Pien: Its Life As Emoji, Vocabulary, and Fashion

Learn how “pien” became the in-fashion word of 2020 — and how its use spread through popular media and Kabukicho street culture.

Unseen Japan


By Jay Allen

Picture: Canva

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 faded.

Google Trends chart for pien.

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