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Yamato Tanooka’s story has exposed the perils of parenting, by Deborah Orr

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As Yamato Tanooka’s parents have learned all too well, the trouble with punishing children is that they are alarmingly good at punishing you right back. The seven-year-old had been throwing rocks on a family day out in a forest on the island of Hokkaido. His parents drove off and left him, frustrated because he wouldn’t stop. When they returned, minutes later, the boy had disappeared.

The child was missing for six cold days and nights – awful for him, but awful for his parents too. Most parents are familiar with the nightmare scenarios that spool through the mind when a child is missing for a few minutes. Six days in contemplation of the idea that your child may well be dead because you doled out a disproportionate and irresponsible punishment is surely a form of torture.

After a huge search, thankfully, Tanooka was eventually found by chance in a military hut, where running water and a couple of mattresses had assisted his fairly miraculous survival. He’d walked two and a half miles from where his parents had left him. His father has made a heartfelt apology for the excessive attempt at discipline, for the ordeal he put his son through, and for the huge trouble the saga caused.

The parents had at first claimed that they’d lost their son while the family was foraging for wild vegetables. They must have been too ashamed and horrified to initially admit that they’d been to blame. And indeed, there was much condemnation in Japan. The BBC reports that “Naoki Ogi, a TV personality and pedagogy expert, better known as ‘Ogi-mama’, condemned the parents outright, saying this was neglect and abuse. He also noted and criticised how many parents in Japan tend to see their children as their personal possessions.” The parents could face charges for negligence.

Yet it seems to me that the disciplinarian approach to the behaviour of parents is part of the same problem. Even in Britain, you feel huge shame when it looks like you can’t manage your kids. In Japan, where social shame has the name sekentei and is a very big deal, that pressure probably feels much greater.

In Britain reams and reams of advice has been written for stressed-out mothers about how to handle a supermarket meltdown. One’s ability to handle such a situation is hampered only by the idea that condemnatory eyes are boring into you as the evidence of your parental failure advertises itself so lustily.

All you can reasonably do is to be as aware as you can of what triggers tantrums, so that you can either nip them in the bud or stay calm when one does erupt. Maybe Yamato’s parents enacted some bad parenting in part because they feared too greatly the idea that if their boy didn’t do what he was told, they would be considered … bad parents.

Thankfully, more sympathetic views have also been expressed, especially on social media. Many parents are all too familiar with the awful situation where you lock horns with a defiant child, feel under pressure and allow things to slide out of control. Rarely, however, is the result so frightening, so close to fatal, and so public.

Tabloids report on Yamato Tanooka’s disappearance.
Tabloids report on Yamato Tanooka’s disappearance. ‘His parents must have been too ashamed and horrified to initially admit that they’d been to blame. And indeed, there was much condemnation in Japan.’

The parents of Yamoto now understand only too well that they did something stupid and dangerous. It’s easy to pontificate about what they should have done when they wanted their son to stop throwing rocks. The ideal parent would, of course, compliment the child on their terrific athletic potential, wonder whether perhaps the dainty creatures of the forest might nevertheless be alarmed or even endangered, wax lyrical about the marvellous fun that can be had from basketball, and suggest that a sports-centred excursion might be on the cards if only the rock-throwing could end.

Of course, the normal parent actually moves through “Stop that” and “I’ve told you once” to “Dear God, give me strength” and “Stop that right now, or you’ll be sorry”. It’s all too easy to make an empty threat only to find that your defiant child is simply begging you heavily to lard the threat with substance. Escalation can happen very quickly and very easily.

A child, who will remain nameless, in a family that will remain nameless was once sent to his room as a punishment for being a jealous monster at his little brother’s first birthday party, which was taking place on a patio outside an apartment in Greece. The punished child’s room had a balcony above the patio, and the nameless mother was shortly set the challenge of working out how to discipline a child who had peed all over the guests – and the cake – from above.

Escalation. Don’t even risk starting it. That’s what the nameless mother tells me. But too late to have stopped herself from being pissed on from a relatively great height.

The military exercise area where Yamato Tanooka was found.
The military exercise area where Yamato Tanooka was found.



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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field