Manhole Art – Distinctly Japanese

It was winter in Korea. It was cold and the snow was about to fall. My crew and I were in a hurry looking for a warm place to eat. Without talking, we all had one thing in mind: (beef) bone soup. As we were brisk walking the side streets of Incheon, I noticed a familiar sight that I did not expect at all. It was a 25 Philippine centavo coin on the street. But this wasn’t an ordinary coin. It was huge and heavy. I reckoned that it would take two people to lift that coin from the ground. It wasn’t exactly a coin, it was a manhole cover of a Philippine coin. It was a fascinating sight. For the first time, I was introduced to manhole art.

Tracey Lindeman, the curator of @worldofmanholes, calls these manhole covers “a window into a city’s soul.” The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/aug/10/manhole-covers-a-window-into-a-citys-soul-in-pictures) published an article about manholes. It briefly discussed the history of these sewer covers and how it evolved from a utilitarian use to public or street art.

Manhole art does not exist in the Philippines. Filipinos do not see any value in decorating manhole covers. Those dull and lifeless manhole covers are prevalent in Manila and other cities nationwide. Often, these covers have marks (words) or patterns which serve as traction for passing cars or pedestrians.

Going back to Incheon, manhole covers along that street depict different Asian coins. Aside from the Philippines, I saw ‘coins’ from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. What was so interesting was that the colors of these covers were true to form. The replica…well except for the size. There was a lot more to discover but the weather prevented me from venturing further.

Manhole art began in Japan in the late 80s. To raise awareness and rally support on the rising cost of improving the sewerage system of the country, a Japanese politician thought of decorating manhole covers. This crazy but genius idea worked and before long, more than 6,000 manhole covers all over Japan were designed featuring the country’s festivals, landmarks, flora and fauna, cities, colorful patterns, and everything that screams “Japan” — including Hello Kitty! Not only did it make Japan fun and cool country, but it also created a ‘manhole tourism’ which is now a big thing in the land of the rising sun. It added value to the trademark “distinctly Japanese” and its Asian neighbors caught up with this craze.

Akin to defining one’s own identity, manhole art introduces people to local culture, mores, and tradition. It showcases what the city is all about. It offers a glimpse of the soul of the city right under your feet.

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