For those less familiar with these emoticon type-pictures routinely used in smart phones, emoji -- ? (e = picture) ? (mo = writing) ? (ji = character) -- were first created in the 1990's by an NTT Docomo team. Japanese had already created hundreds of pictures using keystrokes, but they took a lot of work and the meanings weren't always clear, like (???)? - one of the angry faces. The Docomo team wanted to create pictures that would provide more context in a digital message than text or key strokes.
These, of course, are more a social mainstay than something used in business, but the fact is that if you take any cross section of a culture you'll find values that play out in other settings. Here are four points that stand out to me as how their creation relate to Japanese business customs.
1. A picture is worth 10,000 words. Anyone who has been in meetings with Japanese has probably seen them turn to a whiteboard to diagram the idea, process or technicalities, and knows that the Japanese have an affinity for depicting things in pictures rather than words. This is also obvious in PowerPoint presentations where a slide may be filled with as many, or more, pictures than words. So the tip here is, illustrate what you are trying to convey with graphs and other visuals whenever you can.
2. Eyes are key. We often think the Japanese have a poker face because we look at the mouth for reaction rather than their eyes for a more subtle form of feedback. Whereas American emoji have distinctive mouth expressions, Japanese emoji focus on subtle eye changes to convey the meaning. This is where Japanese business people also hold their most authentic expression so this is also where they look to determine how the person is thinking or feeling.
3. Context is critical. Without context the importance and meaning of something is often lost. Think about texting "Thanks." The receiver may not know exactly how to take it. But a happy or smiley face gives the context of sincerity rather than sarcasm. Or, "I'm sorry" is just a statement unless you add m(._.)m or This adds context to the statement so we understand the sentiment behind the words.
Likewise, Japanese business people always want the bigger picture - more context. What's the framework? What's the background? The bigger meaning is unclear when presented without a whole lot of context. When they are trying to explain something, they will start with the history and other factors that seem unrelated to people who think and work in a linear way.
4. Indirect communication is safer. An emoji is a little ambiguous and therefore hints at your feelings without saying something directly. Again, the emoji itself is not used in business, but the same values apply throughout the culture. A heart conveys a feeling that expressed in text would be too embarrassingly crass to the Japanese. Or, if someone asks you what you want to eat for lunch, you could suggest ramen by sending the emoji picture without seeming too pushy or self-centered. On the other hand, if you wanted to ask, "Can you meet me for ramen tonight?" by simply sending an emoji, of ramen, the person is not trapped into saying the offensive "N" word (No, but tomorrow I can), and instead he or she can say the highly desirable "Yes!" followed by "Let's go tomorrow night!"
Although these are not business examples they reflect deep-seated Japanese values that play out in business communication all the time:
Don't say anything directly that might embarrass someone.
- Don't seem self-centered in the way you talk or act at work.
- Avoid saying "no" directly as it sounds like a rejection of the person, even if it's the suggestion you're rejecting.
By the way, not all emoji carry the same meaning across cultures. For example the lady in pick with her left palm up (in about the middle above next to the white heart in the pick square) means "Can I do something for you?" in Japan - like serving you something. Americans thought it looked like a girl primping so here it's used like "Don't I look cute?"
Author of Japanese Business: Rules of Engagement