The Forest Boy, his Parents, and the State

A human interest story at the center of the world's attention in early June 2016 concerns the seven-year-old Japanese boy Yamato Tanooka, the misdirected discipline by his parents which resulted in the child spending nearly a week alone lost in the woods, and the eventual discovery of the child, bruised but “genki” (healthy). The CBS news coverage, which is quite typical of American coverage, starts with a repetition of the bare facts known at this time, then opens up to speculation about the State's role in this kind of provocative case. Did the parents do the right thing? What is the right thing? And what should the State do for this child and to the parents?

The bare facts known to the public at this time are that young Yamato on some occasions brazenly threw stones. His parents thought he should be broken of this habit. He resisted their earlier (unspecified) attempts at discipline. Raising their discipline a notch, the parents packed Yamato in the family car, drove him along a forest road in Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island, and dropped him off along a quiet stretch of the road. How long he was left alone on the road is up for questioning. The parents now claim they left him alone only a few minutes, maybe a half-hour tops. When they returned by car they expected him to be frozen in remorse on the spot, but his fate was otherwise. He had either wandered off without a trace or had been consumed by bears foraging in the woods.

Authorities soon began a search for the child. Not a trace was found until nearly a week later, when soldiers discovered the forest boy in an abandoned military hut about a mile from his original dropoff point. Without a morsel of solid food, Yamato apparently spent a great deal of time fending off the cold between mattresses within the hut, near a water line, his only known source of sustenance.

In Japanese, the child's given name 'Yamato' is a reference to an ancient name for Japan, 'Yamado.' A common way to compliment a Japanese girl is to call her a 'Yamado nedeshiko,' a Yamado mountain flower. 'Nihon' is the usual Japanese word for 'Japan.' But Japanese spirit is not 'Nihon damashii.' The special term for 'Japanese spirit' is 'Yamado damashii.'

One common Japanese children's story is of the tiger parents who kick their children off a cliff. The tiger children who survive and climb back up the cliff are welcomed back to the fold. The tiger children who do not restore themselves into their parents' lofty graces are abandoned.

The apparently unflinching bravery of young Yamato surely appeals to Japanese traditionalists. Japanese government officials commenting on this story are quite obviously full of praise for the boy's pluck and lack of fear. Unspoken to the rest of the world might be the message “Japan has been through a lot. Nevertheless, even our youngest children have not lost the ability to be great.”

And then there are the child-rearing 'experts.' The cited CBS article wants to know what 'experts' think of the parents' choices. Two 'experts' are cited, Mitsuko Tateishi and Tamae Arai. The first is quoted as judging "The punishment this parent chose is unthinkable” and the second asserted “it is important to note that there could be a serious problem here.”

Modern American judicial practice in courts dealing with children is to solicit the opinions of 'experts.' If the courts decide the findings of 'experts' are sufficiently compelling they exercise the power to intervene, perhaps by labeling the parents 'deficient' and/or removing the children from parents' care.

At the moment, Japanese courts are far behind American courts on issues involving “childrens' rights.” Perhaps a century behind. Japanese courts tend to leave it to parents to make child-rearing decisions, and to survive their consequences. There are vastly fewer practicing lawyers in Japan than in the U.S. And in Japan the practice of law is not surrounded with an aura of prestige. As a result, it is quite likely that Japanese courts will decline to intervene in this matter (assuming no other issues come up). And Japanese experts will be left free to opine however the spirit moves them.

On the other hand, the story of Yamato might ignite the curiosity of Japan's prolific anime community. There might soon be cartoon stories about seven-year-old Robinson Crusoes communing with who-knows-what spirits of nature, emerging hale and hearty, ready for new conquests. If events turn out that way, the subtle underlying message might be aimed at China, and might say “We're not afraid of you, either.”

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