Why Do Japanese School Kids Carry Randoseru?

by Justin Sevakis,

Samuel asks:

Why does it look like in anime/manga that elementary students have randoseru backpacks whereas middle/high school students have something that looks like a satchel, knapsack or book bag? Also, how is a randoseru different from a Western backpack?

It's not just how it looks in anime. Elementary school kids indeed use randoseru (from the Dutch "ransel," or backpack) as part of their school mandated supplies. Randoseru are rugged, hand-stitched leather or faux leather backpacks with firm sides, and hooks on one side for carrying a lunch, gym clothes or other accessories. In Japan, they are ubiquitous among elementary school kids, and are probably the most expensive school supply anybody in 6th grade or below has ever received.

Randoseru are mandated for use throughout elementary school, and are so expensive that it's expected that one will last a kid for his entire time there. (They are hand-made, after all.) New, they can cost anywhere from ¥8,000 to ¥100,000 for a "designer" randoseru, and even used, they retain their value pretty well if they're well cared for. More traditional schools demand that only black randoseru be used, but in recent years different colors have become popular, as elementary schools started to relax and many dropped their uniform requirements.

These days, fancier randoseru might not have anime characters on them (they're still expected to be classy), but many have decorations like frills, hearts, flowers, or sports brand logos. There are companies that sell truly ridiculous (and ridiculously expensive) randoseru made of things like feathers and snake skin, but those are meant more for adult fashion rather than actual kids.

Randoseru date back to the 1800s, where they were part of the uniform for rich children attending schools for royalty and other upper classes. However, after World War II and the economic boom of the recovery, they became something that most Japanese families could afford, and before long, they were everywhere.

But randoseru are pretty small, and are not meant for older kids. And so once you graduate from elementary school, it's time to give it up and trade it for a regular school bag. While some schools mandate their own style of bag that matches the required uniform, others allow for more individual choice. While most school bags are sold in a similar style, recently many high schoolers have even started using full-sized backpacks.

High school bags (as seen in anime everywhere) can be leather, canvas or nylon, and come in a variety of colors. Many high schoolers -- girls especially -- like to deck theirs out in pins, danglies, and other accessories. As Japan's schools start to relax, they do seem to be allowing more and more individualism in the look of each student.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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