How to smile in Japanese

The emoticon for "smile" in most western cultures is this :). One of the ScienceBloggers does it backwards (: (can you guess who?), but the symbol is essentially the same. In Japan, however, the smile is depicted like this: ^_^.

You might think that's just because the traditions evolved separately, but emotion researcher Masaki Yuki doesn't buy it. He argues that the difference in Japanese emoticons is related to cultural differences in real smiles.

when Yuki entered graduate school and began communicating with American scholars over e-mail, he was often confused by their use of emoticons such as smiley faces :) and sad faces, or :(.

"It took some time before I finally understood that they were faces," he wrote in an e-mail. In Japan, emoticons tend to emphasize the eyes, such as the happy face (^_^) and the sad face (;_;). "After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles," he said.

Later, Yuki worked with a team that asked Japanese and American students to rate the emotional valence of real photos that had been manipulated in Photoshop to emphasize happy and sad emotions in the eyes and mouth. As predicted, Japanese students responded more to eye expression, while Americans responded more to the mouth. There was, however, one interesting twist to the research:

both the Americans and Japanese tended to rate faces with so-called "happy" eyes as neutral or sad. This could be because the muscles that are flexed around the eyes in genuine smiles are also quite active in sadness, said James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the research.

Research has shown that the expressive muscles around the eyes provide key clues about a person's genuine emotions, said Coan. Because Japanese people tend to focus on the eyes, they could be better, overall, than Americans at perceiving people's true feelings.

Some other work on faces and emotion:

Face recognition: Not just about processing speed.
When a neutral face isn't neutral.


More like this

Take a look at these schematic faces: Just a few simple changes to the mouth and eyebrows can create faces depicting a wide array of emotions. Face 1, for example, is clearly quite happy, and face 12 is sad. Face 7 is obviously angry. But what about face 4? Embarrassed? Happy but sleepy? Perhaps…
Disney's purchase of Pixar makes it clear that computer-generated (CGI) animation appears to be the wave of the future in movies. But one difficulty with CGI animation is conveying realistic emotions. While film animators (whether they use computers or not) can use artistic license to achieve the…
Take a look at these two pictures of the Mona Lisa: They're derived from a series of images of the famous painting that had been obscured by random noise filters (like when your old analog TV wasn't getting a signal), like this: Each picture appears to have a slightly different facial expression…
If I'm on a date (which believe me, doesn't happen often) I can usually tell how its going by how, and how much, my date is smiling. Is the smile genuine or forced? Polite or flirty? Or worse yet, not smiling at all?? Either way, a lot of emotional content can be found in a person's smile. But wait…

Looks like this divergent emphasis appears in art, too. Cartoons in particular exaggerate features for emotional impact: rounder, longer, more angular, whatever. For example, check out American cartoons and compare them with Japanese anime. Many American cartoon characters have big, wide mouths full of expression, stuffed with speech, lip-synced. Their eyes: specks or ovals. In contrast, anime characters have gigantic, emotive eyes totally disproportionate to their heads. Their mouths speak binary: open or closed. Those are the traditional emphases, though you can find exceptions anywhere you look. Still, all this recent cross-cultural pollination has mingled the two and created a lot of synthesized art that draws from both traditions. Anime is stylish in America these days. I mean, Cartoon Network devotes countless hours to dubbed Japanese shows. I wonder if all the emotional nuances translate cross-culturally?

On another note, I also wonder how American and Japanese people monitor reactions while they interact. From my experience, I tend to look people in the eye while talking to them, assessing their reactions. While listening, I tend to observe their mouths, as if I might see what I misheard. Could Japanese people be more empathetic, more attuned to genuineness in those crow's feet? Maybe we Americans care less about sincerity. Maybe we're more concerned with the words spoken between those milk-white teeth. After all, the difference between a smile and a sneer is all in the eyes.

By Chris Brophy (not verified) on 15 May 2007 #permalink

To touch on a couple of Chris Brophy's points:
"I mean, Cartoon Network devotes countless hours to dubbed Japanese shows. I wonder if all the emotional nuances translate cross-culturally?"

I doubt it. If you watch anime, or any cartoon for that matter, emotions are exaggerated and stylized. So if someone expresses surprise, their eyes get twice as big. Or if they cry, the animators make sure you can see the waterworks happen. Granted, this is all anecdotal, from my own anime-viewing experience.

"Could Japanese people be more empathetic, more attuned to genuineness in those crow's feet?"

I can agree with this possibility. In Japanese culture, they refer to the 3 faces a person has: the face they show the public, the face they show their family, and the private face that no one ever sees. That's more or less a direct translation, I believe. Perhaps in a culture that's cultivated presentation and acting to such an extreme, the people need to be better at divining the true feelings and intentions of the people they converse with.

