After winding history, Japanese peace bell to toll at Carter Center

On Friday, a large, heavy, old bell will ring for the first time in a long time at the Carter Center.

The bell is a gift from a Japanese village to former President Jimmy Carter, who turns 98 on Saturday, and his namesake center, which is celebrating its 40th birthday.

The journey to Atlanta has been anything but straightforward.

In 1820, when the abbot of Shoganji Temple in Konu cast the bell, he wrote: “The striking of the bell has three virtues. First, it brings wisdom, second, it reduces the sins and sufferings of the listeners, and third, it dispels demons.”

For more than a century, village residents used the bell as a time signal and to warn of fires. Housed in an ornate cypress tower, the bell served as a community pillar, also marking holidays like the Japanese New Year.

The bell stayed in place until Japan entered World War II after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1942, the Japanese navy confiscated the bell and shipped it to the Kure Naval Arsenal with the intention of melting it down to make ammunition. An estimated 95% of the country’s temple bells were lost during the war.

The Shoganji Temple bell, for reasons unknown, survived.

In the post-war haze, it ended up in England in the estate of a man named James Tayler. In 1958, Tayler’s son Milos discovered the bell in his father’s belongings. Milos didn’t know how his father secured the bell, or its origins.

In the meantime, Jimmy Carter, who served in the United States Navy from 1946 until 1953, was building a political career.

As governor of Georgia, he began establishing ties to Japan. In 1972 he brought YKK, the zipper giant, to Macon and a year later, opened a trade and tourism office in Tokyo. As president, he strengthened ties between the United States and Japan, making several trips to the Asian country.

Today, according to the Japan-America Society of Georgia, an estimated 600 Japanese companies, employing more than 35,000 people, have operations in Georgia.

In 1982, Milos moved from England to Florida. He had the bell shipped with him.

In 1985, he move back to England. Instead of lugging the 551-pound back home, he decided to sell it.

The Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta raised $3,000 to buy the bell. It presented it to Carter that July on behalf of the Japanese community to commemorate the new campus of the Carter Center, which moved from Emory University to a 35-acre wooded plot on Freedom Parkway.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But the mystery of the bell’s origins remained.

In 1987, after decoding an inscription on the surface of the bell that identified it as coming from the Shoganji Temple, a Japanese delegation from Atlanta traveled back to Konu to let residents know that the bell had survived the war.

Carter wanted to give it back to the farming village of roughly 2,500, about 50 miles from the city of Hiroshima.

But Konu, where nearly half of the population is over 65, refused. Instead, residents built a replica — called the Friendship Bell — and placed it inside the original cypress bell tower.

In 1990, when the tower was dedicated, Carter visited the village in western Japan, which honored him with the building of the Jimmy Carter Civic Center in 1994. In 2001, Konu planted peanuts as a token of friendship by Carter. The village continues to cultivate them and the Konu Carter Peanut Harvest Festival is held each November.

While Konu villagers celebrated its replica bell, the original sat — unrung — in a lobby in the Carter Center. If you walked past it, you would think it was another art piece in the museum-like building.

But Jessica Cork, chair of The Japan-America Society of Georgia, knew it was something special, based on her years traveling back and forth to Japan as a high school and college student, and most recently as vice president of corporate communications for YKK.

In 2021, when Kazuyuki Takeuchi, the consul general of Japan, was thinking about building a lasting symbol of friendships and bonds between his home country and Georgia, he convened a meeting with leaders of the Japan-America Society of Georgia, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Georgia, and the Japan External Trade Organization.

Cork suggested taking the bell out of the Carter Center lobby and building a structure around it on the center’s grounds.

On Friday, the “Peace Bell Tower,” a replica of the traditional bell tower at Shoganji Temple, will be dedicated on the Carter Center grounds.

Carved from 150-year-old Japanese cypress, the bell tower was built and assembled in Hiroshima by local carpenters.

The details of the metal bell, which stands at 34 inches in height and two feet in diameter, continue to tell stories, from the writings etched on it, to the series of nobs, to the heads on top of it.

Cork said more than $300,000 was raised by the Japan-America Society of Georgia and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Georgia for the project.

“President and Mrs. Carter have long treasured the Peace Bell,” said Nicole Kruse, interim vice president of development at the Carter Center. “It’s a powerful symbol of friendship and goodwill, and we are delighted that it will soon have a beautiful new home where it can be appreciated by the thousands of people who visit our campus each year.”

After the bell is dedicated — for perhaps the first time since the dawn of World War II — visitors will be able to strike it with a specially made cypress hammer.

“It is meant to be rung,” Cork said. “We want it to be active.”


Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Activities Friday and Saturday

On Friday (Sept. 30) at 4 p.m., the Carter Center, along with the Japan-America Society of Georgia, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Georgia, the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta, and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Atlanta will hold a dedication ceremony for the Peace Bell Tower. The event will be held on the grounds of the Carter Center complex near the entrance.

On Saturday (Oct. 1) at 10 a.m., the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum will hold a naturalization ceremony in which 98 people will become American citizens in honor of President Carter’s 98th birthday.

On Saturday (Oct. 1) at noon, the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum will host “Colors of Peace Family Day” to celebrate President Carter’s 98th birthday. The library will open “The Colors of Peace: President Carter’s Vision Through the Art of Children,” an exhibition which features 270 pieces of art created by children from around the world. Visitors will be allowed to create their own works of art to add to the exhibit. All activities in the lobby are free for children under 16.