Kintsugi: Fact and Fiction

Across the internet, kintsugi is generally assumed to have been invented during the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490). Said to have been disappointed with the ugly, stapled, repair to his favourite celadon tea bowl he asked local craftsmen to do better. Their response was to coat the mend in powdered gold mixed with lacquer and create the art of kintsugi.

There is a slim chance it may have happened like this, but unfortunately, there is no evidence that this ever happened. There is no technical reason why it couldn’t have been done: urushi (natural Japanese lacquer) had been used for thousands of years as an adhesive to mend ceramics; and hundreds of years before Yoshimasa’s reign, Japanese artisans had invented and developed the technique of adding gold and silver details to lacquer designs. By the Muromachi period, the complex Shishiai-togidashi-maki-e technique had been mastered and in comparison to makie techniques kintsugi would have been a fairly simple procedure. The technical aspects were all in place, so why is it unlikely that kintsugi was invented during Yoshimasa’s time?

The Facts

If we look at the facts of the story, there is evidence that one of Yoshimasa’s favourite celadon tea bowls was broken. And it was sent to China. And it did come back repaired with large metal staples. But rather than be disappointed with the repair, these large staples added to the beauty of the bowl and it became a celebrated teabowl with it’s own name: Bakōhan. As the bowl still survives today, we are certain that there was never any kintsugi applied to the bowl, but could this have been the source of the Yoshimasa kintsugi myth?

Bakohan Locust Clamp Tea Bowl

The Bakōhan locust clamp tea bowl, Longquan Celadon

The National Institutes of Cultural Heritage in Japan add a few more intriguing details:

“[I]n the Muromachi period it became a possession of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (ruled 1449-73). While Yoshimasa was using the bowl, it became cracked on the bottom, so he sent it to China to exchange it with another one of the same quality. However, as celadon porcelain ware of such a high quality was no longer available in China then, the bowl was sent back to the shogun with the crack merely fastened with a clamp. The bowl became valued even more highly because of this large clamp, which looked like a locust and the bowl was named Bakōhan (large-locust clamp).”

What is most interesting is that Yoshimasa requested an exchange. For him a flawless replacement was the preferred solution and it seems that is was a decision of the Chinese craftsmen to repair the bowl. But once the mended bowl returned the tea masters and dōbōshu of the day saw this outward evidence of the mend honestly displayed on the tea bowl as adding to its beauty.

So it seems that there is some truth to the underlying facts behind the kintsugi origin story, but it has been altered to make room for the idea of kintsugi. There is no doubt that Muromachi Japanese culture valued the broken teabowl, but it is slightly unfair on Yoshimasa to portray him as unable to see the beauty of the mended Bakōhan teabowl.

Evidence from other Mended Pieces

So if not during the reign of Yoshimasa, when does kintsugi come into being? There isn’t much reliable written evidence, but we can look at a handful of other objects to try and establish the importance of kintsugi. Let's look at three other famous mended pieces in Japanese tea mythology: the Unzan Katatsuki tea caddy, the Tsutsuizutsu tea bowl, and the Tsukumo Nasu tea caddy.

1. The Unzan Katatsuki

For the first, we can jump another hundred years from Yoshimasa to the life of the great tea master Sen No Rikyū (1522 –1591), the champion of the wabi aesthetic. In his tea diaries there is no mention of kintsugi, but there is the story of the Unzan Katatsuki tea caddy (chaire): An Osaka merchant acquired the Unzan Katatsuki chaire and wished to show it off to Rikyū when he hosted a tea ceremony. Unfortunately Rikyū didn’t evaluate the Unzan tea caddy particularly highly and he was also put off by the ego of the owner who wanted to show off his new purchase. During this tea ceremony, Rikyū tried to ignore the tea caddy as much because of the attitude of the owner as the qualities of the caddy itself and the disappointed owner smashed the Unzan Katatstuki in a fit of rage after the ceremony finished. A fellow attendee rescued the smashed pieces and repaired them as an amateur. The next time Rikyū saw the tea caddy, which had been mended with rough edges obviously by an amateur, he praised the character of the attendee for rescuing and mending an unpraised tea caddy. It was this character and attitude of the attendee, represented by the tea caddy with its rough repairs, which was praised by Rikyū rather than the tea caddy itself. As with many Japanese tea utensils, the Unzan Katatsuki is as famous for its connections with famous tea men, the story and the values epitomised by it as it is famous for its artistic qualities.

 Unzan Katatsuki Tea Caddy

This is the only existing picture of the Unzan Katatsuki, it is unclear where it is now. It is also unclear when the kintsugi was added. There is no mention of the kintsugi in the Rikyū sources so it is unlikely to have been mended with kintsugi then. It was restored after being scorched by fire in 1784, and the kintsugi could even have been added as late as that.

2. Tsutsuizutsu tea bowl

Contemporaneous with Rikyū was the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who also incidentally ordered Rikyū to commit suicide. As a famous tea utensil collector, a Korean style (Ido) teabowl once owned by the founder of the tea ceremony Murata Shuko came into his possession. Once while being cleaned, Hideyoshi’s treasured tea bowl dropped and broke. To defuse Hideyoshi’s anger one of the guests at the gathering, Hosokawa Yusai, spontaneously improvised a nonsense tanka poem playing on a famous verse from The Tales of Ise starting: Tsutuizutsu / Itsutsuni kakeshi.
Luckily Hideyoshi saw the funny side and the tea bowl has gone down in folklore as the Tsutsui-zutsu after the first syllables of the poem.<

Tsutsuizutsu Chawan Teabowl

Source: Chanoyu to Wa

Tsutuizutsu
Itsutsuni kakeshi
Ido chawan
Toga oba wareni
Oini kera shina

 

The bowl was mended using lacquer carefully blended to match the bowl and only later in the Edo era was kintsugi applied to the mend. We can see from this that the broken teabowl had at least as much value after the breakage for Hideyoshi as before, but even Hideyoshi with his opulent taste did not apply kintsugi to the mend. This suggests that kintsugi was not prevalent at the time. I can understand Rikyū with his more ascetic worldview not approving of kintsugi, but Hideyoshi was a very different character who revelled in gold and wealth as much as famous tea utensils, so for him to turn down the opportunity for kintsugi would be odd. Nonetheless, it is a perfect example of how a break and a mend can add immeasurably to the story of an object and a new phase of the Tsustsuizutsu’s life opened from that incident on, increasing its value as a cultural artefact.

