Hanshō Presented to Commodore Matthew C. Perry

By the middle of the 19th century, imperialist factions within the United States government were clamoring for the opening of Japanese ports to American trade. Access to minerals and energy supplies, new markets for industrial goods, safe harbors for ships to replenish, and creeping notions of manifest destiny were propelling the Americans to challenge Japan’s 250-year-old policy of national seclusion. 

To convince the Japanese to acquiesce to American demands, U.S. President Millard Fillmore tapped Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, hero of the Mexican-American War, to lead an expedition. Where entreaties and letters had failed, gunboat diplomacy (the threat of conspicuous naval power to pursue foreign policy objectives) would prevail. Perry set sail in late 1852, reaching Edo Bay (present-day Tokyo Bay) on July 8, 1853.

With guns and canons turned to the coast, Perry issued a warning: elect war over negotiation and face destruction. His fleet sailed into harbor and deposited a letter, promising to call again the following year for a reply. Seven months later, he returned – executing the Convention of Kanagawa under threat of force to open two ports to American vessels, establish the position of an American consul in Japan, and ensure the fair treatment of merchant sailors.

Woodblock print of Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan

Image: Japanese woodblock print, circa 1854, titled, “Oral Statement by the American Navy Admiral” of Commodore Matthew C. Perry (center) flanked by two naval officers. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

The signing was celebrated with the ceremonial exchange of diplomatic gifts. On behalf of the United States government, Perry accepted art, pottery, textiles, musical instruments, and other ethnological artifacts now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Among the objects presented at Shimoda in June 1854, a bronze temple bell known as a hanshō stands apart. 

Assorted bells in the Smithsonian collection

Image: Historical photograph of bells in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The bell brought from Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry is the object labeled B (top, center). Courtesy: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department.

Catalog card of Commodore Matthew Perry bell

Image: Smithsonian catalog card from 1859 detailing the accession of the temple bell gifted to Commodore Matthew C. Perry in Japan in 1854. Courtesy: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department.

The bell stands 18.5 inches tall and 10.2 inches in diameter, and weighs just over 28 lbs. Cast cylindrically with a conoidal crown, the upper waist of the bell is divided into four fields, each containing 12 nyū, or bosses that symbolize fertility and improve the bell’s resonance. It is said that these might also represent the snails that crawled on Buddha’s head to prevent sunstroke.  

At the bell’s apex, a ryūzu, or suspension loop, is formed by two downward-facing dragon heads clutching the kasagata, or domed crown of the bell, in their teeth. The necks of the dragons join in the figure of a flame and jewel to complete the loop. Two tsuki-za (raised and reinforced areas where the bell is struck by a mallet) take the form of chrysanthemums on opposite sides of the bell’s sounding bow. An inscription on the crown possibly indicates that the bell was cast by the Suwa family of bell makers.

Commodore Matthew Perry bell as seen in the Smithsonian archives

Image: The Japanese temple bell (catalog no. E273-0) given to Commodore Matthew C. Perry as photographed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology archives in Suitland, Maryland, on Sept. 22, 2023. An inscription penned vertically in white by the Smithsonian reads, “Japan 4329 Com Perry 273.” Courtesy: Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution.

Hanshō, like the larger bonshō, are clapper-less. It is said the sloping shoulders and flat base of these temple bells emulate the seated posture of Buddha. As such, the bells are accorded utmost reverence. 

Accessioned on March 9, 1859, the bell brought to the United States by Commodore Perry now resides in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It was last exhibited in 1969 while on loan to the Japan Society of New York. The National Bell Festival would like to extend our gratitude to the Smithsonian Institution for making this bell available to us for study and photography.

Cover image: The Japanese temple bell (catalog no. E273-0) given to Commodore Matthew C. Perry as photographed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology archives in Suitland, Maryland, on Sept. 22, 2023. Courtesy: Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution.