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I was reading through this one question on OKWAVE that was asking people what they thought of Japan’s education system. It’s a pretty long read, but it does have interesting parts to it. For instance, the questioner is trying to get one answerer to give an opinion on Japan’s education system, which is not as easy as he thinks. So the answerer starts off with the following:

文脈に無理を感じますが・・・^^;

Translation (may or may not be spot-on): I find it impossible to do in context, but… ^^;

I know that ^^; is an emoji/emoticon, but finding out more about it is proving to be difficult. The Google search bar is terrible at looking up these symbols in punctuation form. There are websites that list these symbols, but they seem to make looking up one of these symbols harder than it has to be.

So, let me ask you, what does ^^; mean?

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^^;

It's a Japanese emoticon (顔文字) that developed into this emoji 😅 (U+1F605 SMILING FACE WITH OPEN MOUTH AND COLD SWEAT). In Japanese, such expression is called 苦笑い (Google images), which people make when they can't smile wholeheartedly because of some mixed feelings, or they actually has something to say, but let it go with the flow for the time being. Note that the sweat drop on the (top) right doesn't mean real sweating, rather is an iconic sign of perplexity.

The emoticon could be used in any context you'd do 苦笑い, including when you got too much compliment, when you didn't fully agree with someone's (quite radical) opinion, or when your waitstaff misunderstood your order in a funny way, etc. etc.


PS

It's the most keystroke-saving variant of its kind, while we also have:

^_^;    (^_^;)    (^-^;)    ( ̄▽ ̄;)

and more...

  • might be worth mentioning that the full version is ^_^; – Igor Skochinsky Jul 6 '18 at 15:49
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    @IgorSkochinsky Well, I don't think it's the "fullest" version, but thank you for reminding me of mentioning its variants. – broccoli forest Jul 6 '18 at 15:52
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    In English I've heard it called "nervous laugh" or "awkward smile", which I think captures the idea quite well. – Nic Hartley Jul 6 '18 at 19:04
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    I don't know how it originated, but it's certainly no longer exclusively a "Japanese emoticon". It's common in any online community nowadays, particularly if typing actual Unicode emoji is hard. – jpmc26 Jul 6 '18 at 22:41
  • @NicHartley Thank you for your input! I learned new words. – broccoli forest Jul 7 '18 at 1:54
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two upward pointing arrows are a common emoji representing the eyes of a face, usually a smiling face, even if a mouth is not represented. semicolons are usually representative of "sweat drops" when combined with flat eye emojis, but with upward arrow eye emojis, they are usually a graphic representation of laughter ... so this emoji can be considered a lighthearted grin or a chuckle.

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    of course keeping in mind that emojis mean slightly different things to different people. some emojis that are common in Japan don't evince the same feeling in other countries. Some people swear that semicolons are always "sweat" and as you might know from anime, sweat drops are used to express some different situations, from mild discomfort about a topic, to chagrin or wry humor, so a case can be made for either "sweat" meaning or "laugh" meaning. ... when you see ^^;;;;; it's hard to argue "sweat" though ... and while WWWW shows laughter because of "warau", it's not paired with eye emoji – ericfromabeno Jul 6 '18 at 13:42
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    It's almost. It's true that it stands for a smiling face with sweat. But what it connotes is bewilderment or embarrassment. – user4092 Jul 6 '18 at 14:37
  • i forgot about embarrassment! that's true, embarrassed by a mistake or a misunderstanding... by "bewilderment" do you mean some feeling such as nervousness combined with surprise or confusion? or just confusion? – ericfromabeno Jul 6 '18 at 15:20
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    I've never understood it as showing laughter, myself. As an aside, it is technically an emoticon (顔文字{かおもじ} in Japanese) and not an emoji (絵文字{えもじ} in Japanese). It's easy to mix up the English terms emoticon and emoji since they look so similar, but the similarity is purely coincidental. – snailboat Jul 6 '18 at 16:41
  • @snailboat: Oh. And here I thought emoticon and emoji were the same thing. Live and learn! – Micheal Gignac Jul 6 '18 at 17:14
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The two carets, as you stated, are an emoji.

It is equivalent to a closed eye smile. Generally, it is used to express positivity in the preceding statement.

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