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Kintsugi - Japanese Repair Technique

Gold, lacquer and wabi-sabi

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Image: ZEN

Kintsugi roughly translates as ‘joining with gold’ (kin is ‘gold’ and tsugi is ‘join’). It is a centuries-old Japanese repair technique which uses urushi (Japanese lacquer) dusted with powdered gold to restore broken ceramic and porcelain vessels. Rather than masking fractures, kintsugi highlights them with gold to tell an object’s story. Items which have been restored using the kintsugi technique are often considered even more precious than they were before.

There are several methods of restoring ceramics and porcelain using urushi: for example, silver powder can be used as a finish (gintsugi) instead of gold; the repair can be completed using only urushi without any metal powder (urushitsugi); and missing fragments can be replaced with pieces of different ceramics (yobitsugi) or even pieces of wood (mokuhen).

History of kintsugi

The exact origins of kintsugi are not known, however, historians date the start of the practice to the Muromachi period (1336–1573 CE). In the 16th century CE the repair technique appears to have already been in common use. Its popularity is associated with the Japanese tea ceremony tradition which was flourishing at the same time. Ceramics used in tea ceremonies, particularly the tea bowl – chawan – are cherished objects and have often been repaired using the kintsugi method. A legend dates the founding of kintsugi to the reign of Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was the chief military commander of Japan from 1449 until 1473 CE. In the legend, the shōgun is fabled to have sent a broken chawan to China for restoration, and to have been disappointed by the aesthetic effect of the Chinese repair technique juci which uses metal staples. He called on Japanese craftsmen to develop a new method of mending broken ceramics instead, and so kintsugi was born.

Wabi-sabi and sustainability

Kintsugi is closely connected to the philosophical and aesthetic concepts of Zen Buddhism. The practice of repairing broken objects and acknowledging their history rather than discarding them resonates with the Buddhist principle of treating everything with respect and concern with wastefulness. Aesthetically, kintsugi is seen as a perfect example of the concept of wabi-sabi, which also derives from principles of Zen Buddhism and celebrates elements of imperfection, simplicity, the passing of time and impermanence. The term is made up of two distinct ideas: wabi and sabi. Wabi refers to the philosophy of living simply and in harmony with nature, unaffected by indulgence. Sabi more directly refers to aesthetic qualities and seeing the value in objects, the imperfection, asymmetry or patina of which can inspire contemplation.

Process, materials and tools

Kintsugi involves the use of urushi-based adhesive, which is created by mixing ki-urushi (filtered raw lacquer collected from the carved trunk of the urushi tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum) with either wheat flour or rice paste. Broken edges are cleaned and filed before being pieced together with the adhesive. The object is then placed in a wooden drying cabinet, muro, for one to three weeks, where the required warm temperature and humidity levels are maintained to allow urushi to harden by absorbing oxygen and moisture from the air. The space left by chips or missing fragments is then filled with an urushi putty made with either fine sawdust or abrasive clay powder. Once set, excess urushi is scraped off and sanded down. During the finishing process, a coat of urushi is applied along the seams and gold powder is sprinkled on top with a brush. The gold-dusted finishing coat is left to dry, then sealed with raw urushi and polished with tools made of agate or sea bream teeth.

Maki-e and Shimode Muneaki

Historically, kintsugi has been practised by urushi masters who specialize in maki-e (lit. ‘sprinkled pictures’), the craft of decorating lacquerware with metallic powder. A design is painted in urushi on a lacquerware surface, and metallic powder is applied on top using a sprinkling tube with a mesh tip (funzutsu). There are a number of maki-e techniques which differ according to factors such as finishing methods and whether the design is flat or raised. It is said that kintsugi developed from some of the more refined maki-e techniques. Find out more about the relationship between maki-e and kintsugi by watching a video of our online event Maki-e & Kintsugi: Studio Visit & Conversation, a part of which is set in the Kyoto-based family studio of maki-e craftsman Shimode Muneaki. He is the first son of Shimode Yasuhiro, the master of the maki-e workshop Studio Baisen and has been developing his skills as a maki-e craftsman for over 20 years.

ZEN: the brand restoring works by potters and ceramic artists

When broken objects are repaired using the art of kintsugi they are often considered to be even more precious than they were before. Sometimes, porcelain or ceramic ware is damaged during production and is subsequently discarded. Craftspeople at ZEN, a brand set up by Watanabe Atsuko in Tōno City, Iwate Prefecture, take on broken works from potters and ceramic artists and give them a new lease of life by skilfully repairing them using the kintsugi technique. Watanabe previously lived and worked in Mashiko, a town famous for its pottery production. A selection of elegantly restored objects from ZEN is available in The Shop at Japan House London from late July 2021.