“Super Volunteer” Obata Haruo and His Rescue in the Woods


On the morning of August 12, after setting out with his grandfather to go down to the beach, two-year-old Fujimoto Yoshiki suddenly said, “I’m going home.” Dashing ahead of his grandfather—whose home in the island town of Suō-Ōshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture, his family was visiting—the boy turned a corner and vanished. The toddler was not heard from again until he was found, alive and well, in the thick woods nearby three days later.

Japan has been in the throes of a massive heatwave this summer, with daytime temperatures exceeding 30º for weeks on end. In the midst of these harsh conditions, Yoshiki went missing for precisely 68 hours. He was found in a forest around 500 meters away from the location where his grandfather last saw him.

The man who found the missing boy is a search and rescue volunteer from Ōita Prefecture named Obata Haruo. The 78-year-old Obata is a veteran when it comes to finding lost children, having volunteered his services in the past in the wake of natural disasters such as the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake, and the landslides and floods that struck Okayama and Hiroshima this year.

FNN sat down with the veteran volunteer to find out just what it is that drives a person towards such self-sacrifice.

Returning the Boy to His Mother’s Arms

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of this whole incident is that a child so young could make it so far into the woods alone. Obata himself stated he was very surprised that little Yoshiki had managed to climb so far. The area was heavily wooded and precariously steep—terrain that Obata thought would be no problem for an experienced climber, but that could pose danger to any layman, to say nothing of a toddler, in the form of falling rocks or a slip down the treacherous slopes.

The boy appeared to be all right when Obata found him, but the veteran volunteer questioned his own senses when he first found young Yoshiki. Only 30 minutes away from where he started his search, when Obata first heard the boy call out, “Grandpa, over here,” he doubted his own hearing.

But upon finally meeting up with the boy, he had still more questions about the plausibility of the situation. The boy had been missing for three days. Obata was astonished to find him still alive.

Obata also indicated a strong will to deliver the child to his mother alone, not to anyone else—not even the police or local officials managing the search. When asked about this, Obata said that as a man, he could not even begin to imagine the stresses that a mother who birthed and cared for her child would go through after finding out her child was missing. It was out of this sense of empathy that Obata promised Fujimoto’s mother that he would, without fail, deliver Yoshiki to her in person should he find him. After his discovery, Obata found himself in a small confrontation with the police over legal procedures when it comes to locating lost children, but eventually managed to convince them to let him keep his promise and deliver the boy in person.

The Drive to Volunteer Selflessly

While Obata was searching for the boy, he slept in his car, using bedding made from a sleeping bag and old blankets. He brought and prepared his own food as well, reasoning that if he is truly volunteering his time and expertise, putting people out by asking them for food and other aid is contrary to that very objective. According to Obata, when one volunteers, one should be completely self-autonomous and take total responsibility for one’s actions.

The inside of Obata’s car, filled with food and bedding.When asked about what brings him to these search and rescue sites, Obata says it’s the gravity of human life itself. The veteran volunteer believes that there is nothing more precious on this planet than the life of a person, and that regardless of his age, he is glad that people will let him travel from his home in Ōita and make use of his capabilities. For Obata, the feeling of meeting up with young Yoshiki and coming down out of the woods together in good spirits is the highest pinnacle of happiness one can achieve in this life.

Obata and a certificate of appreciation he received from the local police department.

“You’re Okay Now!”

This is actually not the first missing two-year-old for Obata to find alive. During a previous search in his native Ōita Prefecture, he found a little girl just up the hill from where she had been reported missing. These kinds of experiences have led him to believe that young children do not head downhill, but rather try to ascend a hill or mountain when they go missing.

After rescuing Fujimoto Yoshiki in the woods, the super volunteer told him: “When you grow up, do something that will make people happy, okay?”

What inspired these words? Obata says that no matter how small the thing you do is, as long as you try to live your life bringing people happiness, that is what it’s all about. When Obata returned young Yoshiki to his mother and grandfather, the boy’s savior told them to keep providing him with a loving home, just as they had done up until that point, and to continue to watch over him.

Just a toddler, the boy was able to survive by himself for almost three whole days all on his own in the woods. Hopefully he will grow up big and strong thanks to the contributions of selfless individuals like Obata Haruo.

Finally, FNN finished its interview with Obata by asking him if he would like to see the boy again.

“Nah, I don’t need to see him. There’s no need to worry about him anymore.”

(Originally broadcast in Japanese on FNN’sPrime News Evening on August 15, 2018. Translated by Nippon.com.)


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