Dōtaku (ritual bells)


Two dōtaku (ritual bells), 200 B.C.E.–200 C.E., Yayoi Period, bronze, Japan, 59.7 cm high ( © Trustees of the British Museum)

Two dōtaku (ritual bells), 200 B.C.E.–200 C.E., Yayoi Period, bronze, Japan, 59.7 cm high (© Trustees of the British Museum). The larger bell on the left is mentioned in the publication Dōtaku Kozu (1822), where it says it was discovered in Wakayama Prefecture in the collection of Kishi Seiichi.

The origin of the dōtaku is thought to be the Chinese cattle bell. However, the Japanese did not practice cattle farming, so the first bells must have been imported as ritual objects. The fact that they are often found buried on isolated hill-sides and show evidence of having been buried and dug up several times, suggests their use in an agricultural ritual. Dōtaku were cast in moulds made up of pieces of stone carved with decorative patterns. Some of these stones have also been excavated. The earliest bells have suspension rings and clappers. These rings gradually became larger, and part of the bell’s overall design. The clappers only produced a muffled tone, underlining the fact that these were ritual objects not intended to be rung.

The delicate decoration on these bells resembles that found on contemporary Chinese mirrors. Later bells were decorated with scenes of animals and humans hunting or farming. Bells up to twice this size have been found.

© Trustees of the British Museum

Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Dōtaku (ritual bells)," in Smarthistory, May 21, 2021, accessed July 25, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/dotaku-ritual-bells/.