Kintsugi? | History and techniques that you may not have known.

Hi! This is Yuki.  I am an instructor of kintsugi at Tokyo Kintsugi Workshop TSUGUTSUGU.

Kintsugi is becoming popular right now, but do you know the history behind the art?

I think people tend to think that the art has been around for a long time, but – chances are – not many people know the exact history behind it.

So let me take this time to introduce the history and different techniques of Kintsugi.  Don’t worry – even a middle-schooler would be able to understand this.

When did people start using lacquer for repair?  

There is evidence of urushi lacquer being used for repair and as glue from the Jomon period in Japan (14,000 BC to 300 BC).  Lacquer has been found from the tips of stone spears from that period.  Moreover, there is evidence of lacquer being used for these uses in China during the same time.

It is not clear which country started using lacquer for repair, but lacquer trees grow both in Japan and China.  Whoever it was, our ancestors must have noticed the adhesive properties of the sap of the lacquer tree.

Furthermore, there is also evidence of lacquer being used in decoration with a vermillion-like color being added to it.  There must already have been a playful spirit then to use lacquer for fashion.  The vermillion-like color was probably extracted from the iron oxide in the soil.

To this day, we add bengal-red powder to lacquer to add the vermillion-like color.  

When did kintsugi start?

Color was being added to lacquer during the Jomon period, but when did people start adding gold powder to it?

It is believed that kintsugi started becoming popular during the Muromachi (1336 AD to 1573 AD) period in Japan.  This was also when tea ceremonies became popular.

Tea sets were very valuable.  Therefore, whenever tea sets were chipped or cracked, people repaired and embellished them using kintsugi – and kintsugi as an artform was developed and passed down to us.  I might add that repair using gold powder was developed in Japan, and it was not common in China.  I think it is therefore safe to say that kintsugi originated in Japan.

Kintsugi = Scary?

When you hear kintsugi, it probably evokes images of gorgeous art and rich culture.  

However, I feel that there was a different take during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 to 1603) and the Sengoku Jidai (15th century to 17th century).  

There is a curious lack of documentation pertaining to kintsugi from those periods. 

From what we understand, whenever a servant broke an important vessel belonging to his master, it was understood to be a mark of shame to the servant’s family. 

The servant, therefore, had to atone his sin with death. 

Meanwhile, there is historical work called “Tsutsuizutsu.” 

The work recounts a story in which a teahouse servant breaks a bowl that Lord Hideyoshi loved.

The servant mended the bowl using kintsugi, and presented it to Hideyoshi.

Hosokoawa Yusai, popular for kyoka songs, sang a touching kyoka about this, and Hideyoshi’s anger dissipated.

The servant’s life was spared.

It is a beautiful story, but it is not hard to imagine what would have happened if the mended bowl did not satisfy Hideyoshi… ((( ‘· Д ·

The servant’s life depended on the quality of his kintsugi.

There was also a method called “yobitsugi” during Sengoku Jidai.  This entailed combining pieces of different vessels to make up an entirely new vessel.  The new vessel typically comprised 60% – 70% of the main vessel and 30%-40% of the other vessel.

The yobitsugi was used as a sign of reconciliation between two warring factions.  The leaders of these factions – that could be at war with each other – held tea ceremonies with each other to negotiate peace.  If the negotiation was successful, they used yotsugi to combine the tea sets used in their ceremonies to stand for peace.

Maybe the world would be a better place today if we did something like the yobitsugi with each other! ^^

Other methods to mend vessels.

Kintsugi was often performed by lacquer craftsmen during the winter.  This was when their main business of making lacquerware and embellishing temples with lacquer was slow, and doing kintsugi was a good way to make up for the slow business. 

During the Edo period (1603 to 1867), a cheaper method called yaki tsugi was developed to repair pottery.  This method involved applying clay to the cracked/chipped pottery and baking it in fire to mend it.

This technique is still used today, but baking pottery in fire with very high temperatures may result in discoloration of the vessel.  This method, therefore, is not suitable for all vessels.

