The Art Beneath Our Feet

ByJustin Hanus
Sep 27, 2016

The Art Beneath Our Feet


Travel to France and you might well come home with an extensive photographic collection of stained glass cathedral art. Travel to Japan and you might well return with an extensive photographic collection of manhole cover art. What’s that you say?

A municipal sewage system might not seem like the most appealing canvas for artists but the enthusiasm for “drainspotting” is so rampant in Japan that there is even a Japanese Society of Manhole Covers. The website (Japanese only) lists descriptions of thousands of manhole covers across the nation.

Let’s start at the beginning

Archeologists tell us that Japan began installing sewer systems about 2,200 years ago. Early engineers became so adept at the business that the Taiko Sewerage, a stone culvert at Osaka Castle built in 1583, is still operating today. Still, in the mountainous terrain it was slow going and expensive to build sewage systems and by the 1950s barely 60 percent of the population was tied in to a municipal sewer system.

It was a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Construction in the 1980s named Yasutake Kameda who had the idea to draw MORE attention to the unpleasant substructure beneath our feet by encouraging Japanese towns to design regionally significant manhole covers as a point of civic pride. The country bought in – literally, since the art-infused manhole covers cost 5 percent more than traditional unadorned covers – and about 95 percent of Japan’s 1,780 municipalities now boast their own signature manhole lids. Kyoto, for instance, adopted the turtle as a symbol of wisdom and longevity.

A real work of art

Creating art from manholes requires quite a bit of planning. For one thing, the heavy iron Japanese manhole cover is a work of art in itself. It must be designed for maximum traction so as not to send pedestrians and bicyclists flying off its slick surface when wet. To eliminate noise pollution from ill-fitting covers Japanese manhole lids feature a snug tapered fit. These engineering marvels beneath our feet also have safety features to prevent being blown off by increased pressure during heavy storms.

Most countries adopt manhole covers with simple geometric designs. That is just the jumping off point for Japanese covers. The artwork must take into account that it will be viewed from every direction and also must be a timeless design since the iron lids last for decades and are not swapped out by the whim of a curator.

Botanical designs seem to be the most popular – trees and flowers are said to make up half of the designs you will encounter on Japanese streets. Animals are popular and so are nature scenes. Local landmarks, such as the Osaka Castle, are also depicted on the manholes.

Not every manhole in Japan is a work of art – far from it. There are some 120 million manholes covering storm drains, telephone lines, supply pipes and the like across the country and only an estimated 6,000 that have been turned into eye-catching art. But that is more than enough brilliantly colored covers to spawn websites, fan clubs and even a few books on Japanese “drainspotting.”

Imaeg by ja:User:Sanjo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Justin Hanus editor