The extraordinary survival of the boy left in a Japanese forest

Yamato’s discovery in an army hut deep inside thick woodland came about thanks to several pieces of good fortune

He did not flinch when he came face to face with the first person he had seen in almost a week. There were no tears, either, just a composed answer to the soldier’s question: “Are you Yamato?”

“Yes, I am,” came the reply.

More than six days after his parents abandoned him on the side of the road in a forest as punishment for misbehaving, seven-year-old Yamato Tanooka was found alive and unhurt on Friday morning, marking the end of a search that has gripped Japan and prompted a debate over when parental discipline turns into abuse.

If his sudden disappearance was every parent’s nightmare, Yamato’s discovery, in an army hut deep inside thick woodland populated by hundreds of brown bears, came about thanks to several pieces of good fortune.

While the boy, who suffered only scratches to his arms and legs, was being kept in hospital overnight as a precaution, details emerged of his extraordinary survival.

Without food or water, possibly believing his parents had left him for good, he made his way through three miles (5km) of mountainous forest after leaving the narrow road where, minutes earlier, he had been left as punishment for throwing stones at cars and people during a family trip to a nearby park.

Hours later, he came across a gate marking the entrance to a self-defence force training ground in the town of Shikabe in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

The house in a military exercise area where Yamato was found.
The house in a military exercise area where Yamato was found. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

In the pitch darkness that descends on the forest at night, he may not have been able to see the sign on the right warning members of the public to keep out. Either by climbing over the fence or making his way through the bushes either side, he set out along a path that, a few hundred metres on, took him to the corrugated-iron hut that became his makeshift home – and probably saved his life.

The hut’s two doors are supposed to be locked when it is not being used as sleeping quarters by soldiers out on exercise. Yamato, though, would have turned the handle on one of them to find it had been left open. Outside was a single tap, his sole source of sustenance during his ordeal, when overnight temperatures dropped to as low as 7C (45F).

Seeking shelter from the rain, three soldiers from the 28th Infantry Regiment at nearby camp Hakodate opened the door early on Friday morning to find Yamato, dressed in sweatpants, a T-shirt and trainers, curled up on a mattress. At night, he had sandwiched himself between two mattresses to keep warm.

Many were beginning to fear the worst when the search, involving 180 people accompanied by dogs, had still failed to turn up any clues after a couple of days. The discovery earlier this week of fresh bear droppings only added to the growing sense that the story of the “naughty” missing boy would end in tragedy.

After confirming his name, Yamato explained that he had stayed in the hut for several nights, and had not eaten for almost a week. The soldiers gave him two rice balls and called for a helicopter to take him to hospital.

Newspapers on the day Yamato was found alive.
Newspapers on the day Yamato was found alive. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA

It is not clear how many nights he spent in the hut. Early reports said a search of the training ground on Monday had not produced any clues as to his whereabouts. Later, though, the Asahi Shimbun said the area had not been checked because the entrance gate was usually secured.

Shikabe map

Troops involved in the search broke into applause when they learned that Yamato had been found, while 900 of his fellow pupils at Hamawake elementary school in his hometown of Hokuto erupted in joy when they were given the news at an assembly.

As Yamato was being treated for mild dehydration, his father appeared at the entrance of Hakodate municipal hospital and attempted to explain his actions. “The first thing I did was apologise to him for the terrible suffering I had put him through,” Takayuki Tanooka said as he fought back tears. “I said that I was really sorry. He nodded and said: ‘OK,’ like he understood.”

Tanooka, 44, conceded he had gone too far when he ordered his son out of the car in the forest, before driving on for another 500 metres. By the time he had walked back to collect him, he was nowhere to be seen.

“We’ve raised him in a loving family, but from now on we’ll try to do a better job and give him even more attention as he grows up,” he said. “Our behaviour as parents was excessive, and that’s something I’m extremely regretful about. I thought that what I was doing was for his own good, but, yes, I realise now that I went too far.”

Father of missing Japanese boy found alive makes emotional apology

Yamato’s discovery did little to quell online criticism of his parents, whose idea of tough love has sparked a debate about the limits of parental discipline, with some describing their behaviour as abuse. That they had initially tried to avoid criticism by claiming their son had gone missing while the family were out foraging for wild plants only added to the sense of anger and disbelief.

“I wonder if his heart was broken as he was discarded in the mountains,” read a tweet by Shirokuma.

“Should he even be given back to his parents?” asked Fujimo.

Kyodo News said earlier this week that police were considering filing neglect charges against the parents, but it was not clear on Friday if they planned to take action.

“Beating and kicking are not the only forms of child abuse,” said Tamae Arai, the head of a family support service in Tokyo. “There is also neglect. Of course, we are all thrilled that he was found safe, but it is important to recognise that there could be a serious problem here.”

Naoki Ogi, a TV personality and education expert, was one of many who accused Tanooka and his wife of neglecting and abusing their son. Too many parents in Japan, Ogi said, regarded their children as little more than personal possessions.

Mitsuko Tateishi, an educator who has written a book promoting a more relaxed attitude towards parenthood, agreed. She said: “The punishment these parents chose is unthinkable. They have no idea how to raise a child. They did not try to explain what was right and wrong. A child is not a dog or a cat. You have to treat the child like an individual human being.”

Others voiced sympathy for the parents, describing their actions as a terrible lapse of judgment. Yumi Toyozaki, a literary critic, noted that she had been difficult to control as a child, and called for more understanding of the feelings of the parents, who must have considered the grim possibility that their son would not be found alive. “I really feel for the father, who left his child in the woods for a while to discipline him,” Toyozaki tweeted earlier this week. “I hope people stop condemning him.”

While most social media users heaped opprobrium on Yamato’s parents, others praised the resilience and resourcefulness of a boy whose grin has been a familiar sight on TV news programmes for the past week.

“He was incredibly calm considering he had been missing for seven days,” the doctor who assessed him after his ordeal said. “He showed no signs of panic.”

Ken Noguchi, a renowned mountaineer who has climbed Mount Everest, tweeted: “If he survived by himself, it’s a miracle.”


Justin McCurry in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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