Yamato Tanooka had been missing for nearly a week when he was discovered in a military hut by a soldier.
The youngster devoured two rice balls the soldier gave him but did not shed a tear, the military said. He looked a bit worn out but was “genki” - a Japanese word describing healthy children.
His safe return was welcomed in a nation riveted by his disappearance and undergoing intense soul-searching about how it raises and disciplines its children.
Yamato’s story, pieced together from comments from the military and police, was an admirable tale of resourcefulness and resilience.
His parents, trying to teach him a lesson for misbehaving and throwing rocks, made him get out of the car last Saturday on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido in a forest reputedly ridden with bears. They returned several minutes later but could not find him.
After apparently walking for some distance, the boy found the empty hut in a military drill area and entered a door that had been left open. The building had no heat or power and no food, but Yamato huddled between mattresses on the floor and drank water from the solitary tap outside the hut for several days, local media reported.
A massive manhunt, including 180 people and search dogs, had found no trace of him. The soldier who found him had not been part of the frenzied search effort, but soon the boy identified himself as Yamato.
Appearing outside the hospital where the boy was flown by helicopter, his father, Takayuki Tanooka, apologised, bowing deeply, thanked everyone for the rescue and vowed to do a better job as a parent.
“We have raised him with love all along,” he said, fighting tears. “I really didn’t think it would come to that. We went too far.”
Military officials expressed admiration for the boy’s perseverance, as the hut where he was found was far from where he had disappeared and involved a rigorous uphill climb.
The boy was dehydrated and had minor scratches on his arms and feet, but no serious health risks were found, a doctor who examined him said on nationally televised news.
Asked what he had told his son after he was found, Mr Tanooka said: “I told him I was so sorry for causing him such pain.”
The nation welcomed the boy’s safe return. Old photos of Yamato, of him wearing a cowboy hat, holding up two fingers in a peace sign, or with his fringe falling over a proud smile, were flashed across TV screens again and again.
Daijiro Hashimoto, a former governor appearing on a talk show on TV Asahi, wondered how the boy had endured the loneliness, especially at night, and suggested that perhaps he had imagined he was on an adventure and was hiding in a secret camp.
“He had to keep a very positive attitude,” Mr Hashimoto said, reflecting widespread sentiment in the country. “He is fantastic. He didn’t know how long it might take, and when he would ever be saved.”
The boy’s disappearance and the debate set off by the parents’ decision resonated in an ageing nation with a dearth of children, where child-raising is expensive and often requires financial sacrifice.
Japanese culture is also not seen as promoting individual rights of children, but rather to view children almost as family property. Abandonment and child abuse are far more common in Japan than the stereotype of the doting parent and stay-at-home mother would suggest.
Yamato’s parents are not officially under any police investigation for their actions.
A child welfare expert said abandonment of a child should be treated seriously. Tamae Arai, who heads a Tokyo ward’s family support operations, said that although she does not know the specifics of this case, an investigation would be likely in a similar case to ensure a child is protected.
“Beating and kicking are not the only forms of child abuse. There is also neglect. Of course, we are all thrilled he was found, but it is important to note that there could be a serious problem here,” she said.