Goods that Last
In Japan, "Motta-inai" is a common virtue where goods should be well-crafted and made to last; If anything is worn and broken, mend it until the object can no longer serve its intended function. When it reaches its end, even the ash from burning it serves new use. Extending the lifecycle of an object is a norm, given resources are finite.
Japan's development of repair methods goes hand in hand with China, ranging from metal bracing to lacquer/tar bonding. Lacquering in Japan traced back to Jomon period (7000BC). Bonding and restoring with urushi (natural tree sap) traces back to 12th century.
In the 15th century, the development of wabi-cha, (a tea-ceremony style) elevated the appreciation for lacquer repair work to an art form. It was first established by Buddhist monk Murata Juko, therefore zen buddhist philosophy has influenced the practice; and was later succeeded by tea masters including Sen no Rikyu and Kobori Enshuu. Enshuu-style wabi-cha is still widely practiced in modern-day Japan.
This is an important shift from appreciation of delicate and ornate fine ceramics to rustic and modest earthen-wares. Followers started to admire the abstract "landscapes" from natural glazes and unadorned forms, including the blemishes from usage and repairs.
Edo-period ukiyoe print by Utagawa Hiroshige depicting a ghost asking a Yakitsugi Artisan to repair her broken ceramics.
Japan's ceramics repair practice also ties to pragmatic reasons (mend and use to maximize life-cycle of goods). "Motta-inai" is a remark which people say when something regrettably goes to waste. This principle of "nothing goes to waste" was commonly practiced during Edo period (18th/19th century).
There was a profession called YAKI-TSUGI specializing in ceramics repair. These artisans used to carry their tools vending down the street, calling "Yaki-tsugi...". Any household with broken vessels would engage their repair service. Their unique method involved melting lead oxide, lead carbonate and borax to bond shards together. Imagine the artisan carrying a mini stove in baskets that is capable to melt the minerals at 500-700C. It was a rather tough job.
As kintsugi re-gains popularity in Japan in the past years, people are also reviving the unique Yakitsugi recently.
Reference: Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute
(Photo: Minami Alps City Furusato Museum)
As kintsugi is becoming popular, many ceramists started tapping into repairing broken ceramics. In Japan, some ceramists do it as a hobby, but repair and restoration work are taken to expert restorers known as Urushi Coating Masters (Nu shi) & Maki-e Masters (Maki-e shi).
Nu shi and Mak-e shi are professions dating from pre-Edo period and their crafts are still being learned and practiced in modern-day Japan. Their work also stretches to repairing glass and wood vessels. Reason being, professional knowledge in application with urushi lacquer is required. There are many different types of lacquer all with different strength, properties and curing method, suitable for different effects and finishes. No one but Nushi and Maki-r shi possess such expertise.
A 16th century doctrine 「蒔絵師伝 . 塗師伝」"Legend of maki-e & lacquer artisans" has extensive documentation on high-value ceramics tea canisters shattered during war being repaired by nuji and maki-e masters.
Nushi Masters, with in-depth knowledge in bonding and coloring properties of natural lacquer, performs flawless execution, with techniques capable of highlighting or disguising joints and patch pieces; or bring out texture and grains of any base material. With various types of lacquers, they can re-create and match the natural gradation of the original glaze. They are the Masters of repairing, painting and creating various finishing effects with urushi lacquer.
Maki-e Masters are experts in painting and decorating objects with lacquer and precious or metallic material (including gold, tin, silver and mother-of-pearl inlay). Maki-e Masters are credited in setting the foundation for kintsugi ceramics repair as they developed different aesthetics in repairing ceramics and lacquerware. . Aside from extensive knowledge about characteristics of various lacquer and precious metal, their pride is also in their minute, exquisite brushwork.
Foundation of Kintsugi: Maki-e 蒔絵
The art of decorating with gold and lacquer
Maki-e was established in 700AD (Nara period). While lacquer craft developed hand-in-hand between Japan and China, the Japanese pioneered and advanced their techniques in Maki-e craft. Japanese Maki-e artisans were invited by the Chinese Emperor to teach the craft to his court artisans.
It is a slow and detail-oriented process of building up and polishing lacquer, and decorating the surface with gold or other metal powder. Maki-e artisans have perfected their technique in combination with precious metal powder: Engraving, gradation painting, inlays, low/high relief...etc; all with refined brushwork using different lacquer and precious material.
With expertise in lacquer and decorative metal, Maki-e Masters set the foundation of kintsugi ceramics repair.
Types of ceramics repair
Yobi-tsugi (combining different shards to form a new piece) was practiced as early as the 14th century. Artisans specializing in Yobitsugi would spend time at old kilns just to dig and collect shards to fit and replace the missing piece. Some claimed Yobitsugi is seen as a lucky charm especially for weddings because the chance of finding a fitting piece is rare, and once bonded, it will never be separated.
This craft develops through centuries of collective intelligence from dedicated artisans. Efforts are not only from maki-e or nu-shi artisans, but also urushi tree-growers, sap tappers, refinery, brush-makers, gold-leaf and gold powder makers. Look beyond the candy-coating and see the heritage network behind the craft.
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