A Japanese Middle Schooler's Schoolbag on an average school day weighs more than a 10 kg pack of rice

A Japanese Middle Schooler’s Schoolbag on an average school day weighs more than a 10 kg pack of rice

I weighed my junior high school daughter’s schoolbag and the weighing scale registered 12.75 kg (this only approximates an average day, and this is MINUS her afterschool club gear). For comparison, a regular household sack of rice that roughly feeds a family for about a month weighs 10 kg, so it is as if my daughter were lugging a bit more than a sack of rice to school everyday. And nobody ever walks around lugging a sack of rice on their back, not even full-grown adults, now do they? Nope, they use trolleys. Yet, we expect our schoolchildren to carry these loads like mules.

My daughter is petite, at 150 cm and has to walk for 30 minutes daily to arrive at school and then there’s the walk back home — come hot-and-humid summer, typhoon or snowy day. There is neither bus nor train service to her local public school.

Now, a few years ago, when my daughter was still in elementary school, I had already indicated that Japanese schoolbags were overweight for kids, and posted an article “Heavy schoolbags to be banned in the Philippines as detrimental to child’s growth … & other educational news“. Back then, my son’s (also a middle schooler) schoolbag weighed 8 kgs then … and the (same) schoolbag has ballooned and now weighs almost 5 kgs more.

Since then, the education ministry has increased the content of the national curriculum and padded the textbooks by around 10-20% depending on the subject, and increased the number of workbooks, so schoolbags have gotten fatter and heavier. Nobody’s speaking up about what these bags are doing to kids’ poor shoulders and bags. Not only are the schoolbags ridiculously overweight and injurious to the kids’ bodies, schoolchildren also have other afterschool gear and bentos and waterflasks to carry to school, especially all those who choose some sport. My daughter carries three medium-sized waterbottles to school in the summer when she has athletics and afterschool sports activities. These add considerably more weight to the already heavy school loads, although the walk home is lightened with the empty flasks. My daughter frequently asks that I massage her sore shoulders and back (as did my son back then).  The kids suffer these pains the most between their upper elementary and mid-junior high school years, when their bodies are still growing in their awkward pre-teen physiological frames. By the time the schoolchildren reach high school, their physical frames seem to catch up and manage the loads fairly OK.

All this additional padding of the National Curriculum is turning Japanese kids into packmules, and if you look around you can hardly find a Japanese teenager with good posture or a straight back/shoulder today. In case you don’t know, Japanese public schools don’t have lockers unlike American schools … Japanese schools do provide cubbyholes, but the students clear those out everyday and have to bring nearly everything home and back again. In some other countries with heavy curriculum loads like Singapore, they have digitized textbooks to a great extent, and also permit students to bring schoolbags on trolley wheels, much like those that airplane captains and air stewardesses carry on board their planes. With typical Japanese stoicism and great ‘gaman’ endurance for corporate suffering, Japanese schools and parents haven’t even begun to address the question of back and shoulder injuries yet. Recall that the Philippines government acted to ban by law overweight schoolbags.

In last week’s Huffington Post, is the highly relevant reading…and caution: “The dangers of heavy backpacks — and how to wear them safely”

“The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that the weight of a backpack should be less than 10-15 percent of a child’s body weight, but that isn’t always the case. Too often, children don’t wear their packs correctly, increasing risk of injury. “Improperly used backpacks may injure muscles and joints and can lead to severe back, neck, and shoulder pain, as well as posture problems,” orthopaedic surgeon and AAOS spokesperson Daniel Green, MD, told The Huffington Post. (Though, backpacks will not cause scoliosis, Dr. Green stressed.)

It’s easy to spot symptoms of a load that’s too hefty for your child, adds Dr. Rob Danoff, an osteopathic family physician. If kids grunt when putting on or taking off the backpack, have red marks on their shoulders from the straps, or if they complain that their shoulders, arms or fingers are “falling asleep,” those packs might just be too heavy.

But don’t fret, injury is preventable and it is possible for kids to carry backpacks comfortably. First thing’s first: Dr. Elise G. Hewitt, president of the American Chiropractic Association’s (ACA) Pediatrics Council, recommends shopping at a sporting goods store because employees know how to fit backpacks.

And though kids might object, Dr. Hewitt stresses the importance of using waist straps. “Shoulders are not designed to hang things from,” Dr. Hewitt told The Huffington Post, pointing out the reason indigenous people carry things on their heads. By using the strap, the bulk of the weight can be carried on the hip bones, rather than on the shoulders.”

Some years ago, I broached the subject of my son’s sore shoulders and the schoolbag and asked if it would be possible for my son to carry a different schoolbag, either a more aerodynamic one or one that would redistribute the weight of the books, or perhaps use a trolley bag — at least till the pain went away or till his frame grew larger to be better able to match the physical load. But the teacher said that that was not possible without a letter from the hospital stipulating that such measures were necessary due to serious injury.

Will nobody speak up for the poor suffering backs of Japanese schoolchildren?