Even after six years of hard wear, Japanese elementary school backpacks have a lot left to give, and they are giving it to the children of Afghanistan. Since 2004, the Japanese have donated more than 180,000 used randoseru to needy schoolchildren overseas under a program administered by the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning in partnership with chemicals manufacturer Kuraray.
One Saturday last June, a small army of volunteers descended on a warehouse in Yokohama. Awaiting them were more than 6,000 used school bags, collected from all parts of Japan. Most of the sturdy randoseru backpacks were still fit for use, even after accompanying their former owners through six years of elementary school. After passing a rigorous inspection, each memory-filled backpack would be shipped overseas as a gift from a schoolchild in Japan to a counterpart in Afghanistan.
The backpack donation program has been administered since 2004 by the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning in partnership with chemicals manufacturer Kuraray. In all, more than 180,000 Japanese school backpacks have been donated and shipped overseas.
More than 50 volunteers gathered this past June to inspect donated backpacks and prepare them for shipping. After making sure all belts, straps, and buckles were attached and in good working order, they packed up each randoseru together with a kit of unused school supplies. Among the volunteers were several skilled workers employed by randoseru makers. Their task was to make sure that no pigskin was inadvertently sent to children in Afghanistan, a Muslim nation.
Joy Amid Desolation
In many parts of Afghanistan, children are lucky to attend school at all, let alone arrive there equipped with satchels and school supplies. Each beneficiary of the randoseru donation program receives a tough, sturdy backpack containing notebooks, pencils, erasers, colored pencils, and other unused supplies, along with a letter and photo from the young Japanese donor. The partner NGO in Afghanistan (United Medical Center for Afghans/Rehabilitation Program for Afghanistan) works with local administrators to match the numbers of backpacks to students enrolled at a school or in a grade and ensure that no one is left out.
Photographer Uchibori Takeshi has played a special role in the program. Over a period of a decade, he has repeatedly traveled to Afghanistan to compile a photographic record of the campaign while helping the local staff of the partner NGO place the backpacks into the hands of beaming Afghan schoolchildren. In 2013, he published a collection of his photos under the title Randoseru wa umi o koete (Randsels Across the Ocean).
Uchibori speaks of spotting military drones flying overhead and encountering armored tanks rumbling through the streets. Although Afghanistan’s civil war officially ended two decades ago, the nation is by no means at peace. Attacks by anti-government Taliban forces and ISIS terrorists occur with disturbing frequency.
The randoseru must be hauled overland from Pakistan to reach their destination. “The trucks pass through dangerous terrain, and there’s no guarantee they’ll arrive safely,” says Uchibori. “It’s all the more gratifying to see the children’s faces light up when they grasp their randoserufor the first time.” The vast majority of schoolchildren Uchibori encountered owned neither satchels nor notebooks and went to school each day empty-handed. In communities with no schoolhouse, where classes are held in the open air, the backpacks double as desks.
The reactions of Afghan schoolchildren to their gifts are engraved in Uchibori’s memory. He recalls the girl who grasped a Japanese pencil decorated with a cartoon character and examined each of its six facets with an eager, penetrating stare.
He remembers the shouts of amazement that greeted a used soccer ball. “Look how high it bounces!” the children exclaimed. Asking around, Uchibori realized that most of the children had never touched a ball before. “There is such deprivation there, that someone could actually spend their whole life without ever throwing or bouncing a ball,” marvels Uchibori.
A Gift that Enriches the Donor
The randoseru donation program was conceived by a senior manager at Kuraray, which produces a synthetic leather widely used in Japanese school backpacks. Casting about for ways for the company to give back to society, Yamamoto Keiichi (then in charge of marketing for the company’s fiber and textiles division) decided to focus on randoseru, which play such an important role in grade-school education in Japan. Thus was born the idea of sending used backpacks to needy children overseas. But Kuraray lacked the network and know-how to distribute the backpacks to the children who needed them. The solution to that dilemma came in the form of a partnership with JOICFP, a Japan-based international NGO dedicated to maternal and children’s health. Thanks to JOICFP and its network in countries like Afghanistan, Yamamoto’s dream became a reality.
Almost all the backpacks collected and sent to Afghanistan come with letters written by the children who donated them, as well as snapshots of the donors. JOICFP Program Officer Kai Wakako believes it is best for the letters to arrive in their original form, even if they are in Japanese. As she explains it, the feelings of the giver come through in the handwritten letter, whether or not the recipient can read it.
For the young Japanese donors, the program provides a valuable learning experience, one that Uchibori tries to spread and reinforce by showing his photos and speaking at elementary schools around Japan. He always asks the children to share their impressions, explaining which photos they liked best and why. At one school, after learning about starvation among young Afghan refugees, a tearful child announced, “I’m not going to waste any of my lunch from now on.”
According to Kai, the experience of donating a randoseru to some child in far-off Afghanistan can plant the seed of social awareness and international understanding. Some donors have shown up years later as adults to volunteer in the inspection and packing phase. Others have been inspired to take part in college internships under JOICFP.
Supporting Girls’ and Women’s Education
The program’s contribution to education in Afghanistan goes beyond the classroom support provided by the randoseru and their contents. As Kai explains, in rural Afghanistan, where school attendance is relatively low, it used to be difficult to know if children were setting out for school or were on their way to play or to herd sheep. Now, she says, “It’s easy to tell just by looking which children are on their way to or from school.” When parents see that the neighbors’ children are attending school equipped with smart backpacks, they begin to think, “Maybe we should send ours, too.” And as enrollment rises, the village as a whole begins to talk about upgrading its school facilities.
Under the Taliban regime, girls were banned from attending school, and even now opposition to girls’ and women’s education persists in many quarters. The estimated female literacy rate in Afghanistan is just 24% (according to the 2015 CIA World Factbook), among the lowest in the world.
Not long ago, JOICFP’s headquarters in Japan received exciting news. A graduate of the backpack donation program—a girl from a rural area known for its hostility to girls’ education—had just been admitted to medical school. “If our program helps even one or two Afghan children to succeed like that, then it’s well worth it,” says Kai with feeling.