Dōtaku (Japanese 銅鐸) is a domeless, thin-walled and richly decorated bell cast from bronze in Japan. It was used almost exclusively for decorative purposes in rituals over a period of about 400 years, between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD (this corresponds to the end of the Yayoi period).
The paintings on the bells depict motifs from nature and the animal kingdom, including dragonflies, mantis shrimp, and spiders. Among historians, it is believed that dōtaku were used in prayers for abundant harvests and that the animals depicted are the natural enemies of the insects that infested rice fields.
According to Japanese folklore, dōtaku were used as signal bells in case of emergencies (for example, in watchtowers), here especially in case of invasion by inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula.
If intruders were discovered by sentries, the alarm was sounded over the dōtaku so that residents could take themselves and their possessions to safety and warriors could prepare to push back the enemy army.
In Yasu, Shiga Prefecture there is a dotaku museum, which is dedicated to the bells.
The Yayoi period (400 BC-300 AD) was age of technological progress. Unlike during the Jōmon period, when much of the population lived nomadically, the Yayoi placed special emphasis on large settlements and rice cultivation.
Other achievements of the era include the development of bronze and iron casting to create metal objects such as weapons, mirrors, and tools.
Among the objects cast from bronze was the dōtaku as one of the most distinctive objects of the age. In recent years, dōtaku have been studied by scholars to find out more about their origins, how they were made, their purpose, and the meaning of the inscriptions.
Although a significant artifact of the Yayoi period, the concept of the dōtaku did not originate in Japan. According to various studies, it is believed that the bells were modeled on "earlier, smaller, Korean bells used to decorate horses and other domestic animals," Chinese cowbells, or Han Chinese zhong (bells without clappers used in ritual music).
However, further study has revealed that the Yayoi did not raise livestock and, although some dōtaku had swivels and suspension devices, they emitted "muffled" or "rattling sounds" when moved back and forth. Therefore, it is believed that they were not used for this purpose. Bells that served ritual purposes were therefore imported from China.
A total of over 400 dōtaku have been found in Japan, mostly in the western part of Honshū, the Tōkai district, Shikoku, and the Kansai region, here especially Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. The "first recorded discovery of a dōtaku" was in 662 AD in a temple in Shiga Prefecture.
They are usually found "buried on isolated slopes," either singly, in pairs, or in larger groups along with various bronze mirrors and weapons. Researchers assume that when dōtaku were buried in groups, different clans did so together in one place to reflect the unity of those clans.
The body of the bell is in the shape of "a shortened cylinder," the cross-section is oval and has "horizontal bands separated in the middle by a vertical row." The top and sides of the bell are decorated in an arc by an "elaborate strap, filled with saw teeth and spirals."
The materials used to make dōtaku were imported from both Korea and China; no bronze deposits have been found in Japan prior to the 7th century. Bronze was considered more valuable than iron. In addition, traces of lead, a common characteristic of Chinese metals, have been found in the bells.
The height of yayoi bells ranged from 10 to 127 cm. Together with the differences in size, the styles of the bells were also subject to wide variations. Across different regions, this inconsistent production continued until a group of bronze smiths met and eventually agreed on a standard.
Bells were originally made using two-part sandstone molds into which "decorations were engraved," to give the appearance of relief bronzes on the surface. Many of these sandstone models were "found in large numbers in the northern part of Kyūshūs," as well as near Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara.
Over time, dōtaku became larger and thinner as they were now formed using clay molds instead of sandstone. This allowed for more detailed work, such as simpler line drawings instead of the smaller and thicker sandstone molds.
Other uses of the dōtaku continue to be debated by scholars, but it is considered certain that they were used for agri-cultural rituals; this is confirmed by various sources.
Scholars further assume that when not used, dotaku were "buried in the ground to absorb the life force of the earth," thus ensuring agricultural goodness for the population. They are also believed to have been used in rain rituals.
These assumptions are strengthened by the fact that many dōtaku inscriptions were adorned by "flowing water, waterfowl, fish, boats, and agricultural objects." The dōtaku were also used in rain rituals.
Although it is not known whether dōtaku "were used by chiefs or settlements in festivities, it is considered certain that they belonged to the community as a whole instead of to a single individual.
In addition, there is curious speculation that dōtaku were used as "sundials, to make gold, to heat bathwater, or in connection with secret Jewish practices."
The design of the dōtaku contains many aspects similar to Chinese objects. For example, many bells had "elaborate decorations [that] resembled contemporary Chinese mirrors."
It was not until later in the Yayoi period that "depictions of animals and people engaged in hunting and agriculture" were used. Along with these depictions, images of the Yayoi's "typical elevated granaries and mochi preparation" could also be found.
Dōtaku contain many depictions of deer, although the "yayoi mostly ate wild boar." According to Harima Fudoki, a series of traditions from the Nara period (710 - 793 CE. ), there was "a magical ritual in which seeds were soaked in deer blood to accelerate the fertilization of rice plants",
as it was believed that "the life forces of the deer accelerate the growth of rice", which would explain why the character Forest Spirit in the film Princess Mononoke is a deer with the face of a human.
Various studies have been conducted on whether or not the images on a dōtaku have significant meaning. According to a researcher named Oba, each image contains a hidden pictogram that can be deciphered through phonetic reading.
For example, a picture of a man killing a deer can be read as "iru ka" (killing a deer), but combined into "Iruka" the picture can represent Soga no Iruka, a reference to the Soga dynasty.
Through further readings, Oba discovered that the drawings contained "references to people, places, and events in the early history of Japan" as well as "information on building forms, hunting habits, and other aspects of daily life", which may have been intended to be preserved for future generations.
According to other scholars, however, it is unlikely that the images depicted have hidden meanings; it is more likely that the images are merely pictures.
The deer often shown on the surface of the dōtaku is depicted in the film Princess Mononoke (directed by Hayao Miyazaki). In the film, Forest Spirit is the "god over life and death" and is represented by a large stag with a human face.
The Pokémon Bronzong was designed after a Dōtaku.