The History of Kintsugi
Over the last few years, there has been a renewed interest for kintsugi, as well in Japan as abroad. Kintsugi is now pretty much known worldwide and the aesthetics associated with it is regularly used as an inspiration by independent artists and major brands alike. Kintsugi is also often used as a metaphor for overcoming trauma and accepting one's flaws as part of one's uniqueness and beauty.
However, very few people talk about how kintsugi repair is actually performed and in which context it developed to become the highly praised restoration technique it is today. Gold is often presented as the main characteristics of kintsugi, but there are much more layers (pun intended) to this ancient art and they are all worth discovering.
In this article, I intend to introduce you to the fascinating history of kintsugi. My wish is that this article enables you to have an even deeper appreciation for kintsugi.
The Close Ties Between Kintsugi and Lacquerware
The word "kintsugi" is a compound word combining the Japanese words for "gold" (金) and "joinery"(継ぎ). Based on this, it is understandable to expect kintsugi artisans to use gold to mend ceramics broken into pieces. However, the main ingredient used in kintsugi repair is not gold, but urushi, more commonly referred to as urushi "lacquer."
Urushi refers to the tree sap of the lacquer tree, a type of tree that can be found in Japan, China and also on the Korean peninsula. Urushi is a natural material that has outstanding protective and adhesive properties. It is widely used for various crafts in Eastern Asia, such as Japanese lacquerware.
Traditionally, kintsugi is entirely based on the use of urushi lacquer. From the pieces stuck back together to the gold finishing layer, urushi lacquer is used all along the way. That is why kintsugi is so closely related to the art of lacquerware. In fact, the most talented kintsugi masters are very often urushi masters.
The History of Urushi
There is evidence of urushi lacquer being used for repair and as natural glue in Japan from the Jomon period (14,000 BC to 300 BC). Urushi lacquer has been for example found on the tips of stone spears dating from that period. Moreover, there is evidence of urushi lacquer being similarly used in China around the same period.
It is not clear which one of China or Japan was the first country to use urushi lacquer to restore objects. Since lacquer trees grow in both countries, techniques to use urushi were probably developed in both countries after noticing the adhesive properties of urushi.
Another distinctive property of urushi is that it can be used as a protective coating for a wide range of materials. Once it hardens, it becomes waterproof and protects the coated objects against molds and other types of weathering. Since Japan is regularly exposed to high levels of humidity, urushi was a coating of choice to protect valuable objects.
During the Nara Period (710-794), urushi was for example used to protect statues and artifacts related to the spread of Buddhism in Japan. With time, lacquerware started to be seen as an art form itself. Pigments were soon mixed with urushi lacquer and it was then used for decoration. Bengal-red pigments, which are made of iron oxide, were for example added to get a vermillion-like lacquer color. If you are a little bit familiar with the kintsugi repair process, Bengal-red urushi should tell you something... Yes, you are right, it is the red urushi layer applied right before dusting gold onto restored objects ! See, everything is actually connected !
The Origin of Kintsugi
As we mentioned, urushi lacquer has been used for thousands of years as an adhesive to repair (or create) objects. However, the use of gold and lacquer for restoration is believed to be much more recent. It is estimated that kintsugi only started becoming popular during the Muromachi period (1336 AD to 1573 AD).
The development of kintsugi craft is directly linked to the spread of the tea ceremony around the country. During the Muromachi period, there was a renewed interest in the zen philosophy and the tea ceremony was introduced by zen monks as a means to attain enlightenment. The practice of tea ceremony was intricately linked to the zen concept of wabisabi, which is an appreciation for unperfect, transient beauty.
At the time, tea sets were very valuable. Therefore, whenever tea sets had chipped or cracked, people would have them repaired and embellished using urushi lacquer and gold. That is how kintsugi was established as an art form.
Historically, kintsugi has often been a side-activity for craftsmen specialized in lacquerware. They usually did kintsugi during the winter. During the colder months, their main business of making lacquerware and embellishing temples with lacquer was slow and doing kintsugi was a good way to make up for the slow business.
It is also worth noting that, although lacquerware had developed both in Japan and China, the combination of gold and lacquer for restoration is limited to Japan. Therefore, it is safe to say that kintsugi is a fully Japanese art form.
Kintsugi Tales and Anecdotes
When you hear the word "kintsugi," you probably associate it with gorgeous art and rich culture. However, it seems that kintsugi once had a much darker image.
The folktale “Tsutsuizutsu” makes mention of kintsugi in a rather curious context. It recounts a story in which a teahouse servant breaks a bowl that Lord Hideyoshi loved. It seems that, at the time where, whenever a servant broke an important vessel belonging to his master, it brought shame to the servant’s entire family. The only way for the guilty servant to atone its sin was with death. However, the servant mended the bowl using kintsugi, and presented it to Hideyoshi along with a song. Hideyoshi’s anger suddenly evaporated, and the servant’s life was spared.
Since the story ends on a happy note, it is a rather beautiful story but it is not hard to imagine what would have happened if the mended bowl had not pleased Lord Hideyoshi. The servant’s life depended on the quality of his kintsugi restoration.
Another interesting story related to kintsugi, or to be more specific, yobitsugi. Yobitsugi is a form of kintsugi that entails combining pieces of different objects together in order to create a completely new vessel. The newly created vessel is typically made of 60% – 70% of the first vessel and 30%-40% of the second vessel.
The story has been told that this technique was regularly used as a sign of reconciliation between two warring factions during the Sengoku Period, a period during which wars succeeded one another. It was common for the leaders of these factions to hold tea ceremonies with each other to negotiate peace. It is said that, when the negotiations were successful, yotsugi was used to combine the tea sets used at the meeting where peace was decided.
