October 29, 2022

The Light Beyond Imperfection
“Kintsugi Kurashi” and the Art of Kintsugi

不完全の先の可能性 「金継ぎ暮らし」の活動

“There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."

These are lyrics of the song “Anthem” written by the poet and singer Leonard Cohen back in the early 1990s when power relationships across the globe were undergoing radical change. The words urging us to see hope and beauty in an imperfect world have endured as a timeless message that helps us through dark times.

Interestingly, these lyrics are often quoted in discussions about “kintsugi,” the traditional Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by conjoining pieces with urushi, or natural lacquer, and decorating the traces of damage with gold. By refusing to acknowledge flaws and shortcomings, but rather transform them into possibilities, the beauty and art of kintsugi is inadvertently captured and reflected in Cohen’s lyrics.

Nowadays daily-use tableware is available at affordable prices, “decluttering” has become a buzzword, and the minimalist lifestyle is somewhat of a trend. Many people are finding joy in owning less while caring for well-made, precious belongings has inspired a “visible mending” movement. Kintsugi is a perfect example of this movement and the growing interest of turning repairs into a design feature, while also extending the life of irreplaceable  objects.

Takuma Yoshioka and Yuta Hagiwara are the two artisans running “Kintsugi Kurashi,” which not only takes orders for repairing items, but also offers workshops for first-timers to try their hands at kintsugi. Although kintsugi is garnering attention both in and outside of Japan today, Kintsugi Kurashi has its own distinctive style that reflects the passion the two have built for the art and culture of kintsugi.

There are several theories as to how kintsugi began, but most commonly it is said that kintsugi emerged in tandem with cha-no-yu, or tea ceremony culture, from the Azuchi-Momoyama period over 400 years ago. The feudal lord Oda Nobunaga held important tea ceremonies attended by only a chosen few. For his vassals, it was an honor to be invited and allowed to use Nobunaga’s precious tea utensils. Hence, if anything broke, it was paramount that it be repaired with utmost care. When the fractures are mended with lacquer, they show as black lines. Dusting these lines with gold powder was a technique employed to enhance the appearance of the mend. In kintsugi, the repair and its subsequent decoration are essentially two sides of the same coin, together creating a new and unique kind of beauty.

“Normally, you don’t want to show flaws. But kintsugi intentionally highlights those flaws. It’s a Japanese sensibility that derives from the Zen spirit of accepting things as they are. I think that’s the most interesting thing about kintsugi,” explains Takuma. “You don’t need to be embarrassed that something is flawed. Why not seek beauty in that imperfection? This is true for people as well. We all strive to live even when bad things happen. I think we all want to find a way to recognize a kind of beauty in that.”

Before becoming a kintsugi artisan, Takuma had once broken a rice bowl that belonged to his friend. “I couldn’t just replace it with a new one. I knew I had to repair it. I rushed to learn kintsugi from an artisan who later became my master. Once I began, I was totally into it,” he recalls. After a few years of training, Takuma was advised to run his own workshop.

Meanwhile, Yuta was working at a museum where he became acquainted with kintsugi. “I learned that in regions with pottery culture, it’s normal to have broken items repaired by the potters who made them. I thought it would be nice to establish this sort of cycle in Tokyo as well,” he says. It didn’t take long for Takuma and Yuta, who were friends since their schooldays, to establish Kintsugi Kurashi together.

In the beginning, they tried to recruit workshop participants but received little response. Things kicked into gear when they were asked to supervise a scene in a TV drama series in which the actor repaired an item using kintsugi, and this elicited viewer response. They also sat for an interview on Japanese culture with BBC when the Tokyo Olympics were held in 2021.

As they began to pick up momentum, they stopped to question what their customers were really looking for. “One time, a workshop participant said to me, ‘all I want to do is fix this plate. I’m not aiming to become a kintsugi artist.’ And that made me think, what kind of kintsugi would truly benefit our customers?” recalls Takuma. While it only takes a moment to break something, traditional repair using natural lacquer is a painstaking process that takes months to complete. To bridge this time gap, the two decided to offer a simplified form of kintsugi using epoxy resin and shin-urushi, or a new kind of lacquer, both easier and quicker to handle.

However, safety issues are often overlooked in simplified kintsugi. While traditional kintsugi using natural lacquer is food-safe, synthetic materials can fall within a gray area. To avoid this ambiguity, Yuta negotiated with manufacturers to obtain the safest materials and tools that conform to the Japanese Food Sanitation Act. “I think some people are uncertain about the safety of kintsugi. But if you do enough research, I think you’ll end up coming to us,” he says proudly.

However, both Takuma and Yuta surmise that “kintsugi will eventually die out.” Yuta explains, “the market share of Japanese lacquer is a mere 10% of the total global production. There’s a shortage of successors to carry on the practice of planting urushi trees and extracting the lacquer sap. We need to find ways to keep the culture and the related production going.” Perhaps the word “imperfect” also describes the situation surrounding kintsugi itself.

“We can’t just rest on the laurels of the kintsugi tradition. We have to create a contemporary kind of kintsugi. In order to do that, we  have to find people who will understand and support us,” says Takuma. With their passionate vision, the two are “piecing together” possibilities to create a brighter future for kintsugi. Hopefully, that’s how the light will get in.

Kintsugi Kurashi is offering both traditional and simplified kintsugi workshops at g KEYAKIZAKA in Roppongi and a classroom in Jiyugaoka. Visit their website and Instagram for more details.


Instagram @kintsugikurashi

Photos of the artists’ work taken by Meri Tanaka