Japanese arrow emojis

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I often receive anguished inquiries about emojis, emoticons, hanzi, hangul, kana, and similar matters.  I try to answer as many of them as I can, and many of them have important implications for the nature of writing, the relationship between speech and script, cultural interactions and contexts, and so forth.

Back in mid-January, there was some Twitter discussion about a group of mysterious emoji characters (here, here, here, here, and here), and Ben Zimmer played a key role in it:

The first four sometimes get combined to read "back on top soon" (e.g., here).


As Ben noted in the Twitter thread, these were brought over from the emoji set that appeared on Japanese phones — see this list. And early versions of some characters date back to the set used by NTT Docomo way back in 1999 when emojis were born — see here. Ben wondered whether there's any way to reconstruct the Japanese cultural context that necessitated these characters? The exclamation point after "On" seems particularly baffling.

Ben's good questions and observations launched me on an investigation that took so long I forgot all about it amidst the welter of everything else that was going on — until now that we're having spring break and I'm trying my best to catch up on old e-mail and I came back to this old thread.

My initial impression was that, if the first four together mean anything, it would likely be "go back to the beginning / start [of the game / session] as soon as possible).  "End" would be "end of the game / session".

I asked around among my friends who are aficionados of emojis if they had any ideas that would help to explain our conundrum.

Zihan Guo, a master of anime, who has been watching it since she was in primary school, quickly weighed in:

I am not sure if I understood your question about these emojis. If the question is about these four / five emojis together as a set, I have no clue other than that the first four form the phrase "back on top soon" as you said. I myself have not seen it.

If the question is about each individual emoji, I think "back" and "top" are self-evident. "Soon" and "end" are somewhat ambiguous, but I can somehow make sense of why the arrows are the way they are. As for "on!", I think the exclamation mark makes "on" an active state rather than a normal preposition. Some anime scenes immediately came to my mind: gamers say "…, on!" to signal the start of a session; sports players say "…, on!" to activate / enter the zone. My impression is that ! expresses motion and dynamism.

Ben responded:

I think the "back on top soon" thing is just people playing around with these emojis and stringing them together into something that makes sense in English — but that makes the "ON!" even more peculiar. Your informant's explanation makes perfect sense.

Nathan Hopson added what amounts to a mini history of emoji and emoticon:

The original 176 emoji were invented by Kurita Shigetaka (栗田穣崇) in 1998 and released in 1999.

That was the same year that DoCoMo paved the way for the world's first "smartphones" with its i-mode mobile internet service. From its beginning in 1995, Kurita had been on the i-mode development team.

However, at the time, pagers were the most common texting tool. I had one, for example, because i-mode was prohibitively expensive at launch. Pagers were incredibly good at what they did, but had all the limitations of early SMS, and additionally were limited to katakana and had janky keyboards (if memory serves). All the expected chaos ensued.

The first emoji — in the sense that it was the spark that led to the development of the next 175 – was the ♥. The heart was briefly available on DoCoMo's pagers before i-mode, but was removed for reasons I don't really understand before making a comeback as part of the Kurita-emoji lexicon.

These iconic icons are celebrated at MoMA, which describes them this way:


   The shift toward concise, telegraphic correspondence that began with the advent of email in the 1970s accelerated dramatically when messaging moved to mobile. The abridged nature of mobile communication tends to obscure tone and emotion. Emoji, when combined with text, allow for more nuanced intonation. Filling in for body language, they reassert the human in the abstract space of electronic communication.


In brief, for Kurita, the original heart was a way to distinguish between ナニシテルノ (nani shiteru no; lit., "What are you doing?") meaning, for example, "Hey, are you free?" from other meanings such as, "What the hell are you doing!" Kurita has said in interviews that he thought ナニシテルノ♥ would clear up this potentially disastrous ambiguity.

This was an extension of the emoticon phenomenon begun by Scott Fahlman in 1982 and reinterpreted in Japan in 1987 by Wakabayashi Yasushi (若林泰志) as (^_^), as well as the history of the widespread public use of pictographs that began with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And of course, there were also such novelties as Zapf Ding­bats that are part of this overall history. It was also not unrelated to the goroawase (語呂合わせ) numerical wordplay that gave us texting abbreviations such as

39 → さんきゅう → サンキュウ (thank you)

and calling Death by writing

4242961 → しにしにころし → 死に死に殺し (death death kill)

in anime.

The addition of Kurita's emoji to Gmail (2007) and the iPhone (2008) and encoding in Unicode probably cemented their place in the international lexicon.

Parenthetically, I always liked the Chinese kaomoji using jiong 囧 and wish they had caught on more:
╭囧╮, ╰囧╯, ╮ 囧╭, ╔囧╗, ╔囧╝, ╚囧╝

As to the particular desire/need for ON!, I can only guess. I assume it started out with roughly the same usage as the "bullseye" 🎯 emoji, for example, has today: "right on!" "yes!" "exactly!"

