The Philosophy of Kintsugi
- History of Kintsugi
- Kintsugi and Japanese Religion
- Value of Kintsugi
- Why do Japanese people still do kintsugi?
- Why Kintsugi is back in the limelight after 2020
- Different perspectives on kintsugi by Japanese and non-Japanese people
- Testimony of our students
- Why I love Kintsugi
- The Philosophy of Kintsugi (Summary)
Hello, I am Yuki, the founder of Tsugu Tsugu Inc dedicated in kintsugi. It has been more than three years since I established this company, and we have taught kintsugi for many people.
Since the end of 2022, when the pandemic seems to be settling down and the restrictions on foreigners visiting Japan have been eased, we have had more opportunities than ever to have foreigners participate in our kintsugi classes and workshops. When I talk with non-Japanese participants interested in kintsugi, I was often asked not only about techniques, but also about the concepts and philosophy about kintsugi. Kintsugi has many elements to consider and its world is profound. In this article, I will summarize my idea from the history to the philosophy behind kintsugi.
2. History of Kintsugi
From the Jomon period (about 10,000 years ago), it is known from excavations in various parts of Japan that people learned from experience that the “Urushi” lacquer, the sap of urushi trees, has an adhesive effect and is used to repair broken earthenware.
In the Heian period around the 8th century in Japan, Japanese people began to decorate objects more beautifully with the technique of “Maki-e”, using urushi lacquer and gold powder. The technique to make powder of gold was originally developed in Japan.
In the Muromachi period (the 15th century), this lacquer restoration technique was combined with the maki-e to create a new type technique called kintsugi, in which gold powder is sprinkled on the joints of broken vessels to decorate them.
Kintsugi is considered as an unique Japanese aesthetic, and is in line with the "mottainai spirit," a Japanese way of thinking that discourages the throwing away of precious objects. When Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a shogun (general) in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), sent a cracked celadon tea bowl inherited from Tairano Shigemori back to China for repair, the crack was pinned with “Kasugai”, a metal hook (it looked as if it had been stapled!). Yoshimasa was not satisfied with this repair and ordered his servants to restore it more beautifully using Japanese lacquer techniques, which is said to have been the beginning of kintsugi.
3. Kintsugi and Japanese Religion
Now let us examine the relationship between Japanese religion and kintsugi.
During the Muromachi period (1333-1573), the Zen sect, a branch of Buddhism, became popular in Japan. The Zen sect practiced a discipline that emphasized “Zazen”, sitting meditation. Zazen is said to be a form of self-examination that pursues a mind free of distractions, and it is believed that enlightenment can be attained through zazen.
Zen Buddhism is not only a religion, but it is also connected to the unique Japanese sense of beauty, such as “Yugen” and “Wabi-sabi”, and has had a great influence on Japanese art.
Many foreigners who are interested in Japanese culture should have heard of the word wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is made up of two words. The latter part “Sabi" refers to the beauty of appearance and aging. It is the state in which any human being or thing deteriorates, just as it is. The former part “Wabi" refers to the mindset of accepting and enjoying rust and dirt, and is a way of thinking that finds beauty in sabi. In other words, wabi-sabi is the idea of accepting and enjoying the beauty of imperfection.
I think kintsugi fits well with the concept of wabi-sabi, and when Sen-no Rikyu, who was successful in the 16th century, developed the tea ceremony, many of the tea ware he used were extremely valuable and expensive. Tea sets that have been repaired with kintsugi are still very expensive today, therefore, kintsugi is regarded as increasing the value of the vessels from what it was before broken.
Kintsugi is not only a process of restoration, but also has the aesthetic impression to make the scar look like a natural landscape.
Kintsugi is basically the process of repairing cracks and fractures on the same piece of pottery, while "Yobitsugi" is a very difficult technique of joining different types of pottery pieces into a single creation. There is a story that during the Sengoku period, generals of two different territories who were about to start a war tomorrow, held a tea ceremony to communicate and had tea together with the yobitsugi-ware, ending up making a pact of peace. In addition, in some regions in Japan, yobitsugi vessels were used as the bride’s household articles, and yobitsugi became a symbol of good fortune that would not separate once attached.
Only a few documents and texts on kintsugi are remaining today, so its history is not very clear. There is a poem (Tsutsuizutsu) about a servant who broke a porcelain that belonged to a lord. This may be worth the death penalty so he let it repair this with kintsugi hoping it would calm the anger of the lord, and his life was saved. Perhaps, people at the time did not dare to leave a written record because breaking the loads property would be a disgrace to his family.
