Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Dōtaku (Bronze Bell)

Yayoi period (ca. 300 B.C.–A.D. 300)
1st–2nd century
H. 43 1/2 in. (110.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1918
Accession Number:
Not on view
Produced during the late Yayoi period, the distinctive Japanese bronze bells known as dōtaku are thought to derive from earlier, smaller Korean examples that adorned horses and other domesticated animals. Dōtaku were buried, singly, in pairs, and in large groups—occasionally with bronze mirrors and weapons—in isolated locations, often on hilltops. The purpose of burying the bells remains unclear, although it is often suggested that they were included in rites to ensure a community’s agricultural fertility.
In striking contrast to Jōmon pottery, Yayoi vessels have clean, functional shapes. Nonetheless, the technical process of pottery-making remained essentially the same, and in all likelihood women using the coil method rather than the potter's wheel continued to be the primary producers. Two technical differences, however, are significant: the fine clay surfaces of Yayoi vessels were carefully smoothed, and clay slip was sometimes applied over the body to make it less porous.

Many Yayoi vessels resemble pots found in Korea, and some scholars have proposed that the Yayoi style originated in that land, arriving first in northern Kyūshū and gradually spreading northeast. Nevertheless, some pieces clearly show the influence of Jōmon ceramics, leading others to speculate that Yayoi wares were the product of an indigenous evolution from the less elaborate Jōmon wares of northern Kyūshū.[1] A compromise view is that the indigenous pottery tradition was modified by an influx of new technology from the continent in the last years of the Late Jōmon Phase.[2]

Although recent excavations in South Korea and Japan have brought to light an enormous amount of data concerning Yayoi vessels, there is still much to be learned. It is clear that new pottery shapes, which were functional as well as elegant and refined, spread across the archipelago, with the exception of Hokkaidō in the north and Okinawa in the south, and a variety of regional styles evolved. The most extensively decorated Yayoi vessels were produced in areas where the most elaborate Jōmon wares had been made, suggesting the lingering influence of the earlier pottery tradition. Nevertheless, the decorations are relatively scant, consisting primarily of grooves and hatched lines. In some cases simple designs of houses, animals, fish, and humans are scratched into the shoulders. Some Yayoi vessels with tall stems recall pieces from the Longshan culture of China (2500–1700 B.C.), while others have the perforated base characteristic of Korean pottery in the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.–A.D. 668).

Yayoi wares were fired at a higher temperature than Jōmon pottery, some parts polished to a high sheen and painted before firing. Although most Yayoi pots were intended for utilitarian purposes, some were apparently made for ritual use. The most unusual bronze object produced during this period was the dōtaku, a bell with a tubular body surmounted by a large handle that extends as a decorative flange along the sides of the body (fig. 7). The most common designs are hatched lines, triangles, spirals, and geometric patterns. Simple representations of domesticated animals, as well as scenes of fishing, harvesting, hunting, and fighting—all familiar activities in the lives of the ancient Japanese—also appear. Religious or ritual ceremonies do not seem to have been depicted. The continental prototype of the dōtaku has yet to be discovered.

[Miyeko Murase 2000, Bridge of Dreams]

[1] Kuraku Yoshiyuki 1979, p. 6; Harunari Hideji 1990; and Tsuboi Kiyotari 1990, p. 86.
[2] Kinoshita Masashi 1982, p. 20.
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