Yayoi-era bronze bells

Dōtaku bells (銅鐸) are bronze bells of the Yayoi period (ca. 300 BCE - 300 CE). They ranged from 10 to 130 centimetres in height and were usually found singly or in pairs but sometimes in clusters of up to 14 bells. Over 300 have been unearthed, many with bronze mirrors and other bronze artefacts. Dōtaku have elongated bodies and feature oval cross-sections, with the lower end open. Most have flanges at the side seams and semicircular handles cast at the top.

The Chinese characters 銅鐸 consist of 銅 (in Chinese tung or t'ung) meaning bronze and 鐸 taku (Chinese duo or to), referring to a bell-like musical instrument. Some Japanese bells may have been used as musical instruments, but most are considered ceremonial artefacts. Early dōtaku bells had clappers that rang against a raised band inside the mouth of the bell. Based on the gradual changes in the shape of this band, one can assume that the nature of the bells evolved from functional to purely ceremonial objects.

The designs cast onto the surface of the bells can be broken down into three major categories:
  • horizontal banded designs
  • square block patterns
  • flowing water designs
Others are illustrated with fern frond designs or figures of people and animals. One dōtaku found in Kagawa Prefecture depicts scenes of pounding rice, hunting, and a raised storage house; another from Hyōgo Prefecture also shows hunting scenes.

One of the first bronze bells documented was found at the Sūfukuji temple in Ōmi Province (modern-day Shiga Prefecture) in the year 662 CE. At that time, the Japanese no longer remembered the bronze artefacts of the Yayoi culture. Dōtaku bells were found from Fukuoka and Kōchi prefectures in western Japan to Tochigi Prefecture in the east, most of them were unearthed in the Kinai Region (畿内, Kyōto-Nara-Ōsaka), in contrast to bronze weapons concentrated in the western Inland Sea area and around northern Kyūshū.

Stone moulds carved from volcanic tuff have been found at the Higashinara site in Ōsaka Prefecture and other places in the Kinai region. The caches where the bells were found were commonly located on hilltops near Yayoi-era villages. Those locations were not burial sites; it has been suggested that dōtaku bells served as talismans for a good harvest or as emergency bells to alert villagers in case of enemy attacks.

Types of dōtaku decoration:


Source: Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan


  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Imamura, Keiji, Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia, University of Hawaii Press 1996