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How gold and broken pottery teach us about life: Kintsugi


You are perfect, with your scars shining brightly.

It always pleases the eyes to see art.  Art provokes us, and begs us to ponder: what does this piece mean? What does it imply? How large of an effect does it have on us? Can we do something with the thoughts it leaves behind? One form of art that does this for me personally is the art of Kintsugi: repairing broken pottery with golden lacquer (silver or platinum works too!).


There are two ways to describe this form of art:

  1. 金継ぎ (Kintsugi): Golden joinery
  2. 金繕い (Kintsukuroi): Golden repair

Meaning of the Kanji

If you can tell from the kanji (Japanese characters), there are 3 characters involved, with 1 common between the two terms:

  • 継ぎ: Joinery. Pronounced as つぎ (Tsugi), It can also mean to patch up, or a seam.
  • 繕い: Repair. Pronounced as つくろい(Tsukuroi), it can also mean to mend, patch up, etc. Depending on the context, it could also mean to cover up/fix appearances and mistakes or to treat injuries.
  • 金: Gold, Golden. You might have seen this character in 金曜日 (kinyoubi, or Friday) and in Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺), which is the name of the Golden Temple in Kyoto.

But, how did it start?

The Aesthetic Shogun: Ashikaga Yoshimasa

There is one theory currently circling around to describe Kintsugi’s origins.

Painted by Tosa Mitsunobu in the 15th Century.

Back in the 15th century, the shogun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, had sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China to be fixed. It came back…less-than-pretty: patched together with metal staples, it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to the eyes.

The quest for beauty continued once again: Japanese craftsmen searched for a better alternative to repair these damaged pieces, which had led to the inclusion of golden repairs. Ceramics, repaired with gold? It was unheard of at the time.
It piqued the interests of nobles at the time, creating a new trend as it is: some revered their beautiful irony. Others resorted to expressing their interest by deliberately breaking their own.


Some terms!

If you want to sound like a Kintsugi expert in front of your friends, you should take a look at these terms:


The usage of Japanese lacquer and gold/silver powder can be mainly found in Maki-e (蒔絵, or ‘sprinkled picture’). Using a kebo brush (makizutsu), lacquer and gold was used to decorate items in the house for the upper class, with roots reaching all the way back in the Year 800. Being a luxurious commodity, Maki-e are symbols of power.


Known as ひび, or hibi.
This is the usage of gold dust and resin/lacquer to fill in missing parts of an item. The intention is for attachment, and to minimalize the amount of gold dust used to keep its original shape.

Piece method

Known as 欠けの金継ぎ, or kake no kintsugi.
When a fragment of the ceramic item in question is missing, this method is to completely fill that gap with a gold + lacquer compound.

Joint call

Known as 呼び継ぎ or yobi tsugi.

Similar to patching up a blanket with another irrelevant piece. This is when you replace a missing fragment with one from another item, similar in shape, but you can tell it’s not from the same item. This is then attached with gold/lacquer. If you’ve ever seen patchwork blankets, where there are no holes but the patterns are different, this is the same concept.

With this, we can sound like Japanese art experts!


Through Gold, we value imperfection.

Why do we care if something is broken? What good is something repaired, when we know it is not the same as before?

These are some of the questions that Kintsugi challenges: the concept of imperfection.

Looking at it from a philosophical perspective, the art treats breakage and repair as part of an object’s history. Rather than hide it as we normally do our insecurities, Kintsugi leverages on these struggles and highlights them. It becomes an addition to the art’s initial message, and through that we have something greater than its original form.

This brings out another interesting point: something can become greater than itself, more beautiful than ever, if it was broken first. It can apply to various things in life, most notably our own.

We find it beautiful to see people who have struggled through battles, overcome them and become such strong individuals. Cancer survivors, addicts who broke free, the rags-to-riches stories. Kintsugi, is that tale in art form.

Leonard Cohen said it best in this quote:

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

From a psychological perspective, this is further elaborated in the concept of Positive Disintegration. Created by Kazimierz Dąbrowski, this emphasizes the need for psychological tension and anxiety as necessary for growth. You can look at it as hardships necessary for growth.

But in the case of personality development, it is the hardships within us that allow us to become greater beings.
Kintsugi is a good way to describe our lives. We spend our entire lifetime to fill the gaps with golden lacquer, to make ourselves better than what we currently are right now.


It is a beautiful thing to behold.

Further Reading

Wikipedia Entry: Kintsugi

‘Golden Seams: The Japanese Art of Mending Ceramics’ at Freer

「金継ぎ(金繕い)」とは? (Japanese only)

Theory of Positive Disintegration 101: On Becoming Your Authentic Self

A Kintsugi Life – An English website to learn more about Kintsugi!