You may have heard the news that 25 years ago on the 19th of September 1982, there was the first recorded use of western smileys on usenet. However, that got me wondering as to how old horizontal Japanese emoticons were. With a little investigation, I came across this Japanese page on the evolution of smiley marks in Japan. I’ll now present a summary translation of this history of the Japanese emoticon.
First up is a nuclear scientist claiming to have invented (~_~) and others round about the same time as ASCII Net (a Japanese online service) started in May 1985, although he says he wasn’t the first, he was just following the patterns of others.
Next up was someone claiming that when he attended Hokkaido University the first Japanese emoticon he saw was from Master Koala with (^O^) in fj.jokes, inspiring him to invent the following:
(^.^) – laughing
(;.;) – crying
(-.-) – sleeping, shocked
(_ _) – apologising, lowering one’s head
; – sweat mark, eg (^.^;)
* – red-faced, eg *^.^*
These were coined between May and July of 1988 and used on JUNET, the Japanese University Network.
Now, we get to a usenet post from January 13 1998, indirectly archived by Google Groups (but with broken encoding). In the message we can see the following marks:
(^O^) – Master Koala smiling
(-O-) – Master Koala sleeping
(*O*) – Master Koala shocked
(@O@) – Master Koala looking sideways
(=O=) – Master Koala squinting through narrowed eyes
(>O<) - Master Koala surprised
(dOb) - Master Koala neutral
Now we get a very interesting post, suggesting that the classic (^_^) was invented in Japan, but perhaps not by a Japanese. A Kim Tong Ho claims that in the first half of 1986 he signed posts to ASCII Net with the above-mentioned emoticon, with one example from 20th of June 1986. However, he doesn’t have confidence to claim to be the very first person to come up with a Japanese emoticon that doesn’t require head-tilting to read. Around the same time a person with the handle “binbou” (the nuclear scientist mentioned above) used (~_~), but as to who was first, it is rather difficult to say.
So, there we have it; the Japanese emoticon is at least 21 years and a few months old, perhaps even 22 and a bit years old.