In the modern digital age, emojis have become a universally understood language.
But some of your favorite icons may not be exactly what you think.
Emojis first were created in 1999 by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita, according to Wired Magazine. Kurita worked for an early internet platform through one of Japan’s premiere phone carriers. His original 176 emojis then appeared on phones across the country.
Since the late '90s, emojis have skyrocketed in popularity beyond Japan’s borders. In 2011, Apple introduced its official emoji keyboard, and two years later, Android did the same. Since then, Apple and other carriers’ emoji libraries are often updated to better represent and reflect the general population.
My name is Amy Nakamura, and I am an audience editor for USA TODAY’s Politics and Washington team, and you're reading "This is America," a newsletter about race, identity, and how they shape our lives.
I’m gosei, or fifth-generation Japanese American, from Kapolei, Hawai‘i. Growing up in Hawai‘i, I’ve always felt comfortable celebrating my Japanese heritage whether it was through food, festivals or well, emojis.
While some emojis are great for everyday use, others actually hold special meaning as they represent parts of Japanese culture.
Here’s some of the little-known cultural significance behind some of my favorite emojis:
🎍- These emojis aren’t simply the signal for “bamboo.” The first emoji is actually a “kadomatsu,” a traditional Japanese New Year's decoration. “Kadomatsu” translates to “gate pine.” A “kadomatsu” involves three pieces of bamboo varying in size, a pine branch, plum flowers or flowering kale, all tied together with rope. These decorations are typically placed at the entrance of the home to welcome deities in our homes during New Year's festivities.
🎋- This emoji represents a tanabata tree. Traditionally, people write their wishes on strips of red paper and hang them on this tree, in hopes they will come true. The practice typically occurs in July during the Tanabata festival. The festival commemorates the story of two cosmic lovers who could only meet on the seventh day of the seventh month.
🎎- These dolls represent the Japanese Emperor and Empress. They are usually displayed by girls and their families during a holiday called Hinamatsuri, otherwise known as Girls’ Day. This day is meant to celebrate and pray for prosperity and happiness of girls across the country. It falls on March 3 each year. Typically, girls receive candy and gifts as tokens of appreciation on this day as well.
🎏 – While there is no longer a Boys’ Day in Japan, this emoji reflects Children’s Day. Koinobori is a carp-shaped flag that is typically flown on May 5 for Children’s Day. The carp is a symbol of strength and courage because of its ability to swim up a waterfall.
Why's that an emoji?: The ethos and birthing process behind the icons we use to communicate
🎴- Hanafuda, or “flower cards,” is a popular Japanese card game. The game is also known in Korea as “Hwatu.” Fun fact: Nintendo was actually first created to distribute Hanafuda cards. While it has now seen monumental success as a video game company, Nintendo still sells some of their original products. Hanafuda is also very popular in Hawai‘i, where variations of the game are enjoyed throughout the islands.
🍥- “Kamaboko,” or fish cake, is a popular addition to ramen. The pink swirl is called “narutomaki,” which refers to a tidal whirlpool outside of Naruto, Japan. Back in Hawai'i, kamaboko is also my favorite addition to saimin, a local-spin on the meal. Similar to ramen, saimin is a noodle dish, but incorporates flavors and toppings from various cultures outside of Japan such as China and the Philippines.
🍡- Hanami dango, a sweet Japanese dessert, is made out of mochi. Mochi is made from pounded rice, and there are multiple ways to enjoy it. Hanami dango is traditionally made during the spring, just in time for cherry blossoms to bloom. The green mound is made with matcha, and the pink with some sort of cherry blossom, or “sakura” in Japanese, flavor.
🌊- Don’t worry, this emoji *does* represent a wave. But Apple’s version of the wave emoji resembles the historic Japanese wood-block print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The print was created during the Edo period in Japan by artist Katsushika Hokusai. The iconic wave stands out because of its use of the color Prussian Blue and signaled huge advances in the world of block printing, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: AAPI Month: The cultural meaning behind these popular emojis