Backpacks are everywhere today. Their spread is global.

They come in a wide range of size and shape, in all kinds of material and color. They are often black, but school children's backpacks come in bright colors. Some are small with a limited capacity; others are so humongous that they make the wearer into a coolie. Some are boxy. Others, squeezed at the top, are pendulous; they sling low on the back toward the hip. Many are equipped with a handle at the top; some carry the backpack on one shoulder, leaving one of the straps dangling free.

At one time backpacks were the property of school children. The fashion started with young people; and it is today an attribute of the college student. Before backpacks became a part of the youth's uniform, college students on certain campuses favored Harvard's green bags. There was a time still before that when textbooks and notebooks were bundled together and tied crisscross with book bands and slung over the shoulder. Girls often carried them in their arm without tying them together.

Today, some young people carry an enormous model packed with books, notes, a laptop, a CD player and a pack of CDs, a water bottle or two, snacks, sneakers, and, of course, an indispensable cell phone, just to start with -- virtually a whole survival kit. More recently, we see older men and women in all styles of dress, lugging a backpack, too. Once in a while I see a distinguished gentleman in dress suits casually carrying a modest-sized pack on his back. Then, we also see toddlers lugging baby backpacks.

I have a penchant to adopting young fashion rather eagerly. But I have not adopted a backpack. The last time I carried a backpack was as a school child.

In my childhood in Japan, school children and foot soldiers in the army wore backpacks. School children's backpack was called <randoseru>, from the Dutch word for a backpack, <ransel>.

It was boxy in shape, normally made of cowhide, finished black or brown, or else of canvas or pasteboard finished to look like leather, with a flap that came down the whole height of the sack and fastened by buckles or clasps at the bottom. The interior volume of this kind of backpack was fixed, and it was never very full. So, it rattled when we ran. The classical school backpack in France and Italy also used to be in leather, the predecessor of the pasteboard <cartable>. But the Japanese version was smaller, falling well within between the shoulders, narrow and tall, whereas the French and Italian version was as wide as or wider than the shoulders.

Children carried this kind of backpack to school every school day. But there was another kind of backpack, made of cloth, like denim, the top of which closed with a drawstring and a small flap over it, which looked more like a satchel with shoulder straps. These were not for regular school days but for school excursions; and they were also carried on family hiking <haikingu> and picnic (pikunikku). This soft version, as opposed to the hard <randoseru>, was called <ryukku-sakku>, obviously from the German <Rücksack>, which is lexically equivlent to <backpack> and functionally a cognate of the hiker's knapsack. The German derivation of the word clearly suggests that the article was introduced by the inveterate German hikers of the Romantic 19th century. It matches the Lederhosen and the Alpenstock.

The military backpack was, however, unlike either of the school children's two versions; and it was called <ha'inô> to distinguish it from children's <ryukku-sakku>. The word <haino> is a literal translation of <Rücksack>, in fact, and it was a neologism introduced in modern Japan. The origin of the military backpack is probably Prussian, like the whole military gear, which includes the cap and uniform. The military backpack looked entirely different from children's <ryukku-sakku>, however. It was huge, and it held up a rolled-up blanket on top. It was all in khaki, and made of cloth to maximize the load.

Schoolboys' uniform was, in fact, also military in character: the cap, the backpack, the jacket with standing collars and brass buttons, and short boots. Girls' uniform was often sailor suits. Boys and girls all carried a backpack. I hated uniforms, and I hated backpacks, soft or boxy. The association with school was bad enough for me. The military connection made it quite unbearable. The modern backpack, with many external pockets, is perhaps most similar to the military version although the synthetic material is lighter today and the color, even the prevalent black, is brighter. But, never a hiker or a happy picnicker, I wasn't drawn to the <ryukku-sakku> for picnics, either, for that matter.

This explains perhaps why I never took to carrying a backpack all these years. But the ryukku-sakku harbors another association in my mind. During World War II, when we were starving from shortage of food, we had to walk miles into countryside and beg the farmers for rice and other staples, more often reject yams and pumpkins, in exchange for our city clothes they were eager to have. Usually we, Mother and the kids, started early in the morning and walked until we filled up our rykku-sakku, all morning if lucky but not infrequently all day. There were kindly farmers; but sometimes we were chased away like stray dogs. I was eleven or twelve in those years, and on the empty stomach and emaciated legs, the walk was grueling and the pain of hunger piercing. I never complained; but I live to this day with a long-suppressed distaste for the backpack. Like the roaring trucks on the highway, that sometimes still sound to me like air raids, the sad association was apparently never erased.

Going places where it would be reasonable today to shlep a backpack around, I carry a tote bag instead. I always did. I like a tote that zips up in the middle with two large loop handles, which allow you to carry it in your hand or on your shoulder with one arm passed through them. A backpack frees your hands, packs more, and wears you less. It stands for "independence, mobility and action," so wrote Justin Hall in 1997. Yes, I know. On the other hand, the ergonomics of the backpack is questionable if it is slung low on the hip rather on the back. Then, freeing both your hands is surely an advantage when you have food in one hand and a water bottle and a cell phone in the other; it is definitely a necessity if you are a young parent dragging two children, one in each hand. But, so far as I am concerned, a tote is easier to get to the content, safer from theft because I keep it within my sight, and more conducive to carry less. It forces me to travel light.

So, I have failed to acquire a taste for the backpack. But I was tempted once. I saw an acquaintance in Paris, close to my age, picking up her tiny silk backpack as we walked out of her apartment. The little dressy backpack was chic on this woman, who was herself chic. She carried it on one shoulder gracefully. I was covetous.

There was also a perverse appeal to a diminutive backpack, which is barely large enough for a coin purse, a compact, and a lipstick, when one considers the fact that a backpack is a container designed to carry a heavy load efficiently. Here was a utilitarian object stripped of its essential function and made into a stylish accessory.

Eventually, I got one, not as elegant as my acquaintance's, but it was minuscule enough and looked elegant. But I never wore it; and it's almost two years now since I bought it.


T. Kaori Kitao, 04.01.02; rev. 06.25.02

In 2004 I have noticed that perhaps the backpack fashion is waning. Backpacks are still prevalent but more young people seem to be switching to messenger boy bags, with a wide strap going across from one shoulder to the hip on the other side. It is probably more limited in what it can hold; but the access to the content is easier. I certainly am less subject to the risk of being hit on the face by a swinging backpack on a crowded bus or subway.


sorry no pix for now



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