Today I took some pictures of the neighborhood kids going off to school. In our area, the children are divided into groups and they walk together to school with the older children being the leaders. The parents are requested to not take their children to school nor pick them up by car. There aren't any public school buses either so the kids have to use the public bus system if they live far away, or they walk. Some kids walk quite long distances! From our neighborhood it is about a 15 minute walk.
All children in Japan start school in April when they are 6 years old. And each child carries a bookbag called a randoseru which I think is actually a Dutch word. The bookbags are all the same shape and until 10 years ago or so, only came in two colors. Red for girls, black for boys.
A randoseru is quite an expensive item but it is a big event for the up-coming first grader to be presented with a randoseru and start preparing for the educational world. The bookbags are made of heavy, waterproof leather and have two or three pockets for books and papers. I've heard that it is possible to buy one for as little as $100 but most parents figure that since the child will be using it for 6 years, that a more expensive randoseru is worth the cost. Often, grandparents, who wish to buy the new scholar something in celebration, will foot the bill for a randoseru (and a study desk!) and will pay as much as $1000 for a nice one. On the surface, I can't really see the difference in the price but I suppose the more expensive ones stand up better under wear. Most families will pay around $500.
First graders are given yellow randoseru covers from the school and that makes them more visible and are considered a safety feature. That's also why all the kids wear yellow hats. The girls have berets, the boys have caps. Nowadays randoseru come in a rainbow of colors; at least I've seen colorful ones in the department store. But in our area I only see children carrying either red, black or an occasional navy blue. The orange and green and purple ones haven't been accepted in our little country town yet it seems!
When my kids were starting school, randosel still were mainly the black and red but there was one girl in the school who had a pink one. What a stir that caused! Everyone in the whole district knew who she was! When Leiya entered first grade I tried to steer her towards a brown or navy blue one. I mean, even women will carry brown handbags. I guess I don't really like the "everybody has to be the same" concept in Japan, and I thought she might want to show a little individuality. No way! She had to have that red one! (It irked me a bit that I was buying handbags for myself at $20 and here I was buying my kids bookbags that cost close to $500!)