The Yomiuri ShimbunOKUTAMA, Tokyo — In a mountain village located at the western end of Tokyo, about 60 kilometers from JR Shinjuku Station, one police officer has been stationed alone for 37 years, watching over the people of the community.
Assistant Police Inspector Kiyoshi Maeda, 62, is stationed at the Nippara residential police box of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Ome Police Station. His posting is the longest at any one residential police box in the nation.
From 6:45 a.m. every morning Maeda greets residents as they pass by the police box, asking them, “How’re you feeling?” When he was first assigned to work in Nippara in the town of Okutama, Tokyo, in 1981, there were about 460 people living here. Now the population has dropped to 94, and 70 percent of them are 60 or older. Checking on their safety is Maeda’s most important duty. In the daytime, he makes door-to-door visits, and also greets residents on their birthdays and the anniversaries of family members’ deaths.
Maeda reached his retirement age two years ago but the residents pleaded for him to stay, so he was rehired and assigned to the same duty.
His jurisdiction includes mountains about 1,000 meters high and a calcareous cave. These attract about 90,000 climbers and tourists annually. Maeda tells them things like, “Watch out for remaining snow” at the trailhead, and also goes into the mountains as a member of the mountain rescue unit when he receives a distress call. He knows the land so well that he can almost pinpoint where lost hikers are if they describe the landscape of their lo-cation via cell phone.
Maeda is from Tsukigata, Hokkaido. After graduating from a local high school, he moved to Tokyo to become a police officer in the Metropolitan Police Department. He worked as a member of the riot police task force and was also assigned to various police stations before applying to serve at a residential police box, hoping to “test my ability,” he said.
At age 25, Maeda moved to the Nippara area, about 20 kilometers from Ome Police Station, with his wife and their daughter.
He said he was bewildered at first by the locals’ custom of calling each other by the names of their houses. He made umeboshi sour plums with housewives and helped out at residents’ funerals. Three years later he had memorized all the residents’ faces and names.
Even in this placid mountain village, accidents and criminal incidents still occur. At the time of the 1985 Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash, Maeda witnessed the plane flying low overhead and the blast echoing through the mountains. A dozen years ago, he arrested a criminal involved in a stimulant drugs case who fled into the mountains.
Recently, residents of the district have began receiving “It’s me, it’s me” fraud phone calls, prompting Maeda to instruct them on how to avoid the scam.
“Many things have happened over 37 years,” Maeda said.
He is consulted on all sorts of matters by the residents. People come to him saying, “A bear damaged my field,” or “An aggressive salesperson came to my house.” Whenever the residents approach him with a problem, Maeda pays them a visit to hear what they have to say. He calls ambulances when they suddenly become sick and even gives them rides to the train station in the police car when they suffer minor injuries.
“I have to work hard to protect the community by myself, so I have no time to relax,” he said.
“For us, ‘police’ means Maeda-san. We don’t want to lose him, as we can always talk to him about our troubles,” said a 71-year old resident.
Maeda has three more years until the end of his second term, when he will be 65.
“I want to continue protecting this community until the end of my career,” he said.
Residential boxes prove useful
Unlike an ordinary koban police box, Maeda is stationed at a chuzaisho, a police box where an officer resides with their family and handles all sorts of issues that crop up in their jurisdiction.
According to the National Police Agency, there were 6,380 residential police boxes across the nation as of April last year, more than ordinary police boxes, which number 6,256.
At least six police officers are necessary to operate a regular police box, while a residential police box only needs one officer at a minimum.
A shortfall in personnel is one of the reasons behind the large number of residential police boxes.
Residential police boxes have been introduced mainly in urban areas where accidents and criminal incidents are rarely reported at night, and a growing number are reportedly seen around high-rise condominiums and housing complexes.
In Tokyo, 266 police officers aged from 24 to 63 work at 257 residential police boxes, and their average period of service is about 10 years. In some places, police officers who are married couples are stationed together. On islands and in mountain areas and underpopulated areas, equipment such as criminal investigation kits are deployed at residential police boxes in readiness for initial inquiries should a criminal incident occur.
The National Police Agency has directed prefectural police nationwide to help police stations enhance their support for residential police boxes, to reduce the burden on the police officers stationed there and their families.Speech