Pien: Its Life As Emoji, Vocabulary, and Fashion

Pien: Its Life As Emoji, Vocabulary, and Fashion

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Picture: Canva
Picture: Canva
Learn how "pien" became the in-fashion word of 2020 - and how its use spread through popular media and Kabukicho street culture.

It’s not as trendy as it used to be. But the Japanese word “pien” – represented visually as the “pleading face emoji” (🥺) – has secured its place in Japanese slang. But where did it come from? We take a look at its history, its usage, and its influence on manga, anime, and Kabukicho street culture.

The origins of “pien”

As far as anyone can tell, “pien” as a word came into fashion among the JC (女子中学生; joshichuugakusei, middle schoolers) and JK (女子高校生; joshikoukousei, high schoolers) set around 2018. It took off in popularity around that time. According to Google Trends, it hit its peak Internet usage around 2020 and has since leveled out.

Pien enjoyed a few years in the sun starting in 2019, when it made multiple lists of trending slang words in Japan. Marketing company AMF, which specializes in marketing to teens in Japan, put “pien” at number 1 in its list of trending new words among the JC/JK set. It also ranked number 1 in Petrel’s review of the most popular Instagram words of the year.

The “pleading face” emoji popular in text messaging, messaging apps, and social media is known as the pien face. This likely helped its popularity spread, as the pleading face is widely available on every platform and application thanks to its inclusion in the Unicode 11.0 standard in 2018 (Unicode character U+1F97A).

Anime and manga helped push the word’s popularity as well. As the word and the emoji became more popular, more authors and studios incorporated the “pien-face” into the repertoire of expressions they used for their characters.

Animal Crossing: Dom (Chachamaru), a character with a permanent pien face
As a sign of pien’s popularity, the Animal Crossing character Dom (Japanese: Chachamaru) has a permanent pien-face.

Increasing popularity

At the time, Japan used the emoji much more in Japan than other countries. In a 2020 survey of worldwide use of emojis, Twitter Japan found that pien didn’t even rank in the top 10. That quickly changed, however: pleading face ranked #5 in 2021 and #7 in 2022 in a report by Consumer Search and Brandwatch.

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At one point, pleading face was the third-most used emoji on Twitter (now X). According to Web site Emojipedia, this turn happened around mid-2020, right as pien hit the height of its popularity in Japan.

As for the word “pien” itself, research of teens by messaging application company LINE found that some 34.4% of them used it daily.

Who created it?

Despite its widespread usage, no one knows who came up with the word or where it came from. Kataoka Miyu of the idol group Niji Conquistadors (虹のコンキスタドール; niji no konkisutadooru) claims to be its progenitor. Yahoo! Japan said that its first record of Internet searches for the word dates back to August 2018 in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture.

There’s general agreement that the word is an onomatopoeia. Beyond that, consensus breaks down. ITMedia Netlab offered up the theory that it’s based on the sound a baby makes when they cry, which in Japanese is ぴいぴい (pii-pii).

In her book, The Pien Malady: Consumption and Validation in the Social Media Generation (「ぴえん」という病 SNS世代の消費と承認), author Sasaki Chiwawa cites two other theories. One is that the sound is derived from an onomatopoeia for crying, ひんひん (hin-hin). Another is that it comes from the similar-sounding Korean crying sound, 힌 (hin).

What does “pien” mean?

The textbook definition of “pien” is that it’s the feeling of crying brought about by sorrow or happiness. In this sense, it’s similar to the Japanese words しくしく (shikushiku) and めそめそ (mesomeso).

But the word’s a bit more diverse than its dictionary definition lets on. Researcher Hirose Ryo of the Nise Kiso Research Institute found the majority, 93%, use it to communicate when something regrettable has happened, while 89.5% use it to be easily forgiven for something.

However, another 71% also use it to express relief. And 55% use it to express gratitude. It can also be used at times one is feeling weak (42.5%) or to soothe the pain of a self-deprecating joke (22.5%). A full 11% of cases fall into an ill-defined “other” bucket.

Table of statistics from Hitose Ryo's research on the varuous usages of pien

Uses of the word “pien”. (Source: Nise Kiso Research Institute)

In this way, Sasaki Chiwawa argues, the word is similar to another linguistic phenomenon that preceded it: 卍 (manji.) And no, folks, that’s not a swastika. The manji is a Buddhist symbol that runs counterclockwise. It’s considered a holy symbol and marks the location of Buddhist temples on maps in Japan.

Like pien, manji became a catch-all word to express emotions of amazement, grief, and happiness. In that way, it’s similar to yabai, which still remains a popular catch-all word. (A somewhat related phenomenon is the word egui, which went from a negative meaning to a positive meaning in present-day usage.)

Examples

According to ITMedia Netlab, some representative sample sentences for ぴえん include:

「先週買ったばっかりの服、今日から半額になってた。ぴえん」 – The clothes I just bought last week are now half off. Pien (dejected)

「後輩がドーナツをおごってくれた。ぴえん」 – My kohai bought me donuts. Pien (happy)

飛行機にぎりぎり間に合った。ぴえん」- I just made my flight. Pien (relief)

The vocabulary doesn’t stop at “pien”. The word “paon” (ぱおん) also came into fashion as a more extreme form of ぴえん, most often used in the phrase ぴえん超えてぱおん (pien koete paon) – “It’s beyond pien, it’s paon.” There’s even a level beyond ぱおん: ぴえんヶ丘どすこい之助 (pien-ga-oka dosui nosuke).

The “Pien Girl”: From face to fashion

Jirai girl (not making a pien face)
Picture: : è‚‰é‡Ž 味見 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

(Content Warning: This portion of the article discusses self-harm.)

“Pien” became more than just a way to express emotions, however. The word also became a shorthand for women and girls who made up part of Kabukicho’s Toyoko Kids culture around 2020.

“Toyoko Kids” is the popular term for the youth who hang out on the street next to the Shinjuku Toho Building building in Kabukicho (“Toyoko” is short for “next to Toho”). It became demonized in the popular press as a somewhat dangerous area where young people drink, do drugs, and self-harm.

For many of its participants, however, it was a home away from home – a place where people alienated from mainstream Japanese society could connect. For some, alienated from their parents or fleeing emotionally and physically abusive households, it was their only home.

Many of the women who comprised this culture adopted fashions like ryosan-gata (量産型; mass-produced style) or jirai (地雷; landmine), typefied by clothes from brands such as Mars, Liz Lisa, DearMyLove, Secret Honey, and Honey Cinnamon. The culture is also marked by other symbols, including an affinity for Strong Zero and other chuhai drinks and pink Monster.

Ryosan-gata/jirai-kei fashion
An example of ryosan-gata/jiraikei fashion. (Source: Yahoo! Shopping)

More controversially, the culture is also marked by a propensity towards self-harm. Many of its participants struggle with various forms of mental illness, which Japanese society still stigmatizes. Participants seecCutting and other acts of self-harm as a form of escape and/or self-punishment.

“A feeling of unity”

According to Sasaki Chiwawa, the movement accelerated in popularity with the 2019 manga Tomorrow I’ll Be Someone’s Girlfriend (明日私は誰かのカノジョ; Ashita, Watashi Wa Dareka no Kanojo). The character of Yua, who dressed in jirai style and made ぴえん a cornerstone of her vocabulary, helped fuel the style’s popularity. The two styles were soon picked up and promoted by Japanese fashion magazines such as LARME.

Saito Nagisa as Yua from Ashita, Watashi Ha Dareka no Kanojo
Saito Nagisa, who played Yua in the dramatization of Ashita, Watashi Wa Dareka no Kanojo, alongside the original manga character. The slash marks on Yua’s left arm are a nod to the prevalence of self-harm in the community. (Picture: 「明日、私は誰かのカノジョ」製作委員会・MBS)

The word ぴえん – in all its yabai-like flexibility – became a lynchpin of Kabukicho street slang, particularly among women and girls. These factors led to a new name: ぴえん系女子 (pien-kei joshi), or “pien girls.”

Sasaki chronicled the trials of the pien girls in her book. Women and young girls came to Kabukicho – sometimes from other cities – to find connection and meaning. Some, like Yua, get involved with Kabukicho hosts – and take up sex work to support the expensive habit.

But many come seeking camaraderie with like-minded people and a sense of belonging. As Maki, a 19yo who came from outside Tokyo, put it:

“It’s fun walking around [with my friends] in the same types of clothes. It makes me happy to see girls in similar clothes and hairstyles. It makes me feel like I have friends…There’s a feeling of unity and liveliness. I don’t feel like I have to stress. It feels cozy.”

“Pien” is still in active use, though it’s fallen off since its heyday. But like yabai and egui, it’s left an indelible mark on the Japanese language.

Sources

「ぴえん」とは何を意味しているのか? ~若者文化の裏にある搾取と不平等とルッキズム. Shueisha

ぴえんとは? 意味やどんな感情のときに使うか、例文に元ネタ、派生語も紹介. MyNavi News

ぴえん. Wikipedia JP

「ぴえん」とは何だったのか. Nissei Research

「ぴえん」という病 SNS世代の消費と承認 (扶桑社新書) 新書. Sasaki Chiwawa. 2021

The Top 10 Most Popular Emojis and How to Use Them. Brandwatch

Twitterが「2020年にもっとも多く使われた絵文字」ランキングを公開 1位は「うれし泣き」、ぴえんは……?ITMedia Netlab

A New King: Pleading Face. Emojipedia

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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