All over the world, children use bags of various colors, sizes and shapes to haul their materials to and from school. But visit Japan, and you'll notice primary school children carrying satchels that all look quite similar. These school satchels, which have been commonly used in Japan for decades, have become a unique part of the country's culture, and they serve as the theme for this edition of Japanology Plus.
These school satchels, as we learn, have a unique design that makes them something of a hybrid between a backpack and a suitcase—worn on the back with straps, but with a hard-shelled interior in the perfect size for keeping textbooks, notebooks and so on in tip-top shape.
In Japanese, these satchels are called "randoseru," which comes from the Dutch word "ransel." The word is a clue to their origin: mid-19th century Japan, which had just opened its doors to the world after centuries of isolation, was quickly adopting Western influences. That included a new way for members of the military to carry gear: in bags based on those from the Netherlands. These military-style satchels were later adopted for use by school children and came into widespread use in the 1950s.
Randoseru is just one of many Japanese words with a Dutch origin. While Japan chose to largely keep to itself between the 17th and 19th centuries, it did have limited contact with some countries, including the Netherlands. Dutch traders were positioned on an artificial island called Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, and their unique role as Japan's only Western trading partner meant many Dutch terms entered the Japanese lexicon. That includes words many people these days might assume came from English: biiru (beer, from the Dutch bier), gurasu (glass, from glas), and koohii (coffee, from koffie).
As we learn on the program, Japanese children use the same satchel for their entire six years of primary school, and the bags are built tough enough so that many are still in great shape thereafter. Many viewers may wonder: what happens to used randoseru?
While some families, no doubt, simply dispose of their children's satchels, there are several methods available to keep them in use. One is donation: there are several non-profit organizations that collect used satchels and distribute them to children in developing countries. Other services exist to transform them into products one can use as an adult, like wallets, purses, belts and more. There's even an option to transform your randoseru into a...mini-randoseru, a handheld version of the memory-filled bag you carried with you for six years.
Japan watchers are well aware that the Japanese are having fewer children and might expect that fact to be having an effect on the randoseru market. In a 2017 interview, the president of a major randoseru manufacturer reported that due to the declining birthrate, one of the company's top-of-the-line models was piling up in warehouses and being sold at a discount online, thereby diminishing the value of the brand. The president ordered production to be cut in half, and while profits took an initial hit, they eventually rose again, in part thanks to clever marketing strategies and modifications to the satchel itself.
Indeed, as we learn on the program, satchels are evolving on multiple fronts. On the one hand, satchel makers have introduced new colors and styles, and they have been able to raise their prices as parents lavish more money on fewer children.
On the other hand, randoseru are also becoming popular outside Japan as a kind of fashion statement. Japanese people, who think of the satchels as strictly for children, were surprised to see popular US actress Zooey Deschanel wearing one back in 2014. But Deschanel is not the only adult with a Japanese school satchel: it's said sales to customers from outside Japan now account for as much as 10% of the market.
For these reasons, the randoseru business seems to be quite healthy. In fact, the market actually grew in value by some 4 billion yen between 2013 and 2017, and some experts expect this trend to continue! Though it's impossible to predict what might happen in the distant future, it sounds as if for the moment, satchel manufacturers have things, erm, in the bag.