Here's what all those strange emoji on your phone really mean

The roots of many lie in Japanese culture

emoji 1 intro
Martyn Williams

Here's what all those strange emoji on your phone really mean

Sixteen years after they first appeared on cellphone screens, the Oxford English Dictionary just named an emoji as its word of the year. The tears of joy symbol 😂 won out for its common usage -- accounting for around one fifth of all emoji characters used in the U.K. and U.S. But few people know that emojis were created by NTT DoCoMo in 1999 for its I-mode service, and many still exist that refer to Japanese food, culture, society and holidays.

emoji learner
Haruka Iwao (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The learner's mark

This green and yellow arrow 🔰 is the "shoshinsha mark" 初心者マーク and is a common sight on the roads of Japan. It's legally required on a car being driven by anyone who has had a license for less than a year to show they are a new driver.

But it's spread way beyond cars and is commonly used to signify a beginner at anything. For example, it's often used on the cover of instructional books and magazines.

emoji tengu
Nikita (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The tengu

This long-nosed character 👺is a Tengu 天狗, one of a number of Japanese mystical characters often seen depicted at temples and shrines. It's also worn as a mask during festivals, as seen in the image.

The character is popular in Japanese culture and there's even a little mystery about its appearance. Originally tengu were bird-like creatures and the long nose is thought to have been contrived hundreds of years ago to humanize the birds.

emoji dango
Shoma Suzuki (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The dango

This emoji 🍡 represents dango 団子, a Japanese sweet made from rice flour. The sticky, chewy dango typically come in three on a stick and the emoji represents the "Bocchan" variety, which includes one colored by red bean, one by eggs, and the final one by green tea.

emoji busstop
NASA

The bus stop

The bus stop emoji 🚏is an instantly familiar mark to anyone in Japan. The tricolored circle at the top generally shows the name of the bus company and the name of the stop while the board beneath contains a timetable. They are gradually being replaced with sturdier bus shelters and electronic signs in cities, but there are still thousands of them across Japan.

emoji onsen
Azkin (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The onsen

A key part of any visit to Japan in the winter is a trip to its numerous onsen 温泉, or hot springs. You'll be able to notice them not just by the steam billowing into the freezing air from the piping hot water but also by the onsen symbol ♨️ that hangs out front. This emoji is specific to a hot spring bath, not just any old bath. It's a popular way to warm up in the mountains in the winter, even attracting the local monkeys.

emoji dolls
coniferconifer (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The Japanese dolls

These Japanese dolls 🎎 are displayed in homes across Japan and represent the emporer and empress. Dressed in traditional clothing, the dolls form the center of an elaborate display that often includes additional dolls and is centered around the hinamatsuri 雛祭り, or doll's day, on March 3. The day is used to pray to the gods for the health and well being of young girls in the family.

emoji minidisc
Sony

The Mini Disc

To understand the Mini Disc's 💽 inclusion alongside floppy disks, CDs and DVDs in emoji, you need to understand it's success in Japan. Sure, it was a commercial failure in most of the world but in its home market, the Sony-developed format was king for a while. Mini Disc provided a cheap, portable, high-quality digital recording method long before MP3 players were popular. It peaked in the late nineties and early 2000s, just as emoji were developed and a few years before Apple changed everything with the iPod.

emoji carp
Skyseeker (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Carp streamers

One of the most colorful displays you can see in Japan comes every May 5 when Koinobori 鯉幟, or carp streamers 🎏, are flown from flagpoles across the country. Originally, each household would fly a streamer for every boy to bring him good luck and health, but these days they are also flown for all children. The emoji includes a blue and pink carp, presumably one for a boy and one for a girl.

emoji shinkansen final
Takeshi Kuboki (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The bullet train

More than just a high-speed train, this emoji 🚅 is Japan's famous shinkansen 新幹線 , or bullet train, and is also a step back in time. The train denoted in the emoji is the "0-series" that is now out of service but was a backbone of the bullet train fleet in the late 90s when the emoji was developed.

emoji post
Martyn Williams

The post box

Japan's square post boxes are denoted in most versions of this emoji 📮, although Microsoft appears to have copied a blue American mailbox in its version. The post box in the image also gives a clue to a second emoji 🏣, the post office. The symbol for the Japanese Post Office 〒 can be seen prominently in the emoji and also on the post box in the picture.

emoji characters
Martyn Williams

Language symbols

While the meaning of some of the graphical emoji might be guessed, there's a whole bunch that are unintelligeable to anyone that doesn't speak Japanese. In this selection, from left to right, top to bottom, is 🈁 which means "here" and can be used on a map or to denote a location; 🈚️ used to signify something doesn't exist or the stock of an item is unavailable, 🈯️ which means a finger or toe, and 🆖, which means "no good" and is used in Japan as the opposite of "OK."

emoji tokyotower final
Martyn Williams

Tokyo Tower

This emoji 🗼 symbolizes Tokyo Tower, a landmark in the captial since 1958. Its design was inspired by the Eiffel Tower, which is why the emoji is often mistaken for the more famous Paris landmark.