Randoseru Elementary School Student Satchels Now and Then

It’s become a veritable symbol of Japanese elementary school students — the satchel, known locally as a randoseru. Come April everywhere you look there seem to be first grade boys and girls walking with their shiny new satchels on their backs. So, why is PingMag doing an article about them now?!

Well, there’s a reason for that.

Have you been to a department store recently? You’ll find a section for selling satchels. It seems more and more grandparents are buying their soon-to-enter-school grandchildren satchels during the summer holidays when families often visit their hometowns. Some go on sale as early as July and sometimes are sold out by the end of the summer. So it’s right now that the satchel market is super busy!

Though we won’t ever wear one again, there’s no better time for us grown-ups to take a proper look at Japanese school satchels.

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Satchels squeezed into elementary school lockers. Most are red or black.

Something used daily for six years

What’s important when it comes to something you will use for six years? Being lightweight and robust! Grown-ups buy new bags and use different ones depending on their whims. But elementary school kids can’t do that so you need to choose a good quality satchel that will last for a long time.

Some may ask what’s wrong with a regular handbag or rucksack — but put heavy textbooks in them and they will break. You may well have seen a broken rucksack but have you ever seen a broken randoseru? When I was in school I put holes in my satchel with pins, only for them to close up by themselves! For this I was grateful to my parents for picking such a great bag for me.

The History of the Satchel

The haino army rucksacks imported from the west during the Bakumatsu period are the origin of today’s randoseru. The latter’s name is actually derived from a Dutch word, ransel.

The box-shaped design used today were originally made under decree from the first Prime Minister, Hirobumi Ito, to commemorate future Emperor Taisho entering the elite Gakushuin school in 1887. However, in certain regions of Japan both before and after the war many kids would carry their school things in a furoshiki (Japanese wrapping cloth). Randoseru satchels spread nationwide fully in the late Fifties. Today’s design is actually hardly changed from the original, making it a bag with history of over 100 years!

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This aluminum satchel is from the Forties and early Fifties. The shoulder straps look super painful and like they’d make a scratching sound. Image courtesy of Mie Prefectural Museum.

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Image courtesy of Randoseru Land
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Another satchel from the late Forties and early Fifties. The big picture design is very nice. Girls would have flowers while the boys had baseball.
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This is the type of red or black Heisei era (1989-) satchel I used when at school.

Almost all are Made in Japan

A school bag worn on your back in the shape of a box? It’s a uniquely Japanese design. Of course, overseas there are also backpack-style school bags but they aren’t usually square.

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This is a German school backpack, a Schulranzen. It looks rather grand. The boys get blue and brown while the girls have red and pink ones.
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Here’s a British satchel-style school bag. These kinds of bags were popular for a while in Japan as chic bags but actually the design was originally just for school kids!

What’s happening with randoseru recently?

Satchels are evolving! It used to be that boys had black while girls had red, but these days there are all kinds of colors. In particular, girls might have blue, pink or purple. The designs are much more individual than before, with greens and all sorts of colors now available. untitled randsel-10 randsel-11

If you take a look at the website of randoseru manufacturer you can try simulations of order-made satchels. It’s surprisingly fun!

For really individual randoseru, try these!

Romantic is a brand of randoseru for the princesses out there. The bags include lace and tiara motifs! Girls are guaranteed to fall in love with these! While the first graders might be over the moon at the cuteness here, by the time they reach sixth grade they may feel a bit embarrassed by this kind of maidenly design. You can see other idiosyncratic randoseru designs on the LIRICO online store.

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A satchel by kids’ clothing brand Hysteric Mini. A skull and crossbones on a school bag?! That’s just too innovative for us. You might well wonder what kind of parents are raising their kids to take this sort of dark satchel to school! This was the 2011 model, which isn’t available today. Note also how attention has even been paid to the inside.

Chic canvas randoseru that even grown-ups can use!

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This canvas satchel comes from Saikobo in Hiroshima, a design for both grown-ups and kids that combines the best of rucksacks and satchels. Canvas is sturdy and light, and with superb ventilation. The side also features Sanada Himo, the traditional ribbon we previously introduced on PingMag.

Herz leather randoseru

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On other hand, Herz is a handmade leather goods studio based in Shibuya. This is the kind of bag which even parents and guardians might want too. With this one you can keep using it after you leave school. There’s something rather stylish about a bag that parents can inherit from their young ones when they are done with it after the six years of school.

Think back to your childhood days and your own randoseru — stepped on, written on, used any old how. It may be tucked away inside the closet somewhere.

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I found my younger brother’s satchel in the closet. It looks pretty tatty on the outside but opening it up I discovered his school things preserved as if nothing had changed. Here was his health report, notebooks, timetable, plus a Omamori good luck charm attached to the strap.

Don’t throw out your satchel — there’s a recycling service!

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The Hasegawa Leather Atelier in Kanagawa recycles old satchels into miniature randoseru, commuter train pass holders, wallets and straps. It feels nice that things aren’t taken for granted. We’d like to own a wallet that you could boast was made from satchels!