️ Batsu: The Japanese word for an X (×) denoting an incorrect answer or “no”. The arms are crossed to create the cross shape.
  • 🙆🙆‍♂️🙆‍♀️ Maru: The Japanese word for a circle (○) denoting a correct answer or “okay”. The arms are making the shape of a circle.
  • 👹 Oni, or ogres: Mythical beings similar to demons, and, in some regions of Japan, are used on holidays such as Vernal Equinox Day to scold children who’ve been naughty.
  • 👺 Tengu, or goblins: Another type of mythical being that was akin to demons, but are now seen as destructive yet protective. Their signature feature is their long nose, which used to be a beak as tengu were thought to be birds of prey.
  • 🙈🙉🙊 The Three Wise Monkeys: You’ve probably heard the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, and these macaques embody the maxim. Their names are Mizaru (“see not”), Kikazaru (“hear not”), and Iwazaru (“speak not”), which are puns on the Japanese word for monkey, saru.
  • 🙌 Banzai: Yelling “banzai” is a traditional celebratory cheer in Japan, and the celebrators raise their hands as shown in the emoji.

Clothes

  • 🥋 Keikogi: If you practice judo you’ll know this one. It’s a keikogi, or dōgi, the traditional martial arts uniform used in judo, kendo, aikido, etc. In English we usually just call it a gi.
  • 👘 Kimono: You definitely know this one, the national attire of Japan. Or… is it a yukata, the more relaxed version for warmer weather? Depending on what device you’re on, it might be different!
  • ⛑️ Construction helmet: The red cross on the front is used in Japan as a safety reminder.
  • 🎒 Randoseru: This emoji looks like a backpack, and it is! But it’s a particular type of backpack called randoseru, which was borrowed from the Dutch word “ransel”. They are firm, made of leather (or fake leather), and are used by Japanese elementary school students.

Food

  • 🍱 Bento: Boxed lunch, usually eaten at school, work, or while traveling.
  • 🍘 Senbei: Senbei is a rice cracker, eaten as a snack with tea. This one looks like it’s soy sauce flavor and wrapped in a piece seaweed.
  • 🍙 Onigiri: The famous rice ball! Onigiri are usually wrapped in seaweed and either have a tasty filling or use flavored rice.
  • 🍛 Curry Rice, or kare raisu: Curry is usually associated with India, but curry & rice is extremely popular in Japan where it has its own unique Japanese-y flavor.
  • 🍢 Oden: A tasty, wintry dish made of various foods like konnyaku (a plant jelly), fish cakes, daikon (a radish), and eggs, all cooked in dashi (a fish and/or seaweed broth). Sticks of the cooked foods can be bought at convenience stores or street vendors.
  • 🍣 Sushi: Everyone’s favorite seafood dish! Depending on your device, the emoji will either be two nigirizushi (rice topped with raw fish) or one nigirizushi with one makizushi (rolled sushi wrapped in seaweed).
  • 🍤 Ebi-furai: Tempura fried shrimp, often found in bento.
  • 🍥 Narutomaki: A type of kamaboko, or fish cake, naruto (the abbreviation for narutomaki) is a white flowery shape with a pink maki (swirl or roll) in the center. They are named after the Naruto Whirlpools between Tokushima and Hyogo, which is also what the anime character Uzumaki Naruto is named after.
  • 🍡 Dango: A type of popular dessert rice ball. There are many types of dango, but the type the emoji depicts is called botchan dango, which are colored with red bean, egg, and green tea.
  • 🥟 Gyoza: Also called dumplings or pot stickers, gyoza are delicious steamed meat and veggies wrapped and sealed in thin dough.
  • 🍧 Kakigoori: Similar to a snow cone but with thinner ice, kakigoori is a popular summer treat that can be bought at food stalls. It’s often covered with sweetened condensed milk in addition to the flavor syrup.
  • 🍮 Purin: Also known as flan or caramel custard, purin (from the English word “pudding”) is a very popular dessert in Japan. This caramel-covered custard can be found everywhere, from convenience stores to conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
  • 🍶 Sake: While we call this Japanese alcohol made from rice sake in English, it’s called nihonshu (Japanese liquor) in Japanese, as sake is just the generic term for alcohol. The emoji shows the a traditional set of bottle (tokkuri) and cup (choko), but there are many traditional sake-drinking items in japan, like a small plate and a wooden box.