I was reading somewhere about the history of anime, and one suggestion as to why it became more popular than live-action movies was that Japanese don't consider their faces to be terribly expressive. They favored Western actors, whose large eyes they felt expressed more emotion. Odd, huh?

Great article. My cell phone here in Japan has pages of emoticons that can express far more emotions than the sideways faces we Americans use.

Being an aficionado ("otaku") of Japanese anime and manga since the late 70's, I have to say in answer to Chris's question that I think that common iconic expressions in Japanese popular media are mostly easy to understand, but there are a lesser number of more subtle expressions that do not "work" for western viewers or readers that haven't learned what they mean through context or explanation. Furthermore, the iconic "language" has evolved quickly and self-referentially, creating new symbols with new meanings, some of which in turn are applied to the emoticon lexicon.

Older, yet to the uninitiated seemingly inscrutable, examples that come to my mind include "muka" (a pulsing "#"-like mark on the head indicating veins bulging in anger or frustration), nosebleeds (indicating sexual arousal), giant teardrop shapes (representing a bead of sweat that appears on a character's head when faced with an awkward moment, and represented in emoticons as ^_^;), patting the back of the head to indicate modesty or embarrassment (supposedly a reaction from "forced bowing" that parents make their children do to be polite), and many more. Japanese netspeak itself now uses a wide range of characters pulled from all across the ascii spectrum and often incoporate Cyrillic characters, mathematical symbols, and so on...

The Japanese emoticons have been popular with non-Japanese otaku almost as long as the web has been around (having seen the fandom on-line in the days of pre-html usenet and such, I'd say that it didn't really catch on until the web came around). Lately many young net-users have adopted many of these icons from their more savvy friends without even necessarily aware of their origins, and use them frequently in blogs and so forth.

As for the stereotypical "big-eyed" characters, bear in mind also how Japanese portray westerners and even non-Japanese asians in the same media...usually these characters are drawn more conservatively, with narrow, more rigid expressions and even look often more like the Western stereotypical caricature of asians. I think this is particularly telling--iconic caricature for the familiar, more "realistic" characters for the alien.

We may well ask ourselves, why do the Simpsons have yellow skin and are missing one finger on each hand?

Recommended and enlightening reading: "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud, "Manga, Manga" by Fred Schodt.

By akari_house (not verified) on 15 May 2007 #permalink

As a Brit in Canada, I have been struck by how toothy North American smiles are - it seems it's not considered a real smile unless every molar is visible.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 15 May 2007 #permalink

So I'm not sure if the study is implying that Japanese people look for emotion in the eyes in still images, or in actually daily life. Here's my experience:

I'm an American, but I live and work in Japan, and I speak Japanese. I'd say (during conversation) I've used people's eyes to gauge their emotions my whole life...I can't remember ever looking at someone's mouth for that information. I don't really notice Japanese people paying more attention to the eyes to gain an insight on emotion. Now I'm willing to admit the fact that I'm a foreigner, so many Japanese people are nervous to converse with me and drop their gaze, but even in the interactions with other Japanese I've seen lengthy conversations occur with absolutely zero eye contact. This is especially true of Japanese kids (whom I teach). They won't look someone in the eyes to save their life, whether it's me or a Japanese teacher.

The research focused on photographs...static images. I'd bank more on the differing representations of emotion in art as affecting the way people read emotions in pictures. If you grow up with cartoons that stress emotions with the eyes, then that's where you see emotion in a static image. If all your friends use the ":)" emoticon, then you'll use it too, and it will be more familiar to you. I think these things have to do more with what we learn from different media. It has nothing to do with who's better equipped to read emotions. I'd be much more interested in a study on where different groups of people focus their attention in actual full-motion conversation.

This may be a bit besides the point, but I think many of the western cartoon characters with big mouths just look stupid. In a cartoon where the characters have these huge, flapping mouths, the words they speak are usually full of nonsense. I tend to gravitate towards anime and such in part because many of the characters look more intelligent and capable. More likley to be interesting or funny, rather than just being stupid for dtupidity's sake.

As for the emoticons used online, I started out using the emoticon :) for a smile, but after playing a MMORPG called Dofus, which has an international userbase, I tend to find that sort of face rather unexpressive and simplistic. Some of the better emoticons in my experience: 0_o @___@ ^___^
;__; sideways just seems to fill out the face a bit better, and it lends itself to expansion of the mouth to express a more extreme feeling, such as O___________0 which seems like a really massive, incredulous stare, as if someone was making a total fool of themselves.

By Tommy Paquette (not verified) on 15 May 2007 #permalink

The largest difference IMO between european, american and asian comics (and movies) is, or perhaps have been, the depiction of violence.

In Europe comics it was earlier rather realistic, while in US you would see a whirlwind between combatants (that really could just be arguing hard), and in Japanese manga someone was knocked high in the air (by saying something upsetting and is really just getting a rough answer). Huge differences.

