TOKYO (AFP) - The parents who abandoned their seven-year-old son in a Japanese forest as a punishment will not face charges, police said Tuesday (June 7), as the boy left hospital at the end of a 10-day drama that captivated Japan and sparked a national conversation about child discipline.
Wearing a black baseball cap, Yamato Tanooka stopped to flash a gap-toothed smile and wave to a throng of journalists and onlookers as he emerged from Hakodate Municipal Hospital on the northern island of Hokkaido.
He held a baseball crafted out of paper that appeared to carry written messages of support. Asked by a journalist if he looked forward to returning to school, he replied enthusiastically: “I want to go!”
After a few minutes, which included applause, his father ushered him into a van and they drove off.
Yamato survived for six nights alone after his mother and father left him on a mountain road in the bear-infested woods of Hokkaido as punishment for throwing stones at cars.
A massive search involving soldiers ensued, keeping Japan riveted for nearly a week until the boy's discovery on a Japanese military base.
Many in Japan were angry at the couple, who said they had forced their son out of the car to teach him a lesson for throwing stones.
They had originally told police Yamato got lost while on a family outing, but later admitted they lied because they feared social censure.
The case sparked debate in Japan about discipline, with some voices calling for understanding of parental frustration in making their kids behave, though most condemned the extent to which the boy’s mother and father acted. Some have called for the parents to be prosecuted.
"We plan not to regard it as a criminal case," a Hokkaido police spokesman told AFP, indicating it would be referred to social services.
Toru Numata, a lawyer who handles abuse and domestic violence cases, told AFP: "Considering the factors behind the case, the chances of making it a prosecutable one are extremely slim."
Numata said that the focus is likely to shift to the boy's mental care, focusing on possible trauma from the ordeal.
His father, 44-year-old Takayuki Tanooka, said in comments broadcast Monday that he apologised to his son and that the boy had forgiven him.
Mr Tanooka told broadcaster TBS in an interview: "I said to him, 'Dad made you go though such a hard time. I am sorry'."
"And then, my son said, 'You are a good dad. I forgive you'."
Rescue workers and soldiers spent days scouring the mountainous forest - where bears are known to roam - after Yamato went missing on May 28.
He was finally discovered last Friday by a soldier, sheltering in a hut on a military drill field around 5km from where he was abandoned.
The boy was found to be suffering from mild dehydration and was sent to hospital.
On Monday, police questioned him for about an hour in hospital, accompanied by his mother and doctors, the Tokyo Shimbun said.
The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reported that Yamato meant to follow his parents' car after they drove away but was sobbing so hard he took the wrong direction. “I walked for about five hours, I think,” Yamato was quoted as saying. He also said he met no one, and that he sometimes stopped to rest and arrived at the hut in the dark. “I was cold so I went inside to sleep," he told the police according to the Mainichi.
He kept himself warm there in the chilly northern nights by sleeping between two mattresses and drank water from an outside tap, though he had nothing solid to eat.
He was lauded on social media for his endurance, with some even suggesting his survival skills could make him a future candidate for Japan’s military.