Packrat fever

In Japan there is a phenomenon called gomi-yashiki, which is probably not limited to Japan. The phrase literally means “garbage residence,” and describes a house and its property overflowing with refuse. What makes the situation special is that the refuse is there on purpose. The owners of the property tend to have a packrat mentality–they pick up stuff everywhere, especially from other people’s garbage, and just scatter it both inside their houses and outside. Tabloid TV news shows are always on the lookout for such houses because they and their usually eccentric owners make for such amusing stories. But according to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, this sort of packrat mentality may point to more than just eccentricity.

In most cases, gomi-yashiki draw the wrath of neighbors, who complain to the authorities about the smell and the unsightly mess. However, as long as the mess is confined to the property of the owner, the authorities can’t do anything. And even if the garbage spills over into public space, usually the punishment is no more than a nominal fine.


But a psychiatrist interviewed by the Asahi who did a study on gomi-yashiki owners found that half tend to be elderly people suffereing from senile dementia, and the other half suffer from some level of schizophrenia. In both cases, they tend to live alone. In the case of senile old people, the garbage problem usually works itself out because the owner eventually dies and even before then he or she becomes unable to care for him- or herself, thus allowing the authorities to move in and take over the property. But most schizophrenics have livelihoods, which means they can continue hoarding junk for years upon decades. In fact, that seems to be the point. Schizophrenics also tend to be paranoid. The walls of garbage around their houses are meant to keep the world out.

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