On Saturday, 28 May 2016, seven-year-old Yamato Tanooka went missing in the forests of Hokkaido. Mr. and Mrs. Tanooka and their two small children had been enjoying the outdoors in a remote region of Japan’s northernmost major island. Yamato’s father told police the boy had wandered off while they were picking wild vegetables, and a massive search effort was launched.
They found nothing. The sun went down, and temperatures dropped to below 10 degrees centigrade (50 degrees Fahrenheit). Yamato had no food, no water, no jacket. He was wearing a sweatshirt and short pants. It rained all night.
The search resumed in the morning, in the cold light of the startling revelation that Yamato had not simply wandered off at all. In reality, his parents had ordered him out of the family car as punishment for his misbehavior. As the second grader sobbed uncontrollably and tried to chase after the car, his parents and little sister drove away. After a short time to allow their lesson to sink in, the Tanookas returned to collect their son, but the child was gone. He had disappeared into the wilderness without a trace.
Over the next days and nights, Japan and the world watched the story develop as the crucial 72-hour period ticked past. After that, the likelihood of finding a missing child alive plummets.
At its peak, Yamato’s search group included police, volunteers, and members of the Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF), some on foot, some on horseback, some with search dogs. Nearly 200 people, all combing the bear-inhabited forestland of remote Hokkaido. All unable to find a single sign of little Yamato Tanooka. Expectations began to shift from a swift rescue to the recovery of a body, and the predictable backlash against the parents, especially the father, swelled.
As the search for Yamato dragged on without result, I was one of those condemning the Tanookas for their absurdly inept parenting strategy. On online message boards and comment sections, I was one of a host of voices expressing my outrage over the family’s self-inflicted tragedy, and calling for their punishment. The story of the missing “Hokkaido ‘bad’ boy” bothered me deeply, for reasons that even now I only partially understand. After all, children are killed and maimed every day in war and natural disasters, by starvation and disease, by abusive parents and evil predators.
But Yamato’s case was different from those. Mr. and Mrs. Tanooka had truly believed they were doing the right thing for the development of their son. Little Yamato had been misbehaving, throwing rocks at people and passing cars as he played by a river. His mom and dad, still angry over some other mischief the boy had got up to at school recently, put him out of the family car as a punishment. Now, the world watched as the Tanooka family learned that their chosen method of discipline had life threatening consequences.
I obsessed on this story all week long. I mean, it really got under my skin. I checked for news updates all day and during the night. I tormented myself thinking about what must have gone through that poor kid’s mind as he stood there, terrified and crying, watching his family leave him behind on the roadside like a sack of trash. Had he really been so naughty that his family didn’t love him or want him anymore? How was he going to survive? Did he have to start a new life on his own, out here in the deserted wilderness?
I was consumed by the thought that, when young Yamato eventually lay starving to death in the forest, or worse when he was attacked and eaten alive by one of the wild bears who lived there, one of his final thoughts would be that somehow he deserved this. Regardless of how the search ultimately played out, I was adamant that these parents needed to be prosecuted and punished for endangering their son.
Eventually, as you probably know, little Yamato was found alive, after seven days alone in the woods without food. He was hungry and dehydrated, but in relatively good health. The boy had walked about 5.5 km (3.4 miles) that first day, until he stumbled upon an empty SDF training base.
Beyond reasonable expectation, he had found a military hut with an unlocked door, where he survived the cold by wedging himself between two mattresses he found stacked inside. With nothing to eat, he drank water from an outdoor tap to survive, and he was discovered purely by chance by an SDF soldier who wasn’t even involved in the search. The soldier just happened to visit the base and look inside Yamato’s hut. After the initial panic of being left behind, Yamato had kept his head and proven himself a resilient and resourceful child. His survival was miraculous.
And yet Yamato’s ordeal shone a light on number of issues here in Japan, first and foremost being the nature of his disappearance. It’s quite common in Japan to punish a misbehaving child by simply walking away until the kid can get it together. This is something parents do in malls or stores, or even at home, where a naughty kid might be put out in the yard as punishment.
But Yamato wasn’t left behind in a mall. He was abandoned on a remote roadside, miles from the nearest person. And the family didn’t just walk around the corner. They drove away, out of sight, and Yamato can hardly be blamed for becoming disoriented in his panic. In fact, he had tried to chase after the car, but he was crying so hard that he went the wrong direction. It seems he genuinely believed he was being left alone in the woods, and sadly that became a self-fulfilling fear.
The Tanooka family returned after “only” five to ten minutes, by his father’s estimation. If you don’t think that’s long enough for a terrified kid to get completely lost, try this experiment: stare at a clock for five full consecutive minutes. It’s a long time, and that’s the lowball estimate for how long Yamato was left behind. Mr. Tanooka concedes that they may not have returned for ten minutes. Hell, maybe it was fifteen, who knows? The problem is that the Tanookas took a common disciplinary tactic and dialed it up to a degree that could easily have cost their child his life. One has to wonder just what they thought they were accomplishing.
If the Tanookas’ goal was to teach Yamato a lesson, they missed the ball entirely. There was indeed a teachable moment here for the boy. At seven years old, a child is capable of understanding that if you throw rocks the way he was doing, someone could get seriously hurt. That’s why we’re not allowed to do it, and this could have been explained to the kid in terms he could understand. Rather than teach him this lesson, though, they opted to “teach him a lesson,” a phrase which here means “show him who’s boss.” In fact, Mr. Tanooka made the choice to not teach the boy anything. Rather, he decided to show his son that he can be scary when he is angry, citing what he called “a father’s dignity.”
Parents and experts in Japan are now actively debating the appropriateness of the “walk away” approach to misbehaving kids. It can be hard to define the line between discipline and abuse, but as long as we’re having the discussion something positive can be said to have come out of the Tanookas’ ordeal.
A second, related question is why it took the family two full hours to contact the police after their child disappeared into the wilderness. And once they finally called the authorities, why did they lie and say Yamato had simply wandered off on his own? As the father himself eventually admitted, he had been afraid of what people would think about what he had done.
Incredibly, this preoccupation with public perception competed in his mind with his need to find his son. The word he used was sekentei (世間体), which literally means how one is seen by society. Mr. Tanooka apparently felt a fierce need not to be seen as a bad parent, but the sad truth is that this need to maintain appearances helped no one. It only added to the hungry days and nights that Yamato spent alone.
With the boy safely recovered and Mr. Tanooka contrite and remorseful, I backed off a bit on my initial condemnation of him and his wife. They made a tremendous mistake with potentially fatal consequences. But Mr. Tanooka’s tearful apologies, both privately to his son and publicly to the community, reflect his understanding of this.
It’s all too easy to second guess another parent, but I’m confident that most of us would have handled the situation differently. At any rate, the debate on parental discipline in Japan remains ongoing, and perhaps a more thoughtful approach to dealing with naughty children can emerge from this troubling episode.
Mr. and Mrs. Tanooka did what they did because they believed it would teach young Yamato a lesson. They failed spectacularly. Instead, Yamato may have taught us one.