Bonsho (梵鐘)

Bonsho are hanging bells as a Buddhist equipment used in East Asian temples. It is rung with a wooden bell hammer and has a heavy resonant sound. It is more normally known as the bells rung on New Year's Eve. Other names include Ogane, Kosho, Horo, Geisho, Kyogei, Kagei, etc.


"Bon" is a phonetic translation of "Brahma" (holy and clean) of Sanskrit. Depending upon the country of production, it is called a Chinese bell, Korean bell (Goryeo bell, Silla bell), and Washo (Japanese bell).

Although Buddhism is a religion that originated in India and has expanded throughout Asia, the origins of Bonsho are hardly found in India but in ancient Chinese bronze ware. The bronze ware "Sho," produced during the Yin and Zhou periods, are thought to be the origins of Bonsho, but generally the size of "Sho" is small and the cross-section is not a circle as found in Bonsho of later times but it is almond-shaped. As an old example of Chinese Bonsho, there is a bell in Nara National Museum that has the inscription of Chen (South Dynasty) in 575. This bell with the inscription of 575 is similar to Japanese bells in later times and is considered to be their predecessor because it has a circular cross-section, horizontal and vertical bands dividing the bell body, hook section for hanging the bell that is shaped like a dragon and a Tsukiza (pedestal of the bell) decorated with a lotus pattern. However, the small round projections called "Chi" do not have any decorations and this is different from Japanese Bonsho.

Regarding the introduction of Bonsho to Japan, there is a record in Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) stating that OTOMO no Sadehiko brought one back from Goguryeo in 562, but an actual artifact from this time has not been found. The Bonsho in Myoshin-ji Temple in Kyoto (National Treasure) has an inscription of the year of 698 on the inner side and this is the oldest Japanese Bonsho with a confirmed production date. Korean Bonsho before the Goryeo period are found not only in the Korean Peninsula but also many in Japan and the oldest one with an established date, the year of 833, is the bell in Jogu-jinja Shrine in Fukui Prefecture. Most Japanese Bonsho are modeled on the Chinese bell style and ones on the Korean style are considered to be rare.

Originally, Bonsho has the important role of Buddhism to be rung as a first bell signaling Buddhist rites including Buddhist memorial services. It is also used to keep time in the morning and evening (Gyosho (the morning ringing) and Konsho (the evening ringing)). However, the Bonsho was not rung simply to indicate time, but listening to the resonance allows the listener to escape all suffering and attain enlightenment. Such merits of the Bonsho are commonly found in the inscriptions on the bell.

Many are made from bronze, but some small-sized bells are rarely made from iron. Small-sized bells (in one theory, ones under approximately 51.5 cm in diameter), called Hansho (Kansho, Densho), have a high-pitched sound used for not only Buddhist rites but also as an alarm bell for fires, etc.

To improve the resonance, it is said that sometimes rings (gold) were included when the bell was cast, and there are examples in the Edo period where oval gold coins were cast together. There are also some documents suggesting the relationship between Gagaku (Japanese traditional music and dance) and bells.

Many Bonsho in Japan were donated and melted down during World War II in response to the Metal Collection Act. Bells that were designated cultural property and other old or important bells still exist, but many bells produced in modern times were melted down and it is said that over 90% of Japanese bells were lost during World War II.

Style of Japanese Bells

The main body of Japanese bells is divided horizontally by three horizontal bands called Jotai (the upper band), Chutai (the middle band) and Katai (the lower band), and also divided in the vertical direction by bands referred to as Jutai (vertical bands). There are normally 4 Jutai and they divide the bell body into 4 parts (some modern bells have 5). The upper region between Jotai and Chutai is called "Chi-no-ma", and the bottom region is called "Ike-no-ma." "Chi-no-ma" has small decorative projections called "Chi." "Ike-no-ma" may be without any decorations, but in some cases, this is where an inscription is cast (or engraved) or images such as tennin or Buddha are placed. The region between Chutai and Katai is called "Kusa-no-ma." 2 Tsukiza are usually set symmetrically in the bell body where the hammer hits (in some rare cases, there are 4 Tsukiza). The principal decoration of the Tsukiza is a lotus pattern.

The basic shape of Japanese bells did not change substantially from the Nara period to the Edo period, but there are small characteristic differences for each period. One major point for determining the age of Bonsho is the positional relationship between Tsukiza and Ryuzu (dragon-shaped hanger). In bells from the Nara period to the early Heian period, the line connecting the two Tsukiza and the long axis of Ryuzu are usually perpendicular. In other words, the direction that the bell swings and the long axis of Ryuzu bisect each other at right angles. On the other hand, bells made after the late Heian period have a different Ryuzu position and the line connecting the two Tsukiza and the long axis of Ryuzu are usually in the same direction. In other words, the direction that the bell swings and the long axis of Ryuzu is the same (there are some exceptions). Additionally, the position of Tsukiza of bells in the Nara period and early Heian period were high and placed close to the center of the bell body, whereas bells after the late Heian period tend to have a lower Tsukiza position.

Bonsho of the Nara period

The Bonsho researcher, Ryohei TSUBOI regards the following 16 bells as Bells of the Nara period.

Bell evacuated from Narita City in Chiba Prefecture (owned by the National Museum of Japanese History), 774
Bell of Tsurugi-jinja Shrine in Fukui Prefecture, 770
Bell of Shinzen-in Temple in Gifu Prefecture
Bell of Onjo-ji Temple in Shiga Prefecture, customarily called Bell Dragged by Benkei
Bell of Ryuo-ji Temple in Shiga Prefecture
Bell of Myoshin-ji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture, 698
Bell of Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture
Bell of Todai-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture
Bell of Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture, 727, the second oldest bell in Japan with a confirmed date.
Bell of Yakushi-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture
Bell of Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture
Bell of Sai-in of Horyu-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture
Bell of To-in of Horyu-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture, formerly Bell of Chugu-ji Temple
Bell of Taima-dera Temple in Nara Prefecture, one of the oldest Japanese bells along with the bell of Myoshin-ji Temple
Bell of Ominesan-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture
Bell of Kanzeon-ji Temple in Fukuoka Prefecture, an old bells molded by the same wooden form.

National Treasure Bells

Engaku-ji Temple in Kanagawa Prefecture
Ekencho-ji Temple in Kanagawa Prefecture
Tsurugi-jinja Shrine in Fukui Prefecture
Sagawa Art Museum in Shiga Prefecture
Byodo-in Temple in Kyoto Prefecture (within the Hosho-kan, the hanging bell in the bell tower is a replica)
Myoshin-ji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture (featured in Tsurezure-gusa (Essays in Idleness))
Jingo-ji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture (private collection)
Taima-dera Temple in Nara Prefecture
Todai-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture
Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture (within the National Treasure Museum)
Eizan-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture
Kanzeon-ji Temple in Fukuoka Prefecture
Saiko-ji Temple in Fukuoka Prefecture

Other Famous Bonsho

Honsen-ji Temple (bell tower) in Tokyo Prefecture, donated by Ietsuna TOKUGAWA, 4th Shogun
It was sent to the world exposition in the end of the Edo period to be lost, but was returned in 1930.

Senso-ji Temple (on Mt. Benten) in Tokyo Prefecture, famous for being featured in the haiku "A cloud of flowers, Is that the bell from Ueno or Asakusa?" (by Basho MATSUO).

Onjo-ji Temple (Mii-dera Temple) (bell tower) in Shiga Prefecture, also called 'Evening Bell of Mii.'
Known for its beautiful sound and considered one of the three major Bonsho.

Onjo-ji Temple (Mii-dera Temple) in Shiga Prefecture, customarily called 'Bell Dragged by Benkei.'
Hoko-ji Temple (bell tower) in Kyoto Prefecture, by the phrase of 'Kokka-anko' (peace and security of a nation) in its inscription, Ieyasu TOKUGAWA was thought to had angered towards the Toyotomi clan.

Chion-in Temple (bell tower) in Kyoto Prefecture
Renge-in of Tanjo-ji Temple (bell tower) in Kumamoto Prefecture, the largest Bonsho in the world in terms of both weight and size. The bell is 2.9 meters in diameter, 4.6 meters in height and 37.5 tons in weight. Made in 1977. It was molded by Iwasawa no Bonsho.

Dojo-ji Temple, Hidakagawa-cho, Hidaka-gun, Wakayama Prefecture, famous for not having a Bonsho, based on the legend of Anchin and Kiyohime.

Bonsho in Literature

Opening lines of Heike Monogatari (The tale of the Heike (the Taira clan)), 'The sound of the bell of Gion-shoja, rings with the transience of all things, the color of the flowers of paired sal trees, shows the truth that all glories must fade.'

If you eat a persimmon, the bell rings in Horyu-ji Temple' (Haiku by Shiki MASAOKA)

Yuyake (the red sunset sky) and Koyake (the after sunset orange sky), the sun goes down, the bell of a temple on a mountain rings' (from the children's song "Yuyake, Koyake," lyrics by Uko NAKAMURA, music by Shin KUSAKAWA)

Music Related to Bonsho

Nirvana-Symphony (Toshiro MAYUZUMI), a musical piece for orchestra and chorus that attempts to express the resonance of Bonsho using an orchestra.


Shoro (bell tower) are called Kanetsuki-do (building for ringing a bell), Tsurigane-do (building for hanging a bell), and is a building specially made for housing and ringing the Bonsho.

[Original Japanese]