How did you feel the last time a coffee mug slipped from your hands and shattered on your kitchen floor? I’m betting at the very least it was probably some combination of surprise and annoyance. If it was an heirloom or an otherwise sentimental piece, you may have even felt guilty and disappointed as you swept up the shards.
In the “era of the image” everything must shine of perfection, but there are fortunately some discordant harmonies that dwell in what seems to have lost the patina of perfection. Instead of tossing these pieces in the trash, some craftsmen in Japan practice the 500-year-old art of kintsugi, or “golden joinery.” This is a method of restoring a broken piece with a lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum.
There are a few major styles or types of kintsugi:
- Crack (ひび), the use of gold dust and resin or lacquer to attach broken pieces with minimal overlap or fill-in from missing pieces
- Piece Method (欠けの金継ぎ例), where a replacement ceramic fragment is not available and the entirety of the addition is gold or gold/lacquer compound
- Joint Call (呼び継ぎ), where a similarly shaped but non-matching fragment is used to replace a missing piece from the original vessel, creating a patchwork effect
In the Vimeo video directed by Daniel Evans, as seen below, we hear a first-hand account of the importance of kintsugi in Japanese culture. At 27 years old, Kyoto, Japan-based Muneaki Shimode is the youngest professional kintsugi craftsman. He explains that in Japanese culture, “it’s very important that we understand the spiritual backgrounds or the history behind… the material.” This is interwoven with the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which means “to find beauties in broken things or old things,” Shimode explains.
While the general Western consensus on broken objects is that they have lost their value, practitioners and admirers of kintsugi believe that neverending consumerism is not a spiritually rewarding experience.
The kintsugi method conveys a philosophy not of replacement, but of awe, reverence, and restoration. The gold-filled cracks of a once-broken item are a testament to its history. Shimode points out that “The importance in kintsugi is not the physical appearance, it is… the beauty and the importance [that] stays in the one who is looking at the dish.”
Non-Japanese Makers may not realize it, but we practice this philosophy when we see a broken object’s potential, when we upcycle, when we repurpose, when we reincarnate an object that would otherwise likely be thrown away.
As Shimode says, “It’s one beautiful way of living, that you fix your dish by yourself.”
“The term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in the Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.
Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.”
One now sees how intrinsically kintsugi shares the philosophy of wabi-sabi, embracing the flawed or imperfect; honoring the history of an object and visibly incorporating the repair into the new piece instead of disguising it. One highlights the cracks and repairs as an event in life that enhances and adds value, rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage.
Restoration is not reparation, but regeneration. In being the craftsman of oneself, the power to be reborn in a brighter form, each and every time one becomes broken, is its own beauty and peace in life; to be the creator and re-creator of your own dish. Without the cracks, there is no gold. The breakage, and even loss, becomes the initial phase one goes through in finding self-awareness and unique potential. Each fracture, filled with precious material, contributes to the realization of a path that enhances our being.
Kintsugi also can be correlated to the Japanese philosophy of “no mind” (無心 mushin) which encompasses the concepts of non-attachment, acceptance of change and fate as aspects of human life.
“Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated; a kind of physical expression of the spirit of ‘mushin.’ Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as ‘mono no’ aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identiﬁcation with, [things] outside oneself.”
— Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics