IT IS EASY to see the appeal of kintsugi. Brokenness is not usually attractive. Scars are charming to a new lover, perhaps, in the warmth of a new intimacy. That’s when they play their best roles, prompting a reminiscence about a fall from a bike or an accident at school, then drawing attention back to the skin, inviting soothing measures. With age, we gather increasingly more cracks, even as they lose their richness. What 40-year-old has time to tell stories about all the marks life left on her body? What 50-year-old can even count how many parts he has lost to kitchen mishaps, unruly cells, or a fondness for sugar? Our flaws may still be lovely, even in aggregate, but rare is the person who can be bothered to find that beauty in them.
Kintsugi is a stunning reversal of this rule. An object that should have no future — a broken ceramic cup, or jar, or plate — is pieced together with lacquer made from the sap of the urushi tree and its joints are burnished with gold. The fault lines of a prior catastrophe bolt across the object like lightning; now it is the scars that shine bright. A centuries-old Japanese practice of repairing fine ceramics through an arduous, highly specialized, and expensive process becomes a biddable symbol for the beauty of imperfection.
The aesthetic of kintsugi seems to offer an alternative to the relentless pressure to improve, refurbish, and polish oneself that many feel so powerfully now, at least in some places. Blame neoliberalism and the Protestant ethic. Blame Evangelical purity culture. Blame plastic surgery and photo filters and social media. Whatever the forces driving this unforgiving process that turns human beings into machines — one plastic surgeon takes this literally and sells a “Post-Baby Tune-Up” package — people want out. And since most cannot escape the larger societal forces pressing on their souls (and their abdomens), kintsugi will do as an evocative reminder that another way of thinking is possible.
Since 2017, over a dozen books have been published with “kintsugi” in the title, few of which appear to be about mending objects. Most are about fixing people. Their titles include Kintsugi: Embrace your imperfections and find happiness — the Japanese way and Career Kintsugi: Patch Career Setbacks With Golden Leadership Values. There is even a Catholic devotional on the market called God’s Kintsugi. A related publishing boom is inspired by the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, a complex aesthetic that prizes humble objects, elements from the natural world, and the passage of time. Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers is a touchstone in the English-speaking world, but again, the last few years have seen applications of the concept to entertaining, home decoration, and finding a romantic partner.
Sometimes I think of this phenomenon, jokingly, as the “wabi-sabi industrial complex.” In 2015, Yoko Ono partnered with the Italian coffee company Illy to release a series of espresso cups with faux-kintsugi lines, each cup commemorating an event she found shattering. One carries the date of John Lennon’s murder in her handwriting, another recalls the bombing of Dresden during World War II. You can now buy kintsugi-style coffee mugs and water bottles, kintsugi diaries, throw pillows with a faux-ceramic-and-gold design, and cheap kintsugi kits that come with little cups you can break yourself. These industrially produced versions of an aesthetic founded in uniqueness seem good symbols for how the self-help industry works, especially in North America. Culturally specific ideas are commodified, reduced to a catchy name and a portable technique for self-improvement. Think Hygge, Lagom, Ikigai, and almost anything on how the French purportedly live their lives.
Despite my skepticism, I read these books too, hoping to find a revelatory secret among their cheerful observations and predictably bland prose. I even carry a small notebook with a kintsugi pattern in my purse, though I cannot say it has lessened my perfectionism. Kintsugi seems like a challenge to the impossible demand that we become younger and more immaculate with each passing year. But what can an exquisitely repaired cup, or any of its mass-marketed simulacra, really teach?
Bonnie Kemske’s Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend, is one of the baker’s dozen of new books on the topic that have appeared in recent years. Kemske, however, is a specialist in ceramics, so her approach is grounded in the objects and places that define the art. Working in partnership with Hiroko Roberts-Taira (who is acknowledged in the prologue but does not receive an author’s credit), Kemske travels around Japan to meet with ceramic artists and specialists in kintsugi-type repairs, then looks beyond Japan to the ways that kintsugi techniques are applied in contemporary artmaking.
Along the way, Kemske (using Roberts-Taira’s historical research) tells the long story of ceramic repairs in Japan. It begins with ancient pottery shards that show how the Jōmon people of prehistoric Japan were already using urushi lacquer to restore pots in 14,500 BCE, and moves through the rise of the tea ceremony in the samurai class and the development of an unpretentious, rustic wabi aesthetic in the 15th century CE. The increasing use of gold decoration in the 16th to 19th centuries led to the style of repair that is most widely recognized today, where the cracks in a piece are burnished and become its brilliant focal point.
Kintsugi has its imperfections. The book sometimes feels as though it, too, was patched together out of disparate shards. Kemske’s narrative jumps across place and time, mixing history with reflections on contemporary artists, recollections of travel with quotes and reflections on the symbolism of kintsugi. At its strongest, however, Kintsugi reveals how much more varied and exciting the practice of ceramic joining is than the iconic version now known internationally.
To begin with, some of the most beautiful repairs in Kemske’s book are not done with lacquer at all. A stunning early object of this type is Bakōhan (“large locust clamp”), a celadon green tea bowl made sometime in the 12th or 13th century in Longquan, China. In the 15th century, the bowl cracked, and its owner, the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, sent it back to China with a request for a new bowl exactly like it. Claiming that bowls in the same quality were no longer available, a Chinese craftsman repaired it with golden staple-like rivets that recalled locusts, and so Bakōhan won its name.
The word “kintsugi” itself specifically means “gold joining,” but repairs need not feature gold. The book shows a number of repairs done in silver — “gintsugi” — some sparkling new, others darkened with age. In a charming episode, Kemske and Roberts-Taira visit the Raku Museum in Kyoto to see a bowl called Nekowaride, which belonged to Raku Kichizaemon XV, the 15th hereditary head of his legendary family of potters. Nekowaride owes its name to the naughty cat (neko) that broke it. During the visit, Raku’s wife, Raku Fujiko, explains how she had the tea bowl repaired: “I chose silver because I wanted to see it change with time. […] I wanted the joins to be visible so the repair would be evident, to show that this chawan was once broken then brought back to life.” Nekowaride is crisscrossed by black lines, which give it a quiet, almost dreamy look.
Other objects in the kintsugi tradition are not so much repairs as new creations, all of which display the vibrant artistic potential of this craft. Kemske brings together several examples of larger bowls composed of shards that originally belonged to disparate pieces. A Delft plate from the 18th century has a missing triangle on its edge filled in with Japanese cedar, the warm-toned wood offering a rustic contrast to the stark white of the ceramic. A 16th-century bowl named Shumi, or Jūmonji, is divided into neat quarters. It is a rare example of a ceramic object intentionally broken so as to be reassembled, or so the story goes. Its owner, the celebrated tea master Furuta Oribe, is said to have had it cut and the pieces shaved down so as to make it smaller. Its elements are joined only with red lacquer, a gentle contrast to the bowl’s shades of orange, gray, and beige.
Perhaps inevitably, Kemske is keen to show how the metaphor of kintsugi can be applied to regular life. She does this in a final chapter that traces how a variety of musicians, therapists, and activists have drawn on the image of kintsugi to think about resilience and imperfection. Disability support organizations use kintsugi in their branding, we learn, as do prayer gatherings and art galleries. Even Beyoncé features a kintsugi bowl in her visual album Lemonade. The sheer variety of adaptations raises the question of whether kintsugi has, at least outside of Japan, become an easy visual shorthand rather than a call to reflection and change.
The problem with kintsugi as a guiding metaphor for everyday life is that it is a luxury art. Real kintsugi repairs are expensive, time-consuming, and primarily applied to fine objects. Their stunning visual symbolism comes from the richness of golden joins. In most people’s lives, the broken things either stay broken, or their repairs are makeshift and unspectacular. As Kemske notes, authentic kintsugi is also not scalable, as the lacquer is limited in quantity by the number of urushi trees. What is scalable is the mass-produced version of kintsugi: objects made to look as though they were broken and repaired. The most accessible way to connect to the beauty of vulnerability is a fake.
As unconvincing as the universal application of kintsugi is, Kemske also offers a more promising approach to the art. The book is at its best when it focuses on individual pieces, which it does most of the time. These may be centuries-old tea bowls that have been formally designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government, but they can also be experimental works by contemporary artists. My favorite is by Reiko Kaneko, a British Japanese ceramicist who incorporates kintsugi joins in her plates, thin flower vases, and jugs. Her project All That is Broken is Not Lost (2019) began when plates came out of a too-hot kiln slumped, as if they had melted in the oven. Kaneko filled in the resulting cracks with gold, but because the plates are still unusable, the repairs come across as a witty play on traditional kintsugi.
The value of kintsugi is not that it offers an easily digestible and universally applicable lesson about the beauty of human imperfection. Our scars are not all the same, and few of them glimmer. Repaired ceramics are enchanting because of their specificity. They prompt the people who hold and look at them to recall how they were made or acquired, what they looked like before they were broken, the sadness of loss, and the care and expertise it took to give them a new life. Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend makes a case for the importance of kintsugi and related arts worldwide, but it is most compelling when it shows how individual objects are, by necessity, tied to specific places and people, each carrying a story unlike any other.
Irina Dumitrescu is a professor of medieval English literature at the University of Bonn and currently a Visiting Public Humanities Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute in Toronto. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge, 2018).