[Aesthetics] Broken is beautiful – the art of ‘kintsugi’


Kintsugi [金継ぎ] is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Instead of seeing cracks as something to be disguised, it is thought that the cracks form a unique, one-of-a-kind pattern (it is not easy to replicate the exact same cracks after all), and that the cracks become part of the history of an object. Moreover, this technique can also be used to combine fragments from different broken articles creatively to form a new item.


Recently, I saw a kintsugi tea cup appearing on a Panasonic advertisement. The theme of the advertisement is about searching for answers to lifelong active employment in an aging country. It is a clever allegory to an individual human being, who is likely to be broken many times over in this sad, fleeting world.


In Japan, not only does broken pottery receive a second life through kintsugi. Once, the long-running NHK documentary series on aesthetics named Bi no Tsubo [美の壺] also reported on how the celebrity antique dealer Mitsuo Katsumi [勝見充男] chooses pieces of broken pottery to be used as hashioki [箸置き], or chopsticks rest.


No other country on earth seems to celebrate the aesthetic attitude that broken is beautiful as much as Japan, or even to imagine that broken can be beautiful. I wonder why.


7 thoughts on “[Aesthetics] Broken is beautiful – the art of ‘kintsugi’

  1. “Broken is beautiful” is part of wabi-sabi, no? If we try to trace this aesthetic historically, could we find an answer? Is it something deep-seated in Shinto or Buddhism or Taoism, or is it something that came to be from an awareness of some part of Japanese history?

  2. Addessing your last two phrase, two things came to my mind.
    One was how I saw how a showcase glass on a train station lay there in shattered pieces. That glass was made of a glass, that shatters into small parts, that won’t cut you so dangerously. I thought those shattered pieces were most beatiful and brought home a few. I sort of tried to glue them together into some sort of art piece. (Unskilled as I am, nothing really artistic came out after all.) I was kind of regarded as a weirdo, for trying that w3ith basically trash and ultimately those glass pieces got thrown out, because they are not just useless, but actually considered dangerous. I wonder it that may not be right the reason. Broken is worthless. Broken is dangerous. And in a number of cases that’s uncontestably even true.
    This reusual of broken parts also reminds me a bit of what I have once read about the workings of a kimono. If a kimono breaks, it gets reused for a sash and if that breaks it can still be used for the strings of a ghetta. The cloth gets reborn into something else that is not regarded as something lesser in standing and importance. Perhaps the reusual is the key point? I I had started Japaneses classes my teacher quite stressed in that the Japanese don’t so much obsess over “the original”. If a temple gets burnt, it’s simply rebuild, while in the west only the original is seen as really authentic and a thing to be revered. I mean, there is the art form of mosaics, but it’s somehow never stressed as something using broken pieces of something else. (Which would make most sense to make leftovers into mosaic pieces.)

    But I think there is something that is actually shared across all cultures about broken is beautiful in forms of ruins. It’s not really an art form in and out itself, but ruins, landscapes full of destruction or sorts or other apocalyptic settings pop up regularly and do evoke a sort of awe. (Although I am not so sure, if not half of them is more like the awe over the power of nature.)

    • @ Luna

      In Japan, they sell starter kits for kintsugi. You can see some of them here and here.

      I am sure you would have done a beautiful job with those pieces of glass with these starter kits!

      Your kimono example reminds me of quilting – perhaps it was just simple household economy before our throwaway, consumerist age.

      The Japanese may not obsess over ‘the original’ but it seems that they do obsess over ‘lineage’ – that is to say, the ‘house rules’ for creating or performing something with extreme precision that does not allow much room for individual deviation. Say, a temple like the Ise Grand Shrine gets burnt down – then an exact replica is rebuilt according to the strictest rules down to the minutest detail. The ‘thing’ in existence you can touch with your hands may appear and perish in cycles of time, but the concept of that ‘thing’ seems to exist eternally in the mind.

      Which reminds me of what I said earlier in my reivew of Kyousougiga:

      ‘But the thing that makes mono and koto interesting as indicators of the worldview underlying the Japanese language (similar to the way “the” as definite article and “a” as indefinite article embody a worldview unique to English and similar European languages) is that a lot of things and people have a physical aspect as well as an abstract aspect. For example, you have a physical aspect as a person occupying a certain amount of space, but you also have an abstract aspect – for example, as memory in someone’s else mind. Therefore, even when you are referring to the same person, you are obliged to sometimes use mono and sometimes use koto depending on the situation. This is because you both exist in physical presence and as an abstract concept.’

      ‘In the story, Kotodaughter is entrusted with a hammer called Aratama, which is said to embody the “heart” and “soul” of her divine father. She travels to Kyoto Mirror City [鏡都], where nothing is ever destroyed and no one ever dies – except with her Aratama, which has the power to cause destruction and death. Could her name “Koto” be a metaphysical metaphor that in order to destroy something (or someone), you must first destroy the thing in concept? Once the concept is destroyed, the destruction of its physical existence would naturally follow? Recall that Myōefather‘s power of creation requires him to draw a picture before the object materializes in the physical world. Once the concept is created, its physical existence would also follow.’

  3. Perhaps I might have… But actually, I never ever came across such shattered pieces again in some train station. While it certainly wouldn’t be too difficult to find out what special glass is exactly used for such showcases, getting some just for breaking them seems somewhat wrong.

    Quilting does not really fit into what I meant with the Kimono example.
    Quilting would be more like mosaic. They both usually use new materials. Those material might be actually industrial trash or rather leftovers, which are too small for anything else, but they are still new and unsused.
    What I meant with the Kimono example would also be closer to a chinese (well, more traditional custom by now) of ripping clothes into long stripes at the end of their life and make mops out of them. Or if the cloth pieces are smaller to use them as wiping cloth.
    Or some more traditional German dishes as in taking old bread from last day or even older and soften themwith eggs and bake them anew. But this dish was considered a dish for the poor even before the throwaway age we have now.

    The obessing over lineage or concepts really seems to be hard to grasp in the west. People have a lot of attachment to the “real original thing”. I remember how a certain church in Dresden (I think it was) reopened some 30 years after being destroyed in WW2 and they overly stressed that they used as many original materials of the destroyed church as possible. It made it sound like if they didn’t the new church would loose any degree of authenticity.
    There was also once a ducumentation of some famous tomb in the UK and it was all about whether this tomb would really be the tomb of King Arthur or be a fake. It went on through some archeologic stuff and the result was, it was fake. But the fake tomb was dating itself back on about 1000 years go. There was an interview with some archeologist there, who then said something along the lines of “It may not be the real tomb of King Arthur, but it has plenty of history itself by now”. The way it was presented appeared like a sore excuse. It then shifted on to show the tomb in the current age with a lot of tourists flocking around it and the tone of the end of the documentary was along the lines of, it doesn’t even really matter if it’s fake. As long as the tourists don’t know it’s fake or think it may be real after all, the place will be visited just fine.

    I wonder if Christianity is the reason over the original obsession. The orthodox have their relics and icons, the evagenlians consider only the “original” in form of the bible words. In fact, the catholic church, which is considered the most traditional may be the most closest one to the concept notion. They use the bible as the center, but they have their own doctrins which are expanded with time and of almost the same importance. The pope is always the constant in power, but each pope may have (slightly) diffrent agendas. (Through they also have relics and the holy bible is all important.)

    • Perhaps the Eastern attitude tends to value the essence of a thing (the aspect that you cannot touch but see in your mind’s eye) rather than the physical appearance of a thing (the aspect that you can touch and see with your eyes). I wonder if you have seen this video before? Some very interesting ideas in there:

      Your example of a church in Dresden actually reminds me of the Ark of Covenant. In spite of all the detailed instructions of how it was built in the Bible, there are still parties (mostly Jewish) trying to trace its whereabouts – they would not be happy with anything less than the original artifact. I am not sure if you are aware of the theory that one of Israel’s lost tribes made it to Japan. If they did – perhaps this may well be an example of ‘going native’ – it may explain every town in Japan gets its own ‘omikoshi’.


