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Japan’s elaborate, colorful manhole covers (atlasobscura.com)
329 points by bookofjoe 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments



I remember this was one thing that really made an impact on me about Japan when I went there as an exchange student.

"Even their manholes are thoroughly done and look amazing! What is even going on!?"

They can still make me smile every now and again when I visit, and I really admire the "Japanese sense of" (I don't know if it's particular to Japan) putting lots of effort into something seemingly mundane; putting effort into something which yields no practical return on investment. I wish there was more of this artisanship in the everyday city-life around us, to keep remind us how lovely life can really be. It's easy to forget sometimes.


I think you'll enjoy Junichiro Tanizaki's essay: "In Praise of Shadows"[1] on Japanese aesthetics - from toilet design to art of Kintsukuroi. If you haven't read it, it was written more than 50 years ago[2] and still stands true about the Japanese aesthetic culture - it is amazing.

[1][PDF] http://wwwedu.artcenter.edu/mertzel/spatial_scenography_1/Cl...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Praise_of_Shadows


I read this book recently and... yeah. It’s filled with stuff like him bemoaning how “western” chemistry and the periodic table of elements are, and speculating about how “Japanese physics” would be.

Oh and that’s not getting into the whole BS about purity and skin color he gets into.

It’s nihonjinron at its finest.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihonjinron


>I wish there was more of this artisanship in the everyday city-life around us, to keep remind us how lovely life can really be. It's easy to forget sometimes.

Modern cities and buildings are all about quick bucks and ROI.

Even our costly monumental works (museums and such) are built by inflated-ego architects for the bucks, and with no sense of public beauty -- just their modernist or post-modernist personal ideology.

That's one thing that gets me about people suggesting to others to "just move" to find a job, and that they don't have to have any ties to any place (e.g. their home state).

In the end, this means treating every place as a temporary residency, sort of like a hotel, and having no civic concern and pride in it. In other words, it ends with ugly cities and dystopias.

The inverse would be the pride with which people like old New Yorkers loved their city (and of course old Europeans cities like Vienna, Paris, and so on).


Yes, this is very true and I think hints at the reason why those manhole covers can exist in Japan, whereas they'd be unthinkable in North America. The notion would be laughed out of any city budget here.


>The notion would be laughed out of any city budget here.

An ironic thing is that, not caring about immediate ROI and budget justifications in the past (and investing in public parks, nice buildings, etc), is what makes some cities tons of money (from millions of tourists every year).

Will ever a new city (born under the "quick ROI is everything/who cares for beauty" mindset) be as nice as to attract visitors in the future? I seriously doubt so.

(Shanghai, which is largely built lately, was also an treasure of a city for many centuries, and spends a lot in the impressiveness -if not construction quality- of its modern buildings and skyline).


With cities I don't think it's 'ROI' so much utility and pressing budgetary needs.

There is always a war over budget. There are 10 projects that 'they'd like to do but can't'.

Every city wants more buses, has potholes, has sewage problems, needs infrastructure.

'Pretty manholes' might not make it to the top unless someone really, really cares. Or it's part of a secondary budget.


In NSW, Australia, there's many millions for stadium repair. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/mar/29/glady...

For child abuse for poor people? Budget cuts. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-19/nsw-legal-aid-refuses...


Well see that's the thing. Any city councillor who says 'pretty manholes' will be superseded by someone who says 'children and the poor'.


While they’re not quite in the same league, Seattle has some pretty incredible manhole covers too, there are 115 different designs, it would take quite a while to hunt them all down

https://seattle.curbed.com/2014/7/11/10076250/seattle-manhol...


Doesn't necessarily take much of a budget to do these sorts if things. I've seen this for example in towns where the traffic light control boxes are colorfully painted by local artists.


> I've seen this for example in towns where the traffic light control boxes are colorfully painted by local artists.

Lol Graffiti Artists.


Not at all. Here in Brisbane (the AU one) the city council got local artists to do them as works showcasing our city's lifestyle. There's hundreds of different works of art around the place, and they run the gamut from a graffiti-style work to more traditional pieces. It really does help jazz up an otherwise pretty boring piece of infrastructure.


> The notion would be laughed out of any city budget here.

