The Shogun’s Bowl is Broken

Kintsugi: the art of enjoying fragile and impermanent things.

When I was a child, I was horrifically clumsy. There seemed to be no square foot of my house in which I did not trip over my own feet, no object my fingers did not lose a grip on and drop, and no piece of art or porcelain sculpture left intact.

Tim,” my father would sigh, exasperated with me, “You’re like a bull in a china shop.” He was exhausted, but never angry – never a spanking, never a grounding, and never even a raised voice as I stumbled through our house day-in-day-out, my long, growing legs tying themselves into knots and my unsteady hands dropping half our dishware onto the hard tile floor.

Yet it was my mother whose possessions were the most frequent casualties of my uncoordinated trips and stumbles. Most poignantly, I remember the tiny, red pixie statues my mother collected – a vintage statuette motif of smiling, childish humanoids more akin to elves than pixies. Each was white and cherub-like, clad in sculpted red hats and tunics, their smiles taking up their entire faces. They were adorable.

I can still see the broken porcelain in my mind’s eye — those impish pixies with their blushing, smiling faces cracked or their hands broken off. There were also antique dishes from my grandmother, smashed to pieces on the floor. With every crashing sound, I cringed, awaiting a screaming lecture on my carelessness. Yet the screaming never came.

“I understand,” my mother would say, hiding how upset she must have been, “it was just an accident.”

She’d assure me each time, “It’s just stuff. There’s no decoration or dish worth getting upset over.”

Her words were comforting, and her message was true – any religion or philosophy worth its salt, from Buddhism to Catholicism will tell you that we ought not to fret over material possessions.

Yet, to a child, this was not quite as comforting as it should have been. I would see the red elves set back on their table, repaired as well as possible, tiny cracks running down their foreheads. I would see the countless incomplete sets of dishes in our cabinet, each rendered imperfect by mine or someone else’s clumsiness.

I had ruined my mother’s beautiful possessions. I had made them imperfect.

In the 15th century, according to legend, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a powerful Japanese shogun, dropped his favorite Chinese bowl. This accident led to not only one of Japan’s most iconic pieces of culture, but also to a new material expression of Japanese philosophy.

The beloved bowl wasn’t just cracked; it was thoroughly broken. With all the resources in the world at his disposal, the shogun still cared deeply for this singular, relatively unremarkable bowl. He ordered it to be taken across the Sea of Japan, back to China, where artisans would be able to repair it for him.

The bowl that was returned to him was appalling. Huge, glaring, metal staples held the pieces together, turning the bowl into an eyesore. Ashikaga was furious and demanded that his subjects find a more appealing way to fix this precious piece of Chinese craftsmanship. Various attempts were made, but none pleased the shogun – until one of his subjects made a breakthrough.

The precious bowl was repaired with gold lacquer. Each crack and chip was brushed over with brilliant, glittering gold. The original design of the bowl was no longer as prominent as the new, intersecting crack lines and chip marks, now catching the eye with their prominence. The imperfections of the bowl were impossible to hide, so they were emphasized and made apparent. This was the birth of Kintsugi.

Kintsugi – Japanese for “golden repair” – is now a staple of Japanese cultural history. It is practiced across the world in countless countries, and has gone from a simple form of pottery repair to an art and worldview all its own. Perhaps more importantly, it is also a major symbolic activity in the ancient Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi.

Wabi-sabi is a rather fluid philosophy, and its meaning has shifted since its conception. Overall, however, Wabi-sabi values nature, the endless passing of time, the impermanence of everything around us, and the beauty to be found in natural and human flaws.

Too often we attach value to our material wealth or our favorite possessions that makes it difficult for us to part with them or see them damaged. This might be from sentimental attachment, as is the case with many people and their family heirlooms. We might find mundane objects or even trash priceless if they remind us of happy times or important memories. I still have a concert ticket from a date back in college, because it meant a lot back then, before the break-up, and now I am resigned to protecting it out of sentimentality.

However, when we attach such weighted value to our possessions, when we fear that losing them somehow harms us as people, we have let the small joys they bring us turn into ownership and obligation. You’ll find no joy in your family’s heirloom wine glasses if you’re worrying day and night that you’ll break them.

In cases such as these, we may give up enjoyment or appreciation of our possessions because the thought of losing them hurts so much. Pressures and fears of damaging priceless artifacts, or of being the family member to finally tarnish the heirloom that has been passed through generations, can turn the things we cherish into crosses to carry, burdens that rule over us.

In the teachings of Wabi-Sabi, we find a philosophy on how we can healthfully take pleasure in our possessions without letting our ownership of them conquer us — accepting even our most valuable treasures’ impermanence and enjoying them while we have them, despite their inevitable degradation. You may compulsively shut your grandfather’s watch safely away, but you’ll certainly get more pleasure from actually wearing it.

Wabi-Sabi does not ask us to give up all of our possessions and live a hermitic life free of the material world. But if we want to keep ourselves from being tyrannized by the valuable things we own; if we want to free ourselves to enjoy them, we have to accept that one way or another, they will eventually leave us. They will tarnish, or they will snap.

Ashikaga might not have been able to accept this, but his wiser subject clearly did, as he decided not to cover up the broken state of his master’s bowl. Instead of hiding imperfection, denying temporal damage, he highlighted it, finding beauty in the item’s fleeting nature.

Just like my mother’s dinner plates or porcelain red pixies, nothing remains immaculate forever. The world and everything in it is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Prized possessions break. Priceless treasures are ruined. One day, soon or thousands of years from now, the Mona Lisa, Mount Rushmore, Buckingham Palace, and yes, even the antique shoehorn you inherited from your father will be a memory.

Serve your guests tea in the china cups that your grandmother brought back from Japan, even though you can’t help but notice where your son chipped it against the table. The table your ancestors brought from Poland is no less authentic because the dog got his teeth into it. We must find in ourselves the ability to enjoy and cherish these impermanent tokens, whether they are currently pristine, damaged, broken, or even just a memory.

My childhood bedroom is still decorated in the way I left it years ago. On the work desk, against the lime-green wall and between a pencil cup and the dull lamp, is a small, ugly porcelain statue. It’s a tiny pixie, seated and grinning upwards. Its hands are snapped off, and its face is covered in light, yet very visible cracks.

It’s just as my mother told me again and again, more than half a millennium after Ashikaga broke his favorite bowl. There’s nothing to be upset about.

It’s just stuff.”


Timothy Nerozzi is an American journalist living in the heart of Niigata, Japan. He currently focuses his writing on Catholicism, Literature, and Japanese culture.

1 Comment

  • December 4, 2017

    Beth Ann Reno

    Awesome article. Very thought provoking!

  • December 6, 2017

    H Bryan

    Have you seen the recent film, Silence?