OSAKA – This week’s discovery of an uninjured 2-year-old boy who had been missing for three days on an island in western Japan is being called a miracle, with experts remarking that the hot weather and time elapsed since his disappearance had made a safe return seem unlikely.
Yoshiki Fujimoto was found barefoot and sitting on a mossy stone in the middle of a stream Wednesday by search party volunteer Haruo Obata, who used his past experience as part of another search to find the boy.
Yoshiki was found on a mountain in the town of Suo-Oshima on Yashiro Island in Yamaguchi Prefecture about 68 hours after he had gone missing, just shy of the 72 hours after which the chance of survival is believed to drop considerably.
Pediatricians and experts were surprised that the boy was found alive, as temperatures on the island had topped 30 C between Sunday and Tuesday.
“I was most worried about possible heatstroke, but the boy may have found shade near the stream and drunk water. It must have been a result of a number of miraculously favorable conditions,” said Mieko Miyata, the head of a nonprofit organization that promotes safety education for children.
“Water intake is particularly essential for babies and toddlers because they are more vulnerable to dehydration compared with adults,” said Eiichi Ishii, a professor at Ehime University’s pediatrics department. “The boy may not have sweated much in the shade but it is surprising he hung on in the hot environment. Three days is close to the limit.”
Yoshiki, from Hofu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, arrived at his great-grandfather’s house Sunday and became lost the same day after heading for a beach about 400 meters away with his grandfather Masanori and 3-year-old brother.
After about 100 meters, Yoshiki tried to return to the house on his own but couldn’t find his way back.
He was found at around 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday on a mountain just 560 meters from the house.
According to Keisen University President Masami Ohinata, who is well-versed in children’s developmental psychology, it is difficult for 2-year-olds to fully appreciate the situations they are in.
“(Small children) are unlikely to walk around or despair out of fear. The underdeveloped judgment and cognitive capacity of a toddler may have helped prevent the boy from getting stressed or exhausted,” she said.
She also said the boy’s discovery on a mountain was the result of the unpredictable behavior of 2-year-olds, an age often referred to as the “terrible twos.”
“For 2-year-olds, as tall as about 90 centimeters, a small space which looks like a bush to adults can be seen as a trail,” Ohinata said.
Despite a search effort involving 380 police officers and rescuers as well as drones with thermal imaging cameras, the mountain where the boy was eventually found wasn’t searched until Obata went there and quickly spotted him.
Rescuers dived in water reservoirs and combed paddy fields as well as roads but not the mountain, prompting some police officers to voice regret that they did not expand the search area earlier.
Obata, 78, from Oita Prefecture, followed a mountain trail, believing small children tend to climb up rather than descend based on his experience with a different search operation for a 2-year-old girl who was found on a mountain in the Oita city of Saiki in 2016.
It took just 30 minutes before he heard Yoshiki reply to his call, and found him sitting on the stone.
The site can be reached by following a trail that stretches from the great-grandfather’s home, but the path was covered with fallen rocks and leaves.
“Even locals do not enter there. The volunteer must have been able to find the boy because he had no preconceptions,” said a resident who knows the area.
Yoshiaki Michishita, the deputy chief of a local police station, expressed gratitude to Obata and said the police thoroughly searched areas near where he was last seen and other locations taking into account the physical strength of the boy, who just turned 2 on Monday.
“It is regrettable that we could not find him earlier. We want to draw lessons from this experience,” he said.