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Design Illustration

The Beauty of Japan's Artistic Manhole Covers

March 21, 2014

Johnny Waldman


All photos courtesy S. Morita

Japan is a country full of amazing art. Some of it is housed within museums and galleries while others are right underneath our feet. I’m talking, of course, about Japan’s peculiar obsession with manhole covers. Just about anywhere in the country you can find stylized manhole covers, each more beautiful and intricate than the next. For the past several years photographer S. Morita has traveled around Japan photographing artistic manhole covers.

As to why this phenomenon developed, signs point to a high-ranking bureaucrat in the construction ministry who, in 1985, came up with the idea of allowing municipalities to design their own manhole covers. His objective was to raise awareness for costly sewage projects and make them more palatable for taxpayers.

Thanks to a few design contests and subsequent publications, the manhole craze took off and municipalities were soon competing with each other to see who could come up with the best designs. According to the Japan Society of Manhole Covers (yes, that’s a thing) today there are almost 6000 artistic manhole covers throughout Japan. And according to their latest findings, the largest single category are trees, followed by landscapes, floral designs and birds – all symbols that could, and surely did, boost local appeal.

You can see hundreds more of Morita’s photos right here. (via A Green Thought in a Green Shade)

Update: Remo Camerota has an entire book on the design of Japanese manhole covers, aptly titled Drainspotting.

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