School days are extra chic with the Japanese randoseru.

Have you ever seen those adorable photos of Japanese schoolkids romping around with their straw hats and giant leather backpacks? Those backpacks are called randoseru (ランドセル), and they’re a familiar sight to anyone who’s ever watched an anime, read a manga or seen a Japanese movie with preteen characters. You may recall seeing them yourself: the bags are round on top and square on the bottom, red for girls and black for boys.

Though the image of randoseru is now synonymous with Japanese schoolkids, it was first introduced to Japanese life as part of a Western-influenced military restructuring. The word randoseru is originally drawn from “ransel,” the Dutch word for rucksack. Though Japan was a “closed country” for most of the Edo period (1600–1868), Dutch traders were allowed in on a limited basis. As curiosity about the Western world grew, the Dutch language and culture became one of the first major non-Asian influences. These Western-style rucksacks were issued to army soldiers in the late 19th century, and their popularity as a schoolbag was cemented when the young crown prince was seen sporting one. These days, randoseru are everywhere, and while they’re not strictly required, you’d be hard pressed to find an elementary schoolchild without one.

The average bag will set you back about ¥50,000 (nearly $600 CAD), though bargain hunters might nd them for as little as ¥30,000. Randoseru mega-fans can also splurge on a luxury version that costs up to ¥150,000! And these days, randoseru fashion has expanded beyond the traditional red and black leather. Now you can get them in a wide range of colours, and adorned with studs or embroidery. Though they’re quite expensive, kids use the same randoseru throughout their six years of elementary school, and the price is borne out in the quality of the bag. Plus, grandparents are typically the ones to buy the bag and give it as a present when kids first reach school age.

Made of high-quality leather with a hard body and an interior plastic coating, these bags with-stand years of running, walking to school and— of course—studying. When children first put on their randoseru, the bags are so big that they seem to swallow the kids whole. But with each year, as the kids grow up, the bag appears to grow smaller, until eventually the kids graduate to middle school and the randoseru is retired. It’s one of the most nostalgic items in a Japanese childhood, and somehow brings out the best in people. After the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear events of 3/11, for example, many people donated randoseru to first graders from the Tohoku area who had lost so much in the disaster. A small but vital gesture to help these kids continue to grow.

Pack your bag

School yourself in the art of randoseru fashion by following these handy tips.

DO start shopping now

August is a peak month for randoseru sales, so get to stores now if you plan to buy one.

DO NOT start school without one

If your family’s moving to Japan, a neighbour will likely be happy to lend you a retired bag.

DO be charming

Parents often attach omamori charms to their kids’ randoseru for good grades and traffic safety.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe