Art The beauty of manhole covers in Japan

The beauty of manhole covers in Japan

Tommaso Berra
tombini |

After the tragic outcome of World War II, Japan had to rebuild not only its identity as a people but also its entire infrastructure. Since the post-war period, a process of road renovation has begun in many cities, but also of systems closely linked to the new urban developments. According to a report in the Japanese magazine Sabukaru, in the mid-1980s a state official whose name is not known came up with the idea of making citizens aware of the cost of redeveloping cities, trying to justify the constant construction sites on the streets. To do this, he started decorating manhole covers, a technique known as drainspotting, which is used to create coloured surfaces reminiscent of the matrices used for engraving, decorating streets all over the island.

Ninety-five per cent of Japan’s 1780 municipalities and islands now have customised manhole covers, totalling around 12,000 different designs, featuring traditional folk characters, views of Mount Fuji, mentions of sports teams and a host of manga and anime characters.
The cost of making these manhole covers is higher than the traditional solution, but the importance of drainspotting in the city should not be underestimated. A real community movement has developed around manhole covers, pointing out lesser-known examples, but also state competitions in which prefectures invite citizens to design some from scratch.

Drainspotting builds on a long-standing Japanese tradition of playing with government products to educate citizens about political issues or redevelopment initiatives such as sewerage. Many drainspotters have collected photographs of manhole covers in almanacs and picture books, others use them to share their art, expressions collected in what is known as an ‘art gallery in the streets‘.
Favourite subjects include those from the manga world (Pokémon above all, especially in the metropolises), but throughout the country manhole covers generally refer to the more deeply rooted tradition of woodcuts of the floating world, with cherry trees, landscape views and iconography linked to popular traditions in each prefecture. On your next trip to Tokyo, try rolling out a sheet of paper on the ground and rubbing it in the manner of frottage, and you may find yourself holding beautiful works of art in your hands.

Written by Tommaso Berra
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