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He invented the emoji

The tiny smiley faces, hearts, knife-and-fork or clenched fist have become a global language for mobile phone messages. They are displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They star in a new Hollywood film.

The emoji is heir to a tradition of pictographic writing stretching back millennia to Egyptian hieroglyphics and the ideograms used to write Chinese and Japanese.

Despite their ubiquity, they started in 1998 with one man: A 25-year-old employee of mobile phone carrier NTT DoCoMo who created the first set of 176 in one month as he rushed to meet a deadline.

"I happened to arrive at the idea. If I hadn't done it, someone else would have," said Shigetaka Kurita, who now is a board member at Dwango Co., a Tokyo technology company.

Kurita's challenge: NTT DoCoMo's "i-mode" mobile internet service limited messages to 250 characters, which cried out for some kind of shorthand.

A message that said, "What are you doing now?" could be menacing or nosey, but adding a smiley face softened the tone.

"Digital messaging was just getting started, and so I was thinking about what was needed," said Kurita.

Following i-mode's launch in 1999, that nuance made emoji an immediate hit in Japan, where the demands of courtesy make for a complex art and a tiny mistake can prove costly. Emoji combines the Japanese for "picture," or "e'' (pronounced "eh"), and "letters," or "moji" (moh-jee).

Western players Apple and Google made emoji a global phenomenon.

"Perhaps because of the popularity of the iPhone, Apple's art style for its emojis also became extremely influential, to the point that when most people think of emoji imagery, they're thinking of Apple's take on it," said Jason Snell, a tech journalist and podcaster.

Kurita shrugs that off. The dozen-member team designing i-mode was making something for Japan long before smartphones.

"Japanese always are too ahead of our time," said Kurita, an unpretentious man with a quick smile.

In 2010, the 12-by-12-pixel designs were adopted as a global standard by the Unicode Consortiums. That means any phone or operating system that follows the standard will use the same images, making them a universal language.



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