A Visual Introduction to Kintsugi, the Japanese Art of Repairing Broken Pottery and Finding Beauty in Imperfection

Kintsu­gi, the Japan­ese art of join­ing bro­ken pot­tery with gleam­ing seams of gold or sil­ver, cre­ates fine art objects we can see as sym­bols for the beau­ty of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Sure­ly, these bowls, cups, vas­es, etc. remind of us Leonard Cohen’s oft-quot­ed lyric from “Anthem” (“There is a crack in every­thing, that’s how the light gets in.”) Writer and artist Austin Kleon touch­es on this same sen­ti­ment in a recent post on his blog. “The thing I love the most about Kintsu­gi is the vis­i­ble trace of heal­ing and repair—the idea of high­light­ed, glow­ing scars.”

Kintsu­gi, which trans­lates to “gold­en join­ery,” has a his­to­ry that dates back to the 15th cen­tu­ry, as Col­in Mar­shall explained in a pre­vi­ous post here. But it’s fas­ci­nat­ing how much this art res­onates with our con­tem­po­rary dis­course around trau­ma and heal­ing.

“We all grow up believ­ing we should empha­size the inher­ent pos­i­tives about our­selves,” writes Mar­shall, “but what if we also empha­sized the neg­a­tives, the parts we’ve had to work to fix or improve? If we did it just right, would the neg­a­tives still look so neg­a­tive after all?”

A key idea here is “doing it just right.” Kintsu­gi is not a warts-and-all pre­sen­ta­tion, but a means of turn­ing bro­ken­ness into art, a skill­ful real­iza­tion of the Japan­ese idea of wabi-sabi, the “beau­ty of things imper­fect, imper­ma­nent, and incom­plete,” as Leonard Koren writes in Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Design­ers, Poets & Philoso­phers. Objects that rep­re­sent wabi-sabi “may exhib­it the effects of acci­dent, like a bro­ken bowl glued back togeth­er again.” In kintsu­gi, those effects are due to the artist’s craft rather than ran­dom chance.

When it comes to heal­ing psy­chic wounds so that they shine like pre­cious met­als, there seems to be no one per­fect method. But when we’re talk­ing about the artistry of kintsu­gi, there are some—from the most refined arti­san­ship to less rig­or­ous do-it-your­self techniques—we can all adopt with some suc­cess. In the video at the top, learn DIY kintsu­gi from World Crafted’s Robert Mahar. Fur­ther up, we have an inten­sive, word­less demon­stra­tion from pro­fes­sion­al kintsu­gi artist Kyoko Ohwa­ki.

And just above, see psy­chol­o­gist Alexa Alt­man trav­el to Japan to learn kintsu­gi, then make it “acces­si­ble” with an expla­na­tion of both the phys­i­cal process of kintsu­gi and its metaphor­i­cal dimen­sions. As Alt­man shows, kintsu­gi can just as well be made from things bro­ken on pur­pose as by acci­dent. When it comes to the beau­ti­ful­ly flawed fin­ished prod­uct, how­ev­er, per­haps how a thing was bro­ken mat­ters far less than the amount of care and skill we use to join it back togeth­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kintsu­gi: The Cen­turies-Old Japan­ese Craft of Repair­ing Pot­tery with Gold & Find­ing Beau­ty in Bro­ken Things

The Philo­soph­i­cal Appre­ci­a­tion of Rocks in Chi­na & Japan: A Short Intro­duc­tion to an Ancient Tra­di­tion

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Sallai Tibor says:

    Why does some­one destroys some­thing to make this gold­en repair thing out of it?! In this case, it’s point­less. If some­thing is real­ly bro­ken, than it’s art. Tru­ly art. But to destroy some­thing already beau­ti­ful to make these things is sim­ply self­ish. Remind­ing me plas­tic surg­eries and trans­form­ing oper­a­tions… no thanks.

  • DK says:

    Thank you—maybe not just objects, but our­selves: almost 20 yo scars from suc­cess­ful can­cer surgery now seen in a new light. DK

  • GregH says:

    The top video is sil­ly, & the result does­n’t look any­thing like kintsu­gi.

  • Bonnie B Baracker says:

    I think of all the pieces I’ve bro­ken over the years, many of which were pre­cious to me. I had heard about this ancient art years ago but did­n’t think much about it until I bought a beau­ti­ful raku plate (bro­ken and glued togeth­er) at my friend’s garage sale. I briefly men­tioned to her that there is an art form repair­ing ves­sels with gold. Any­way, I got home and began paint­ing the glue line and it instant­ly trans­formed the plate into a beau­ti­ful piece of art. Now it is proud­ly dis­played in my liv­ing room and I hope it becomes a top­ic of dis­cus­sion about repair­ing, not only mate­r­i­al things, but also repair­ing bro­ken hearts and souls. I’m so inspired now and will be on the look­out for repairable objects.

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