I could see it happening. Portland, Oregon has an art tax that goes towards things like large scale murals in public spaces. An extra 5-10% on the cost of a man hole cover would fit within this, easily.


5-10% isnt realistic. These are carved from aluminum and molds are custom made, and the colored ones are than partially filled with colored resin.

This adds substantial material costs, but more importantly adds a lot of skilled labor to a process which is usually just simple casting.


Never has "because I can" applied more to a single nation. And it's all the more refreshing where things in the West only happen if there's a hustle behind it.


I disagree. The US is "because I can". Japan is "because I should".


> ... putting effort into something which yields no practical return on investment

That can be applied to the Sydney Opera House, though on a slightly different scale.

I've started making the trip by ferry to Circular Quay to have a coffee at a cafe by the water. The Opera House an amazing building and I marvel at the political will required to get it started (and finished). It took 14 years to complete and went 14 times over budget. It had a lottery created to pay for it!

The nearby Harbour Bridge is another construction that went further than was necessary at the time. Both are spectacular.


This has real upsides, but it’s a large part of why poverty is such an issue in Japan. It’s GDP was higher in 1995 for many reasons, but forgoing efficiency has real costs.


Fun fact: they sometimes make them with celebrities, which happen to be cause public outrage later in their career, causing issues with what to do with the manholes.

Recently Pierre Taki was arrested for Cocaine, and the manhole with him on it is in an interesting debate, the town is thinking about covering it: https://news.nicovideo.jp/watch/nw4980896


> with celebrities, which happen to be cause public outrage later in their career,

That's the funny thing about Japan. Regarding outrage and celebrities. I have seen that over and over in the past 10 years, it goes like that (not talking about manholes here):

- Celebrity X is super popular and well loved

- Celebrity X gets into trouble for something that is frowned upon in society.

- Mass media rush to eat Celebrity X alive and paint them as a horrible person.

- Celebrity X will do public apologies on TV.

- Suddenly all media ties/advertising ties with Celebrity X are severed. In fact, you won't see or hear about Celebrity X for quite a while (usually a couple of years).

- Then, without any prior notice, suddenly you will see Celebrity X coming back on a talking show at some point, "just to test the waters".

- Celebrity X becomes accepted again, just because time has passed.

It's... largely nonsensical.

Note: exception for drugs. People who have done drugs are usually burned forever. For example, the famous band "Dreams Come True" used to have 3 members, and one of them was arrested for drugs at some point, and since then the band continued with 2 members only, and all material they show about "the past of Dreams Come True" is carefully edited to remove any memory of that person. It's like he had never existed. Astonishing.


Genuine question, can you elaborate on why you feel that such cycles are nonsensical? Cuz for me I just think that the celeb "paid their dues" by not receiving compensation/exposure for some time (like a prison sentence in the public eye), and if the misendeavor is minor enough they can be reaccepted.


Can't speak for people who actually care about celebrities, but the predictability and insincerity of this manufactured cycle would definitely bug me personally.


It is nonsensical for several reasons. First the outrage is largely manufactured by the media. Then, the public apologies are a tradition rather than genuine apologies. Just disappearing for a couple of years without fixing your actual behavior is absolutely fake, since it makes your apology a big farce.

This is all for show.


Not GP, but I think they're saying that the whole process unfolds nonsensically, not that people making comebacks specifically is odd. That is, one celebrity may quickly bounce back from the same kind of scandal that burns someone else forever.

I'm no expert but I gather it has a lot to do with how powerful the talent agency involved is, and the relationships between the agencies and the news outlets.


Doesnt really sound any different to media treatment of celebrities outside of Japan...


Except music distributors are removing the musicians’ past tracks out of their catalog. It’s always been this way, but it gets weirder as time goes.

In comparison Usual Suspects is still on sale on iTunes.


That's disappointing


Is Japan a benevolent dictatorship (psuedo-imperial corporate fascism and guaranteed political monopolies) in exchange for social cohesion. Is there an equivalent concept to a zaibatsu in a republic or democracy? Monopolies here are hidden behind the trident of usury, corporation and government spending; beyond terms like corporate capture, manufacturing consent, military/health/tech/energy industrial complex, conspiracy... With the American Republic at least it seems stability was replaced by extremes, and an active tension is rather encouraged in the population in order for dialectic opposition thesis+antithesis->synthesis. This rule by fear tends to sacrifice a lot of civility and social harmony, as an outsider it appears tiring, but Americans must prefer it or it would have never sold in the post ww2 era as the new normal.