Similarly in the movies. In US either you don't get seriously hurt or you voluntarily step out to die in a shower of bullets just to get a useless shot off. And don't get me started on the line work in asian movies. ;-)

Interestingly, the more stylized the violence gets, the better the product. :-)

there are a lesser number of more subtle expressions that do not "work" for western viewers or readers that haven't learned what they mean through context or explanation.

Hmm. First, I wouldn't call all of your (excellent, btw) examples "subtle", since nosebleeds and tears are rather aggressive and distractive expressions of the underlying emotions. Second, some of them (such as just nosebleeds and tear streaks) are pretty obvious after a few repetitions, while others are too culturally contingent to get easily (like the head patting).

What helps switching is when the manga isn't reverse mirrored to fit most western reading patterns. The difference in reading pattern anchor the different symbolism and vice versa.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 16 May 2007 #permalink

Great insights, guys. Cross-cultural psychology is fascinating because it reveals subtle nuances that we often take for granted and assume to be normal.

In response to darrell: in many of those situations where two people fail to make eye contact, would assessing each other's emotions be appropriate? It might not be functional for a subordinate to observe a superior's emotions. And regarding the study's use of static pictures, I doubt that watching anime--however animate--would draw Japanese attention to the eyes of static pictures, yet something else in daily interaction. The pictures were real people. But still, I agree that a full-motion study would be preferable, especially with observers from both cultures there to evaluate expressions, not just on which facial feature participants focus their attention.

Another thing to consider: what does a smile mean, anyway? It's a gesture that conveys much more than emotional happiness or amusement. Americans also smile to demonstrate acceptance or approval among other meanings, but I don't know about Japanese usage. Evaluating a smile means looking at the grin not only as an expression of emotion, but as a social gesture. The study only seemed concerned with happy/neutral/sad emotions. And that's just half the picture.

By Chris Brophy (not verified) on 16 May 2007 #permalink

I used BBS systems in the early 1990s. There were different kinds of smilies. And always have been. It's not a Japanese smilie. It has existed long before the net became popular, from days of lemon green Unix terminals. Glad you folks are discovering these bits now, but please stop retrofitting some deep cultural psychology into your discoveries.


I'm not sure you should dismiss cultural differences in smilies so readily. Clearly there's a cultural difference in real smiles (which was the main point of this post), and it's very likely that's the reason that different smilies caught on in different places.

Another thing to consider: what does a smile mean, anyway?

A colleague in Africa asked me 'Why do you always smile when we meet?', a cultural difference that had not struck me until then.
Just another of the many ways in which stereotypes can arise.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 18 May 2007 #permalink

My fiance, a professional animator, pointed out that smiles are not static. A photo of a smile shows only a split second window of the fairly lengthy act of smiling. An animated smile can take as much time as an entire utterance.

By speedwell (not verified) on 18 May 2007 #permalink

Well, before you cite cartoons as an example of this, pay attention to more proximate causes of cartoon stylization. Lip-synch animation is a particularly laborious process, and something that gets thrown right out in an industry of low-budget, fast turnover cartoon production. It's easier to cut corners and produce 2 frames of shiny eyes than to produce a dozen accurate visemes; this seems like a more direct explanation of many anime abstractions than hypotheses of strong cultural variation in emotional perception.

Stylization provides a sort of feedback loop that probably leads from cartoons to comics to other cartoons to emoticons, etc., but I would expect that people's emotional cues in actual conversation are more influenced by past interpersonal interaction than by the abstractions of low-budget mass media cartoons.

I'd put far more weight on actual studies than on annecdotal evidence of emoticons and cartoons, but it's an interesting topic.

By Spaulding (not verified) on 18 May 2007 #permalink

>>I used BBS systems in the early 1990s. There were different kinds of smilies. And always have been. It's not a Japanese smilie. It has existed long before the net became popular, from days of lemon green Unix terminals. Glad you folks are discovering these bits now, but please stop retrofitting some deep cultural psychology into your discoveries.<<

Actually, I've been doing the same since the 80's, and I have to say, don't be so certain. "rec.arts.anime" was among the very first recreational newsgroups in the late 80's and before that, there were BBSes devoted to the subject, and that's just on the US side of things. The "^_^" expression is nearly identical to how a Japanese child draws a smile, and doesn't really make sense as a western-style emoticon, since westerners represent smiles with upturned mouth corners, not with the eyes. While I agree there was a whole "culture" of ascii art and emoticons that arose in that period, I would be pretty surprised if this particular one wasn't either created by someone Japanese or an enthusiast of Japanese popular culture. I don't clearly remember seeing this particular one become widely used until the early 90's, as I mentioned earlier, but that doesn't mean that the earlier incarnations of it weren't of the same origins...

By akari_house (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink