Mamoru-kun is always watching on Okinawa
It was the peak of summer 2015 and I could barely wait until Friday so I could spend my time off snorkeling and stuffing my face with local Okinawan cuisine.
My ideal weekend was approaching slowly but surely, but so was a large-scale typhoon – an immediate threat to my ambitions.
To avoid its potential trajectory, a friend and I spontaneously bought plane tickets to Miyako-Jima, a smaller Japanese island near the center of Taiwan and mainland Okinawa.
Miyako was unknown territory for me, so I spent the one-hour flight flipping through pamphlets and my travel guide. One of the first things to grab my attention was reading about how Miyako is famous for having more bars per person than any other place in Japan.
I also repeatedly noticed graphics and pictures of a pale young man in an old-fashioned police uniform. It was clear he must be the island’s mascot or something, as many Japanese prefectures have their own icons who characterize their community. The man didn’t really capture my interest at the time, although the former fact I read about certainly did.
We landed, rented a car, grabbed some ice-cream and drove off to enjoy the scenery and find our hotel. The tropical atmosphere was more beautiful than expected, but at times it felt like we were being watched.
As we passed one of the many sugar cane fields, the mysterious figure I saw in the brochure appeared.
He was in the form of a painted statue and stood almost at the position of attention but slightly more relaxed. His expression really stuck out, giving off a stoic and alert vibe, but I also got a feeling he was deeply concerned about something.
“Okay, so what’s the deal with this guy?” I asked my friend, “I’ve seen his pictures all over the place.”
“Mamoru-Kun?” she said enthusiastically, “He’s famous here; he watches over the streets to encourage safe driving. There’s a bunch of Mamoru-Kun statues in Miyako-Jima. Everybody loves him.”
That’s cute, I thought to myself. Our conversation about the strange looking man continued and I looked him up on my phone.
It turns out, there’s 19 variations of these figurines and they’ve been standing on post for residents and visitors for more than 20 years.
Physically, the statues don’t really do anything, but in representation, they’re likely to save lives.
With Miyako having the highest percentage of bars in the country and little means of public transit, having metaphorical road guardians made perfect sense.
It would be fairly difficult to get behind the wheel and make an irresponsible decision without escaping the influence of one these gazing statues.
We spent the weekend exploring various beaches and my appreciation for him grew each time we passed. Eventually, I developed my own understanding of why everyone likes him so much.
Mamoru-Kun wears a police badge but doesn’t have authority over anyone. He won’t judge you or try to tell you what to do. He doesn’t make assumptions about you or your colleagues and he doesn’t even care if you like hash brown potatoes or not -- because he’s a statue.
Yet, his simple presence is enough to raise the standards of people in his community and inspire drivers to make right choices around-the-clock. The effect is similar to noticing a car sign which reads “baby on board.”
Not all of us have an icon like Mamoru-Kun at our street corner to help us double check our integrity, but we all have our own figurative Mamoru-Kun who will always guide us to make good choices on the road.
For me, it’s the image of my childhood friend who lost his whole family in one night because of the actions of an intoxicated driver.
For others, maybe it’s the image of their commander rendering an epic face-palm after discovering he has to deal with a preventable incident or maybe it’s the disappointed look of a pet chiwawa-pug hybrid named Fabio.
As Airmen, it’s also possible each one of us may actually be the accountable figure for our peers and fellow wingmen, just as my friend and I were to each other on our trip to Miyako.
Now, I’m aware it’s probably not the healthiest thing to be attributing so much personality to an inanimate object, but while heading back from an Izakaya restaurant on my last night on the island, I thought I witnessed a slight change in Mamoru-Kun’s expression from the passenger’s seat of the vehicle.
He shot me a smirk; and the only way I could rationalize it was by concluding he approved of me being in the responsible care of a designated driver.
Glad to have you as my wingman Mamoru-Kun. Kanpai.