Kintsugi - The Ancient Japanese Art Of Repair

by Tanurima Chanda,

Kintsugi is the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi translates to “golden repair” or “golden joinery”. It dates back to the 15th century, originating during the Muromachi period in Japan. One source says that when Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke his favourite tea bowl, it was sent to China for repair. When it was returned with simple metal staples(a common method of repair) the Shogun didn't find it beautiful anymore. This prompted Japanese craftsmen to try to look for a more aesthetically pleasing method of repair and thus kintsugi came to be.

If a bowl or any piece of pottery is broken, instead of discarding the pieces, the broken parts are joined together by a natural lacquer called urushi, which is made from tree sap. Next, any cracks are filled to ensure a strong bond. After that powdered gold, silver, or platinum is applied along the lines for the fractures, creating beautiful and stark vein-like patterns. The key materials are pure urushi, iron red urushi, a mixture of pure urushi and wheat flour and a mixture of pure urushi with two kinds of clay. The mended pottery is then stored in a compartment known as furo where it can rest at 90% humidity between 2 days and 2 weeks as the urushi hardens.

The use of gold is intentional and significant. Since gold is considered valuable and beautiful, adding it to the fractures causes the value of the object to elevate higher than before. It is a process of transformation and not just repair. In contrast to other forms of repair that try to hide any signs of damage, this method does not attempt to do so. Cracks and fractures are instead highlighted, turning them into a feature of the object’s history and beauty. In this age of mass production where everything is replaceable, this practice teaches us the art of repair. This philosophy can also be used to navigate our own failures and setbacks in life. We can learn to face them, accept them and even celebrate them.

This practice draws from the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi in which beauty is found in imperfection and impermanence. Finding beauty in the process of decay and the inevitability of transformation is at the core of it. Kintsugi has deep cultural significance and has heavily influenced Japanese aesthetics, art and philosophy. Kintsugi-repaired tea bowls are also used in tea ceremonies in Japan and are celebrated for their uniqueness and symbolic value.

It has traditionally been practiced only on pottery but with the advent of time, it has found expression in modern design and art. Kintsugi is being used to repair not only pottery but also ceramics, electronic devices and even glassware. It has also been an influential concept in personal growth and healing.

It's a visual metaphor that is extremely relevant in these current times. We live in an era where Photoshop is the norm. We spend hours editing out ‘flaws’ like dark spots, moles, pigmentation, freckles and dark circles, doing the most to wipe out what makes us human. Erasing the unique characteristics that speak of our journey. The idea of perfection is reaching new unrealistic heights everyday. We do our very best to hide, to morph and to put on a facade. To show up as our flawed selves in the world requires a level of vulnerability that we dread. The practice of kintsugi honours the transformative power of resilience and shows a sense of respect for the journey of an object. A principle that can be adopted in our lives. To wear all our scars with pride and to not give into conformity. To not be reduced by our downfalls but to start afresh. To get up stronger in the face of adversity and to give up on the futile fantasy of perfection.