In that sense, it's certainly no stranger than the use of the "lobster" 🦞 emoji to mean "yay!" because the claws are raised in triumph and joy — or are ready for boiling and eating, I guess, depending on your preferences.

I suppose someone could try contacting Kurita via Twitter?

Article by Kurita.

Japanese articles interviewing Kurita:  here and here.

Part 1 of a good English-language history of Kurita's emoji.

Book chapter on Chinese emoji.

(Sorry that's a bit scattered)

Finally, I received the following from Fangdan Li:

Based on some of Kurita’s (creator of emoji in 1999) interviews, it seems that the main targets of Kurita’s emojis were young consumers back in the 1990s and 2000s. Therefore, I think looking into products such as manga, video games and magazines that young Japanese were consuming back then could help reconstruct part of the Japanese cultural contexts for these emojis.

The exclamation point after “On” seems to reflect a trend of the excessive use of this mark in Japanese popular culture. As you may have known, exclamation points did not appear in Japanese until the late nineteenth century, but by the time when Kurita designed emoji, they have become a common tool for emphasis or expressing the emotion of surprise in manga and video games for youths.  

For example, in boy’s comics, or shōnen manga in Japan, exclamation points appeared both in the title and dialogues. This webpage shows examples from the 1990s, but we could see them in comics that came out as early as in the 1960s. 

In this video of the gameplay of Pokemon Gold (initially published in 1999), you could see that “!” appeared at the end of most of the sentences in the texts that showed up at the bottom of the screen. 

In this game magazine called “Game On!” which was serialized in Japan between 1993 and 1996, “!” appeared both in the title of the magazine and the main text. 

That's enough on Japanese arrow emojis for today.  In the course of this disquisition, many other topics have been raised, including the question of the relationship / difference between hanzi and emoji.  We will return to some of them in forthcoming posts.


Selected readings




  1. Scott P. said,

    March 3, 2023 @ 7:16 pm

    Your informant's explanation makes perfect sense.


    think "back" and "top" are self-evident. "Soon" and "end" are somewhat ambiguous, but I can somehow make sense of why the arrows are the way they are.

    That's not an explanation! Nothing there is self-evident! Why are there arrows at all? Why do the arrows need annotations? What ideas were meant to communicate? Why were those ideas felt to be so important? Why isn't(?) there a bottom arrow? Why is there an 'ON!' but not an 'OFF!'? So many questions, which the above discussion does nothing to elucidate.

  2. unekdoud said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 1:19 am

    BACK and TOP are useful for labelling a "previous page" and a "top of page" button. There's no NEXT and BOTTOM because devices were incapable of time travel.

    SOON, ON! and END are listed in the Unicode emoji proposal under "Time symbols". I assume if you were reading a TV guide it would be quite important to know which show was currently on, rather than starting soon or just ended.

  3. Christian Horn said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 3:16 am

    My canonical thought for the exclamation mark of ON! was to make it proof from being turned around by 180deg and then getting read as NO. Kind of how '6' is sometimes underlined to separate it from '9'.

    Btw, probably not relevant here but the exclamation mark ! is in Japanese called ビックリマーク, the literal translation to English would be 'sign to express that one is surprised'.

  4. Hans Adler said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 1:49 pm

    Here is how I would expect these symbols to have been used, without any knowledge of the cultural context and before looking at the discussions:

    Consider an old-fashioned feature phone or similar simplistic interface, where you navigate through a hierarchical menu or similar structure. There are three commands that you actually need for this, and a fourth and fifth that may be added for convenience. I suspect that the original context of these annotated arrows was just these five commands:

    Left arrow annotated "BACK": Go to the previous node on the current level. If there is no previous node, go one level up to the parent node.

    Right arrow annotated "SOON": Go to the next node on the current level. My guess is that this would have been annotated "NEXT" if a native speaker had been involved.

    Left-right arrow annotated "ON!": Go one level down, probably to the first node below the current one. (It might also be implemented to remember the last node you visited below the current node and send you there.) I interpret "ON!" as a shorter alternative to "SELECT" and suspect the idea behind the left-right arrow to be: This allows you to navigate the level below by going back and forth there. Likely alternative uses in case of nodes that do not have lower level nodes associated are for switching a binary value associated with this note between on and off states, and even for (temporarily) leaving the menu and starting some application that is associated with the current node. Both alternative uses can be seen as analogs of the primary meaning I described before.

    Now the two extra commands:

    Left arrow annotated "END": Go one level up. This is faster than using "BACK" repeatedly and likely to be a lot less confusing. An arrow pointing left and then up would have been clearer but may have been graphically problematic.

    Up arrow annotated "TOP": Return to the root node.

    There were clearly severe space constraints here, allowing no more than 4 Latin characters to be used and leaving very little vertical space for the arrows.

    Once these emojis existed, they were probably used in different contexts where their meanings were less obvious, especially when you never encountered them in their original context.

  5. Matt Sayler said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 3:04 pm

    [@Hans Adler covers similar ground in a post written while I was composing this]

    I love see how technology constrains, and thus shapes, culture and language.

