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World Emoji Day: Did You Know That Manga Had Inspired The Creation Of Emojis?

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If it wasn’t for emojis, conversations would have been much more difficult than they are now. From making conversations more illustrative and emotional to personalising social media posts, emojis have enabled real-time communications without the use of audio. Today marks the 21st anniversary of the widely used digital image. Back in 1999, Japanese inventor Shigetaka Kurita had first envisioned the design paradigm for communication. Using just a 12 x 12-pixel grid, Kurita engineered the first emoji for NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese mobile communications company. His now-commonplace invention had a unique source of inspiration: manga.

The word emoji comes from the Japanese 絵 ("e," picture), 文 ("mo," write) and 字 ("ji," character). Japanese characters, or "kanji," are largely based on Chinese ideograms, meaning the language's writing system is already highly pictorial.

For a long time, Japanese love for expressive drawings has been resonated in anime and manga. The Japanese comics involve fewer lines and focus more on the facial details of their characters to let the pictures speak for themselves. There is a great deal of attention placed on eyes, which the Japanese believe to be mirrors of the human soul. Hence, when Kurita has assigned with the development of an internet mobile communication system with limited characters, he referred to the text-deprived manga for his job.

Kurita collected common images including public signs, weather symbols, the zodiac and comic-book-style pictures such as a light bulb or a ticking bomb. With simple lines, he made five faces — happy, angry, sad, surprised and perplexed. The heart and a smiley face are still his favourites. Some visuals transcend manga culture. A drop of sweat rolling down a cheek, for instance, means exasperation or anxiety, which is the most meta manga reference as one could imagine.

“Japanese tend to excel at making the most of limitations. It’s a nation filled with limitations, a small piece of land,” said Kurita. “We do well at carrying out tasks within a framework, rather than being given a free hand.”