:-) or (^_^) – Western versus Japanese emoticons

By: Annet Bos
On: September 13, 2011
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About Annet Bos
Master student New Media after finishing the bachelor Media and Culture @ UvA | MediaLAB student 2010 | interested in how new media affect soceity | entrepreneurship | field hockey player | travel addict

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It’s been a week now since the New Media Master 2010-2011 started. The first thing that stroke me while looking around at my fellow students in the lecture room on Monday morning was the enormous diversity of backgrounds, nationalities and cultures in this Master’s program. There are students from Poland, Romania, The UK, The USA and even a student from China. Very interesting to have someone coming from there, because the Chinese culture is totally different from the Western culture. This is also well noticeable in the world of internet. Although internet and new media contribute to globalisation and ideas as placeless place and spaceless space, a platform as Twitter, with over two millions of users worldwide, is still blocked and inaccessible in China. How a specific country or culture effects the use of media made me think back of my bachelor thesis. For this I did a comparative case study on the differences in graphical electronic writing between the Western and the Japanese culture, with the focus on emoticons.

I did my research on aspects as language, technology, conventions, usage, appearance, shape, frequency and popularity in the discourse of Computer Mediated Communication. The idea for this subject is based on a project I did for MediaLAB Amsterdam: Can You Emoticon? The name emoticon comes from the word ‘emote’, used in multi-layer games to bring over action. It also refers to emotion, because the signs originally show emotions. In the last decade we have seen more and more emoticons that don’t refer to an emotion, but to a movement, gesture or object.  The emoticon has thus more of a pragmatic function.

In 1986, a few years after the emoticon got first introduced in the Western World, Japan created their first set of emoticons called kaomoji. The Japanese and the Western emoticon are really different from each other. Especially language and culture play an important role on this. Kaomoji are closely connected to Japanese culture. Both on the point of appearance as on popularity the two emotion cultures vary.

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The Western basic emoticon is :-), the Japanese (^_^). Both represent a smiley face. Western emoticons are being read sideways, the Japanese upright. But there is another basic difference: the shape of the ‘mouth’. In an American English dictionary a smile is characterised by an upwards turned mouth. The Japanese smiley however has a straight mouth. In Japanese culture, people tend to smile merely with their eyes. A Japanese expression for smiling is “me o hosomeru”, literally meaning narrow the eyes, and “me ga waratteiru” (someone’s eyes are smiling). Another explanation is that in many Japanese cartoons as manga and anime, the eyes in smiley faces are presented as ^^. Also, traditional Japanese conventions play part in their emoticons. There is an emoticon for a girl’s smile (^.^) where the mouth is represented as a dot, reflecting the rule of etiquette whereby women don’t expose their teeth in a smile. Also popular is the emoticon ‘excuse me’ (^o^;>). The symbol > represents an elbow sticking out, coming from the fact that a ashamed or excusing person often scratched the back of his/her elbow, a well-known Japanese gesture.

Also the technique has influence on the differences between Japanese and Western emoticons. In Japan there are many more different emoticons because of inventive hard- and software. My comparative study shows that cultural differences between Japan and the Western world reflect the way Japanese interpret the non-verbal online expression.  As I explained in the introduction, nevertheless all the rhetoric on worldwide connection through the internet, there are still many barriers. One of them is language. (American) English is the language of technology. In every country or internet marketing frame there is a fixed language that influences the keyboard and software. Multilingual and cross-cultural communication seems to be blocked. This is mainly the case when the set system is English ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange character set). It dominates cyberspace. Unless special software is installed, many internet systems cannot convert another language when it comes from another character-encoding scheme. JIS is de Japanese Industrial Standard character-encoding scheme, and is culturally more diverse and extended than ACSII. In JIS details and ideograms can transform pure writing into the art of calligraphy. The visual becomes an important part of communication. Not only words an sich, but also their presentation has a meaning. The more globalised CMC becomes, the more abstract and cultural specific the use of emoticons will be. In American computers, every character is represented by a byte; a string of eight zeroes and ones, which allows 256 possible signs. Japanese computers on the other hand use two bytes for every sign, which allows enough combinations to be made to represent the whole Kanji. Japanese emoticons can consist of three between twenty characters, some of them are even longer. For punctuation marks, Japanese users can choose between single- and double-byte signs. The double-byte one is wider and appears with a double interspace. A double byte emoticon, such as (^__^) is being used to express a stronger feeling than a single-byte emoticon.

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