    A few thoughts, mostly from the tech side looking at the original set of 176 glyphs here: https://www.global.ntt/contributing-society-emoji.html

    1. In the original set, there is no (nor a generic straight up arrow). Whatever was intended for that symbol, it's probably useful to consider the other 3 as a set by themselves.

    2. The original glyphs were 2-color 12 by 12 pixel images. The labels below the arrows were incredibly constrained—just look at how the Os in SOON share a single interior side to save 2 pixels horizontally. Only a few 2-3-4 letter words would fit in this very limited space. Perhaps the chosen words were not great fits for the use, but they were the closest thing that would fit in the space.

    3. There are many glyphs that to my eyes look like they are intended for conveying information to the user from the phone/network. Dozens of symbols look like they're used for maps/directions, and there are small set of moon phases, astrological symbols, and perhaps some interface elements (numbers, OK, NEW, etc.) That doesn't stop these symbols from being used for human-to-human communication, but their origin stories may simply be "the designers needed them to communicate something to the original users."

    4. I believe that when the symbols are listed as a group in pictures like the above, they're being shown in the order that they were encoded. There is clear structure to this list, and generally symbols that appear in sequence have some semantic link. The symbol immediately before doesn't seem to be present in typefaces I have access to, but it looks like a night sky with quarter-moon and a single star. Perhaps this is something related to night / PM / sleep / etc? The symbol following is an alarm clock (⏰).

    Given all that, one possibility would be that , , and were used for calendaring, alarms, schedules, or other informative purposes by the system. I'm sure there are other explanations as well, but these symbols feel to me like icons, for lack of a better term.

  6. Matt Sayler said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 3:10 pm

    It seems that some of the Unicode literals were stripped from my post:

    "In the original set, there is no [UP ARROW+TOP]"

    "The symbol immediately before [RIGHT ARROW+SOON] doesn't seem to be present in typefaces I have access to"

    "The symbol following [LEFT ARROW+END] is an alarm clock (⏰)" (Amusingly, the alarm clock renders fine for me)

    "Given all that, one possibility would be that [RIGHT ARROW+SOON], [LEFT AND RIGHT ARROW+ON!], an [LEFT ARROW+END] were used for calendaring, alarms, schedules, or other informative purposes by the system."

  7. Alison said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 7:33 pm

    I think Matt and unekdoud have solved it. Soon/on/end make the most sense in the context of calendar events. Soon means it's coming up, on means it's happening right now, and end means it's over.

    Back and top are self-explanatory because we still use them today in web browsers.

  8. Matt Sayler said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 8:45 pm

    Wrapping up my thoughts:

    There is no reason that these symbols needed to have "a meaning," even in their designers' minds. I bet plenty of things did double duty, starting with the original heart, now pressed into service for card suites.

    And, naturally none of that constrains people's use of the symbols for whatever they want. I suppose that creativity would have been even more important when there were relatively few "new" symbols to choose from.

    One interesting wrinkle I noticed is how some of the icons have changed over time. For example, in the rendering at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/I-mode_Character the arrow over END points to the right. I was confused by a "CVS" captioned building in the original set, but with modern detail the 24-hour sign over a store was clearly a convenience store.

    I'm sure all this has been thoroughly analyzed by someone, but it was fun to look at the simple artifact of those 176 original symbols.

  9. AG said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 8:50 am

    just some speculation – the three "black arrow" emoji in the first set https://emojitimeline.com/ were SOON | ON! | END, in that order, preceded by a night sky and followed by a clock, so I think these first three were probably intended to indicate whether something, like a calendar event, was currently occurring or not.

    SOON meant [whatever was being discussed] is coming soon,
    and END meant, this is an occurrence that is over.

    So maybe the intent was to indicate the status of upcoming/happening/finished projects, holidays, festivals, sales at stores, that sort of thing. I believe some earlier commenters mentioned there might be a connection to calendar events, and I agree.

  10. AG said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 8:54 am

    … meant to include this in my earlier comment: I think taking the set of three SOON | ON! | END as points on a kind of symbolic timeline representing future, present, and past events is the only way to make sense of the way the arrows are facing – this particularly "solves" why ON! would have arrows facing forward and backward. Something that is presently happening is indeed Janus-faced.

  11. Josh R. said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 7:27 pm

    Since the section on goroawase didn't include any romanization for those who can't read kana,

    39 – 3 = san, 9 = kyuu, ergo, sankyuu -> thank you

    4242564 (Prof. Mair mistakenly used a "9" instead of a "5")
    4 = shi, 2 = ni, 5= go, 6 = ro(ku). So the 4 and 2 combine to write "shini", the stem form of "shinu" meaning "to die". "Go" becomes "ko" because Japanese uses the same phonetic character for voiced and unvoiced sounds, while the "ku" of "roku" is dropped, giving us 564 "koroshi", the stem form of "korosu" meaning "to kill."

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