For the past several weeks some good Samaritans have been sending gifts to various child-welfare facilities throughout Japan. All of the senders identified themselves as “Naoto Date,” the name of the fictional character who was a professional wrestler called Tiger Mask in a popular animated series that aired between 1969 and 1971. Date also grew up in a child welfare facility, which for all intents and purposes is an orphanage; when he grew up and made money, he gave some of it to the facility that raised him.
In at least three of these charitable incidents, the anonymous donor deposited gift-wrapped randoseru at the entrances of the facilities. English-language news outlets translate this word as “school bags,” which doesn’t do justice to the thing it describes. Randoseru, a local rendering of the Dutch word ransel, is considered a uniquely Japanese accoutrement to the lives of young children. Randoseru are those boxy, hard leather backpacks that elementary children wear on their way to and from school and which are considered mandatory for no other reason than that everyone at that age wears them. Traditionally, they are expensive, which explains why the anonymous gift-giver chose that particular gift: orphanages, he figures, probably wouldn’t be able to afford them. He obviously thought he was giving those kids, who likely attend public schools alongside non-orphans, a measure of self-esteem.
Legend has it that the randoseru craze was sparked when the future Emperor Taisho was given a genuine Dutch backpack as a child, and while explanations for the subsequent popularity of such an accessory focus on practicality, a closer look at the phenomenon reveals it has more to do with marketing and status. Because a child will only use it from the first to the sixth year of elementary school (though many stop wearing theirs by the beginning of fifth year because randoseru look ridiculous on larger kids), he or she will most likely only possess one, and so the randoseru represents in commodity form a child’s formal entrance into the educational system. It is an emblem of a rite of passage. All children show up to class on the first day of first grade dressed in their school uniforms and sporting identical and — most important — brand new randoseru. God help the child who shows up with his older brother’s or sister’s hand-me-down bag or even a standard canvas backpack, no matter how new and fashionable. The kid would be teased mercilessly.