“My excessive act forced my son to have a painful time…I deeply apologize to people at his school, people in the rescue operation, and everybody for causing them trouble…”
When Takayuki Tanooka appeared on Japanese television on Friday, June 3, 2016, he spoke in a voice laden with emotion, seemingly near tears.
Six days earlier, he inadvertently became one of the most reviled men in Japan—and around the world. Fed up with his 7-year-old son Yamoto’s bad behavior on a car trip on the northern island of Hokkaido, as the boy had been throwing rocks at cars and people, Mr. Tanooka and his wife pulled to the side of the road in a remote wooded area, forced little Yamoto out—and drove away.
After initially telling the police that Yamoto had got lost while the family dug for vegetables, Mr. Tanooka later admitted that he’d left the boy in the woods as punishment. Yamoto was only alone for five minutes, his parents insisted, but when the family returned to pick him up, he had vanished.
About 200 police officers and volunteer rescue workers combed the area for the boy all week. Hopes for his rescue were diminishing; the area was home to wild bears, and bear markers had been found close to where Yamoto disappeared. He was finally discovered by three soldiers, who found him sheltering in a cabin on a remote military base. He’d been subsisting only on water from a nearby stream.
The entire week little Yamoto was missing, I prayed for him every day. Each time I thought of him, I pictured my own 7-year-old son, and the horror of Yamoto’s situation washed over me afresh. I also was haunted by a memory of some years before: When one of my sons was about Yamoto’s age, he too got into a horrible mood on a family car trip, and quickly fell apart into a hitting, crying mess—lashing out at anyone who tried to comfort him. When we stopped to buy gas, he hopped out of the car—then refused to get in again. For one awful moment, my husband later confided, the thought flitted through his head: What if we left him there?
Obviously, in our case, common sense prevailed and we somehow wrestled our wailing son back into the car instead of leaving him by the side of the road. But, I wondered, how close had we come to making the same tragic mistake Yamoto’s parents had made?
Japanese authorities have not yet said whether they will press charges against Yamotos’ parents. But hours after he was found, Mr. Tanooka held his emotional news conference:
“The first thing I said to my son was I’m very sorry to have caused you to face this suffering because of me,” he explained to the nation and the world, “I really didn’t think it would come to that. We went too far. We, well, we loved him before, but I hope to give him even more attention now…From now on, we’ll do even more to love him and keep a close watch on him as he grows up,” the distraught father explained.
Mr. Tanooka exuded remorse in his TV appearance—but merely apologizing is not enough. If he wishes to truly atone and make amends for his actions, he has to go further, changing himself and altering his actions. Sometimes, saying “sorry” is not enough.
The Talmud recognizes this: While saying “sorry” is important, it only makes an impact if it’s accompanied by real actions that help heal the hurt we’ve caused. Otherwise, it’s just words.
The great Jewish sage Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (1135-1204), known as Rambam, even wrote specific steps we can take to truly make amends. These force us to go beyond merely saying we’re sorry, and challenge us to grow, to help others—and to change the way we relate to others for the better.
The first step in making a real apology, Rambam advised, is to admit what we’ve done, and to feel regret. How often have we heard someone excuse their actions by protesting that they weren’t really so bad? It’s impossible to apologize sincerely if we don’t stop and think about our actions, and truly feel remorse for what we’ve done.
Once we’ve felt regret, the next step is to make amends, when possible. If we’ve caused someone financial harm, we have to repay them. If it’s at all within our ability to help heal any other types of damage, we must do everything we can to do so.
Only after making real amends can our words carry any weight, and we go onto the next step: saying “I’m sorry” without excuses or conditions, admitting our faults and asking forgiveness.
But what if it is impossible to make amends? What if the object of our actions is no longer living, or it is somehow impossible to fix what we did? Jewish tradition gives us a number of ways to still try to make amends. Bringing more light into the world—by giving charity, by doing good deeds, by resolving to become a better person through studying or taking on extra Jewish actions—is a way to help make up for the some of the darkness and pain we caused.
Working to overcome the hurt we’ve caused is also a way for us to change—to grow into the person we are capable of being, to become a better versions of ourselves.
For Mr. Tanooka, his act of apology has only just begun. Appearing on Japanese TV and apologizing to the nation and to his son is only a start. In order for his words of apology to mean anything, he has a great deal of work still to do.
He is incredibly lucky that, despite his decision to abandon his 7-year-old in a bear-infested wood, little Yamoto is still alive and able to hear his father say “I’m sorry”. Now he faces an even harder task: to show, through his deeds and actions, that he has changed, to start fixing some of the pain and anguish he has caused, to become a better parent—and to work on learning and growing from his mistakes.