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What is kintsugi?

It’s safe to say that kintsugi is one of the more obscure Japanese arts. I’ve had blank stares even when I mention it to Japanese friends or experts in Japanese culture.

So, what is kintsugi? It’s the art of repairing pottery, usually with lacquer and gold – hence the name, which literally means “joining with gold”.

Maki-e Baisen craftsman Muneaki Shimode giving a kintsugi demonstration
Maki-e Baisen craftsman Muneaki Shimode giving a kintsugi demonstration

A few months ago, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation held a fascinating event on kintsugi which I covered for the Japan Journal. I’ve posted the article below.

One of the unusual things about kintsugi is that it doesn’t really exist as an independent craft in the sense that there are specialist kintsugi artisans. It’s usually done by experts in related crafts. At the London event, a demonstration was given by Muneaki Shimode, a maki-e lacquerware artist from Kyoto.

Obviously, kintsugi wouldn’t be needed without something to repair. So the relationship between ceramics and kintsugi is close. Often, items that have been skillfully repaired with kintsugi become even more valuable than before they were damaged.

There’s a push to popularize this rather esoteric Japanese craft in Europe right now, with some success. Here’s a lovely blog about another kintsugi workshop in London. There’s even a company selling kintsugi kits online.

[The below article was first published in the February 2014 issue of The Japan Journal]

The Midas Touch

Among the rich array of traditional Japanese arts it’s probably fair to say that “kintsugi” is one of the more obscure, even in Japan. The name literally means “joining with gold”: a technique to piece together broken pottery or glass with lacquer, rice-glue and gold. Not so much a creative art, it is one of repair; but in which, paradoxically, the repaired item often becomes more valuable.

Kintsugi came to the UK on January 23rd in the form of an event held in London at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. In his introduction Jason James, Director-General of the foundation, joked that he’d been unsure how many people would come to see “broken pottery”. In fact, it was standing room only.

An unusual feature of kintsugi is that it only exists in conjunction with other art forms. For one, someone has to make the object that is repaired. For another, no artisans only specialize in kintsugi. Muneaki Shimode, who gave a demonstration at the event, is a maki-e lacquer ware craftsman from Kyoto. His main occupation, he told the audience, is brushing calligraphy on Buddhist altars.

Shimode explained how kintsugi involves the painstaking application of urushi lacquer, glue and gold, with the exact technique being used depending on the item’s nature and use. One lady in the London audience asked if a kintsugi-repaired cup would be strong enough to hold tea.

Shimode’s answer was yes. And although rice-glue is traditionally used, he added, stronger materials such as cement and superglue can be usued for items that need to be particularly durable, such as dishes for use in restaurants.

A saucer repaired with kintsugi
A saucer repaired with kintsugi

While it’s not impossible for complete beginners to attempt kintsugi, they should be carefully with the lacquer itself, said Timothy Toomey, UK coordinator for the Kintsugi Project and a distinguished craftsman himself. He pointed out that the sap of the urushi tree can give a nasty burn (“similar to poison ivy, but worse”).

According to another speaker, Takahiko Sato of Satokiyomatsu-Shoten, there has been an upsurge in interest in kintsugi over the last 10 years or so. His company produces and sells urushi lacquer, and as part of efforts to educate clients and the public about urushi, they have started including instruction on kintsugi.

His company has recently developed home kintsugi kits (60,000 yen for the full kit, and 30,000 yen for a simpler version) with instructions available in both English and French. The company has even uploaded explanatory videos to YouTube. The day after the London event Sato was due to travel to Paris for more work to promote lacquer and kintsugi.

Sato said that the recent interest in kintsugi in Japan may well be part of changing attitudes to mass-production and mass-consumption, particularly among the young. It’s an echo of a time when the principle of conserving and reusing precious resources was woven into Japanese culture. “Even Kimono were taken apart when they were old and turned into towels, then cleaning clothes, then nappies,” said Sato.

The ultimate aim of the kintsugi project in the UK, said Toomey, “is to stimulate an interest in kintsugi in the West, leading to a commercial interest which will help revive a craft in Japan that time and a changing way of life have caused to be in danger of disappearing.”

Speakers at the event offered also some theories on the cultural and spiritual significance of kintsugi. Toomey noted how the 16th century tea-master Sen no Rikyu treasured a particular tea-bowl, the Unzan Katatsuki, that had been exquisitely repaired with kintsugi.

Some might sense the influence of Zen in kintsugi. The Buddhist sect puts a special emphasis on the moment. A shattered pot pieced together by kintsugi preserves and displays the exact instant of its destruction.

Timon Screech, Professor of Art at the School of African and Oriental studies in London, posited kintsugi as reconciliation with the imperfection and impermance of things. As much as we might wish it, nothing is pure or lasts forever, a fact recognized by great artists and thinkers throughout history. “As far as I know, kintsugi is the only art that has taken this as its very purpose,” said Screech.

“Death is the only thing that is common to us all,” said Screech. “We know that things break and fall apart.” He described kintsugi as an answer to the question: “How do you intervene in the inevitable destruction of things over time?”

The Western answer to that question has varied over the ages. For a long time the reaction to ruins was to rebuild and restore. Now it is more likely to be to an attempt to freeze the process of decay. There is beauty in patina, but kintsugi is something qualitatively different, said one of the other speakers. Teruo Kurosaki. It is, he said,d “like a patina, but more than a patina.”

Screech pointed out that the art of broken pieces emerged at a time when Japan itself was fragmented – the Warring States period (15th to 17th century). In fact, not only has Japanese archipelago spent much of its history as a patchwork of isolated quarrelling fiefdoms, but its history itself is largely one of destruction and repair.

A poignant example of that still fresh in the memory is the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan in March 2011.

“Perhaps there is a piece of kintsugi which was broken by the tsunami and is being repaired now,” asked Screech?