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ランドセル

May 10, 2016.Steven Willem.1 Like.0 Comments
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Randoseru Emoji

Have you been dying to learn more about this cute emoji?! You’ve come to the right place!

Those of you who follow me on Snapchat (@stevenwillem) know that I am currently suffering from an intense obsession for the real-life version of the above emoji; a particular type of Japanese backpack called ランドセル (Randoseru). Even though I had noticed the bags 7 years ago, my then non-existent fashion sense kept me from freaking out. Laying eyes on them this time around, however, I fell in love at first sight. I am tortured daily by the sight of elementary schoolers strutting their way to school with their Randoseru, so decided to take matters into my own hands and do some research.

As I do with all my questions about Japan, I asked my Tea Ceremony Sensei about the fabulous bags. She laughed from disbelief when I confessed my obsession because they are by no means considered special in Japan. As every Japanese person seems to take the bags for granted, my Sensei was unable to answer all my pressing questions. Luckily, our conversation sparked her interest, leading her to find a Randoseru workshop that was open to the public. We jumped in the car ready to be enlightened.

The workshop we visited was the Tsuchiya Kaban (土屋鞄聖造所) workshop in Nishiarai (西新井). The store/workshop was beautifully set up with dozens of Randoseru on display. The nice sales associate who approached us was incredible knowledgeable about the company and history of the Randoseru. I am still flabbergasted by this fact, but the first thing so told us was that the Randoseru originated in the Netherlands. I am Dutch, the bags are Dutch — it all made perfect sense!

Steven Willem Slagt Randoseru

So, what’s the story? Back in the day, the children from the Royal family attended school somewhere between the Imperial Palace and Ikebukuro (my neighborhood). The children would be escorted by servants who carried their school books. The prime minister of the time recommended for the children to carry their own books and embarked on a journey to find the perfect bag. The bag had to not only be sturdy, but also attractive. After some digging, the Prime Minster stumbled upon the Dutch army bags – Ransel – and decided to import them to Japan. He soon stopped the import and had Japan produce them itself: the ランドセル was born!

Randoseru
Randoseru
Randoseru
Randoseru

The Randoseru has become a staple of school life here in Japan. The bag is initially bought when children enter elementary school and discarded at graduation 6 years later. As the bags can be quite expensive, it is customary for grandparents to buy it as a gift for their grandchildren. Because the same bag is used for 6 years, the bag seems to shrink as time passes and the child grows. This, my Sensei explained, is one of the reasons parents appreciate the bag — it’s a reminder of their child’s growth. When the child graduates from elementary elementary school, the worn-out Randoseru can be brought back to the manufacturer to transform it into a mini version, which is viewed as the commemoration of graduation. It’s used as an ornament and can be kept forever. How cute!

Randoseru Baby

As the Japanese school year starts in April, the bags can only be bought between September and March. When I visited the store in April, we could just look at the bags but were unable to purchase. The sales clerk explained that 80% of the bags are made in the workshop in Nishiarai (西新井), and the other 20% in the upscale mountain town Karuizawa (軽井沢). The separation is done to protect against earthquakes; should an earthquake occur and damage one factory, the other can take over production.

The bags retail from anywhere in between 50,000 yen ($500) and 140,000 yen ($1,400). The prices fluctuate quite a bit from year to year, as they are dictated by the price of the high-quality leather. The cheapest version is made from material called Kurarino, which is the patented name of Japanese polyester produced from oil (the same material used for volleyballs). Bags made from Kurarino are not only popular for their affordability, but also for their lightweight nature. The mid-range Randoseru is made from horse leather imported from Spain or North Europe. The most expensive variety is made from cow leather imported from the United States. 

From cheap to expensive.

Tsuchiya Kaban is not the only manufacturer of the Randoseru, but it is considered as one of the most famous and high-quality ones. While other manufactures have started adorning the Randoseru, we were told that Tsuchiya Kaban strongly values its roots and only produces bags representing the orthodox style. For the 50th anniversary, Tsuchiya Kaban also designed a Randoseru for adults. With its beautiful, sleek design, I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. It is a bit expensive, however, retailing at 100,000yen (approximately 1,000 USD).

Adult Randoseru
Adult Randoseru
Adult Randoseru

Besides inspecting the bags and learning about the history, my Sensei and I also got the opportunity to see how the Randoseru is made. The factory is situated behind the store and is occasionally open to the public. It was incredibly inspiring to see the workers’ eye for detail and dedication to producing the perfect bag. Considering the fact that the bags are 100% handmade in Japan, I started to understand the steep price-tag. The owner of the company continues to work in the workshop to this day — pretty impressive at 80+ years old!

Randoseru Factory

While it was quite heartbreaking to find out that the standard Randoseru was too small for me, I am so happy I took the time to learn about this historical bag. I told several Japanese friends about my visit, all of whom were surprised by the Randoseru’s interesting history. I am seriously considering buying the adult version, but have a little bit more thinking to do before I make such a big purchase. We will see!

Thank you for reading!

x Steven

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