by Tony Keyes
When a child begins elementary school in Japan, it’s customary for him or her to receive a “Ransel” — a standard sized backpack satchel that will be a status symbol for the six years of elementary school. Having just bought one for my son, I can understand its value, measured in the breadth of the smile on his face when he tried it on for the first time.
Usually this is a present from grandparents or parents, and receiving it is considered one of the first rites of passage of a child’s young life. But for those children unfortunate enough to live in an orphanage or a foster center, there is no one to buy them a Ransel, so they can only hope for a donation or a hand-me-down.
That changed in December 2010, on Christmas morning, when an anonymous donor left half a dozen Ransel backpacks at a foster home in Maebashi, Japan. The donor used a pseudonym from a character in a “manga” or comic series, “Date Naoto”. Supposedly this is the real name of a professional wrestler whose stage name is “Tiger Mask” — a well-known hero among children for the last four decades.
In the days and weeks that followed, a series of copycat incidents occurred. Soon after the first gift, the mysterious “Naoto Date” and his imitators had appeared at six locations, donating various numbers of backpacks. In one case, the benefactor left toys and apologized for not being able to provide backpacks!
By the middle of January, the number of Ransels donated rose to almost three hundred Ransels nationwide, as others borrowed the “Naoto Date” alias and its spirit of charity, to make donations.
Other anonymous donors have given gifts of a more substantial nature but in this case I think the gift is more valuable, because it was small enough to inspire imitation. How far that wave of goodwill will continue to spread across this country remains to be seen, but in the days following this gift, I watched the evening news with a sense of anticipation: anticipation of something good, for a change.
In spring of 2011, I will watch my own son take those momentous first steps into his elementary school classroom. Some of the tears welling up in my eyes will probably be for the other children who join him on that great adventure, bursting with pride that they too have a brand new backpack that they did not expect to have, glad they do not stand out from the crowd with an old, ragged hand-me-down.
As I congratulate my son’s grandparents on another wonderful milestone in their autumn years, I will probably think of the anonymous “volunteer” grandparents watching from afar, as a child they don’t even know walks with a beaming smile into a classroom, ready to take on the world.