It’s not fire, and it’s not food, but every Japanese person immediately understands the symbol that has the rest of the world scratching their heads.

One of the amazing things about language is how it entirely changes the way you interpret visual symbols. For example, to anyone who reads Japanese, ッ is just how you write the sound “tsu,” but to many people overseas, it looks more like a pair of eyes and an extra-large smile/smirk.

But while switching over to actual, intentional illustrations eliminates the language barrier, it doesn’t erase cultural differences, which brings us to this.

If you’ve dug deep into the emoji options on your smartphone or other device, you might have come across this symbol and wondered just what it’s supposed to be. You could argue it looks sort of like someone ignored a “do not enter” road sign and smashed the top portion of it by ramming it with their car, but the most common interpretation among English-speaking Internet users seems to be that it’s a picture of a block of tofu in the middle of a roaring fire.

Much like the word emoji itself, the 📛 emoji has its roots in Japan. However, flambéed tofu isn’t a traditional Japanese dish, and the symbol actually represents something entirely different. It’s a drawing of a tulip-shaped nafuda, or name badge, like the ones commonly worn by Japanese preschoolers, with a white space in which to write the child’s name. So no, 📛 isn’t a burning tofu picture used when you’re hungry but going vegetarian for the day. It’s used when you’re talking about preschools, your young kids, and other early childhood topics.

▼ Though the one most frequently seen in emoji sets is fire-red, the badges can actually be purchased in all sorts of different colors.

Okay, so that covers the “what,” but what about the “why?” That’s a little trickier, as even in Japan, no one seems to be quite sure why tulips are so strongly associated with preschools, aside from the simple fact that they look cute. Some theorize it’s because tulips are fast-growing flowers, making them an auspicious symbol for kids taking the first steps of their academic and social lives, while others think the reason might have something to do with the “Tulip Song,” a popular nursery school singalong in Japan.

▼ Performed here by two singers wearing stylized versions of the standard Japanese preschool smock, but, ironically, not wearing tulip name badges.

▼ Making tulip name badge origami is also a quick and easy arts and crafts project.

Tulip-shaped badges may be the first ones that spring to mind for many Japanese people, but not every preschool in the country uses them. Some, for example, have the kids wear badges that look like sunflowers or cherry blossoms, like the one below.

Flower-shaped name badges can easily be found in Japanese craft and discount stores, and are also sold online through Amazon Japan (the tulip and sakura versions above sell for 270 yen [US$2.40] and 90 yen, respectively). Oh, and if your PC or device supports Japanese text input, you can also conjure one up by typing “nafuda” then cycling through the rendering choices.

Because really, Japanese word processing programs are absolutely filled with cool artwork.

Sources: Twitter/@nijieith via Hachima Kiko, Hatena
Top image: Amazon Japan/ベルハウス
Insert images: SoraNews24, Amazon Japan/栄プラスチック, SoraNews24

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s currently digesting a lunch of mabo tofu.