Items & Things

  • 🎎 Hina-ningyo: These two are traditional dolls put on display during Hinamatsuri, usually known as Girls’ Day in English. The dolls represent the Emperor and Empress in ceremonial court outfits. They are often found with many other dolls representing court attendants.
  • 🎏 Koinobori: Koinobori, or carp streamers, are used in Childrens’ Day celebrations. Traditionally, each carp represents a different member of the family.
  • 🎐 Fuurin: A Japanese wind chime – though it is often mistaken as a jellyfish.
  • 🏮 Lantern: These paper lanterns can be found all throughout Japan, with these red ones often being hung near izakaya.
  • 🌸 Sakura: A cherry blossom, the spring symbol of Japan. Sakura are celebrated in Japan and people often go on hanami (flower viewing) in the spring, looking at the beautiful flowers while drinking with friends.
  • ⛄☃️ Yuki-Daruma: Snowmen! Did you know Japanese snowmen are made of two balls of snow instead of three?
  • 🎋 Tanabata Wish Tree: Tanabata is a traditional celebration of the meeting of two stars in July. People write their wishes on strips of paper and tie them on bamboo, which is what the emoji depicts.
  • 🎍 Kadomatsu: Decorations made from bamboo that are placed outside of homes during New Year. Kadomatsu are said to welcome ancestral spirits into their homes to bring good luck for the next year.
  • 🌊 The Great Wave off Kanagawa: While depicted as a large wave on most devices, Apple’s design of the wave emoji is of the wave in the famous Great Wave off Kanazawa woodblock print by Hokusai.
  • ⛩️ Torii: A Japanese gate found at the entrance and within Shinto Shrines. Torii gates signify the border between the ordinary world and the sacred.
  • 🚅 Shinkansen: Slightly different than the other train emoji (🚈🚅), the famous shinkansen are known as bullet trains in English. They can get up to 200 miles per hour.
  • 🚥 Shingo: Traffic lights – but the setup of the lights might be different than you’re used to in the U.S.
  • 🎑 Tsukimi: Literally meaning “moon viewing”, tsukimi are celebrations usually held in September and October to honor the autumn moons. The emoji shows the full moon along with grass and dango, which are traditional decorations for tsukimi.
  • 🎇 Senko-Hanabi: A type of Japanese sparkler that is held firework-side down instead of up. They are lit last among other fireworks, and are said to make the watcher suddenly aware of the beautify and briefness of everything.

Places

  • 🗻 Fuji-san: Fun fact: did you know Mount Fuji is an active volcano?
  • 🏣 Japanese Post Office: There are two different emoji for post office; this one with the 〒 symbol is the Japanese type. 〒 is the postal mark in Japan, which is a stylized テ (te) and is short for teishin, meaning “communications”. This mark can be found on the 🔣 emoji, too.
  • 🏪 Konbini: A convenience store! These can be found all over the world, but, according to my math, there is 1 konbini (the Japanese abbreviation for convenience store) every 3 square-miles in Japan, while the US has 1 convenience store every 30 square-miles. I’ve never walked longer than 5 minutes to find a konbini in Japan.
  • 🏯 Castle: This one probably looks familiar, especially if you’ve seen Hikone Castle. Japanese castles were more like fortresses than palaces, and the architecture is very different from a European castle (🏰).
  • 🗼 Tokyo Tower: The second tallest building in Japan. While the tower may resemble the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower is actually a radio/communications and observation tower. That’s why it’s painted international orange to follow air safety regulations.

