VOX POPULI: Hoping the temple bells ring the pandemic, cheer on the artisans

The terms “ryuzu”, “ike no ma” and “koma no tsume” refer respectively to the top, middle and bottom of large bells found in Buddhist temples in Japan.

Anyone familiar with these names should be fully informed on the subject.

The part where a hanging beam hits the bell is called “tsukiza”.

“The position of the tsukiza has been gradually lowered over more than 1,000 years,” said Hideharu Motoi, 66, president of Oigo Works Co., a molded parts maker based in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, which has been in operation since the Edo Period (1603-1867).

According to Motoi, the sound has also changed over the centuries, from a higher metallic click to a deeper bang.

The bells of “Bonsho” temples were introduced to Japan with Buddhism. They were mostly thin in shape but were replaced over time by more robust models with thicker rims.

“Today, bells in Japan have a simple sound with a lingering resonance, which reflects the Japanese aesthetic of ‘wabi sabi’ (ephemeral and imperfection),” Motoi explained.

Chinese and South Korean bells make loud metallic sounds like gongs. In contrast, he continued, the sound of Japanese bells is characterized by its serene note that carries far.

The ideal bell that Japanese artisans strive to make should “ring for 1 ri (about 4 kilometers), ring for 1 ri, and reach 1 ri”.

In retrospect, history has not been kind to temple bells in Japan.

Many were rejected amid an anti-Buddhist movement during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the start of World War II, the bells were made and melted under the Metal Collecting Ordinance.

A reproductive boom came after the war. But demand has fallen in recent years due to declining numbers of temples and parishioners.

The Motoi foundry filed for bankruptcy under the Civil Rehabilitation Act this summer and is in the process of restructuring.

Today is New Year’s Eve.

I pray that temple bells across the country will ring more powerfully and with greater compassion than in any other year to drive away the new coronavirus pandemic and encourage master bell craftsmen around the world.

–L’Asahi Shimbun, December 31

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that covers a wide range of topics including culture, the arts, and social trends and developments. Written by veteran writers of Asahi Shimbun, the article provides useful perspectives and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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