Just before noon on a warm September day, Saya Minami made plans to meet her mom at a nearby park. Eager to leave the house, the 7-year-old left alone, making her way down the familiar path on her pink scooter.
But when her mother followed five minutes later, Saya was nowhere to be found. Her mother called the police that same day and with the help of volunteers, has been looking for the 7-year-old since she disappeared on Sept. 23. The case has garnered national attention in Japan, a country known for its low crime rate and public safety, especially for children.
On Tuesday, 12 days after Saya went missing and a typhoon passed through central Japan, the police said that a cyclist found a small body floating in the Edo River, which runs near her home in Chiba prefecture, national broadcaster NHK reported.
Though they’ve yet to confirm whether it’s Saya, the police said the body is that of a young girl’s and is dressed almost identically to what the child wore the day she disappeared. Police are conducting an autopsy to confirm the identity and determine the cause of death, local outlets reported.
The mysterious details surrounding her case have gripped Japan for days.
Around noon the day Saya disappeared, security camera footage shows her skating down the road about 900 meters away from the park where she promised to meet her mom. Later that day, her pink scooter was found abandoned at a different park.
While police haven’t said whether Saya was the victim of a crime, Ayaka Tada, who’s raising her two children in a nearby town, said she now feels it isn’t safe to leave her kids alone.
“I’m afraid to let my kids play outside without me, in case anything happens,” she told VICE World News. “This poor girl went missing in the middle of the day, her poor parents.”
A day after Saya’s disappearance, her shoes and socks were found neatly placed along the riverbed, just 30 meters from the park. Her parents had gone looking for her in this area three times before the shoes were found, but they hadn’t seen these articles of clothing. They suspected someone had placed them there after they visited. What’s more, according to her parents, Saya didn’t like to get her feet wet, and she wasn’t one to take off her socks tidily, news channel TV Asahi reported.
Four days later, Saya’s hat, which had her name written on it, was discovered about a kilometer downstream from where her shoes were found. Before the discovery of her body, Saya’s parents made several public appeals for information about their daughter’s disappearance, at times addressing Saya directly.
“Saya-chan, where are you, what are you doing? Please come home soon,” her family pleaded on Sept. 27.
In Japan, unsupervised kids frequently go shopping alone at nearby stores, a cultural phenomenon highlighted in the show, Old Enough!, which gained international acclaim when it was released on Netflix in March. Chiba prefecture’s Masudo City, where Saya lived, even boasts about being one of the top places nationwide to raise a child.
In 2021, over 14,000 children were reported missing in Japan. In comparison, in the UK, which has half the population of Japan, about 47,000 children were reported missing.
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