The Carter Center Breaks Ground on Japan-Georgia Peace Bell Tower

Atlanta’s Japanese community took another step toward building a home for what has become known as the Peace Bell with an official groundbreaking ceremony this last Friday, July 8, 2022. The Japan-America Society of Georgia and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Georgia, in cooperation with the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) office in Atlanta, have come together to ensure the bell takes its proper place as a symbol of both U.S.-Japan economic ties and the enduring friendship between the two nations.

Since 1985, the 200-year-old Peace Bell has been housed at The Carter Center, a non-profit organization in Atlanta founded on the values of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in promoting world peace, global health, and human rights. Soon, the bell will be removed from an indoor display to a new purpose-built structure at The Carter Center based on a traditional Japanese bell tower design.

The Peace Bell starts life rather peacefully.

Cast in bronze in 1820, the Peace Bell began as an ordinary bonshō temple bell in Konu (now Miyoshi City, Hiroshima prefecture), ringing out across the immaculate grounds and landscaped gardens of the Shoganji Temple complex. The bell, weighing just over 550 lbs., stands roughly 3 feet tall with a diameter of approximately 2 feet.

According to accounts at the time of casting, the gūji (chief priest) of the temple gave this indication of the bell’s function: “If you strike this bell, first, the Buddha will come. Second, it will destroy sin and suffering. Third, it will dispel all demons.”

Shoganji Temple complex in Miyoshi, Hiroshima prefecture, Japan

Image: The Shoganji Temple complex, Miyoshi, Hiroshima prefecture, Japan. Courtesy: Jimmy Carter Civic Center, Japan.

For over a hundred years, the resounding bell was a welcome and familiar sound to the temple monks and residents of the adjacent village, signaling the hour, calling the faithful to Buddhist rituals, and even raising a clamor in times of emergency. Then, an attack over 4,000 miles away on the naval base at Pearl Harbor changed everything.

How did the Peace Bell end up in Georgia?

The bell tolled peacefully over the grounds of the Shoganji Temple until World War II, when 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. The Shoganji Temple bell was conceded to the Imperial Japanese Navy, but before it could be smelted into armament, Emperor Hirohito surrendered in defeat and brought the hostilities of World War II to a close.

Bells surrendered to the armed forces of Imperial Japan

Image: Bells surrendered to the armed forces of Imperial Japan are collected at a school in Shiga Prefecture and await transfer for smelting, 1942. Courtesy: Kakumeiji Temple, Moriyama.

How the bell then came to be in England is a mystery, but somehow it was acquired by an Englishman named James Taylor. At his passing in 1958, the bell was left to his son Milos Taylor, who brought the bell with him in his move to East Orange Park, Florida, in 1982. Florida was not to the younger Taylor’s liking, however, and before his return to merry England a few short years later, he put the bell up for sale.

The Japanese Chamber of Commerce and the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta solicited donations to purchase the bell for $3,000, or about 750,000 Japanese yen at the time. On July 24, 1985, Consul General of Japan in Atlanta Tadayuki Nonoyama along with Hiromitsu Araki, Chairman of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Georgia, presented the bell on behalf of the Japanese community to President and Mrs. Carter to commemorate the construction of The Carter Center, the groundbreaking of the Japanese Garden, and in appreciation for President Carter’s work promoting world peace.

An old bell gets new life.

Not long after the bell was donated to The Carter Center, Hajime Akiyama, a member of the Japanese parliament, came to visit. He noticed an inscription on the bell connecting it to the Shoganji Temple in Bingo Province (now Hiroshima prefecture). Upon his return to Japan in September 1987, he sought out the temple gūji, Tomoo Terashi, and informed him of his discovery. Long thought destroyed in the war, the gūji was thrilled to learn the bell had instead found its way to President Carter and was carefully preserved at The Carter Center, founded on the pursuit of peace.

Rather than returning the bell to Japan, it was decided it would remain in Georgia in appreciation for the former president’s work toward world peace and the development of Japan-Georgia relations. The bell was dedicated in 1989 as the Peace Bell, a symbol of goodwill between Japan and the United States, and displayed at The Carter Center as the "Hiroshima Bell, Symbol of Peace" with an explanatory note. 

President Jimmy Carter at the dedication of the Japanese Peace Bell

Image: Kazuhisa Konoma, Chairman of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce (left) and the Honorable Takayuki Kimura, Consul General of Japan (right), greet President Jimmy Carter (center) on the occasion of the dedication of the Peace Bell in April 1989.

The mayor of the bell’s hometown in Japan invited President Carter to visit in October 1990. He accepted, arriving in the city of Konu in time for the unveiling of a replica bell cast to celebrate the bell’s rediscovery. It is dedicated at the Shoganji Temple as the “Bell of Friendship” and conveys the expectations for world peace and mutual exchange.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter rings the replica Peace Bell

Image: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter rings the replica Peace Bell, the Bell of Friendship, installed at Shoganji Temple, Miyoshi, Hiroshima prefecture, Japan, on October 21, 1990. Courtesy: Hiroshima for Global Peace.

The following year, Konu (now Miyoshi City) and the city of Americus, Georgia, established a sister-city relationship that endures to this day. Miyoshi now boasts the Jimmy Carter Civic Center; a main street and a baseball stadium named after the president; four houses built to resemble Georgia homes; and an annual Carter Peanut Festival. The Japanese government remains a major funder of The Carter Center’s public health work.

A Japanese bell tower rises in Georgia.

The Peace Bell’s journey is not over yet. While the bell is safely preserved at The Carter Center, it doesn’t do what bells are chiefly made to do: ring. That will soon change. A renewed effort to install the bell in a more visible, permanent home began last year with the idea of building a traditional Japanese bell tower in the heart of Atlanta. The Japan-America Society of Georgia spearheaded the initiative, fundraising the more than $300,000 needed to complete the project.

Modeled after the Shoro-Do bell pavilion at Shoganji Temple, wood for the frame has been harvested from a 150-year-old cypress, felled in California expressly for the bell tower’s construction. Carpenters and artisans from Japan will travel to Atlanta to complete the intricate work in a centuries-old traditional style. With the groundbreaking now in the past, a ribbon cutting is planned for September 30, 2022 – just in time for President Carter’s 98th birthday the following day.

A monk stands before the replica Peace Bell in Japan

Image: A monk stands before the replica Peace Bell known as the Bell of Friendship in the Shoro-Do bell pavilion at Shoganji Temple, Miyoshi, Hiroshima prefecture, Japan. Courtesy: Jimmy Carter Civic Center, Japan.

“We can think of no better place in Georgia to build a symbol of enduring friendship between Japan and Georgia than on the grounds of The Carter Center, an organization started by a man who has dedicated his life to ‘waging peace,’” said Jessica Cork, Chair of The Japan-America Society of Georgia.

“The Carter Center has been the paragon of the Japan-Georgia relationship for many decades and in many areas ranging from business relationship, cultural exchange, youth exchange, sister city relationships and many others,” added Kazuyuki Takeuchi, Consul General of Japan in Atlanta. “What lies as the underlying guiding light has always been the Carters' vision of and dedication to peace and humanity.”

The old Peace Bell will be heard anew in the city of Atlanta, raising awareness of the importance of the bilateral relationship and the enduring prosperity that can only come through peace. It is not the ending, but the continuation of a winding tale of good luck and goodwill – and the resounding potential created when nations trade weapons of war for instruments of peace.

Learn more about the Peace Bell project at the Japan-America Society of Georgia.

Cover image: Dignitaries including Consul General Kazuyuki Takeuchi, state legislators, and Georgia Department of Economic Development officials participate in the groundbreaking of the new bell tower at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 8, 2022. Courtesy: Consulate General of Japan.