In my March 20 column in the Japan Times, I explain that the origin of the Japanese word “randoseru” ランドセル is a Dutch word: “ransel,” a military backpack used in the 19th century. As I demonstrated, the Dutch word had entered the Japanese language no later than 1885. I thought it would be interesting to dig up some images of military backpacks from around the time. It’s remarkable how much they look like the randoseru that Japanese schoolchildren still use today!
That hungry fellow above was in the French infantry in 1914. His backpack looks a great deal like the randoseru my kids used when they attended Japanese elementary school here in Tokyo. Now below, here’s a painting depicting the uniform of a Russian regiment around 1850. Very snappy backpacks, although wider than a Japanese randoseru.
And straying a bit into a somewhat different style, a picture of Swedish soldiers around 1910:
Here’s another military backpack of the era, worn by a Dutch infantryman:
By the way, the word in Japanese for a military backpack is not randoseru; it’s hainō 背囊 （はいのう).
Interesting. Thanks for the education !
The German word for the school backpack is “Schulranzen”, and according to this source (http://www.wort-suche.com/bedeutung/32667/Schulranzen.html) the word has been in use in German since the 16th century, where the word came from Lower German. The word from which it descended is “rentsel” from Middle Low German, but the actual source of that word has been lost and cannot be dated accurately (but does predate the 16th century!). Dutch is closely related to Lower German, and indeed there is a separate dialect in northern Holland and northern Germany where those two countries meet that has many of the characteristics of Middle Low German even today (and which is hard to understand for both Germans and Dutch!).
The core of the word – ranzen – is also used colloquially to mean “fat belly”. In Germany, these school backpacks, empty, are supposed to weigh no more than 10% of what a child weighs, but I know that my kids – now grown – did a lot of schlepping with theirs. It’s a significant status symbol in German schools to have the coolest Schulranzen.
Great article and interesting to see how the Japanese attention during the Meiji Reform as to how foreigners did things – the Japanese school system before WW2 was based largely on the Prussian system, changed after the war to reflect the US system – still has an impact on ordinary lives today!
Thank you, John, for that very interesting additional information.
I just read your always very interesting chronicles.I am Swedish and I just wanted to tell you that we actually still use a word that must be related to ransel for backpack:
It is an old fashioned word, and today one mostly reads it in older novels.
The children in Astrid Lindgren’s book definitely used “ränsel” and not the now used “ryggsäck”.
I am not sure that my son, who is 14, knows what it is, but the word is still used, especially in northern Sweden.
An acquaintance sent me a link to your column when I asked her about the origin of the word randoseru – my small linguistic contribution: the German word, still in use, is “Ranzen” with a hard stop/voiced fricative in the middle. Since the German word ends in an “n”, I agree with you that the dutch word is more likely the origin. German children still use a modern version (the most popular brand: http://www.scout-schulranzen.de/shop/kollektion/), though some prefer the more traditional, leather version: http://www.leder-handwerker-shop.de/html/schulranzen_modelle.html. Here in Germany they only have to last the four years of elementary school; most kids prefer something more casual when they move on to one of the three types of middle school.