Missing Japanese boy found safe after forest ordeal

Shingo Ito, Kyoko Hasegawa
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Yamato Tanooka -- seen here in a school photo -- survived for six nights alone in bear-inhabited woods

A seven-year-old Japanese boy was found alive on Friday nearly a week after his parents left him in a bear-inhabited forest as punishment for misbehaving, hungry but unharmed in a hut on a military base.

A soldier discovered Yamato Tanooka who had apparently walked some 5.5 kilometres (3.4 miles) from the spot where he was abandoned last Saturday, finding shelter in the hut where he huddled in a pair of mattresses.

During his ordeal, in rugged terrain on the northern island of Hokkaido, he drank from a tap near the corrugated-iron hut, and was immediately given food when he was found.

Yamato's parents have been severely criticised by the Japanese public for forcing him out of their car on a mountain road to teach him a lesson for throwing stones at cars and people.

After the emotional discovery, the contrite father appeared before the media outside the hospital where the boy was taken for a check-up, bowing as he apologised for his "excessive" actions.

"The first thing I said to my son was, 'I'm very sorry to have caused you to face this suffering because of me,'" said Takayuki Tanooka, adding that the child nodded in reply.

"I deeply apologise to people at his school, people in the rescue operation, and everybody for causing them trouble," he added, thanking those including military and police who spent days searching in cold and difficult conditions.

Self-Defense Force spokesman Manabu Takehara said the boy "looked in good health" but had been taken to hospital by helicopter as a precaution.

- 'He didn't look scared' -

The parents originally told police that their son got lost while they were out hiking to gather wild vegetables along with their daughter, but later admitted they had become angry with him for throwing the stones.

They ordered him onto the road, bounded on both sides by thick mountain forests, and quickly returned only to find him missing. Days of frantic searching found no trace of the child.

The boy told police that he walked to the military base that Saturday night, finding shelter in the hut located in the complex, according to the local Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper.

Temperatures in the area dipped as low as 4.6 degrees Celsius in the past week.

The soldier who found the boy told reporters that he found him when he happened to open the door of the hut.

"I asked, 'Are you Yamato?'" said the soldier, who was not identified, adding that the boy nodded as if saying yes.

"He stood still," the soldier added. "He didn't look scared. He seemed relieved."

A still image of the rescue on TV showed the boy wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt, holding some food and drink.

- A 'miracle' -

Japanese media interrupted regular programmes to broadcast news of Yamato's discovery in the case which has drawn huge attention.

The stunning development was the top trending item on Twitter in Japan, with many expressing amazement at the boy's survival skills.

Ken Noguchi, a renowned alpinist who has climbed Mount Everest, tweeted: "If he survived by himself, it's an unbelievable miracle."

Others were concerned about the impact of the ordeal on the young boy and even whether his parents should regain custody.

"I wonder if his heart was broken as he was discarded in the mountain," read one tweet.

Police have reportedly said they are considering filing neglect charges against the parents, and many in Japan have called for punishment.

"Missing boy was found and that's all wonderful, but the parents must be disciplined such as being abandoned on an uninhabited island," one person tweeted.

Naoki Ogi, a noted education expert who has been strongly critical of the parents, said the entire family now needs psychological care as they start the healing process.

"How much distrust is Yamato feeling toward his parents?," Ogi asked in a post on his influential blog.

"I hope experts will offer adequate care and careful counselling to all members of the family."