Designs featuring nature and Japanese landmarks can be seen on the country’s manhole covers.
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After a community selects a design, the covers are mass-produced in a factory.
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Only in Japan.
Craftspeople add color to the striking designs.
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Only in Japan.
Art Beneath Your Feet
Creative manhole covers decorate Japan’s streets

Paul Cates | for Scholastic Art

We step on manhole covers in the street every day without even noticing. But in Japan, these utilitarian, or practical, objects are works of art. Each cover bears a colorful image designed to please the eye as well as represent the town where it’s installed. This unique approach to a boring necessity has helped make art an everyday experience in Japan.

A Political Ploy

The trend of beautifying manholes began in the 1980s, when officials in Japan needed to standardize the sewer system throughout the country. This public works project met with resistance because of its staggering cost. Then a bureaucrat suggested that each of Japan’s more than 1,700 municipalities could design its own covers. The mundane sewer project became a public art project—an idea that taxpayers found much more appealing!

Many cities held design contests to find images that best represented their communities. Experts cast the winning works in iron, transforming outlines in the artworks to raised lines on the manholes’ surface. Then tradespeople filled the negative space with paint, adding vibrant colors to the objects.

New Format, Old Style

Many of the covers echo themes found in Japanese art. People fishing, traditional architecture, and majestic trees all appear throughout Japan’s art history and are common subjects among the manhole covers. The same is true of the flowers, fish, warriors, and birds that adorn the metal plates set in the sidewalks of many Japanese cities.

Currently, more than 95 percent of the country’s municipalities have unique covers. No matter where in Japan you go, there is bound to be art beneath your feet!