Yeah, it's kind of funny. The extreme social cohesion itself forms a sort of dictatorship. Although it's a distributed dictatorship. Every one of your peers is a dictator.


> Is there an equivalent concept to a zaibatsu in a republic or democracy?

No, because zaibatsu are, as you hint, derived by a powerful government that meddles into economic affairs to allow such things to occur.


I visited numazu recently, and took this manhole's pic: https://imgur.com/a/sihTun3


Aaah, atlasobscura, where every time I visit I get: "We value your privacy[1]" with one button saying "accept!".

[1] "we clearly don't"


I must have clicked "accept" 'cause I never see that button.


I wouldn't be surprised if this was geofenced (I'm browsing from the EU).


Or running an ad/content blocker, because I’ve definitely never seen it.


And if you just hide the popup you have an unscrollable page.


use this bookmarklet:

    javascript:(function(){(function () {var i, elements = document.querySelectorAll('body *');for (i = 0; i < elements.length; i++) {if (getComputedStyle(elements[i]).position === 'fixed') {elements[i].parentNode.removeChild(elements[i]);}}})();document.querySelector('body').style.setProperty('overflow','auto','important'); document.querySelector('html').style.setProperty('overflow','auto','important');})()


Oh Japan!

When I was first visiting Japan, I asked an architect friend of mine who had lived in Japan: what should I see?

His response: see how much attention to detail has been paid to even some of the most mundane things.

At first I was, WTF. I was looking for recommendations about places to see. But when I got there, his advice made total sense. I was not disappointed.


> His response: see how much attention to detail has been paid to even some of the most mundane things.

Counter example, about every residential building is so damn ugly, so I am not sure where the attention to details has gone there. I could go on on how poorly designed work offices are, how poorly designed the furniture is in general (enabling IKEA to actually have a market here), and that's enough to refute that kind of blanket statement.


I think it really depends on what you are looking for. Older Japanese homes are, though often "run down", very nice in my opinion. More modern residences have turned towards a manufactured feeling unfortunately but when you take into consideration the constraints of possible earthquake and expense of land it is rather impressive how residences are arranged. The technical challenges, which go unseen, are not simple I would imagine. The boxlike look is, I think, probably driven by land value.

Furniture in Japan is often practical and low to the ground which might not appeal to some people. People used to spend their time exclusively sitting on the floor of their homes. I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of Japanese still do.



I absolutely love this, not so much for the covers which are great, but the sense of civic participation that would enable such a thing to happen.

Someone on city council has to approve budgets for this ...


1. How durable is the paint? When it wears away do they repaint?

2. I could see US cities doing this, except they would probably use the space for advertising. This would be annoying.



From article:

In most cases, the design is just imprinted in the cover, but in some cases the covers get another touch—colored resins flooded into voids like enamel on jewelry

It's more like slabs of plastic (you can see the thickness in the first picture), which won't easily wear away, but I suspect if/when it does, they get redone.


> "A manhole cover in Tokyo depicting “fireboys.”

I can swear I saw this one somewhere the other day. Unless there's another one just like it. I didn't think much of it at the time, but I remember clearly giving it a glance when I was walking somewhere. I want to say the firemen were monkeys though.. maybe a different one, same depiction.


Why do some of the manhole covers have English, not Japanese, text on them?


So in the same way that some Americans with no Asian ancestry in the slightest, or any spiritual inclinations towards the Tao or Buddhism or anything like that might get a tattoo or article of clothing with certain symbols, i.e. yin-yang, or some bit of Arabic or Chinese or Japanese writing as decoration, the Japanese take a similar attitude to English or Spanish or Christian (Catholic in particular) writing and symbols.

They use English as window dressing because it’s cool. Most Japanese kids will take English in school, but few will ever attain any real fluency in the language. So if you sprinkle in some gratuitous English into your signage, clothing and television scripts or character designs, then you are cool, and you can still effectively communicate to some degree because while almost no one is fluent, they can still understand at least small amounts of English at a time. I’m not sure that still holds up with younger generations, but at least at one point it was the case.


