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Japan's school backpacks going genderless as makers launch various colors, designs

Tsuchiya Kaban Co.'s genderless "randoseru" backpacks for elementary school students in the Reco series are seen in the city of Matsuyama on March 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Yamanaka)

MATSUYAMA -- As many junior and senior high schools in Japan are moving to introduce genderless uniforms, backpacks for elementary school children are also shifting to gender-neutral, with manufacturers launching the items in various colors and designs.

    Leather goods company Tsuchiya Kaban Co., major retailer Aeon Co. and office furniture maker Itoki Corp. all introduced genderless "randoseru" -- schoolbags traditionally used by first to sixth grade students in Japan -- targeting children who enrolled in elementary schools this past April, and they have sold well. Such backpacks are also attracting attention in the already active randoseru market for children who will become first graders in the 2023 academic year as the timing of the "randoseru hunting" where the entire family is involved in choosing a perfect backpack for the child is getting earlier year by year.

    At Tsuchiya Kaban's backpack trade show held at a hotel in the western Japan city of Matsuyama on March 27, a girl who will enter elementary school in April 2023 kept looking at herself in a mirror while she wore a gray backpack. She said excitedly, "I like this!"

    Some 130 backpacks consisting of 63 designs in around 50 colors were lined up. Families were seen checking out each backpack in a serious manner as children usually use the same ones for six years until graduation, and some children were seen rushing to ones that grabbed their attention.

    One of the most eye-catching displays at the trade fair was the "Reco" series, Tsuchiya Kaban's randoseru lineup that is themed on "selecting the color that best represents oneself" regardless of gender. Traditionally, boys used black backpacks, while girls chose red ones.

    Tsuchiya Kaban Co.'s "randoseru" backpack trade fair for children set to enroll in elementary school in the 2023 academic year is seen in the city of Matsuyama on March 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Yamanaka)

    The gender inclusive line has two types available: "basic" priced at 82,000 yen (about $630) apiece and "premium" sold at 83,000 yen (approx. $640) each. The basic type comes in red, black, navy-blue, brown and gray, while the other features bright blue, khaki and orange. Natsuki Takahashi, 36, a Tsuchiya Kaban public relations officer said, "We wanted to eliminate fixed ideas like 'this color is for boys' and 'this color is for girls.' We hope to help create an environment where children can freely choose what they like through picking out a randoseru for themselves."

    One girl chose a "prism blue" backpack at the Matsuyama trade fair. Her 41-year-old mother said, "My child wanted a blue one from the start, and Reco's concept that a child can choose whatever color they like regardless of gender helped us pick out the one for her." The company will continue to accept reservations for the backpacks until July 31.

    According to Tsuchiya Kaban's online survey on parents who have children set to enroll in elementary school from the 2022 school year, conducted over two days in April 2021, 83.1% of 326 valid responses favored the idea of eliminating fixed concepts of gendered school backpack colors. To a question about the main points to consider when buying such backpacks, with multiple answers permitted, "choosing a color and design the child likes" was the most common answer selected by 71.5% of respondents, surpassing "lightness" and "price" selected by 52.5% and 47.5%, respectively.

    Other school backpack makers have followed Tsuchiya Kaban's lead, and genderless colors and designs have emerged as a popular trend for randoseru for children set to enroll in the 2023 academic year.

    Aeon launched 24 colors for its school backpacks in 2001 under its former brand Jusco. After receiving opinions from customers, such as "I like the color but not so much the design," the retailer introduced simply designed, genderless school bags for children enrolling in academic 2022, and they are apparently proving popular. Itoki has also introduced backpacks with gender-neutral designs by removing elements generally preferred by specific genders, inspired by concepts including Finland's nature. Among the company's 25 new models, six are genderless.

    The University of Marketing and Distribution Sciences associate professor Kozue Goto, whose expertise includes marketing theory and brand strategy, pointed out, "The movement to accept genderlessness is seen primarily among the young generations. This is a chance for companies to capitalize on a new market by upgrading products and services. They will need to prepare product lineups sorted by new concepts."

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Yamanaka, Matsuyama Bureau)

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