Early in the morning or late afternoon, you’ll see them traveling in clusters; small, near identical boxy bags strapped tightly upon the backs of only slighter larger Japanese elementary school children. These bags are known as randoseru. Carefully crafted, incredibly durable and often rather expensive, they’ve been a staple of everyday Japanese schoolwear for over a century.
However, it does them a disservice to consider the randoseru just a Japanese school bag. Dig deeper and you’ll realize there’s so much more than meets the eye. Incredible Japanese craftsmanship, timeless design, and a royal history; let’s dive into the wonderful world of the randoseru.
What is a Randoseru?
The first incarnation of the randoseru bag was a backpack for soldiers. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the Shogunate government was influenced by the western-style military system of the Netherlands which is where the inspiration for the bag came. The name randoseru comes from the old Dutch term for backpack: ransel or rantsel.
From around 1885 the rugged leather backpack was marketed as an effective and sturdy alternative to the cloth or fabric backpacks used by the country’s elementary school children. Two years later it gained widespread recognition when the future Emperor Taisho was gifted a randoseru upon his entry to elementary school. Still, despite the burgeoning popularity of these Japanese school bags, their use was limited to metropolitan areas. In the regions, most school children would use a furoshiki cloth to carry their books.
By the 1960s, randoseru backpacks had spread throughout the country, coinciding with Japan’s rapid economic growth. Sometime during this post-1960s period a clear color code became apparent; black for boys and red for girls. It could be that this gender divide was borrowed from the traditional Japanese sandals known as geta, which makes sense, but there’s no specific evidence to confirm this point.
How are Randoseru Made?
The original versions of Japanese randoseru bags were crafted from heavy, but long-lasting, leather and pig hide. These days however, as many as 70% of the bags on the market are made from a synthetic leather known as Clarino. Invented in 1965 by Japanese manufacturer Kuraray Co. Ltd., Clarino looks and feels quite like the original material; it’s just as tough, but a bit lighter, waterproof and more resistant to everyday wear and tear.
Like any other artisanal craft in Japan, each maker has their way of doing things; however, there is a general outline of how a randoseru backpack comes together. Bag label Tsuchiya is a great example of just what goes into making a randoseru. They create their versions of the backpack from 150 separate pieces. Like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, there are around 300 steps to putting the entire bag together.
Most feature a thick cushioning back panel, covered in soft, breathable fabric (or leather) to ensure comfort. The wide side panels of the bag are often reinforced with an internal layer of plastic to ensure it keeps its shape and offers maximum space capacity. The straps are attached using a metal, or similar, clasp to provide the freedom of movement and to help distribute the weight of the bag evenly. Other buckles and clips are also added to the outside so wearers can attach their bento boxes or personalize with decorations like keyrings and nametags.
Randoseru for Adults
Now more than half a century since it became the go-to Japanese school backpack, the randoseru bag is having a bit of a modern renaissance. It’s been a favorite of tastemaking singer/actress Zooey Deschanel who in 2015 got people talking when she was snapped wearing a classic red randoseru on the streets of New York.
Its elegantly minimalistic design and sturdy construction have made it an excellent blank canvas for designers. It was recently re-envisioned by car brand Lexus - whose version bag costs $1,350. One of the most unique randoseru collaborations we’ve seen is the Andy Warhol Randoseru series. Looking perfectly regular on the outside, underneath the front pocket was a vibrant panel featuring some of the late great pop-art king’s most iconic images. The bag was on sale at Isetan Department stores across Japan and on its release cost about $750.
Another variation of the bag to gain international attention was the adult randoseru, aka Otona Ransel, by Tsuchiya Kaban. A clean, thinner version of the original, it comes in two color shades, black and brown leather, and has been reconstructed ever so slightly to be more office friendly, with fewer clips and space for A4 books and files. It also boasts a rather adult price tag costing 100,000 yen (almost $1,000).
Where to Buy Randoseru?
It is possible to find a randoseru bag for around $80, but the regular price for a brand new bag in a department store heads into the hundreds. It can even go as high as $1,000 or more for something super high end! Many students are gifted such a bag (often by grandparents) as a rite-of-passage when beginning elementary school. Meticulously well made, the bags are expected to last until students reach university age.
If you’re in Japan, the most common place you’ll fine randoseru for sale is the city’s mega department stores like Takashimaya, Kintetsu, Mitsukoshi, Sogo, Seibu, and other similar outlets.
For something a little more adult and high-end, consider paying a visit to Tsuchiya Kaban a Japanese retail chain dedicated to carefully crafted, artisinal bags and other accessories. They have stores in many of Japan’s major cities and one international store in Taipei.
If you’re outside of Japan, one of your best outlets for Japanese school bags is Amazon. If you don’t want to sacrifice quality for price, then consider this authentic style black Randoseru. Made from thick, durable vegan leather that’s highly damage resistant, this bag is half the price of what randoseru in Japan typically cost. They are also available in a variety of colors.
For those on the hunt for something more budget-friendly, or want something with a few extra color options, this series - which comes in blue, pink, rose, red, purple, and black - is an excellent choice especially considering they can be yours for less than $100. For those based in the US, it’s worth noting that American books are typically bigger than Japanese, so do your research before you purchase to make sure you get the right size!
If you want to know more about these iconic Japanese school bags, take a look at this review by Youtuber Kelly Eden who gives an American perspective on buying and using randoseru for grown-ups!
Tastefully minimalistic, and built to last, the randoseru is without a doubt an ideal example of Japan’s unparalleled appreciation for craftsmanship. So ingrained in Japanese life, with a lifespan of over 50 years, it’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for this equally humble and impressive backpack.
JO SELECTS offers helpful suggestions, and genuine recommendations for high-quality, authentic Japanese art & design. We know how difficult it is to search for Japanese artisans and designers on the vast internet, so we came up with this lifestyle guide to highlight great Japanese artworks and designs for your everyday needs.
All product suggestions are independently selected and individually reviewed. We try our best to update information, but all prices and availability are subject to change. Japan Objects is a member of the Amazon affiliates program and if you buy something through our links, Japan Objects may earn an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you.