Photo/IllutrationHaruo Obata explains how he found 2-year-old Yoshiki Fujimoto on Aug. 15 in Suo-Oshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture. (Motoki Nagasawa)

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  • Photo/Illustraion
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  • Photo/Illustraion

The man who found a 2-year-old boy in the mountains of Suo-Oshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture, is a veteran volunteer who has spent more than two decades traveling around Japan to help people in need.

After Haruo Obata, 78, found Yoshiki Fujimoto early on the morning of Aug. 15, the boy's grandfather invited the man to his home for a bath.

But Obata replied, "I am a volunteer so I cannot accept that.”

Having heard that Yoshiki had been missing since Aug. 12, Obata drove a light van from his home in Hiji, Oita Prefecture, to join in the search for the boy. He had packed the vehicle with everything he would need while in Yamaguchi Prefecture, including food, water and a sleeping bag.

Whenever Obata has volunteered to help disaster victims or others, he has made a point of not imposing on those he is trying to help. He uses his pension to pay for all the expenses he incurs during his volunteer work.

"A true volunteer is capable of doing everything for himself," Obata said.

Obata helped out in Miyagi Prefecture after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and he also went to Kumamoto Prefecture after it was hit by a series of earthquakes in 2016. More recently, he was in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, after large swathes of western Japan were inundated in July by torrential rain that caused massive flooding and landslides. In Kure, he helped clear out dirt and mud from homes.

Obata formerly ran a fish shop in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. His long years of calling out to prospective customers about the day's catch in a loud, clear voice helped Obata call out to Yoshiki as he tried to locate the boy in the mountains.

Obata closed the fish shop when he was 65 to devote his life to volunteering.

"I was able to achieve what I did until then even though I had no schooling or anything else," Obata said. "I wanted to repay my debt to society."

He had volunteered before that as part of his mountain climbing hobby that he began when he was 40. In his mid-50s, Obata volunteered to help clear a climbing course on Mount Yufudake in Oita Prefecture.

When he was 66, Obata decided he wanted to see for himself the nation he was born in. But no leisurely tours by train or plane were for him.

Rather, he walked from Cape Sata, the southernmost point of Kyushu, to Cape Soya, Japan's northernmost point on Hokkaido.

Obata's first experience volunteering to help disaster victims was during the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake in 2004.

Seven years later, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, Obata spent about 500 days volunteering in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. Town officials asked him to head a corps of workers whose task was to find and collect items that disaster victims had long considered precious.

He slept in his light van from those days, and many of the younger volunteers who worked with him were described as looking up to him as a disciple would gaze at a master.

His long years of volunteering led him to provide advice to the volunteer center that was set up after the 2016 earthquakes struck Kumamoto Prefecture.

Whenever he works to help disaster victims, Obata makes a point of wearing a red shirt and tying a red towel around his head. He feels the color helps to encourage those who may feel discouraged.

He indicated that as long as his health holds out, he may respond to other reports of missing people, regardless of where in Japan the emergency is occurring.

"I hope there are more people who decide to take action rather than consider what has arisen as a problem that someone else should handle," Obata said.