This article originally featured in the October 2020 issue of Connect.
by Sabrina Hassanali (Tokyo)
A Bureaucrat’s Surprise Gift
Bureaucrats are not known for creating trends. In Japan, however, a clever public funding move opened the door to some uniquely Japanese manhole art. Here in Japan, a bureaucrat suggested creating designs for manhole covers in an effort to generate public funding for sewer upgrades. The construction industry minister in question, Yasutake Kameda, should be remembered as a creative PR strategist. Today, Japanese manhole covers are a source of artistic inspiration and community.
After the Second World War, Japan underwent an upgrade to its sewer systems. In order to get up to speed, the government wanted towns to pay for the modernization of sewers. It was a costly endeavor, and officials were tasked with coming up with a plan to raise money for the upgrades. Municipalities were happy to pay for decorated manhole covers. Thanks to Mr. Kameda’s suggestion for decorative sewer covers, a unique public art aesthetic was born.
Naha in Okinawa is believed to have the first decorative manhole cover design, created in 1977. By the 1980s, manhole covers were all the rage. Now, there are approximately 12,000 manhole designs across Japan, with nearly 95% of municipalities having their own special manhole cover designs. A dedicated factory manufactures these gorgeous covers. Take a look at the Japanese Manhole video from “WAORYU! ONLY in JAPAN” for a detailed description of the unique manufacturing process of these 50-kg chunks of pure metal. Manhole covers, while elegant, are heavy! It is amazing to watch these barren slabs come to life when they are hand-filled with vibrant colors by dedicated artists. Creative attention to detail really has no limit in Japan.
It was my passion for flowers that initially led me to notice Tokyo’s ubiquitous sakura manhole covers. In April 2020, I was a bit bummed that the COVID pandemic essentially stole the hanami season. This year, the public parks in Tokyo prohibited the annual gatherings of large groups under the cherry blossom trees. As I walked around Tokyo on my own instead, I found myself looking down at the streets. I started to notice that this metal sakura flower kept showing up. Sometimes it was on asphalt, other times on concrete. It is from there that I became curious about the other sewer covers. From there, thanks to the internet, I fell down a rabbit hole of manhole mania.
The designs featured on Japanese manhole covers vary greatly based on their location. Many motifs are based on famous cultural sights or a prefecture’s flora and fauna. Around Mt. Fuji, for example, many cities include vistas of the renowned mountain in the background. Some views are of Mt. Fuji seen across a bay or behind a train line. Japan’s favorite flower, the cherry blossom, is also found on an enormous number of manhole covers. Typical Japanese landscapes, festival scenes, and boats are other common motifs. Contemporary manhole cover designs include anime characters, Hello Kitty, and other popular mascots.
In recent years, there is a growing trend bringing the community together around a passion for manhole covers. In the Tokyo area, an annual event unites enthusiasts to walk through streets looking for manhole covers. One enthusiast, Mr. Hidekazu Yamada, created a spectacular deck of manhole cover cards in 2016. Each card in the deck features a specific manhole cover with GPS coordinates. On the back of each card, the history and significance of the cover design are explained. Even fancy Japanese department stores have caught the manhole cover bug. In 2019, Shinjuku’s Takashimaya held an exhibition highlighting some fun designs.
Of course, leave it to Japan to create an array of manhole cover products. If you missed your chance to pick up manhole cover goods in person, Tokyo Ground has you covered! Infrastructure geekdom is a thing in Japan, and the minutiae of the sewer hole covers make them an aesthetic way to celebrate Japan in its typical weird and wonderful way. Our product designs are fun celebrations of this unique art. Whether you are lounging at home with your family or video-conferencing your co-workers, Tokyo Ground designs will leave an impression, and you will enjoy explaining your choice of design to those less well-informed!
Until you get a chance to take a stroll down some of Japan’s many back alleys, pick which manhole cover style jives with you on Tokyo Ground. For CONNECT readers, use the discount code “CONNECT” to get 20% off your entire order! Valid through November 14, 2020. Tokyo Ground with Discount.
Photos provided by Tokyo Ground
Sabrina Hassanali is a former JET who lives in Tokyo. She enjoys a healthy work-life balance, misses Tex-Mex food, and appreciates adventures by bike. Sabrina was inspired by Japanese manhole covers and now designs T-shirts at www.tokyoground.com.