Yakitsugi, Another Method to Mend Broken Ceramics
During the Edo period (1603 to 1867), a method called yakitsugi was developed to repair pottery. This technique is still used today. This method involves applying clay to the cracked/chipped pottery and baking it in fire to mend it. The main advantage is that it is cheaper than regular kintsugi because it does not require any gold. However, baking pottery with very high temperatures may result in discoloration of the vessel. This method is therefore not suitable for all vessels.
New Kintsugi and the Kintsugi Boom
For a very long time, kintsugi remained a practice only known by wealthy and influential circles. One main reason for this was that the general population did not use ceramic tableware but tableware made of wood and coated with lacquer. In this context, techniques developed to repair broken pottery remained unknown from the general population.
Kintsugi started to pick up steam when the general population started using earthenware instead of lacquerware for the tableware they were using everyday. In the Heisei period (1989 to 2019), kintsugi's popularity grew greatly and it became more widely known by everyday people. One major catalyst was the Tohoku earthquake, which struck Japan in 2011 and caused a violent tsunami on the Eastern coast. With a 9.0-magnitude, the earthquake caused major damages in the region of Tohoku but also around Tokyo. Many people started looking for ways to restore ceramics dear to them that were damaged by the quake and that is how they found out about kintsugi.
It is also during the Heisei period that the kintsugi method called “Modern Kintsugi” was developed. This new method of doing kintsugi aimed at making kintsugi easier and more accessible. While traditional kintsugi requires a lot of preparation and different steps, modern kintsugi made the repair process easier and quicker thanks to the use of fast-drying chemical resins. However, it is important to stress that this method should be strictly reserved for decorative objects because it is not food safe. This point is unfortunately often left out when discussing modern kintsugi.
The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Kintsugi Boom
In 2020, we had to reconsider the way we live and interact with one another because of the spread of Covid-19. All over the world, many people suddenly had to spend extensive periods of time indoors due to measures taken to limit the spread of the virus. In order to lift up their mood, some people started looking for new hobbies that could be pursued from home. At the time, kintsugi was heavily featured in various media as an idea of a DIY project that could be done from home. Pottery repaired and embellished by kintsugi started popping everywhere on Instagram. Kintsugi became so popular that the term "kintsugi" became a buzzword among ladies in their 20s.
The context of this popularization can be explained by increased accessibility to kintsugi thanks to modern kintsugi. This growing interest for kintsugi repair in general led in turn to many requests to hold classes to learn traditional kintsugi.
That is in this context that Tsugu Tsugu opened its first kintsugi studio in Hiroo/Ebisu in February 2022.
Kintsugi Beyond Japan
Kintsugi has become more popular overseas than Japan since the early 90’s.
Over the last few years, there has been shift in thinking the idea of embracing imperfections and turning them into positibe things has gained a lot of popularity abroad. In addition, as well in Japan as abroad, people are increasingly eco-conscious and try to find ways to reduce their environmental footprint. In this context, kintsugi is an appealing way to keep using objects we own already for a very long time, instead of constantly buying new things.
The 2020 olympics were postponed due to the spread of Covid-19, but the anticipation of the games created nonetheless an increased interest in Japanese culture/tradition. Based on our research, it is in this context that people outside of Japan started buying more kintsugi kits.
Since information about kintsugi remains mostly written in Japanese, most people outside of Japan are rarely aware of the history of kintsugi and its strong ties with lacquerware. Some people even believe that kintsugi involves smashing a perfectly fine work of art with a hammer and gluing the shattered pieces together. When we explain how much time it takes to complete a repair with traditional kintsugi, most people are extremely surprised. However, the interest in definitely there.
When Tsugu Tsugu started selling the kintsugi kit TSUGUKIT in May 2020, we were already thinking of selling the kit abroad as well. This is why the instructions of the TSUGUKIT are both in English and Japanese and why we have been posting YouTube videos in English. Our hope is to share the beauty of kintsugi with as much people as possible regardless of the location.
Discovering Kintsugi with Tsugu Tsugu
Let's now talk about the future of kintsugi !
The history of kintsugi is pretty long but, with Tsugu Tsugu, we intend to make sure that the art of kintsugi gets passed down to the next generations.
Kintsugi has changed the life of Yuki Matano, the founder of Tsugu Tsugu, and she created Tsugu Tsugu to share her passion for kintsugi with others. When the TSUGUKIT was under preparation, the goal was to provide a kit that included all the key ingredients for kintsugi and a clear instruction manual written both in Japanese and English. During the design process, numerous artisans were interviewed and we received the precious help of Yuki Matano's kintsugi master, Katsuya Shibata.
In May 2020, the TSUGUKIT, our original kintsugi kit, was born ! Our company started shipping the kit in May of 2020, and – as of January 2021 – it has become the number one selling kintsugi kit on Amazon Japan, Rakuten, and Yahoo Japan. The customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with an average of 4.5 stars (as of May 5th, 2021).
With the kintsugi kit, it is easy to get started with kintsugi from the comfort of your home. However, due to increasing requests to hold workshops, we slowly started a kintsugi school in Yotsuya (Central Tokyo) in December 2020. In February 2021, we opened a first kintsugi studio in Hiroo and, in May 2022, we opened a second studio in Asakusa, Eastern Tokyo.
The team of Tsugu Tsugu now counts about 10 people and we are more determined than ever to keep doing our best to enable as many people as possible to discover from up close the beauty of traditional kintsugi and, who knows, welcome it into their daily lives too.
In addition to Japanese, we have also started offering classes in English. For those of you who cannot attend the workshops because of distance, we have started online classes from April of 2021 – and anybody is welcome !