Kintsugi — Creating New Value From Broken Items

Kintsugi artwork ①
Blue and white flower vase: Design Kintsugi "Dripping gold drops"
Restored with kintsugi by Kiyokawa Hiroki. (Photo courtesy of Heiando Kyoto.)

   Recently, an ancient Japanese technique for repairing broken ceramics called kintsugi has been growing in popularity. One reason for this is the increased focus on sustainability, which has led more people to take care of and use their possessions as long as possible, but the beauty itself that results from using urushi lacquer and powdered gold is another reason for the technique's newfound popularity. Let's take a look into what kintsugi is and how it is enjoyed in Japan today.

Background to Kintsugi

   It's believed that kintsugi was created in Japan in the Muromachi period (1336–1573), the same era that the cha-no-yu tea ceremony, a tradition of entertaining guests by serving them matcha green tea, became popular. In the tea ceremony, the vessels used while entertaining guests are a very important aspect, and so their craftsmanship and design were constantly evolving. At that time, ceramics were a valuable item only used by the upper classes. It's not surprising then that they would want a way to repair any expensive chipped or broken chawan tea bowls.

   The development of ceramic repair in Japan came about after ceramics repaired using the kasugaidome technique, whereby broken fragments are held together with thick metal staples, were introduced to Japan. As part of the search for a more esthetically pleasing method of repairing ceramics, the kintsugi technique was developed, with tea ceremony attendees enjoying the random patterns created by past damage. Some of the chawan tea bowls repaired with kintsugi during that period are still well preserved today.

Kasugaidome artwork. (Bowl with a Foliate Rim, Named "Bakōhan," Important Cultural Property of Japan, Tokyo National Museum.)
Source: ColBase(

Kintsugi's Relevance in the Modern Era

   The classical technique of kintsugi repairs was created in the Muromachi period and perfected during the Edo period (1603–1868). It uses only natural materials such as urushi lacquer produced in Japan, rice powder and mountain soil. The existence of items repaired over 200 years ago that are still intact today is proof of the durability of these natural materials.

Kintsugi repair using classical techniques by Kiyokawa Hiroki.
(Black Raku Tea bowl: Design Kintsugi "Flashes of the night sky," photo courtesy of Heiando Kyoto.)

   For a long time, kintsugi was applied only to expensive tea-ceremony equipment, and ordinary people's items were repaired using a technique called yakitsugi whereby the pieces are fused back together using lead glass. In the 2000s, kintsugi, which had been handed down through the ages by people as a specialized technique, began to spread to the general public. This was triggered by the publication of a guide for kintsugi beginners and a newfound appreciation for traditional Japanese craft techniques. In addition, the age of mass consumption brought with it a renewed focus on caring for the environment and possessions—another reason why kintsugi has been gathering attention. Kintsugi's focus on creating new value from broken things fits well with today's sustainability-oriented attitudes.

An example of a kintsugi piece by Kawai Natsumi, an expert in urushi lacquerwork and kintsugi. In addition to ceramics, glass can also be restored by skilled kintsugi artisans using special techniques. (Photo courtesy of Kawai Natsumi.)

   Some people also use kintsugi to repair things other than pottery, such as glass items. These new approaches are contributing to the spread of this technique and leading to a wider appreciation of the art.

Easy for Beginners to Try Out

   As kintsugi techniques use urushi lacquer, made from the sap of the urushi tree, it used to be a technique carried out by urushi artisans.
Although there are many methods of kintsugi, the basic process of reattaching the broken pieces with urushi lacquer, filling the cracked or chipped parts with a putty made of urushi lacquer mixed with sawdust or powdered stone, and finishing with gold powder remains the same.
These days, the necessary tools and materials are often sold together as kintsugi sets, and in-depth videos on the technique are available, so it's easy for people to have a go themselves.

Kintsugi classes have become popular in recent years. Urushi lacquer is used to fix broken chawan tea bowls which are then finished with gold powder. The technique is also gaining popularity overseas. (Photo courtesy of Ishiguro Moeko.)

A chawan bowl repaired by a kintsugi beginner.

Examples of kintsugi repairs on various items and a kintsugi kit that can be purchased online.
(Photo courtesy of Tokyo Kintsugi Workshop TSUGU TSUGU .)

   Kintsugi is a technique that requires a lot of patience, as it takes time for the urushi lacquer to dry. It can take up to two months to complete a piece.
But for those who want to make kintsugi-style repairs in a shorter time, there is also a simpler method. It uses a water-resistant craft glue that can be safely used on tableware, and then the join is traced over with acrylic ceramic paint. It's a quick and easy way to get a kintsugi-style repair.
A greater number of options for enjoying kintsugi at home easily and conveniently is a part of the reason why it has become so popular.

   It's inevitable that items will get broken in the course of everyday life. Kintsugi is about creating new beauty as well as reusing broken items, and is also attractive from a sustainability perspective, so it's a technique ought to be passed on to the next generation.