New kintsugi and the Kintsugi Boom

Kintsugi was not all that well-known before.

People chiefly used wood-based lacquerware in Japan – and fixing pottery was just a side-story.

Kintsugi started to pick up steam when the Japanese shifted from using lacquerware to earthenware.  However, it was in the Heisei period (1989 to 2019) when Kintsugi started becoming popular among everyday people.  The Tohoku earthquake also acted as a catalyst for kintsugi to become popular with people repairing broken earthenware.  

Simplified kintsugi called “Modern Kintsugi” was also developed during this period.  Kintsugi that uses lacquer is time-consuming and takes a lot of preparation – and modern kintsugi was the solution to make it more accessible.

The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Kintsugi Boom

In 2020, we had to reconsider the way we live and interact with one another because of the spread of Covid-19.  Kintsugi was picked up and popularized by the media as something new to pick up at home.  Beautiful pottery repaired and embellished by kintsugi were featured on Instagram, and the term kinsgui that was seldom known became a buzzword among ladies in their 20s. 

The context of this popularization was the increased accessibility with the modern kintsugi.  But with the growing popularity, kintsugi using urushi started becoming popular as well.  There are numerous students that come to Tokyo Kintsugi Workshop TSUGUTSUGU because they want to improve their kintsugi.

Traditionally, kintsugi was administered on earthenware, but we have seen specialists that administer kintsugi on glass.  Administering kintsugi on glass is considered more challenging, and I have asked for guidance from specialists to master the art myself.

There are not many classes that teach how to do kintsugi on glass, but we offer introductory classes at Kintsugi Workshop TSUGUTSUGU.

Kintsugi beyond Japan

I think kintsugi has become more popular overseas than Japan since the early 90’s.

When people say “repair” overseas, it is my impression that the purpose is to make the imperfection less noticeable.  The shift in thinking of using the imperfection to make the pottery more artistically pleasing and the concept of the Japanese “mottainai” are fueling kintsugi’s popularity abroad.

The 2020 olympics was postponed considering the spread of Covid-19, but there has been an increased interest in Japanese culture/traditions in anticipation of the postponed olympics.  Based on our research, it is in this context that people out of Japan are purchasing kintsugi kits.

However, many of those out of Japan do not know that kintsugi takes time and effort, and some even believe that kintsugi involves smashing a perfectly fine work of art with a hammer and gluing the shattered pieces together. 

Since I started providing the kintsugi kit in May of 2020, I have developed an interest in spreading traditional kintsugi to those out of Japan.  This is why the instructions of my kits are both in English and Japanese and why I have been posting YouTube videos in English.

I foresee that 2021 is going to be a great year for kintsugi globally, so I will continue to do my part to spread this amazing Japanese tradition (๑˃̵ᴗ˂̵)و.

Summary of History of Kintsugi and Different Techniques

Repair using lacquer started more than 10,000 years ago, and kintsugi  using gold powder was developed in Japan in the 15th century when tea ceremonies were popular.  

Today, kintsugi is popular not only in Japan, but overseas as well.

It is a very time consuming art, but it is my hope that the repair using natural products will be embraced more – and I will keep on providing my output to that end (๑˃̵ᴗ˂̵)و

Anybody can begin kintsugi with a kintsugi kit

With the popularity of kintsugi, many companies and individuals have started offering kintsugi kits/sets. 

Our company has started providing our kit in May of 2020, and – as of January 2021 – it has become the number one selling kintsugi kit on Amazon Japan, Rakuten, and Yahoo Japan with rave reviews.  The customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with an average of 4.5 stars (as of May 5th, 2021).

Kintsugi can be done from the comforts of your home, but many have approached me for instructions, so I started a kintsugi school in  Yotsuya around December of 2020.  Since February of 2021, I have opened the flagship kintsugi school in Hiroo, and I am doing my part to spread kintsugi.

For those of you who can attend because of distance, I have started online classes from April of 2021 – and anybody is welcome.

For those of you who do not speak Japanese, I host online classes in English by limiting the number of participants.

I will keep on doing my best to meet your kintsugi demand 150%.

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