Kintsugi helped me to understand my brother’s death | Life and style

My brother died at the age of 10, when I was eight. When I was nine, I shushed my best friend for mentioning him. At 11, I forced myself to stop turning my head away when we drove past a cemetery. And at 16 I spoke his name aloud for the first time, although it was many more years before I could actually talk about him.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. Decades after my brother died I found a way to understand this, and that way was through the metaphor of kintsugi (kin=gold + tsugi=joining), the Japanese repair technique that puts a broken pot back together but reveals the breaks and scars by highlighting the seams with pure gold. A shattered pot becomes a new entity, one that says out loud: I was broken, but now, even though I am not perfect, I am more beautiful and stronger than ever.

Kintsugi restores function, adds beauty and tells a story. As our eyes follow the lines of destruction now filled with gold, every crack reveals its tale. This is kintsugi’s greatest strength: its intimate metaphoric narrative of loss and recovery, breakage and restoration, tragedy and the ability to overcome it. A kintsugi repair speaks of fortitude, uniqueness and the beauty in survival, leading us to a respectful acceptance of loss and hardship. What could be better in these times?

As a young woman I left the US to study chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, in Japan. When I first arrived in the UK, it was only my tea friends who knew of kintsugi. But as well as being a writer, I am a potter, and in recent years it was within ceramics that I saw kintsugi becoming more widely known in the west. Its reach was then extended by those in the fields of psychology and spiritual healing who adopted the use of its metaphor.

Following a request in 2013 for a BBC interview about kintsugi as a way of understanding tragedy and loss, I attempted to bring the different understandings of the craft together by inviting the producer to share a bowl of matcha, powdered green tea, in a Japanese tea ceremony room in Cambridge. The tea was made and served in a precious Japanese teabowl. Holding the kintsugi-repaired bowl in the palm of your hand, you experience kintsugi’s intimate and personal message. You see the gold lines glowing softly from the moisture left from the tea. You feel the distinct seams on your hand. And you know that this bowl has a story, one you may never know, but one which is powerful nonetheless. It was broken in one critical moment – through negligence, an earthquake or maybe anger – and now it has been brought back to life. The irreplaceable has been repaired.

Where did it come from? It is only in Japan that kintsugi could have developed. The country has more earthquakes than any other. Cracks are part of the Japanese visual vocabulary. Cracks in the earth, cracks in a pot, they both give us a sense of the fragility of life and the power of survival. After major quakes the demand for ceramic repairs increases, not only for pieces broken in the locality of the tremors, but across the country. The quakes seem to give rise to a widespread desire to repair. Accepting breaks and repairs is part of a long-embraced Japanese aesthetic that appreciates the imperfect.

Japan has the materials for kintsugi: ceramics, urushi (Japanese lacquer) and gold. However, it was the tea ceremony that served as the catalyst for its emergence in the early 1600s. The tea ceremony was a high art form and utensils were highly valued, with prized teabowls given as rewards for loyalty, often instead of land or money. If such precious objects were broken, they would have been repaired with the utmost care using the most expensive materials available. Until recently kintsugi was done exclusively by artists skilled in maki-e, or “sprinkled pictures”. In this highly refined craft, decorative images of great delicacy and beauty are created in powdered gold and silver on a black lacquer base.

In a traditional kintsugi repair the broken pieces are reassembled using urushi as a glue, and gaps or cracks are filled with thickened urushi. Another fine layer of lacquer is carefully drawn with a brush on the finished cracks and pure gold powder is sprinkled on to that adhesive surface. The excess gold is brushed away, leaving the accentuated seam. These steps may be repeated numerous times, with polishing and refining between each, and the curing between the steps can take many days in a controlled atmosphere.

Every kintsugi piece is unique, stemming from the original ceramic piece itself, the way it has broken, the skill and judgment of the practitioner, and the materials they use. The gold comes in many grades, so the repair can be delicate or bold, glittery or lustrous, a hint or a broadside. Other powdered metals are used, such as silver, pewter and brass (not safe for food use), or none at all, leaving only the natural red or black urushi, or a colour from newly formulated lacquers.

One well-known example of silver kintsugi is the teabowl by Raku Kichizaemon XV called Nekowaride (broken by a cat). This precious teabowl was a pivotal piece for the famous potter. One day he left the studio leaving his little dog behind. A cat snuck in from the street and Raku came back to find the panicked cat running around the walls. Scrambling to get out, it hit the teabowl, which fell and shattered into many pieces. Raku’s wife collected the shards and had it repaired using silver, rather than gold, so the repair would age and mellow along with the pot.

Kintsugi can be seen as part of the move towards sustainable living: repair, don’t replace. And because of its popularity, there are now kintsugi practitioners working in cities around the world. The level of skill required, its time-consuming nature and the high cost of materials, makes a traditional repair an expensive and lengthy undertaking. To keep costs down, some practitioners use substitute materials, such as epoxies.

If you are tempted to have a go, kintsugi kits are sold online. These range from a set of essential tools with a small amount of Japanese lacquer and fine gold powder to a box with a tube of epoxy and gold-coloured dust. To get you started, Kintsugi Oxford offers classes and workshops and kits in both traditional and “faux” kintsugi. However, be warned. Although good-quality urushi is safe after it has been cured, it is toxic and highly allergenic in its liquid state. Most people react, sometimes severely, if even a little comes into contact with skin.

There is something special about repairing your own ceramics. Fixing a favourite coffee mug encourages us to cherish the objects we live with. And what if an object has a particular meaning for you? Perhaps you thought you would never forgive your partner for breaking your grandmother’s teapot, the one she used whenever you visited. But repair it and it could become even more special. Kintsugi can be a healing act.

If we recognise that we are all imperfect, a metaphoric repair could include acts of forgiveness, affection, validation, acceptance, or simply a warm embrace. Apology can be a particularly potent repair material. American philosopher Elizabeth Spelman says: “An apology is an invitation to share in a ritual of repair, in a dance that takes more than one dancer.” Kintsugi’s metaphor works on the community level as well, and various organisations from disability groups to those answering the imperatives of global climate change have been using the metaphor to challenge our thinking.

Its themes may seem far from kintsugi, but the sentiment expressed in Chris Cleave’s book Little Bee encapsulates this amazing Japanese craft: “I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar-makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. OK? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”

I think back to the eight-year-old I was and the years that followed the tragedy of my brother’s death, and I now acknowledge that although that loss did leave scars, it also made me stronger and better. My brother has been the kintsugi project that has made me who I am.

Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend by Bonnie Kemske is published by Bloomsbury at £30

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