While usually seen strapped to the backs of heavily laden elementary school kids scampering about on trains or running off to their lessons, Japan’s “randoseru” backpacks are proving to be a surprise hit among foreign tourists and fashionistas.
At a luggage store in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza’s shopping district in late November, foreign tourists appeared intrigued by the randoseru on display.
“I’ll buy a bag as a present for my son,” said Li Jian, a 32-year-old Chinese tourist from Beijing who often visits Japan. “I was also asked by friends to buy the bags for their children, so I’ll purchase two or three of them today.”
Li said he first noticed schoolchildren wearing the stiff backpacks during a previous visit to Japan and he has also seen them in anime.
“I think they are tough and cute,” he said.
Many of the randoseru used by Japanese schoolchildren are now made of tough, water-resistant artificial leather and are guaranteed to last for the six years of elementary school.
The randoseru backpacks, which take their name from “ransel,” the Dutch word for knapsack, are capacious enough to carry around 3 kg of textbooks, notebooks and materials required for a day at school. Traditionally they mostly came in black and red, but other colors such as pink and brown have become popular in recent years.
Another tourist in the store, Justin Low, 50, who was visiting from Sydney, bought a red school bag as a souvenir for his teenage daughter.
“I think my daughter might like that because it’s unique, and when she is in Australia, no one else will have that bag,” he said.
Ginza Karen sells randoseru made two to three years earlier for ¥5,400 each, compared with around ¥35,000 to ¥40,000 for new bags, as they are not covered by warranties for free repairs, the shop said.
“We get a stock of 150 bags per week, but it’s not enough,” said Koichi Miwa, manager at Ginza Karen. The store has sold 1,000 to 2,000 of the bags annually over the past three years, but sales “grew at an unusual pace this year,” he said.
“Sales are expected to soar until at least the Tokyo Olympics” in 2020, he added.
In another development, major randoseru maker Kyowa Co. is in talks with a Japanese retailer to ship around 1,200 of the backpacks each year to China, said company spokesman Hideaki Wakamatsu.
The company is also negotiating with the operator of a shopping mall adjacent to a popular tourist spot in Tokyo to distribute its bags during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February, he said.
Amid the growing popularity abroad of randoseru, a duty-free shop at Tokyo’s Haneda airport started selling the backpacks in October priced at ¥10,000, with 32 sold in November, according to shop manager Michihiko Takano.
The shop also started offering more expensive ones with price tags exceeding ¥50,000 from November and sold three of them during the month, Takano said.
The history of randoseru dates back to the late Edo Period, when a Western-style military system was introduced in Japan and soldiers started using imported knapsacks called “ransel” in Dutch, according to the Japan Luggage Association.
During the Meiji Era, Gakushuin elementary school, which opened in Tokyo in 1877, prohibited students in 1885 from using carriages or rickshaws to get to school, requiring them instead to carry school supplies in ransels.
The first box-shaped randoseru is believed to have been made for Emperor Taisho in 1887, a gift from Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito to celebrate the emperor’s entry to Gakushuin, the association said.
“Since then, the basic shape of randoseru has not changed,” said Toshiaki Miyazawa, an official at the Japan randoseru industry association. “It appears the randoseru was born in its final form.”
Randoseru were first adopted in metropolitan areas, only spreading to rural areas after World War II.
Apart from their popularity with tourists, high-end randoseru are also drawing attention as a fashion item for adults overseas, opening up a potential growth market for manufacturers amid Japan’s declining birthrate.
The randoseru craze overseas has spawned videos about the bags on YouTube, while U.S. actress Zooey Deschanel was spotted in the spring with a red one strapped to her back.
Tokyo-based Ohba Corp., known for premium handmade leather randoseru that were used by Crown Prince Naruhito and his daughter, Princess Aiko, supplied its products to a department store in Milan in April in 2013.
Though priced around 50 percent higher than the ¥80,000 to ¥120,000 they sold for in Japan, the backpacks sold out quickly, according to Managing Director Kozo Ohba.
Since the company started displaying its products in 2011 at an exhibition in Italy, the company’s school bags have also caught the eye of buyers from the United States, according to Ohba. A Russian fashion designer has also placed an order for the bags.
“It’s not only the unique design that attracts them,” said Ohba. “They are also impressed by the superb quality.”