4. Kintsugi increases the value of the objects more than if they were before broken.
It is often said that a repaired vessel with kintsugi has more value than it was before broken.
In my opinion, when a vessel is broken, we are faced with the choice between throwing it away or keeping it. If it is not our favorite, it holds no important memories, nor it doesn’t have any meaning for us... we throw it away and simply buy a new one. There should be a good reason to decide to repair and keep the vessel, because repairing requires time, effort, and considerable money depending on the degree of damage. In many cases, the cost of kintsugi repair is higher than the cost of purchasing a new vessel. Therefore, the vessel that was not thrown away and repaired to be together for long should have a greater value to the person than before it was broken. In addition to the emotional reason, some items with kintsugi are actually appraised as having a higher value.
At Tsugu Tsugu, we also sell kintsugi ware. We started creating and selling these because we often receive inquiries from overseas. Many customers come to us saying, "I want real kintsugi ware” and visit our studio. Our kintsugi vessels cost at cheapest $200, but as soon as we create the kintsugi ware, these are immediately sold out. Therefore, usually, almost no kintsugi vessels are left in the studios...
5. Why do Japanese people still do kintsugi?
At Tsugu Tsugu, we repair over 1,200 pieces of kintsugi per year (more than 100 pieces per month). There are many reasons why people request kintsugi work.
- Because it is a keepsake of my mother's.
- Because it was given to me on my wedding day
- Because it was a memento of our trip,
- I have used this mug personally for more than 30 years,
- I want to teach my children the importance of taking good care of things...
In many cases, the items are more than personal favorites. The items share memories with someone else.
I believe that kintsugi is beyond just repairing objects; we repair your emotions and feelings, such as connecting the relationships among people, keeping history in your mind, and taking our mistakes as our strength.
6. Why Kintsugi is back in the limelight after 2020
I mentioned that kintsugi began in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), but it has not been popular all the time until today in Japan. Many people still do not know what kintsugi is. However, kintsugi has been gaining attention, especially during the Corona pandemic, and the boom in kintsugi has accelerated over the past few years. I felt that the awareness of kintsugi was increasing. To confirm my impression, I have conducted in total three surveys on kintsugi awareness in Japan. The results show that the awareness has been rising from 2019 to 2022 especially among the younger generation.
-> Go to our article about kintsugi awareness survey:
It seems to me that foreigners living abroad who are interested in Japanese culture know more about kintsugi than Japanese people do, and I even feel that the charm of kintsugi is being adversely imported from the world to Japan.
The word “Kintsugi” is recently used as a metaphor for peace, because kintsugi is the process of joining broken things together.
On the International Day of Peace on September 17, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres mentioned the word "kintsugi" in his speech.
In 2022, a Japanese TV drama series showed an episode in which two brothers who had fallen out with each other broke one of their pair of Japanese teacups. After several years they made up, they had tea together with a kintsugi-repaired teacup (We restored the teacup for this drama!).
The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were postponed due to the pandemic. In the closing remarks at the Paralympics, International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons mentioned kintsugi. He told us to accept and cherish imperfections like kintsugi, and that we can celebrate diversity.
All of these events happened during the pandemic. Perhaps, the spirits of kintsugi resonated with people as we paused and reflected on our lives in such a turbulent world. Artistically beautiful kintsugi spread quickly through SNS such as Instagram during this period. Kintsugi may remain in our hearts and minds as an old but new Japanese culture. And kintsugi can be the second option rather than just throwing broken things away.
7. Different perspectives on kintsugi by Japanese and non-Japanese people
In my long experience of offering kintsugi classes and workshops, I have found that there are some differences in the way Japanese and non-Japanese people think about kintsugi.
The most common reason for Japanese people to do kintsugi is the desire to revive and reuse vessels that they have precious memories of and cannot throw away.
In contrast, most of the non-Japanese people who visit us tell us differently. They like the aesthetic beauty and the philosophy of kintsugi more than the technique itself.
8. Testimony of our students
Many of our customers not only ask us for professional kintsugi repair, but also want to repair by their own hands. We offer more than 10 kintsugi classes per week to help beginners learn kintsugi. Not only Japanese but also many foreign people living nearby participate in our classes. When we ask the students why they want to learn kintsugi, we often receive the following three answers.
