Manhole Covers: Japan’s Unique Art Trend

Manhole Covers: Japan’s Unique Art Trend

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Pikachu manhole cover
They're expensive, colorful, and have their own devoted fan following. Learn how Japan's manhole covers have crossed over from utilitarian objects to objects of art.

Besides anime, manga, and delicious sushi, Japan is known for its ability to turn practically anything into art. Fun, innovative, and just plain creative, there is nothing that can escape the artistic eye in Japan. And that includes…manhole covers?

Recent promotional events and campaigns have put Japan’s manhole covers in the news. However, designing art on manhole covers is far from a new trend. In fact, it goes back several decades to when Japan first began modernizing its sewer systems.

Japan’s Sewers: Humble Beginnings

Why and how did artistic manhole covers become such a big thing? To grok that, it’s important to know a little about Japan’s history with sewage and plumbing.

In the past, cities had sewer-like systems in place to keep things flowing. However, they were quite different in the old days.

Historians peg the earliest known sewers within large communities during the Yayoi Period (over 2000 years ago, from 300BC-250AD). The earliest known drainage system was in the city capital about 1,000 years after during the Nara Period (710-794). But the most well-known such system is probably the stone culvert around Osaka Castle. It was built in 1583 during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, (1573-1603) and called the Taiko Sewerage. In fact, this system is still operable to this day.

The closest Japan came to modernizing the sewage system was in 1884. That’s when authorities built the Kanda sewer system in Tokyo. However, these systems were still extremely limited and only covered larger areas. Local officials constructed such city-developed systems according to the size and perceived need of the local land. This meant that many smaller, rural areas lacked proper sewage facilities. In fact, before the Meiji Restoration, less than 20% of the country’s population had a sewer system at all!


A Needed Upgrade

Yet Japan boasts the fourth highest population density in the world. This, despite its extremely small geographical size of only 380,000 square kilometers and only covering 0.25% of the earth’s surface. It also sees twice the world average of annual rainfall (which could lead to flooding of waste canals and ditches). So it soon became apparent that the country needed an upgrade in both the sewage and drainage department.

Japan did not adopt a modern, full-scale approach to sewerage until around 1945[1], just after the Second World War, when many new technologies were brought in from abroad. Updated city systems, such as modern sewers, was one of them.

Over the next 10 years, people could see with their own eyes how important proper sanitation was. Industrialization brought pollution into various bodies of waters. As a result, the quality of the surrounding rivers and oceans greatly diminished.

With this new issue at the forefront of the nation’s attention, the “sewage boom” really began. Activists spawned new sewage/waste management and awareness organizations and programs around the country. Japan also established a new Sewerage Law and Five-Year Program for Sewerage Construction.

Let There Be Art! The First Designer Manhole Covers

Manhole cover from Shiraishichou
A manhole cover from the town of Shiraishichou. (Picture: 奈良男 / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The introduction of new and improved sewers meant new costs to taxpayers. Rural areas in particular (which incidentally happened to need the upgrades the most) were particularly pinched.

How could the government convince the general population to pay higher taxes to aid in the process? By introducing cute, designer sewer covers of course! (Seriously, why didn’t we think of that?)

Architects fitted the basic sewers in the 1950s with basic manhole lids. These were cast metal, rectangular plates with simple patterned designs whose only purpose was to prevent slippage.

But in 1985, a high-ranking bureaucrat, Yasutake Kameda, had a clever idea. He saw a new way to generate interest amongst his fellow civilians in sewer development: designer manhole covers.

City-Specific Manholes

Japan is notable for the pride each region holds in its unique local landmarks, sceneries, specialties, and the like. What better way to showcase that pride than designing manhole covers that proudly display some of those prized features?

Kameda proposed allowing individual municipalities to create their own manhole covers. These would feature art work of a local landmark or specialty of their choosing. The goal was to raise awareness for these costly products. As a by-product, communities could design and display their pride for all to see.

Soon enough, people saw the potential in this idea beyond simply covering sewer development costs. People took started taking interest in these designs. They’d even travel from other locations to see the creations of neighboring towns and cities. These newly decorated sewers became points of interest for hobbyists and tourists alike.

As the movement continued, manhole covers soon evolved into more than just a necessary part of city development. They were now cultural symbols and displays of prefectural pride.

Manhole Art: A Competitive Sport?

Manhole covers from Atami
In 2017, the city of Atami unveiled two manhole covers to celebrate the 80th anniversary of its incorporation. One depicts a geisha and plum trees. The other depicts the novel Konjiki-yasha (金色夜叉) by author Osaki Koyo, which made Atami’s hot springs famous. (Picture: City of Atami Web site)

Manhole art competitions grew. Municipalities held them regularly as a means of choosing new designs. Soon enough, cities were even competing against each other for the title of best manhole artwork.

