1798 Hanshō

At the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum within the U.S. National Arboretum hangs a hanshō, or half-bell from a long-lost Japanese Buddhist temple and monastery. A gift of the National Bell Festival and installed on Jan. 1, 2024, the bell now graces the entrance to the Japanese Pavilion – home to priceless, centuries-old and artistically-formed trees.

Entrance to the Japanese Pavilion at National Bonsai & Penjing Museum within the U.S. National Arboretum, home to a 1798 hanshō, or Japanese temple bell

Image: The entrance to the Japanese Pavilion at National Bonsai & Penjing Museum within the U.S. National Arboretum, home to a 1798 hanshō, or Japanese temple bell.

The hanshō was cast in the ninth month of Kansei 10 (1798) by Katō Jinemon from Yokokawa, who came from a family of bell makers in the area of present-day Hachiōji, west of the Tokyo metropolitan area. Their foundry was near the Zen monastery and temple Daisen (also called Daisenji in respect), for which the bell was cast. A monk named Myōdō led a fundraising campaign for the bell's casting. It stands 27 inches tall and weighs 80 lbs.

The Daisen monastery no longer exists. It was located in the Amema village in the Tama district of the province of Musashi. As is true of many Edo-period villages, the names of locations have changed, but the location corresponds to Amema, Akiruno City, Tokyo 197-0825. In 1868, the monastery was incorporated with another temple complex named Jōfukuji, which also no longer exists.

Detail of the 1798 hanshō, or Japanese temple bell, showing inscriptions in classical Japanese

Image: Detail of the 1798 hanshō, or Japanese temple bell, showing inscriptions in classical Japanese. 

The bell is inscribed in classical Japanese across three ikenomachi, or panels, which detail the particulars of its casting. It includes the phrase:

One strike permeates all things. How could it be said the strike is slight, when it is heard without fail?

About Japanese temple bells

Hanshō are stationary clapper-less signaling bells hung in Buddhist temples throughout Japan. Like the larger bonshō, hanshō are hung mouth-down and remain motionless. A wooden beam or handheld mallet is swung to sound the bell, which indicates the time and calls monks to prayer. In earlier days, hanshō also gave service as fire alarms in village watch towers.

It is said the sloping shoulders and flat base of a hanshō emulate the seated posture of Buddha. As such, the bells are accorded utmost reverence. Casting the temple bell is also a sacred event, with sprigs of hallowed mulberry, gold offerings, and papers containing Buddhist prayers tossed into the molten bronze.

During World War II, an ordinance to collect metals was decreed throughout Japan. To feed its war machine and keep its armies outfitted, Japan needed vast quantities of industrial materials – and like plucking fruit from a tree, they turned to peaceable, defenseless bell towers. An estimated 70,000 bells (approximately 90 percent of the temple bells then in existence) were destroyed and smelted into armament.

Today, bonshō and hanshō maintain their sacred place in Japanese society and have become internationally-recognized symbols of peace and diplomacy.

Cover image: The 1798 hanshō, or Japanese temple bell, hangs at the entrance to the Japanese Pavilion at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum within the U.S. National Arboretum.