Why Do Japanese Bells Ring 108 Times on New Year’s Eve?

The last day of the year in Japan brings us the tradition known as joya no kane, the tolling of 108 bells on New Year's Eve. Rooted in both Buddhist philosophy and Shinto ritual, and entrenched in the cultural fabric of the Japanese people, this ancient custom serves as a bridge between the past and the future, resonating with profound symbolism and spiritual significance.

Joya no kane begins with meticulous preparation. Monks and attendants ensure the massive bonshō on the temple grounds is cleaned of any dust and grime, while the shōrō, a roofed but wall-less structure that protects the bell from the elements, is swept of dirt and debris.

As the final hours of the year slip away, the atmosphere becomes one of contemplation and reverence. People gather at temples and shrines, writing down and offering up their wishes and aspirations for the year ahead. When sunset deepens into twilight, the tolling of the bell begins.

The act of striking the bell is often performed by priests or monks, who undergo a rhythmic and meditative process as each toll is sounded. At other shrines, people may queue to strike the bell in succession. The air is filled with sonorous bellows that reverberate through the night. 

For hours, the bell is struck – 108 times, 108 rings – to mark the transition from the old year to the new. Slow, steady, rhythmic. The tolling represents the cleansing of 108 worldly passions, the multitude of desires and negative emotions that humanity grapples with, which lead to suffering and hinder spiritual growth.

Why is the bell tolled 108 times?

There is debate as to how the number 108 was derived. Some offer calculated formulations. There are six senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and consciousness (unique to Buddhism). We experience everything through these senses, but each sense can be experienced in one of three ways: negative, positive, or neutral, which gives us a total of 18 feelings (6x3). These feelings may be either pure or contaminated, creating 36 passions (18x2). Because each passion can be formed in either the past, present, or future, we are left with 108 defilements of mind (36x3). 

Still others have sought to give names to each of these defilements, to include ostentatiousness, derision, impudence, capriciousness, hypocrisy, and more. Tolling a bell 108 times during joya no kane symbolizes the absolution of these 108 defilements. Each toll and reverberation releases the faithful from worldly attachments, enabling them to start the new year with a fresh perspective. The act of listening to the bells is said to bring clarity, mindfulness, and a sense of renewal.

If the monks have timed the tolling precisely (and kept accurate count!), the last toll in the series is the first after midnight. It is a reminder of the cyclical nature of life, where endings pave the way for beginnings and where the tolling of bells becomes a bridge between the past and the future. As 108 tolls resonate through the chilly night air, they carry forward the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of not only individuals and families, but of an entire nation.

Cover image: A monk in Kyoto, Japan, strikes the temple bonshō 108 times on New Year's Eve.