So what is required of this sewer art?

Generally, local manholes are now designed with the intention to showcase special elements that are unique to that location. For example, a local landmark, natural structure, plant, animal, food, or event. Designs are pitched to manufacturers[3], who will then grace the cover of the next local manhole with the winning art piece, for about six times the cost one would spend on a regular “boring” cover.

Some say this reflects a very Japanese way of thinking. Public image and appearance are important to most people. So many are willing to pay more for something that is original and beautifully crafted. In turn, each sale generates about $3000 per designer cover (as opposed to $500 for the regular one). This proves that the movement does indeed support the original cause of raising money for improved sewer development and maintenance. Given the attention they receive, it seems to be money well invested!

(Fun fact: statistics show that the most popular theme for artwork features elements of nature, such as trees and birds.)

The Fandom, Community, and Culture of Manhole Art

Sewage maintenance is very much still an important topic that must be considered in city development. But manhole cover art is also a cultural phenomenon in its own right. For some people, it’s life!

Manhole covers have even developed their own fan base of devoted cover-art enthusiasts, lovingly dubbed “Manholers”. These Manholers are self-proclaimed fans who participate in “manhole tourism”. In their spare time, they travel to other cities and prefectures to view and photograph their local manholes.

The fandom has grown so large over the years that there are even several organizations and committees dedicated to them, including the Japan Society of Manholes, as well as local and nationwide events, including the Annual Manhole Summit[4]. One of the biggest events is the three-day Japanese Manhole Cover Festival, held in Tokyo. The Festival celebrates the artwork of the covers through exhibits, activities, and even the sale of manhole-related goodies.

Other Notable Events

Some other notable manhole-related events and campaigns include the release of collectible “Manhole Trading Cards”. Think Pokemon cards, but with local manhole designs. Collaborations with popular brands, including Disney and anime titles are also common.

In the latest manhole news, certain municipalities partnered with the popular smartphone game, Pokemon Go. As a result, they’ve launched new Pokemon-themed designer covers. The goal is to promote, not just the usual sewerage awareness, but also tourism to lesser-visited towns and regions.

What about illuminating manhole covers? The city of Tokorozawa did just that in a special event designed to draw more attention to the city’s manhole cover art[5].

The only currently available Pokemon designs are all in towns outside of Tokyo, to encourage traveling out of the major urban area. As for the Manhole Trading Cards, there’s only one way to get them. (I mean, besides buying them online or getting them from a friend, of course. But hey – no cheating!) Enthusiasts on the hunt for cards must actually visit the local sewer and water management facility of the specific municipality. This encourages visitors to go to these facilities, which benefits local municipalities economically.

Manholes, Today and Beyond

Manhole cover in Okayama
A manhole cover from Okayama celebrating firefighters. (Picture: うっちー / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Japan continues making improvements to its sewer system. The changes aren’t just artistic but relate to safety and functionality as well.

In 2018, the Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) revised the standard manhole cover for the first time in over 20 years. Officials made the change after floods lifted and carried away several covers, leaving the openings exposed. The new design features a pressure-release function[6] that keeps the lid from coming off during heavy rains by releasing air and water pressure that could otherwise push it away in a storm, or in some extreme cases, send it flying meters away.

Modern sewerage systems now support over 95% of Japan. That’s due in no small part to the numerous successful campaigns calling for awareness and development. Most of them proudly display their own unique manhole covers. And that’s all thanks to one guy’s idea to make a typically boring, everyday structure a little extra.

What does this mean for the future of the country? Well, it means that proper sewage systems and facilities will soon reach every corner of the country. And Japan will never have to worry about inefficient sewer maintenance again. Beyond that, we also hope that it’ll remind us that there’s nothing that humans can’t transform into beauty.

Explore Japanese Art in an Online, 3D Virtual Space


[1] マンホール蓋の材質・構造の変化. JGMA

[2] 日本人はなぜマンホールの美しさにこだわるのか?LiveJapan

[3] 「足下のアート」デザイン・マンホールにあらためて注目. Link

[4] マンホールサミット. Link

[5] 株式会社KADOKAWAのイラストを掲載した、日本初のLED発光する「イルミネーションマンホール」が東所沢に登場!City of Tokorozawa

[6] マンホールのふた、23年ぶりに規格改正。集中豪雨・老朽化に対処. Newswitch

Other Sources

Making Great Breakthroughs – All about the Sewage Works in Japan (Japan Sewage Works Association: Tokyo, ca. 2002), pp. 1-56.

Wikipedia. “Manhole Covers.”マンホールの蓋

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy