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Tue, Oct 27, 2020

Kunio Nakamura: Kintsugi, the magical art of mending that bonds the world together

Appreciating “imperfection”

The art of kintsugi is about celebrating what we call “imperfect,” but is in fact perfect…

In recent years, Japan’s traditional mending method of putting broken pieces of pottery back together with lacquer and embellishing it with gold has become popular abroad in some countries.

In “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (released in the United States in December 2019), Kylo Ren, one of the main characters of the movie, wore a kintsugi helmet, which caused quite a buzz among fans.

Kintsugi was formerly known to only a small group of people including tea ware experts and antique collectors (mostly men). But in recent years, it has gained popularity among young women in Japan who try to pursue the mindful way of life. And before we knew it, kintsugi had become something of an icon in the likes of Zen, representing Japanese culture overseas.

A Kuro-garatsu tea bowl (17th century) repaired by kintsugi

The mending method of kintsugi is said to have been developed during the Muromachi period (14th-16th century) by applying lacquerware techniques. It was also closely associated with sado (the way of tea, or Japanese tea ceremony). Tea masters would sometimes break their tea bowls just for the purpose of applying kintsugi. It was a stylish way of having fun by likening the scars on the vessel as something beautifully natural.

Cracks in a vessel may seem like a dramatic landscape. When the scars are decorated with gold, it seems as though a lightning is flashing in the dark, or a golden river is moistening the earth. The tea masters saw beauty in the imperfection. As such, the technique has been passed down to modern times not just as a way to repair broken tea bowls, but also as a sort of magic that brings people together.

Repair orders soar in the wake of Tohoku earthquake

My own somewhat rugged life was mended by kintsugi. I had served for a very long time as a TV director and was totally worn out when I came across the art of kintsugi. I was exhausted both physically and mentally, but I soon began to feel as though I was healing myself by fixing precious vessels. As a part of my former job, I would often appraise antiquities and there was ample opportunity for me to learn about the various techniques involved. Nonetheless, I traveled to lacquerware production areas and workshops in Japan and abroad in several Asian countries to learn more.

At the end of 2008, I quit my job as a company employee and opened a bookstore-coffeehouse by the name of Rokujigen (6th dimension) in Ogikubo, Tokyo. I also started a kintsugi workshop.

Three years later, on March 11, the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region and the nearby areas. Soon after, I started receiving calls from a startling number of people who want their vessels fixed. It was then it struck me that fixing pottery can be therapeutic. Repair orders have been on the rise since.

In 2018, “KINTSUGI PIECES IN HARMONY,” a campaign I initiated to introduce and promote the Japanese craft and its philosophy won an international award (Silver Medal in the DESIGN category of ADFEST 2018). I was also given the opportunity to provide Shiseido with a vessel repaired by kintsugi for one of its international promotion videos (released in 2019).

All of this has been a healing process and a very interesting experience for me. I now have requests coming in from overseas to give lectures on kintsugi. I used to work on TV programs that introduce Japanese culture to NHK World viewers, and that experience is helping me, too.

Books and CDs on kintsugi
Kintsugi is all over

Five years ago, the American rock band Death Cab for Cutie released an album titled “Kintsugi,” which came as a big surprise. In Italy, a romantic novel featuring kintsugi and a TV commercial that does the same were released. And an adhesive named “Kintsuglue” is now on the market, too. In France, the late fashion designer Kenzo Takada launched a new brand incorporating kintsugi. In Thailand, “Kintsugi Bangkok by Jeff Ramsey,” a kaiseki (traditional multi-course dinner) restaurant run by a Japanese-American chef has become very well known, and in the Philippines, a romantic movie titled “Kintsugi” was produced not so long ago.

At home, kintsugi was described as something that represents honest poverty and reinvigoration in both the movie “Destiny — Kamakura monogatari (story)” and TV drama “Okane no kireme ga koi no hajimari (When poverty knocks at the door, love flies ‘in’ through the window).” As for myself, I had been hoping to publish a book on kintsugi and another on antiquities for some time, both of which are now in bookstores. These books were translated and published in China and in South Korea as well, bringing in more people to the world of kintsugi. A kintsugi phenomenon, as it were, is ongoing in various countries and simultaneously.

A kintsugi workshop we held inside a church
What my meeting with Makoto Fujimura led to

About three years ago, I was visited by a Japanese-American artist named Makoto Fujimura. He leads the Culture Care movement, which he says is about “providing care for our culture’s soul.” He wanted to shoot a documentary on kintsugi, which was later shown at the Sundance Film Festival. The more we talked, the more I came to see him as a wonderful artist. From there, one thing led to another, and soon enough, we became cofounders of the Kintsugi Academy in Los Angeles. Life can be mysterious. I was beginning to think kintsugi may actually contribute to world peace.

We are in the age of the pandemic, which is all the more reason for people of the world to experience kintsugi as a way to care for one’s scars. What’s more, I think mending vessels can lead to people connecting with each other, which in turn will help create a new artistic expression. Kintsugi is a way to rebuild rapport between people or to heal oneself by going through the ceremonial act of reproducing an object.

The quintessence of kintsugi is in accepting your ragged self.

(Photos courtesy of Kunio Nakamura)



Rokujigen host


Rokujigen (a bookstore-coffeehouse in Ogikubo, Tokyo) host, video director and artist, who has participated in Yamagata Biennale and other major art projects, with prime interest in communicating Japanese culture to the world. Cofounder of Kintsugi Academy in Los Angeles. Author of many books including "Kintsugi techo" (Kintsugi notebook), "Kobijutsu techo" (Antiquities notebook), "Chato de yomitoku bijutsushi nyumon" (Guide to understanding art history by charting), "Guide to understanding art histroy by motif." Born in Tokyo (1971).



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