Sunday 31 January 2021

Repairing Broken Pottery and Celebrating Imperfection: Kintsugi and Wabisabi

In Japan, we may have a new year but nothing much seems to have changed: the declaration of a new state of emergency (kinkyū jitai sengen =緊急事態宣言) has increased the pressure to stay home. With vaccination for the elderly not to begin until April at the earliest (!) - and the state of emergency to be extended beyond February 7th - the Olympics is looking increasingly unrealistic. Against this background, there are plenty of people trying new indoor hobbies - there has been a mini house cleaning/clearing out boom (driven by the ubiquitous Marie Kondo) and the baking boom was also a thing here in Japan. In this vein, this month I'm going to introduce a centuries old traditional Japanese ceramic repair technique called kintsugi (金継ぎ), literally "golden repair/patch" which you can easily try at home!

The basic idea is that chipped or broken cups and plates can be fixed using a lacquer (known as urushi) mixed with powdered 24 carat gold. The urushi itself is the toxic (!) sap which contains the allergenic compound urushiol (also found in poison ivy). As this suggests, it is best to do this in a well-ventilated area, with gloves, and stop immediately if you get an allergic reaction (the vapour is rather overpowering and can cause a rash). The urushi itself is mixed with flour and water to make glue but needs a lot of time to dry; consequently, repair can be a long process - a labour of love - with multiple layers added one on top of the other (see here for a picture of how the finished product should look). I used a simple set (pictured) from amazon but the results - and the smell! - were far from ideal. See here for a great video - with a soothing shakuhachi bamboo flute soundtrack - describing the process and proper tools/ingredients in detail (there is also a BBC video here).

The BBC video introduced above is subtitled "embracing the imperfect" and this concept is typically linked to the Japanese notion of wabisabi (侘寂) an aesthetic that is often portrayed as "unique" to Japan that centres on seeing beauty in impermanence, fragility, and imperfection. A classic example is the Japanese garden, which in contrast to a Western garden with immaculately cut lawns and perfectly arranged shrubs and trees is much more haphazard, proudly bearing the marks of ageing and the effects of natural change. One illustration is the way moss is left to naturally cover ancient statues rather than be removed like it might be in the West. For a good historical overview of wabisabi - and its connection to Buddhism, tea-ceremony, and haiku - see here.

Unfortunately, waxing lyrical about wabisabi as a "unique" sense of Japanese beauty that shuns Western notions of perfection and symmetry contradicts starkly with the popularity of new products in Japan. Two good examples are houses and handbags. In the case of the former, Japanese typically want to buy a brand-spanking new house or apartment which means that they often turn their noses up at older houses which quickly lose their value and are demolished (the average age of a house in Japan when it is knocked down is 30 years!). This contrasts with the UK where old houses are valued and admired for their character and ambience. In the case of the latter - handbags - "perfect" Louis Vuitton and especially Coach brand bags are massively popular amongst Japanese women: Japan is apparently the 2nd largest luxury market in the world (behind the US). Indeed, second hand-shops are basically invisible in Japan: compare this to UK highstreets where on average almost 8% of shops are second-hand charity shops, like Oxfam, Barnardo's, Cancer Research, and the Heart Foundation. As suggested in the first paragraph though, Japan may be changing: the pandemic has triggered a house clearing and a second-hand goods boom. Interestingly though this has two features which are different to the UK: first, it is the secondhand luxury good market that is booming; and second, goods are bought and sold online anonymously using apps such as the massively popular Mercari. Plus ça change!