Eating National Symbols

Over the years, commentators have remarked that Australia is the only country where people eat the animals portrayed in its national coat of arms. Even though that is not entirely true—for instance, Greenland’s coat of arms features a polar bear, and polar bears are certainly eaten in Greenland; and South Africa even exports springbok meat (but the animal no longer appears in the country’s coat of arms, which was changed in 2000)—it is fascinating to look at some of the symbols used to represent various countries. Some countries are recognized immediately by their national flag (Canada and Japan are wonderful examples), and others by their “coat of arms” (such as Australia). Not all countries, however, have an official “coat of arms” or specified emblem, and this includes Japan.

Ask someone you know what symbol they associate with Japan, and the answers will range from cherry blossoms, through cranes or maybe even carp, to Mt Fuji. One response you’re unlikely to get, but the answer that is the actual official symbol of the Japanese government as represented by the Office of the Prime Minister is the paulownia (a wonderful, soft-timbered, fast-growing, insect-resistant tree that is the traditional wood used for making chests for storing kimono). One good place to look for an official country symbol is the cover of a passport. Australian passports have the famous kangaroo and emu emblems on the cover. The Japanese passport features a floral emblem of a 16-petalled chrysanthemum. This chrysanthemum image, said to represent the sun, is the crest of the Imperial family and is also used in various designs by many other Japanese government organizations, including the Japanese Police. And, guess what? Some chrysanthemums are edible, and are very popular in Japanese cooking. Just take a look at a recipe for sukiyaki, and you will see “garland chrysanthemum leaves” listed as an important ingredient! The floral symbol most popularly associated with Japan is, of course, sakura, cherry blossoms; and that also has its place in Japanese cuisine—from blossoms in sakurayu “tea” to rice cakes wrapped in pickled sakura leaves.

Gail Umehara / Wordsmith
During her 16 years in Japan, Gail juggled raising a family with, amongst other things, working as a translation assistant, librarian, and editor. Back in Australia, she continues to work with words as an interpreter, editor and TAFE lecturer.