Photo/IllutrationShoichi Naito, at the controls of the water scooter, and others rescue elderly residents in the Mabicho district of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, on July 7. (Provided by Ikumi Tomita)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KURASHIKI, Okayama Prefecture--A young man with a water scooter returned to his hometown and rescued more than 100 residents stranded in rising floodwaters in the Mabicho district here.

And it all started with a frantic phone call from a childhood friend.

“My mum is stranded at her home in Mabicho. Can you please somehow rescue her?”

Shoichi Naito, a 29-year-old construction worker who lives in the neighboring city of Soja, received the call before noon on July 7.

The caller was Keisuke Uemori, 25, who lives in the prefectural capital of Okayama. Naito and Uemori are originally from the Mabicho district.

Naito had seen footage of the flood devastation in Mabicho and was thinking about how he could help his hometown.

“I am coming now,” Naito told Uemori.

Naito rides water scooters as a hobby and has a license to operate the watercraft.

He arranged to borrow a water scooter from a friend and then headed to Mabicho in the afternoon.

By the time he reached the district, the floodwater level had risen to almost the second floors of the houses, and it was still rising.

The water was filled with debris, including trees and tires. The stench of oil filled the air, and helicopters kept buzzing over the area.

As he rode the water scooter, Naito saw many people stranded on the upper floors and rooftops of their houses.

“Help me,” one of them pleaded. “Please come this way,” another shouted.

He told them that he would not leave them behind, but he first rescued Uemori’s mother.

He then started picking up others and taking them to Shinsenji temple on a hill.

Many of the stranded were elderly residents who needed help climbing aboard the water scooter. Luckily, a younger friend in the Mabicho district could lend a hand in the rescue mission.

Tadayoshi Iwata, 73, and his wife fled to the rooftop of their house as the water level neared the eaves. They called the fire department and police just after noon, but no rescue came.

After waiting helplessly for a few hours, they saw a water scooter approaching their house.

“Let me save the children first,” Naito told them. “I will come back by any means. You can make it. Hold on.”

Iwata said Naito’s words provided relief. After a while, Naito returned as promised.

On the ride to higher ground, Naito tapped Iwata’s shoulder and jokingly said, “Grandpa, I risked my life to save yours, so now you must live a long life.”

Iwata cried in joy.

“Mr. Naito is the hero of our town,” Iwata said. “He is our lifesaver.”

Over about 15 hours, Naito took about 120 people to safety. Around 4 a.m. the following day, his entire body cramped up and he could not move anymore.

The watercraft, which had been repeatedly refueled, was covered in scratches and dents from the debris.

A few days later, Naito returned to Mabicho as a volunteer, preparing food for evacuees at a public shelter.

Those rescued by Naito remembered his face, and they showered him with words of gratitude.

“Just hearing their words made it all worthwhile,” Naito said.

More than 200 people in 14 prefectures were killed in the recent downpours that caused flooding and landslides across western Japan. At least 61 deaths have been confirmed in Okayama Prefecture.