The Fable of Kintsukuroi

by
04 August 2017

David Thomson offers a parable

Transfigured: Japanese kintsukuroi (or kintsugi) bowl

Transfigured: Japanese kintsukuroi (or kintsugi) bowl

ONCE upon a time, in the far, far east — east even of Eden — lived a great emperor, in a great palace, which was gorgeously stocked with the richest of goods. It was early spring, and the season of royal visits, when kings and princes called on one another and admired each other’s choicest possessions, gave wonderful gifts, and enjoyed bountiful banquets. And this year was special, because the visitors would see the investiture of the emperor’s beloved son, Kintsukuroi, as Crown Prince of the empire.

The emperor was excited because he had a new and beautiful bowl to show to his friends, specially made for him by the finest of craftsmen from the finest of materials. Imagine, then, his horror when, on going to his cabinet, he discovered that the bowl was broken apart into a hundred pieces. How could it have happened? No one knew. What could be done about it before the first visitors arrived? No one could offer any idea; for the time was too short to start again and make another one.

The emperor was dismayed, sad that he could not show off his beautiful bowl, but even sadder that something so beautiful should have broken. He retired into his private apartments with only his beloved son to share his sorrow, and they talked long into the night together.

 

NEXT morning, the emperor woke to the sound of a great commotion. His senior ministers demanded to see him urgently. The cabinet of treasures had been broken into, and this time the great new golden diadem that had been made for his beloved son, ready for the investiture, was quite simply gone — along with the pieces of the broken bowl, although who cared about those, now?

What is more, the thief had been seen, but not recognised, since he was covered in dirt and scars, with nothing to distinguish him from a thousand other down-and-outs who hung around the palace; for the emperor — to the annoyance of his ministers — refused to turn them out, but shared his food with them.

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No one knew for sure where the thief had gone, but he had, they thought, run off towards the prince’s apartments. There, the doors were most unusually locked, and there was no answer to the ministers’ knocking, although they could hear sounds inside. Would the emperor give his permission for them to break down the door? They dare not act without it.

The emperor was silent for many minutes. On his face, his ministers saw sadness, but not anger; lament, but also love. What was going on? Eventually the emperor spoke. “Leave the prince and his apartments alone. If he is ready to rule, he must be allowed to act. His will and my will are as one.”

The ministers were not at all sure what this meant, but the message was clear: they were to do precisely nothing.

So the day passed. The emperor remained in his private apartments. Those of the prince remained locked, although smoke could be seen coming out of the chimney, and a fire had obviously been lit. Eventually, the ministers tired of their waiting, and went to bed. The important guests were expected the very next day.

 

IMAGINE their surprise in the morning, when they went to the treasure cabinet to prepare its items for display and found the precious bowl back in its place, whole again, but glistening with veins of gold where the cracks had been. Its beauty seemed all the greater. And, beside it, the prince’s crown: a slim band, now, but speaking in its simplicity of a strength, an authority all the more striking because it had given itself away, and given glory to another, but was itself the greater for it. The investiture could go ahead.

A smile of secret understanding passed between the emperor and the son, whose newly scarred hands had shown him worthy to come into the kingdom.

 

“Kintsukuroi” means “to repair with gold” in Japanese, and is the art of repairing pottery with gold and understanding that the piece is the more beautiful for having been broken.

The Rt Revd David Thomson is the Bishop of Huntingdon.

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