Superdry is perhaps the most obvious example (in the opposite direction). In the same way that Japanese products often include gratuitous English, they include gratuitous Japanese on their clothes:

> The company's products include meaningless excerpts of Japanese text generated by machine translation.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superdry


I really love this brand because it's just a troll brand but it became popular. Because 'oh look it's got funky asian writing on it' cool factor. It's just perfect. Every time I walk passed someone wearing that shit and read what the hell it says I crack up laughing.


Maybe to fit in better with the surrounding neighborhood? There's a lot of English on signs in Tokyo; in part because foreign cultures are cool, and in part because it's friendlier to tourists. (They also have the Olympics coming up in 2020.)


Japan always had English signs since I remember visiting it. Even small towns have English street names and billboards. All subway and JR stations, busses and taxis have English information. Also, all post offices have at least one person that can speak English. It’s surprising given the fact that China (more so than Korea) have serious lack of English signs. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just unfriendly for tourists and foreign visitors.


That is not true. Maybe except for the stations' names. Ten years ago you couldn hardly find any English on the streets. Tokyo 2020 changed a lot.


Japanese people like English a lot. They all learn it in school. Most aren't that great, but they are good enough that English words and phrases are appealing, even if many of those phrases end up nonsensical.

If you visit Japan for any length of time, you will notice English phrases used all over the place, from restaurants, to street signs, to advertising and television, to the clothing people wear. I lived there for a few years right around the time Obama won the election in '08, and I encountered kids probably 6 years old who would shout "Yes we can!" when they saw me pass by. They tend to be more culturally aware and interested in Western culture (particularly American culture) than we do of them (which is saying something, given that Japanese culture is fairly popular in the West).



If they are too beautiful people might walk away with them.


While it occasionally happens, in Japan they still have a sense of civic responsibility. They wouldn't do that.

There's also the fact that you could (statistically) also forget your Macbook Pro in a crowded public park in Tokyo and come back 2 hours later to find it there untouched (and unstolen).


> in Japan they still have a sense of civic responsibility

Tell me if I'm wrong. But, I see your "still" as if things were better in the past.

In litte towns, as everybody knows everybody, the rules are different. As more and more people moved to cities there was no family presure to behave. So, things were worst because family pressure desapeared and there was no substitution to get good behaviour. Big cities were a source of trouble.

But, I have seen an improvement everywhere I go. I saw this kind of transformation in Spain. As the country become less corrupt after the dictatorship, economics improved and a safety net was expanded Spaniards become more civic in the big cities.

Also, Japan takes care of its citizens. Japanese expect the goberment and the company they work for to take care of them. Societies that promote a every-man-for-himself approach have a harder time to ensure public civic behaviour.


The thing is, Tokyo cities are some of the safest in the world. There are small towns, villages, (and certainly suburbs) much worse crime-wise in most western countries. So it's not just a village vs city thing.


> There are small towns, villages, (and certainly suburbs) much worse crime-wise in most western countries. So it's not just a village vs city thing.

My comment was about comparing past and present, and how some times people overstimates how good the past was. I agree with you that it is not only about big cities vs little towns.


I was in Tokyo to the emperors new years speach and we got two Japanese plastic flags to wave around that we could keep after the event.

We walked a bit in the city and my spouse wanted to take pictures of me in a park. She put the flags on the ground for a minute (with me thinking: you can't do that!) and went tops 30m away from them to get a better angle. When we were done, they were gone. I'm actually certain they were not stolen, but some Japanese just cleaned up.

In general, the collective effort of the Japanese to keep their cities clean with basically no public bins around is amazing.


Wow. Was this ever (anecdotally) tested?


Order of magnitude difference in cost, but one time I left my e-reader on a bench in Yoyogi Park when I got distracted by the baked sweet potato cart and wandered off without it.

I came back an hour later to find an old lady, having occupied my former spot, waiting a while to see if the owner returned before taking it to the nearby police box. I was all over myself apologizing and thanking her in my crappy Japanese, but she didn't get what I perceived as abnormal about the situation. She didn't even take me up on my offer of a baked sweet potato.

