Suppose you patched up a hole in your favourite sock, only to find another hole the next day. Okay, needle and thread out and repair complete, but oh dear, another day, another hole. This sorry cycle continues on for a week or two until none of the original sock remains, only your patchwork. Is this entirely repaired item still your favourite sock? If not, then at what point in the process did it become a new sock? If it is, then what is it that maintains its authentic ‘sockness’? And what if someone, somehow, managed to bring together all of the lost fibres of your original sock into a perfect replica? Which is the real sock?
Believe it or not, these questions are fundamental to how we understand identity over time, and have spurred debate amongst the greatest philosophical minds in human history, such as Plutarch, Aristotle, and Heraclitus. The above version of the problem was formulated by John Locke (commonly known as ‘Locke’s Sock’), with other variants including The Ship of Theseus and Trigger’s Broom.
The Ship of Theseus
It was with these issues in mind that we set out to explore perceptions of authenticity at Japanese tourist sites that had been repaired and/or entirely reconstructed. What was it about these sites that kept tourists coming back for more?
During our research , we learned of the Japanese artisanal practice of kintsugi (金継ぎ), which offered us a uniquely apt philosophical perspective on repair. Kintsugi is the art of mending broken pottery with a gold-dust lacquer. Rather than disguising the cracks, the instance of the object’s destruction is thus highlighted and becomes a decorative feature of the piece. The act of repair, and the attention drawn to it, thus produce and support the meaning of the object, adding a value that could only derive from historical damage. Kintsugi thus infers meaning and value through a form of restoration.
Informed by kintsugi, our study found brand heritage fulfilling a similar function at tourist sites in Japan (Miyajima’s Itsukushima shrine, Hiroshima Castle, and Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion). By highlighting the continued cultural significance of these sites, brand heritage was found to enhance tourists’ perceptions of authenticity, even when the site is a complete restoration. This means that careful communication of brand heritage can increase site revenue, help to justify ongoing conservation and maintenance to tourists and, by encouraging repeat visits, reduce damaging footfall at other ‘unreconstructed’ sites. This is only our first step towards exploring this culturally-informed field of sustainable tourism, and we’re working on taking this further. Please do read and share the article and let us know your thoughts…this doesn’t mean pictures of old socks!