First, they can concentrate on the time they spend working by hand, enjoy the time to forget their daily job, and get into a "meditative" state. Kintsugi offers a time to reflect on oneself and reminds the memories of favorite vessels.
The second reason is that they have a sense of "self-efficacy". Nowadays in any business and job, we are always required to be efficient so that tasks are divided. We have never achieved anything from zero to the end. However, through kintsugi, we have to restore a single vessel in our own hands from the beginning to the end. How hard it is!
Thirdly, they want to master the technique of kintsugi, because they love collecting specific artists’ porcelain and/or some of students do pottery. In the process of pottery, the finished products sometimes get cracked, so we can repair it with kintsugi! Recently, an increasing number of people want to become a professional kintsugi repairer. Some want to retire early and have a slower life. Some others want to move abroad and start making a living with kintsugi.
9. Unique Properties of Urushi Lacquer
Urushi lacquer, the most important ingredient used in kintsugi, has many interesting properties and has many fans. Synthetic glue usually hardens instantly and gains strength, but over the decades it loses strength and its color turns yellow. Even works of art in museums have to be restored regularly because the adhesive usually deteriorates in around 20 years. In contrast, although the urushi lacquer takes days to harden initially, it becomes stronger as the months and years go by. It is often said that its hardest state is over 100 years. And yet, urushi is a paint that is naturally produced from trees and has been used for centuries, so urushi can be used safely on tableware. However, please note that urushi can cause skin irritation upon skin contact. (Beautiful things are poisonous.)
Why I love Kintsugi
I have lived my whole life without any connection to general art as well as lacquer art. I worked for a large company and pursued only my career. I often felt unhappy and wondered what my value was compared to others. Every time when I advanced in my career and obtained certifications that I could show off, I felt alone. But in 2019, I happened to come across kintsugi, which was not popular in Japan at the time. I let an artisan repair my broken bowl. Then, I wondered, "Can I do kintsugi on my own? If I practice hard, I may be able to master it?" My life changed forever after I jumped into the world of kintsugi.
Now, I have many reasons why I love kintsugi. The most important reason to me is the fact that even a beginner like me with no artistic sense can create and enjoy beautiful art.
The lines of cracks and fractures accidentally created by nature are used as a preliminary drawing, and by simply tracing along the lines while imagining the view of the vessel after completion, we can create a unique piece of art. And when I restore someone’s objects, they are very pleased.
When I first started learning kintsugi, I thought, "I'm going to make a cool kintsugi!” I tried to design beyond the original line on purpose, and I made more lines and chips to highlight with gold than necessary. Then, I realized that as this kind of my ego became stronger, my kintsugi pieces became uglier. What I learned from this is that the kintsugi itself does not play the leading role, but actually the vessel is the main character. Kintsugi just plays a supporting role. I believe that this is the spirit of wabi-sabi, and I would like to create pieces of work that ultimately harmonize with the atmosphere of the vessel most beautifully, without putting myself forward. Therefore, I prefer a subdued kintsugi style in which I dare not put myself forward.
10. The Philosophy of Kintsugi - Summary
Nowadays, the term "kintsugi" is used not only to repair vessels but also in various other situations. In the past, English translations of "kintsugi" were like "Golden Joinery" and "Golden Repair," but now the Japanese word "kintsugi" has become widespread as it is. The word "kintsugi" seems to carry a message of resilience, "imperfection" and "turning a pinch into an opportunity.
Kintsugi is something that we can live without, but it enriches our life and makes us feel at ease and peaceful. I believe that the charm of kintsugi will continue to spread throughout the world. The "Kintsugi Business Plan" that I wrote in my MBA thesis in 2019 became a reality as it is, and when I read the thesis back now, I realized that most of the plans have been accomplished almost exactly as written, despite the Corona pandemic period that we went through. I am amazed at the power of dreams.
I have a past history of over-pursuing my career and falling behind, so here at Tsugu Tsugu, I want to make sure of each step without being too hard on ourselves. Instead of seeking rapid growth, I value each customer in front of me and want to make them as happy as possible. I want to make not only our customers but also the employees who work at Tsugu Tsugu and everyone else involved happy. Keeping a humble spirit in my heart, I would like to continue to work with kintsugi.
I welcome your comments and opinions on the philosophy of kintsugi! Your thoughts will greatly influence my future ideas and activities on kintsugi.
Written by Yuki Matano on 15 May, 2023