Another time, I accidentally sprayed 500 yen (so, roughly $5) coins all over the floor at Comiket when trying to extract change from pocket. Being Comiket, a coin rolling a few meters may as well have been a mile off due to the sheer crush of bodies. Since I was at the head of the line and didn't want to inconvenience everyone behind me, I mentally wrote them off as a loss and continued buying my hen^Wartbooks, only to have all the coins immediately returned by a guy who saw what had happened and went scrambling around for them. He, too, refused all thanks and melted back into the crowd.

So, although I can't attest to the laptop thing, it definitely wouldn't surprise me. The similar anecdotes in this thread seem to agree.


Sorta. It's not 100% safe, but it's good enough. In crime stats, it's among the lowest in the world, and 4 to 15 times less than the US (depending on crime).

https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Japan/Unit...

https://medium.com/@alascii/this-guy-left-a-laptop-in-a-toky...

https://www.attendly.com/the-astonishing-lost-and-found-cult...

https://japantoday.com/category/features/kuchikomi/japan-a-g...

https://livejapan.com/en/in-tokyo/in-pref-tokyo/in-tokyo_tra...

(Of course, whatever Japanese culture might be, Japan now also has millions of tourists each year, with whom, YMMV).


My experience with lost items in Japan so far.

Been bicycling daily here for 10 years, never lock my bike. It's been stolen once, but with a bike costing <$100 I figure I'd rather save the 10 seconds per day vs. not losing one bike per ten years.

Forgot an iPhone once on a bench outside. Person who found it immediately called my contacts to find out how to return it.

Dropped my wallet once in Tokyo. It was returned to the nearest police box in less than an hour.


If you ever have the chance, visit a Japanese police departments lost and found sometime.

My friend lost her passport in Kyoto, it turned up at the lost and found. Peering in through the window they had a little bit of everything, and roughly a million umbrellas.


Absolutely. In Japan most bicycles are left unlocked. You can leave your cellphone to hold your seat in a coffee shop. Things you lose get returned. My father lost his passport there and when he called, the embassy already had it.


No they’re not. Most bicycles are locked by the device that is builtin. Also bike registration exists for a reason: bike stealing is one of the most common crimes.


I never lock my bike. I know bike theft happens a few times per month because it is the only crime ever mentioned in our kairanban (a kind of neighborhood newsletter). My impression is that only high-end road/mountain bikes or very nice mamachari would be targeted. The easy solution is to ride a $200 Chinese bike and experience the tremendous freedom of taking on the extremely low risk. My local grocery store/mall has literally a thousand bikes parked at any time, and I would say about half don’t even bother with the built-in rear wheel lock.


I lived there so I’ve seen it. Bikes are usually locked in the neighborhoods with a lot of foreigners (Roppongi, etc), but in most of Japan they aren’t. I’ve seen hundreds of bikes parked outside work without a single lock.


I live in a more rural part of Japan where you can count the foreigners on your two hands and I find it hard to believe you can even see how many bikes have their ubiquitous ring locks[0] locked among hundreds of bikes

[0] https://i.stack.imgur.com/kPKjx.jpg


Yeah. I have had an iPhone returned after leaving it by accident on a train. A luggage with a MacBook air inside returned as well. Funniest part was reaction of my coworker who helped me figure out where I should call to get the luggage. It did not occur to him that stuff inside might get stolen(Japanese guy)

In Canada I just assume anything not bolted down will get stolen. I left company laptop on a taxi before and it got stolen, even so I called the taxi company 2 mins after.. lol one of the many reason I have no problem with Uber screwing cabbies.


Never heard about the laptop. But general rule is - not yours don't touch. Except for a bike and umbrellas. I know people who lost wallet, phone, I lost phone twice and few smaller things, ex. new pair of shoes in the train... Always returned or ready for me to pickup. Leaving your personal belongings on the table in crowded café is a norm. After some time you don't even get a thrill when loosing something.. "Come on, it's Japan, obviously you'll be able to find it." Unfortunately, coming back to the reality of the West is harsh. Not only WRT safety...


I once left my phone on a train in Kyoto. Managed to get it back in about 40 minutes with the help of station staff (it was a minor station so it was just one guy who didn't speak any English).


If it's not there anymore, it's in lost+found.


That's my thought as well. There's a bunch of street signs that constantly get stolen when I'm at, and those are nowhere near as beautiful or novel as these manhole covers.


The man with those half inch thick gloves, you bet that paint isn’t coming off for years if it touched you.




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