Emoji Pioneer Shigetaka Kurita Receives Lifetime Achievement Webby

Everyday everyone who uses a smartphone or is on social media likely uses emoji. Last night at the Webby Awards in NYC, Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurita (栗田穣崇), who just turned 51, was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. Kurita is often referred to as the creator of emoji because he was part of a team that created a heart-shaped pictogram that appeared on a pager and he subsequently designed a set of 176 colored emoji.

In a Zoom interview just before the New York City 27th Annual Webby Awards, Kurita said that when he learned he was going to received a Lifetime Achievement Webby Award, “I was astonished because I never expected to receive such an award.”

Yet the Webby’s aren’t the first time Kurita’s work has been recognized in the city of New York. In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City put that 176 colored NTT DoCoMo emoji set on display. Now, these heavily pixelated designs might seem quaint. When Kurita created them in 1999 for use on NTT DoCoMo’s I-mode mobile platform, they were a revelation and the start of a pictograph revolution that would spread beyond Japan.

“When I was working on them, I certainly didn’t have the expectation that they would end up in an art museum,” Kurita admitted, but graciously added, “It’s really thanks to everyone who used them worldwide and this showed the power of design in communication.” Yet as a result, he added, “My name will live on.”

The Webby Awards noted:

Since creating the first set of 176 emoji in 1999, Shigetaka’s emoji have evolved from rudimentary symbols into uniquely digital forms of communication that transcend cultures, borders, and even language barriers.

More than a fun way to enhance conversation through the over 2,600 colorful emoji in use worldwide, emoji have also become instrumental in furthering online dialogues about inclusiveness in our symbols, across race, gender identities, abilities, sexual orientation, and beyond. This has led to a wide range of new emoji over the years that help foster a sense of belonging and inclusion for people everywhere, making the Internet a more welcoming, and fun, space.

Of course, emoji weren’t the first way people used symbols to convey emotions in text. Emoji came after emoticons. While “emoticon” is a portmanteau of “emotion” and “icon,” “emoji” comes from the “e” for picture (絵) and “moji” for (文字) for “character.” Japanese, like Chinese, is a language filled with pictograms, but so is the Japanese manga culture. With manga there are pictograms called manpu (漫符). Growing up, Kurita, of course, read manga. During the interview he said, “When I was a child, I loved the soccer manga, “Captain Tsubasa” (キャプテン翼).

The main character, Tsubasa Oozora begins in 1981 as an 11-year-old elementary school student who loves what people in the US call soccer, but what other countries know as football. Like any lover of the sport, he dreams of one day competing in the FIFA World Cup and winning it for Japan.  That manga, Kurita noted, is popular worldwide and has even influenced kids to become soccer players. According to an article in Oricon News, the manga has a worldwide circulation of about 90 million as of 2023. 

Kurita noted, “Manpu are symbols are used to describe people’s emotion in manga, like sweat coming from someone’s face.” But sweat drops don’t just mean someone is running on the soccer field. It can often mean “uncertainty, embarrassment, fear” according to Anime Art Magazine.

Before Kurita’s emoji set, the heart pictogram proved to be a game-changer. When the heart pictogram introduced on an 12-character NTT DoCoMo pocket pager, it was widely popular–so much so that when it was dropped by NTT DoCoMo in its next model, there was an outcry and NTT DoCoMo brought it back. 

Kurita’s favorite emoji is the heart because, he says, “You can add it to any negative word and it can it into something positive. The heart is the strongest emoji.” He added that even if you wrote an insult like stupid or you dislike something, you can soften it by using a heart and it’s okay. In a Forbes interview, he also said that he liked the emoji ✨.  In the Forbes article, he’s quoted as saying that,  “There is no particular meaning in the emoji itself, but it is because it will decorate your remarks gorgeously.” However, in the Anime Art Magazine article, these are called “sparkle marks” and mean “all done!”

Whether used on a delicious desert [sic], or around a character as they enter the scene, these sparkles give a sense that something is amazing or special. For that reason, they’re also used when characters are bragging about something they think is amazing. We also often see sparkles around something that’s brand new, or freshly made, to give it a shiny new appearance!

Kurita, during the Zoom interview, also said, he also the yellow smiley face emoji had a special significant for him because it’s the basis for a lot of expression of emotion emoji. The yellow smiley face was not part of his original 176 set, but that set did include some variations of facial expressions that seemed to be based on emoticons.

While manga have certainly become an international, Kurita said of the emoji, ” At first I thought it would just fit countries that use kanji (漢字 Chinese characters as used in Japanese), but around 2010 with the diffusion of smartphones, when English-speaking countries began to use it、that’s when I first realized the potential outside of kanji-using countries. I was surprised.”

While emoji are now one of Japan’s most successful exported icons, there’s another, older Japanese icon that doesn’t have an emoji: Godzilla. When Kurita admitted there wasn’t a Godzilla emoji, he said that if there were a worldwide outcry then perhaps one would be developed.

Kurita’s message for the world at the Webby Awards, in which awardees are limited to a five-word acceptance speech was:




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.