by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Last week we discussed the Japanese School year and I mentioned that Tokyo University was planning to change their academic calendar to match the Western calendar.  Turns out I spoke to soon - last month the University, known colloquially as "Todai", abandoned the plan.  Instead, they have adopted a four semester plan similar to the plan adopted by Waseda University, which allows foreign students to enter on a schedule similar to but not identical to the Western system. 

While we are on the topic of starting school, another rite of passage for any young girl or boy starting school for the first time is receiving their first ランドセル, which is the name of the backpack Japanese schoolchildren carry to school.  The name comes from the Dutch word "Ransei" meaning "Backpack."  Randoseru were first adopted by commissioned officers in the Imperial army during the Meiji period.  Today, every new student is required to buy one, but that doesn't make them cheap - some of them cost as much as $1100.  Fortunately, they are expected to last all through elementary school, and many adults still have their randoseru from childhood.  Often, a student's grandparents will buy the randoseru as a gift for beginning school.  

Traditionally, boys carry black and girls carry red.  However, times have changed and colors are now more varied and vibrant; some schools even issue their own with their own emblem.  However, today there are some who are complaining that the randoseru is ergonomically painful and difficult to carry in comparison to modern backpacks.  Some schools have begun to consider adopting a different style or material.  However, despite being willing to change colors, most Japanese families are unwilling to part with the tradition.  

Although this backpack is a unique tradition in Japan, these backpacks have also begun to appear on the other side of the world, in Afghanistan.  Since 2004, Japanese schoolchildren have been donating their randoseru to schoolchildren in Afghanistan.  The project was begun by the chemical manufacturer Kuraray Co. and the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning.  As of this year, they have already donated over 100,000 randoseru, along with pencils and notebooks.  In this way, Japan is able to lend some of its strength to children who need it now more than ever.