Symbols

  • 💮 Well Done Flower: If you’ve taken Japanese classes in high school or at university, you may have seen this symbol. This cherry blossom is drawn or stamped onto school assignments that have a good score. The Apple version (as well as some other devices) says 大変よくできました (taihen yoku dekimashita) which means “well done”.
  • 💢 Anger: If you’ve watched anime or read manga, you’ve seen this symbol before. It often appears on a character’s head to depict their veins popping out from frustration.
  • ♨️ Onsen: Hot springs, or onsen, are found all over Japan. This is the symbol that is used on maps to show where onsen are.
  • 🎴 Hanafuda: Meaning “flower cards”, hanafuda are a type of Japanese playing cards used for many traditional card games.
  • 🀄 Mahjong Tile: Mahjong originated in China, but Japan has their own version that is very popular. This tile has the 中 (pronounced chun here) character on it, which makes this the red dragon tile.
  • 📛 Name Badge: While this emoji looks like a sign of some sort, it’s a name badge. This shape of name badge is very common in Japanese kindergartens.
  • 🔰 Shoshinsha Mark: Shoshinsha means “beginner driver”. Drivers in Japan must have this mark on their car for a year after receiving their drivers license to show that they’re a new driver.
  • 〽️ Part Alternation Mark: This lopsided M is actually a mark used in traditional Japanese music for plays or spoken poems. The mark is used to signify where the singer begins to sing.
  • 🅰️🆎🅱️🅾️ Blood Types: It may be obvious that these emoji represent the different blood types, but it may not be obvious why these emoji exist. In Japan (and other places like South Korea), blood types are believed to determine someone’s personality, much like a zodiac sign. People in Japan may ask you what your blood type is in the same way they’d ask your age or where you from, and it’s not uncommon to see someone put their blood type in their social media bio.
  • 🆖 NG: Stands for “no good”, so this emoji is the opposite of 🆗. Bloopers and outtakes of movies and TV shows in Japan are often called NGs.
  • 🈁 Here: Pronounced koko on it, which creatively means “here” in Japanese.
  • 🈂️ Service: Short for サービス (saabisu, service), which means free of charge. For example, if they knowingly give you an extra nugget at McDonalds, that’d be saabisu!
  • 🈷️ Month: 月 means “moon” or “month” in Japanese and Chinese, but this emoji is supposed to represent “monthly amount”.
  • 🈚 Free: 無 means “don’t have” on its own, but this emoji is short for 無料 (muryou), which means “free of charge”.
  • 🈶 Not Free: The opposite of 🈚. 有 means “have”, so this emoji is short for 有料 (yuuryou), which means “has a charge” or “not free”.
  • 🈯 Reserved: Short for 指定 (shitei), which means “reserved” or “assigned”. A reserved seat on a train would be 指定席 (shitei-seki).
  • 🉐 Bargain: Means “to aquire” or “profit”, but in this case means something is a “good bargain”, likely short for 買い得 (kaidoku).
  • 🈹 Discount: Denotes “discount” because 割 (wari) means cut, as in cutting the prices.
  • 🈲 Prohibited: Short for 禁止 (kinshi), prohibition or ban, and 禁じる, to prohibit.
  • 🉑 Acceptable: Pronounced ka on its own, 可 is used in words like 可能 (kanou), possible/feasable. It is used in everyone’s favorite word kawaii (可愛い), which literally means “can love (adj)” or “lovable”.
  • 🈸 Application: 申 (mou or shin) has a few meanings in Japanese, mostly used to mean “application” or “to request”. It is used to signify requesting information.
  • 🈴 Pass: Short for 合格 (goukaku), this emoji means “to pass (an exam, etc.)” or “success”.
  • 🈳 Vacant: 空 (sora) usually means “sky” on its own, but in this context it means “vacant” or “empty” and is pronounced “kara” or “kuu“. You’ll see the character on this emoji on empty taxis, open parking spots, and hotels with vacant rooms.
  • 🈵 No Vacancy: 満 (man) is the opposite of vacant; this emoji means “full”.
  • ㊗️ Congrats: 祝う (iwau) means “to celebrate” and is used for festivals, holidays, and when wishing someone a happy birthday or congratulating them on something.
  • ㊙️ Secret: Short for 秘密 (himitsu). Further explanations of this emoji’s origin story are confidential.
  • 🈺 Open for Business: 営 alone means “business” or “work”, and this emoji means 営業中 (eigyou-chuu), or “open for business”.

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