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Kintsugi - Japanese Art

Rokujigen Kintsugi Studio


Words By Natsumi Amano

The Garden

The Garden by

Mottainai, what is it?

Mottainai is a Japanese word commonly meaning “wasteful” in it’s closest translation to the English language. It represents an attitude that values paying respect for the resources around you, teaches you not to be wasteful, and to use these resources with a sense of deep appreciation. The everyday usage of Mottainai is tied to the Buddhist concept of regret over misusing material objects or other resources. It conveys a feeling of gratitude, combined with the shame of receiving something that your modesty deem you do not deserve. This word therefore essentially captures the sentiment of not taking what you have for granted. 

Growing up in Japan, mottainai was everywhere. When I accidentally left one single rice in a bowl, my mother would always stress to me it was mottainai. When putting on a minty-green blouse with jeans, despite the fact that washed yellow top goes better with the bottoms, my friends would comment that it’s mottainai, as it would mean that I am not taking the most advantage out of my wardrobe. More recently, when retailers across Japan became obliged to charge for plastic shopping bags, my grandmother proudly sent me a picture of a shopping bag made from a T-shirt, that was sitting in the dark corner of her closet. 

“Waste is not waste, until we waste it.”

Mottainai is not simply another trendy Internet word. The mottainai culture traces back more than seven hundred years ago in the Muromachi-era in Japan. It became widespread, particularly in the city of Edo, in what is today known as Tokyo. The city was progressively based on a circular system, where recycling was taken care of in designated categories and sorted separately, with some in charge of paper, some organic waste, and so on. There were even groups who dedicated themselves to collecting used chopsticks and reusing them either by scrapping the outer layer, painting a special liquid from a tree sap, or by burning them for fuel. The city became almost entirely zero-waste, which scholars agreed was made possible by the collective understanding that resources are scarce, and that they should be used more effectively and efficiently. The lives in the Edo-period were very communal, and the communities were interconnected and dependent on one another. It was embedded in the core of the societal value that if you take something, there will be less left for others. In the culture where modesty is one of the most phrased virtues, it was not the government that created a regulation of managing resources sustainably, but the people that followed the written rules.

The Mottainai Art, Kintsugi

An effective embodiment of the mottainai mentality is kintsugi, a centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. The kintsugi employs a special tree sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Once finished, beautiful gleams of light shine through in the cracks, revitalising each reworked piece with a new look, giving it second life. This technique characterises a crucial essence of the Japanese culture; taking care of the old. The underlying intention is to accept the fragility and decay as part of the very nature of the material, and to rediscover its values in different forms, both practically and aesthetically. Nowadays, when ceramics and glasses are broken, it is a common practice to dispose of them and purchase new ones. However, when society was not as materialistically rich as it is today, repairing broken items and using them again was the first approach.

Kintsugi was established in the 15th century, alongside the blossoming tea ceremony culture. In tea ceremonies, the master invites guests and serves matcha, based on traditional Japanese hospitality and inspired by the Zen philosophy of finding beauty within stillness and simplicity. The practice of kintsugi was initially created with the purpose of fixing the valuable pottery used in the tea ceremonies, not in order to enjoy it as an art form. However, as the tea ceremony culture matured into a ritual of celebrating the charm of spontaneity in the surroundings and sensibility of a subtle attention to details, many outside of the tea ceremony community became fascinated by kintsugi’s beautiful designs.

Kintsugi pieces in harmony by Rokujigen

As time has passed, the economic growth in Japan that enabled people to consume new and more inexpensively and has led to kintsugi becoming a niche activity, mainly exercised solely within the tea ceremony community. This said, today, as more and more people dust off their metaphorical treasure boxes, wider audiences are re-recognising the value at the intersection of art and sustainability.

Recently, the influence and themes of kintsugi has become elevated to a more global spotlight. For example, in the most recent Star Wars series “The Rise of Skywalker”, Kylo Ren whose helmet was shattered in the previous season, makes a comeback featuring a recommissioned helmet with glowing red cracks. The director of the movie, J.J. Abrams revealed that this was inspired by kintsugi. This meaningfully reminds us to treat damage as a part of history, and to value mottainai, rather than hide what makes you who you are today. The mottainai spirit challenges us to find creative solutions and encourages the utilisation of materials to their fullest extent and with longevity.

Mottainai, how is it different from minimalism?

The practice of mottainai is already arguably prevalent today in many shapes and forms. In the past few years, the world has seen the rise of the minimalist movement in our daily lives, by decluttering one’s rooms and closets, and giving away unnecessary possessions. The teachings of minimalism revolve around the following three pillars: not creating space for items which give little value to your life, disowning items you no longer need, and disattaching yourself from the illusion that material possessions are worthwhile. The ethos of minimalism draws large similarities with the mottainai mindset, in the sense that both disciplines encourage intentionality in one’s relationship with materials as tools. And yet, the emphasis remains slightly different; minimalism prioritises ownership of possessions that truly enhance one’s life. On the other hand, mottainai regrets the ineptitude of properly utilising an object’s intrinsic value, and simultaneously, having the effort of making the best use out of items even after they seemingly have served their purposes. Both frameworks are helpful in thinking about ways to live a more meaningful, less wasteful and sustainable life.

Japanese Minimalism

Japanese Minimalism by

Now that we all tend to be spending more time at home, people, in general, have more time for themselves to reflect and redefine what enriches their lives and therefore, these lifestyle approaches are most likely to be adopted by more people in the near future.

Mottainai Practices & Sustainability

The modern implications of mottainai are great, as we face the much-needed alleviation of environmental degradation and threats. Current consumerism is continuously increasing wheels of mass production, consumption, and disposal. As society lures us to buy new and often unnecessary things that we do not even need, we are led towards an habitual “throw-away” mentality. While booming consumption has helped drive job creation and productivity create jobs, it has also had devastating impacts on the natural environment; rising carbon emissions and consequential global warming, biodiversity endangerment, increasing scarcity of finite natural resources and reduced landfill capacities struggling to keep up with the accelerating production of waste disposal and such. With a skyrocketing global population, as well as the rise of the economic middle class and its significant growing purchasing power, it is clear that the conventionally wasteful and unsustainable capitalist system urgently needs reforming into a circular economy and global society.

Chinese artist Wan Yunfeng is turning trash into high fashion

How has environmental activism embraced mottainai

The concept of mottainai has been embraced in environmental activism in the past, especially by globally well-known Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her dedication to environmental activism. She promoted mottainai through the campaign ― The Green Belt Movement, which influenced government policy changes against the production and use of non-recyclable plastics and advocated for tree-planting and various other environmental and social justices. Mottainai was introduced to Wangari when she visited Japan in 2005 for events related to the Kyoto Protocol. Though Japanese people usually associate mottainai as a negative feeling related to wastefulness, Wangari framed it as a conservation opportunity related to the Three R’s ― Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – with a fourth R for respect. Ever since then, she had taken a then-unique approach to environmental activism by incorporating the advocacy of appreciating and respecting things around us to create a long-term change towards a sustainable world.

Chinese Artist Wan Yunfeng is turning trash into high fashion

Is the mottainai mindset unique to Japan?

Mottainai may be unique to Japanese culture in the sense that emphasis is made on an appreciation for the value of our possessions, and the respect for it to be deservingly taken good care of. Yet, the foundational essence of mottainai as a concept, the mindfulness to make the most of the resources we have, can be seen abundantly in different cultures. Recycling initiatives, both in the public and private sectors have become a global phenomenon and there are now diversifying practices to embrace the improvement of resource management. As example, many Australian households have rainwater tanks partially subsidised by the federal government and states. Reuse and repairing initiatives have also been increasing on a global level; in Sweden, people can get a tax deduction for fixing their TV, instead of throwing it out. 

Across the heavily damaging fashion industry, exciting innovations are bearing fruit and which could have significant potential to transition fashion into a more sustainable industry. For instance, an Italy-based startup, Frumat, uses apple skin to generate a bio-based leather alternative, derived from the apple industry food waste. What’s more, Colorzen, from the U.S., has developed a patented treatment for raw cotton fibre, to make the cotton dyeing process less environmentally-damaging, saving 90% of water and eliminating 95% of toxic chemicals in the processing. On top of that, a ‘sharing’ economy model, which is an economic system in which commodities are shared between individuals, has begun to gain unprecedented popularity, where leading Chinese garment sharing platform Ycloset now has over 15 million registered users in one of the worlds fastest growing economies. It is encouraging to see variations of the mottainai concept and way of thinking spreading across global society and industries.

“Our earth is the common denominator.”

How can I apply mottainai to my daily life?

There are a number of ways to implement the mottainai mentality in your daily life without feeling overpressured to dramatically change everything you are comfortable with. Your first step could be making conscious buying decisions, buying only necessities and choosing particular high quality items that are made to last. Choosing to buy pre-loved items is always a good option too! For your groceries, buy local whenever you can; less transportation saves unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and fresh foods are always better! You can go further and be a mottainai hero by purchasing “ugly” veggies and fruits and “soon-to-go-bad” clearance goods if possible that otherwise go to waste. Composting your food waste at home is a great idea (you can reduce your carbon footprint and household waste while enriching your garden!).

You hopefully now understand how mottainai is an emotional and relevant philosophy. Essentially teaching us that every individual forms a part of a greater collective society. You can truly grasp the in-depth of mottainai if you mindfully practice gratitude for your possessions, the resources that constitute your surroundings and form your experiences. Let mottainai be your guidance to a conscious lifestyle.

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