Japanese Text Messaging and Emoticons

2009 November 17

I saw this video a few weeks ago about Japanese students being introduced to some English texting/internet abbreviations like “b4″ and “gr8″ (though who over the age of 12 still uses those anymore?). If they were this enthused about those, I wonder what they would make of LOL or WTF? Anyway, it made me wonder, what were some Japanese equivalents? The video notes the abbreviation “KY” in Japanese, which stands for “kuuki yomenai” (空気読めない – literally “can’t read the air”), which is used to decribe someone who is clueless or lacks social tact.

Back in the day when pagers were still widely used, there were several ways to give messages by simply using numbers in Japanese. For instance, according to Wikipedia:

4-6-4-9 — yo-ro-shi-ku (“hello,” “best regards”)

3-3-4-1 — sa-mi-shi-i (“I feel lonely”)

8-8-9-1-9 — ha-ya-ku-i-ku (“hurry up, let’s go”)

Each of these messages uses the many ways to read numbers in Japanese to spell out a message (ex. “8″ can be read as “ha,” “ya,” or “hachi” depending on the context).

Or there is gyaru-moji (ギャル文字), which is popular amongst young people in Japan and could be compared to l33t speak in the way that ordinary characters are replaced with substitutes and symbols. For instance, some examples of the ways that hiragana ri could be written:

り ri: L|・l)・レ」・レ)・┗』・└丿

If you weren’t familiar with this way of writing, messages would be close to incomprehensible (even for Japanese-speakers).

Probably the most well-known import into American internet culture would be the use of Japanese emoticons, known as emoji (絵文字 – “picture icon”) or kaomoji (顔文字 – “face icon”). Unlike Western emoticons like =) or :’(, Japanese kaomoji are written horizontally. How many of the meanings can you guess? Highlight the blank space between the parentheses with your cursor to reveal the answer.

^_^ (happy)

ToT (crying)

^_^; (troubled, the semicolon is like an anime sweatdrop)

m(_ _)m (apologizing)

( ゚ Д゚) (shocked)

Orz (failure, despair, or great admiration)

m(_ _)m is supposed to be a person bowing (each m is a hand, and the (_ _) is a person’s head with the eyes cast downwards). Orz also represents a bow, in this case a kneeling person with the O as the head, the r as arms and shoulders, and the z as the bent legs. Many more examples can be found here and here. For a scientific explanation of some of the differences between Western and Easterns emoticons, Wikipedia has a theory:

“Two separate studies, in 2007 at Hokkaido University and in 2009 at Glasgow University, showed that Japanese and other East Asians read facial expressions by looking mainly at the eyes, and the researchers noted that this is reflected in East Asian emoticons which put emphasis on the eyes, compared to Western emoticons which emote mainly with the mouth.”


Emoji, such as the ones seen above, are icons of faces and other objects like food, animals, and direction symbols often used in Japanese text messages to illustrate a point. If you’re interested in getting emoji for your own phone (provided you have an iPhone), directions for download can be found here or here.

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