Kintsugi: The Japanese art of repairing with gold

Tea Bowl, White Satsuma ware
Source: Smithsonian Institute

Kintsugi (also known as Kinsukurui) is a centuries old, Japanese method of repairing broken pottery in an artistic, creative and beautiful way. Rather than gluing the pieces of the broken object together with the goal of restoring it to its original condition, Kintsugi aims to highlight the cracks and scars of the object through the application of tree sap lacquer and powdered gold. Although gold — or kin — is most often used, some craftsmen also use silver or platinum.

Kintsugi is said to date back to around the 15th century and the Muromachi period. Legend has it that the method was born after the Japanese shogun — or military leader — Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) broke a tea bowl and sent it to be repaired in China. However, upon its arrival he was horrified at the sight of the metal clasps and staples which had been used to join the pieces. As a result, he urged his craftsmen to find a new and different approach to repair the broken tea bowl and so, the technique of Kintsugi was born as the craftsmen chose to fill the cracks with gold and emphasise its scars.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kelly Richman-Abdou, writer at My Modern Met, explains that Kintsugi ‘is related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi which calls for seeing beauty in the flawed or imperfect’. For this reason, the technique does not attempt to camouflage and hide what is broken but to emphasise the beauty it holds because of its imperfections.

This centuries’ old technique does not solely serve to exhibit the beauty in broken pottery and ceramics. Putting craftsmanship aside, today Kintsugi has taken on a much wider meaning. By teaching us to observe, acknowledge and appreciate the beauty that may arise from being shattered by change, Kintsugi allows us to apply this concept to ourselves as people. In other words, this Japanese process of repair urges us to trust that the things which shatter us in life will eventually allow us to become more beautiful and unique than we were before.

One does not need to look far in order to see Kintsugi’s influence: for example, this year, restaurant chain Wagamama chose to raise awareness for mental health through Kintsugi, urging their customers to celebrate their flaws, see the beauty in what is broken and ‘share and repair’ at workshops.

In addition, artists today are taking this Japanese technique and adding their own new, modern twists. Contemporary artist, Rachel Sussman, has taken Kintsugi ‘literally, out into the streets’ as she has filled sidewalks with tree sap, bronze and gold dust for her ‘Sidewalk Kintsukuroi’ project:

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