Of the many cultural exports of Japan, one of the more interesting to have gained
traction in the west has been the art and practice of pottery repair. Mind you, this is not a simple form of pottery repair, but the art of Kintsugi (金継ぎ or きんつぎ).
Meaning “to join with gold” or “to repair with gold,” traditional kintsugi is a weeks-long process wherein broken pottery is repaired using urushi lacquer and finished with a dusting of a precious metal, usually gold, but at times silver or platinum. This accentuates the break rather than hiding it, making it the focal point for the repaired vessel.
Practically, kintsugi is a practice that likely grew out of necessity. For costly ceramic pieces, many of which were imported from China, Japanese craftsmen generally had to send them back to China for repair. This repair process used metal staples to hold the pieces together, but it was not always aesthetically pleasing. While various theories abound where and when the practice began, it is generally accepted that it became popular after influential Japanese political leaders had tea cups repaired and set a new trend.
In a broader scope, because of the limited natural resources available to Japan, there has been a strong culture of repair and reuse that encourages maintenance and avoids waste. Mottainai (a philosophy that means to not let anything go to waste) is ingrained in Japanese culture. Another example of this is Sashiko embroidery from the Edo period, which is a practice to reinforce clothes with embroidery. The embroidery adds beautiful ornamentation that serves double duty to make the clothing stronger, in order for it to last longer.
Philosophically, the practice of kintsugi is tied to the theory of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi (侘 寂) can roughly be understood as beauty through imperfection. The perfection of something is not what makes it beautiful, but its imperfections that make it beautiful. In practice, well used items that show the wear of time are considered more beautiful, and the same can even be applied to people. Our imperfections are actually the things that set us apart and make us special.
Kintsugi, then, is a practice which takes the imperfections and breaks and makes them into a focal point. Using precious metals whose color compliments the pigmentation of the pottery, artisans are able to conduct repairs that bring out the beauty of the repaired piece, making it something greater than it was before it broke.
As this practice has grown more popular in the west, you might be excited to try it for yourself. A quick internet search shows several options ranging in prices for you to try this on your own, but a quick word of warning: be sure to do proper research before you make your purchase. Many low cost kits provide epoxy glue to use as a binder, but not all epoxy are certified as food safe. When in doubt, always check the warning labels before you start your project, and use the correct products.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!