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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008
'Trash houses' tough to tidy up
First attempt made to level fines for garbage-filled residences
By ALEX MARTIN
A middle-aged man walks through the Tokyo neighborhood of Higashi-Nippori at dawn, dropping bits of food for crows and cats to feed on, ensuring in the process that a mess is left in his wake.
Blocks away, the stench from a two-story house overflowing with what appears to be garbage is overpowering.
"We've been receiving many calls from residents complaining of the smell and filth," an Arakawa Ward official said when explaining why the ward has finally decided to take action against the chronically untidy. "We're not saying it's against the law to feed stray animals or save trash. It's just gone way too far," he said.
How to cope with the numerous complaints called in by residents fed up with animal droppings at feeding sites, noise and foul odors emitted from so-called trash houses — houses or apartments overflowing with garbage — has been a touchy matter and a headache for municipalities nationwide.
A favorite subject of TV gossip shows in recent years, "gomi yashiki," or trash houses, refers to the unusual phenomenon where people cannot seem to get rid of unneeded items to the point where accumulated junk clutters their living quarters.
In stark contrast to the nation's reputation for being ultraclean, trash houses, whose existence seems startlingly common, are often portrayed as the dark side of society, and a sickness possibly caused by depression, dementia or unhealthy obsessions.
"I think it's a modern-day phenomenon, these trash houses," said a Tokyo-based cleanup company employee who wished to remain anonymous. "All those plastic PET bottles and convenience store food wrappers I see piled up," said the man, who explained how he and his crew are often called in to clean up apartments and houses filled to the brim with garbage.
"But most of all, it's hard, hard work. It usually takes 10 to 15 truckloads of garbage to clean out a typical trash-filled apartment. And obviously, it stinks," the man complained.
Most local governments have found it hard to cope with the trash-house problem because private property laws make it difficult for police to intervene, unless some other law is applicable.
Arakawa Ward, however, has decided to fine people who leave food out for animals and those who hoard trash — the first time such an approach has been attempted.
The Ordinance Regarding the Securement of Healthy Living Quarters in Arakawa Ward, a tentative title for the new ordinance, will be submitted to the ward assembly in November, and, if adopted, will go into effect in April.
The ordinance targets both those who are suspected of causing a public health hazard by feeding stray animals and those who attract vermin by piling up large quantities of trash in their living quarters.
The ward official in charge of the ordinance stressed it will only be applied in extreme cases.
"We're not going to abruptly go up to these people and say, 'Hey, you'd better clean things up or you'll be fined.' There will be an adequate process involving careful deliberations and help from the police and justice system," the official said.
The ward will send inspectors to warn the people or households that are generating complaints. If no progress is made, the case will be handed over to police, then tried in court and if found punishable, the accused will be fined ¥50,000 or ¥100,000 depending on the person's level of cooperation.
Arakawa, however, remains an exception. In most cases there are few options beyond simple warnings that police or municipalities can give to trash-house residents or animal feeders.
Police in Saitama had no choice but to apply traffic laws to arrest Hiroshi Sekine, a 79-year-old Gyoda resident, in early October after neighbors complained that the junk piled up in front of his house was blocking the public walkway.
"We've been warning him for over 10 years to clear the walkway, but he's refused. He's been fined twice before for violating traffic laws. This is the third time we've taken action, but I'm afraid it won't be the last," the Gyoda deputy police chief said.
After the incident, the prefecture, city and police gathered to discuss what to do in the future, he said, adding, "We've decided to keep a close watch on him and remind him as often as we can."
According to medical research, compulsive hoarding, a term used to refer to those who feel compelled to amass worthless items, can be associated with obsessive compulsive disorders and attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, whose symptoms include impulsiveness, lack of attention and hyperactivity.
Dementia caused by old age, as well as trauma- or stress-induced hoarding are other possible causes of the phenomenon, which seems to exist in all age groups of both sexes.
Natsume, who goes only by that name, runs the popular Web blog Katazukerarenai Onna Damashii (The Soul of the Hoarding Woman), based on her own experience as a pack rat. She said she thinks there are several different reasons behind the phenomenon.
"I think one common cause for habitual hoarding is the 'I don't need this but maybe I can sell it' mentality," Natsume said. "Internet auction sites have really spurred this kind of sentiment, I think. The idea that anything could be sold online gives grounds for some to save their junk indefinitely. It's money to them."
Natsume, whose blog entries depicting how she gradually cleaned up her messy house have also been published as a book, blamed mental health problems for the tendency to accumulate trash.
"From what I know, depression seems to be a big factor contributing to this phenomenon. My trash hoarding accelerated after a family member passed away, and I'm sure many people share similar experiences. It's hard for anyone to be active, let alone clean their room or house, when they suffer depression," she said.
Natsume, however, was skeptical that Arakawa's tactic will prove effective.
"I understand the reasoning behind the decision, but would these animal feeders and trash hoarders comply if threatened with fines? I don't know. I think if simply fining them did the job, this wouldn't be an issue in the first place," she said.