Scavenging for 'Gomi': Garbage Can Yield Treasures in Japan


When Rob and Kathryn Craighurst arrived in Japan from the United States six months ago, they brought little more than the clothes they were wearing and their year-old daughter, Laura.

Now their apartment is crammed with furniture, rugs, a stereo system, a color television and a host of appliances ranging from a gas stove to an electric griddle. And they didn't pay for any of it.

Rob Craighurst, an English teacher by day, is an enthusiastic night-time practitioner of the art of gomi hunting.

The word is Japanese for "garbage." But to many cash-strapped Westerners living in the Land of the Rising Yen, it means a cornucopia of consumer goods that have been thrown away and are free for the taking.

Best Gomi Haunts

"The real ritzy neighborhoods don't produce the best gomi," said Craighurst, from Charlottesville, Va., who collects it outside apartment buildings or from garbage dumps.

"The best stuff comes from neighborhoods with big apartment buildings where the people are upwardly mobile. The apartments are small, the people need space and they are buying new stuff."

Craighurst said there is little demand in Japan for second-hand items and there is no network of charity stores such as those in the United States run by Goodwill or the Salvation Army, where lots of unwanted household goods and clothes end up.

The garbage men in Craighurst's suburb near Osaka visit each neighborhood on one morning every eight weeks with a giant trash-mashing truck to haul away big items such as refrigerators.

Planned Forays

The local newspaper publishes the schedule, which Craighurst uses to plan his forays. The night before the gomi truck arrives, he raids the most promising sites on his bicycle--itself retrieved from a gomi pile.

"If I wait until morning I have to play 'Beat the Cruncher,' and those guys really run," he said.

In his six months in Japan, Craighurst has furnished his three-room apartment almost entirely from the gomi pile. His finds include:

A color television set, a stereo amplifier, two tape decks, two speakers, a portable cassette recorder, an air conditioner, a gas stove, a rice cooker, an electric griddle, pots, pans, clocks, electric blankets, a telephone, a sewing machine, two bicycles, three guitars and a kotatsu table. (The kotatsu is a device with an electric heater underneath and a quilt that hangs down the sides, to keep the feet warm and head cool.)

Not All Treasures

Craighurst is usually able to carry his treasures home on his bicycle, although he once needed a taxi to haul a bulky set of kitchen cabinets.

Of course, some items in the gomi pile are there for good reason. Craighurst once retrieved a washing machine only to find it did not work.

He also came upon a knitting machine that appeared to be well-oiled and had no obvious defects, but he could not figure out how it worked.

"I had a Japanese friend call the company that made it," he said. "It turned out they stopped making them 12 years ago, and they had thrown out all the spare parts and instruction manuals. So it went back to gomi."

Wish List

Craighurst hopes that gomi will continue to be a source of necessities for resourceful newcomers to Japan. But he says the changing Japanese economy, with falling company profits and growing unemployment, could change the picture.

Affluent Japanese may stop throwing away so much, or the needy ones may start scavenging more.

But before that happens, he hopes to find two remaining items on his gomi wish list--a home computer and a video camera.

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