Durable and spacious, randoseru (ランドセル — from the Dutch word «ransel», which means backpack) are in fact a unique kind of backpack from Japan, seen traditionally on elementary school students. They are very special in themselves, as — it is believed, they encompass the virtues traditionally held in Japan as necessary to achieve a good education: discipline, hard work, unity and dedication.
Inspired by the Dutch rucksack used nearly two hundred years ago, the use of a backpack was initially adopted by the Japanese government as a practical way for foot soldiers to convey their baggage. Later, in the late 19th century, backpacks were proposed as the new paradigm for elementary school students at Gakushuuin (学習院 — the school for children of Japan’s upper class), as they had to bring by themselves their own belongings.
The predecessor of the modern randoseru was made popular when the imperial heir was given one resembling those used by the military forces — as a homage to them, upon entering school. However, it remained as an item exclusive to rich families, as it was unaffordable for most people. Those who couldn’t afford one relied on shoulder bags of simpler design and furokoshi — the traditional square folding clothes. This changed after WWII, when the economic rise in Japan allowed its spread to the lower classes.
As it happens with many other Japanese traditional items, randoseru are handmade with utmost attention to every detail, as they must be durable and sturdy — many of them remain almost immaculate long after the six years elementary school lasts in Japan.
A typical randoseru‘s measures are 30 cm (1′) high by 23 cm (9,2″) wide by 18 cm (7,2″) deep and they weight around 1,2 kilos (roughly 2,64 lb) when empty.
There exist modern versions which are are lighter and sturdier, as they’re made with synthetic materials — these currently dominate the market, with more than 70% of the sales.
A possible future change could be the enlargement of its measures, given the new Japanese curriculum guidelines and a growing demand for larger backpacks. Yet, manufacturers aren’t quite enthusiastic about these changes.
Current status of randoseru
While many elementary schools don’t require their students to use a randoseru nowadays, they’re still ubiquitous in Japan due to force of tradition. As such, they can easily be seen on the streets, as well as depicted in popular media and works of fiction.
Typical red or black randoseru, used traditionally by girls and boys respectively, are still the most used colors. Yet, many other colorful versions have raised in popularity in the recent years — colors like these have been available since as early as the 1960s, but remained obscure due to an unwillingness to escape from the established norm. This can be seen as an attempt to not abandon a tradition while allowing it to evolve progressively.
Also, as a part of a campaign for traffic safety, many communities are distributing yellow plastic covers for randoseru, akin to the bright-colored hats used by kindergarten students to be more visible on the streets and, as such, avoid accidents.