3. Tsukumo Nasu tea caddy

Sen no Rikyū lived through the Sengoku Period and the wabi aesthetic and tea ceremony were developed at the same time as brutal wars swept across Japan as the three great warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu struggled to bring Japan under one rule. Famous tea items became highly desirable and the great warlords took to collecting them as spoils of war and as tribute from their retainers. One of the most famous tea items (meibutsu) is the Tsukumo Nasu tea caddy.

Tsukumo Nasu Tea Caddy

The Tsukumo Nasu mirrored the fortunes of the great unifiers of Japan as it passed through the hands of Ashikaga Yohimasa and became a favourite of Oda Nobunaga’s. It was then said to have been rescued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself from the ashes of the Honno-ji temple where Oda Nobunaga was betrayed and fought to the last as flames consumed the temple. The Tsukumo Nasu was in the thick of it again 33 years later as it also witnessed the final defeat of the Toyotomi clan at the siege of Osaka castle. Tokugawa Ieyasu combed the ashes of the castle to find it, and he came across the smashed remnants of the caddy. The caddy was painstakingly reconstructed and mended by a lacquer craftsman called Fujishige Togen.

Tsukumo Nasu X-Ray

Although a poor quality photo, you can see how badly damaged the Tsukumo Nasu was and the skill it took to mend it.

However, there is no trace of kintsugi, the caddy was invisibly mended with incredible skill, there are no traces of the mend. Who knows the exact reason why it was repaired like this, but we can speculate that for Ieyasu, the Tsukumo Nasu was a symbol of the power passing from the Ashikagas through Nobunaga and the Toyotomi clan to the Tokugawa clan, and its symbolic power lay in it being the same, identical object. The only difference being that it was now in his collection, not the Toyotomi’s.

Conclusion

So we have four famous objects, all broken and mended: the Bakōhan was mended and celebrated for the aesthetic appeal of the staples holding it together; the rough mending of the Unzan was praised by Rikyū, but more for the character of the person who mended it rather than the object itself; the Tsutsuizutsu was mended and then at a later time in the Edo era was given a final layer of kintsugi; and, the Tsukumo Nasu was mended so well that it appears to be a flawless object.

Seppo teabowl, Hon'ami Koetsu

The Seppo ("Snowy Peak") tea bowl

We also know that the multi-skilled, Edo renaissance man Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637) created the Seppo teabowl in the Edo era. Whether he purposefully created a cracked teabowl or whether it was a firing accident, we don't know, but we do know that Hon'ami Koetsu either applied the kintsugi then or oversaw its application. Hon'ami Koetsu was always trying new things, so it is tricky to infer from this how widespread kintsugi was at this time, His development of the Rinpa style which was very decorative and colourful, and often on a gold ground, would suggest that Hon'ami Koetsu would be drawn to kintsugi as an early adopter.

We don't have a clear date for when Hon'ami Koetsu created Seppo and it is very difficult to date other works of kintsugi. There is very little evidence to build any further conclusions, but it seems most likely to be an Edo era innovation. The founding of the Rinpa school, the re-integration of Heian era refinement and decoration, the move from wabi-sabi to the more delicate kirei-sabi, would all lend themselves to that theory, but it can still only be a theory!

The exact date of when kintsugi was created doen't matter too much, it is clear that mended, imperfect and flawed pieces were valued and appreciated throughout this period, and the development of kintsugi was a natural step from this. We don’t know how people really felt about their mended tea bowls and tea caddies, but we can see that there was a range of responses to breaking a treasured item, from simply gluing it back together, to highlighting the mend, or completely disguising the mend. And like all periods, as soon as there was value in wabi and kintsugi, more devious minds took advantage of that market – it is important to remember that there were many competing motivations and ideologies, and while there were the noble ideals of wabi and Zen Buddhism this was equally a time of ruthless acquisition, greed and exploitation. Rikyū himself embodied some of these contrasts as a successful commercial merchant and purveyor of tea wares in addition to his life as an ascetic man of tea.

The same goes for kintsugi. There is something undeniably moving about the contrast of using a luxury material like gold to highlight the mend in a Korean bowl produced as a rustic piece, but this contrast also gives rise to other questions: Does the gold layer in kintsugi actually disguise the mend rather than celebrate it? Does the use of such a high status material like gold undermine kintsugi’s claim to the poverty and asceticism of wabi-sabi? Do you need luxury to celebrate the vicissitudes of life, or is an honest repair like on the Bakōhan a more authentic approach?

After all, the Yoshimasa origin story does not emphasise the Zen and Wabi motivations, it emphasises the ugliness of the Chinese repair. This may not reflect Yoshimasa’s convictions but it does seem to illuminate the belief of the person who created this story that a visible mend is ugly rather than something to accept. It feels like someone was casting about for a grain of truth to spin into an origin story, and who better to link back to than the great Yoshimasa?

Kintsugi does have elements of wabi but also elements of luxury and status, it is neither one nor the other, this is why it holds such fascination because each observer can take what they will from the object. One of the benefits of not having any records from the commissioners or creators of kintsugi, is that it leaves room for our own interpretations.