      • I finally got around watching the video. Very interesting indeed. It’s funny how with any example except for the monkey-banana-panda example I first thought it would be Eastern style, but then quickly saw both and couldn’t decide at all what was supposed to be proper without seeing the face of the person asking. With the monkey-banana-panda example however I could for the love of life not figure out, what other pairing there was supposed to exist anyhow spontanious despite knowing it should have a diffrent pairing.
        I have taken this example (since it’s not so heavily visual) and asked a bit around. While my samplings aren’t really numerous and representive at all. One interesting observation was that while the caucasians were mostly like on the Panda-monkey side, anime ethusiast among them almost completely tended to go for the monkey-banana. (One of them actually thought this must be a trick question and gave banana-panda as a secondary answer she would got for, if it were not monkey-banana. Because both words have 2 A characters.)
        What was rather mixed were the answeres from people growing up in ex-soviet countries. One Russian person among them explained, that Russia were a self proclaimed chain between the east and the west that encompasses both cultural values. I don’t really know much about Russia through.

        But anyhow, I think I may have found an outlet to perhaps explain something that has been on my mind foerever. Your comment “It’s not about using them, it’s about admiring the craft – Don’t you feel anything?” has put some more fire onto as well. What was on my mind on all those golden cups etc. at that precise moment was -some more so, some less so but still – mostly something along the lines “It’s such a waste.” My hitherto “That is nothing I would ever use” or “it feels overloaded” was quite suboptimal, but I never got around to find any better words to communicate the idea in my head. Perhaps I might now. If it comes to that, that the Eastern values look a lot of the relationships an object has, than the relationship of a cup would be “being used as a cup” with cup being a piece of tableware. The image that forms in my head upon seein a cup is that of somebody using it. The next idea that crosses me then is that a the cup, with all the heavy gold and elaborate crafty ornaments, is that it’s really unhandy to actually use and must be a pain to clean and keep free from dust. So basically the ergonomics of this golden cup are pretty bad, which then disqualifies this object as a proper cup for me. But it’s still a cup and I see this first and foremost along with how the craft – skillful as it may be – contributes to create a sort of disharmony within this golden cup. Something that seems to make me unable to simply enjoy the skill of a craft as a raw element, since this skill has sorely missed the point of the object.
        This may also explain why I am not really too hot for jewelry behind a showcase. The primary goal of most jewellery is to be worn by a a beautiful person to enhace the person’s beauty and boast their wealth. A jewelery behind a showcase glass is usually kind of… bland to me. Jewelry on somebody ugly makes the ugly even worse and the “waste” feeling even more evident.
        I saw this “Fashioning a Reign” exhibition advertising poster with Queen Elizabeth in her younger years on a black-white photograph in a room with fancy furniture and her beind draped in an elaborate dress with a lot auf jewelry. You can’t even really make out the close details of the jewelry’s craft – but this image stuck ever so much more in my head than 95% of a showcased treasury in a museum usually ever manages to accomplish. Behind glasses they almost look all the same to me. To use the words of the documentation, the object is removed and cut off from it’s original relashionship. And I seem to have my troubles to enjoy craft under such circumstances.
        Which seems to gain even more weight that things on exhibitions whose purpose is simply being exhibited in an exhibition usually catch my eye far more easily. Like the kintsugi moon pot – it was a closed, sealed pot, so it obviously was never meant for being used as a moon pot in any way. The point of this object was to show off the craft of kintsugi. Nothing else there to distract from this purpose notion.
        I suppose in that way by default I am probably more easily to pleace with paintings, whose purpose is simply being looked at in the first place. But also with that in mind a museum more than often does not really give it a proper nice harmonious surrounding to make it really memorable. But every now and them there is a piece of art that is strong enough to coin the context of itself and its surroundings single-handedly and not have the vicinity push positive or negative additional context onto it.

        So I suppose, I boils down to, an object has first to archieve its purpose. Then I start marveling at the craft in details that contibuted in it archieving it in a ever so much more brilliant way than an uncrafty piece would do.
        … or probably I just go about it completely wrong which may be because my mind and own skills are just so horrendousky bad in the arts and crafts department; even if I try to dub a fitting surrounding in my mind to a piece of art, it only ever creates disharmony, when the craft of the object right before my eyes is so far ahead the craft of my imagination. That might also be why I suppose I like Monnet’s sort of style. It’s this dreamy fuzzy style both in contours and colours which blends best with my own imagination, that usually can’t pull off crafty details.

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