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A bell for peace instead of bullets gets its traditional tower at the Carter Center

The Peace Bell. (Special.)

By Mark Lannaman

A multinational effort at The Carter Center has just been realized. 

On Friday, Sept. 30, The Carter Center had its opening ceremony for a traditional Japanese bell tower to house its “Peace Bell.”

The ceremony saw over 100 attendees along with state officials and the mayor of Miyoshi, Japan, where the bell is originally from. It also saw the grandson of Jimmy Carter and Japanese Buddhist monks from the town of Konu, where the bell originates. 

Consul General of Japan in Atlanta and the Southeast Takeuchi Kazuyuki was in attendance, too, and was thrilled with the turnout. 

“It’s so great, it’s greater than I expected. People celebrated us, children celebrated with us… all of this for the friendship between the state of Georgia and Japan and President Carter and Japan,” said Kazuyuki. 

Georgia State District 65 Rep. Mandisha Thomas said the atmosphere was phenomenal, and she was glad to be there to show her support for strengthening the Georgia-Japan relationship.

“I definitely wanted to be here because I am a part of the Japan General Assembly Caucus and I want to support Japan’s efforts in [doing business in Georgia] moving forward.” Rep. Thomas said. “Georgia is pushing toward a strong movement in international economic development, and I think Japan understands that. So I want to be close to leaders in Japan.”

Peace instead of bullets

The bell has a storied past. During World War II, over 95 percent of all bells in Japan were melted and used as ammunition for the war. This bell in particular was housed in the Shoganji Temple in Konu (Konu and neighboring areas would later merge to become Miyoshi in 2005.)

However, the bell never made its way to be melted and made into bullets; instead, the war ended, and the bell fell into the hands of private collectors until being auctioned off in Florida in 1985 where the Japan Chamber of Commerce bought it and it, along with other groups, gifted the bell to The brand new Carter Center, according to a press release. 

Jessica Cork, vice president of community engagement and corporate communications with YKK Corporation of America and chair of the Japan America Society of Georgia, says the fact that this bell was lost and found its way as a symbol of friendship between the countries years later adds to the specialty of it.

“This bell was supposed to have been melted down for ammunition — ammunition to fight the Americans, specifically,” Cork said. “The fact that its fate should have been ammunition to fight the Americans and instead had this incredible journey around the world and ended up in the hands of a former [United States] president as a gift to celebrate our friendship… that to me is the best part of this.”

Cork says Georgia having an authentic bell, one of only an estimated 5 percent that were not melted down during the war, adds to how rare it is. 

“We have something that’s very rare, you know. One of only 5 percent remaining authentic bells from that era. A lot of them have been recast and had replicas made, but only 5 percent [of authentic bells] remains because of the shortage of metals during the war.”

Cork feels that this, coupled with the fact of the bell being diverted from ammunition against the United States to now a symbol of friendship and peace between the two countries, makes the bell priceless.

Cork added that now with the replica bell tower to house the bell, the symbol becomes that much more dynamic and allows its full potential to be realized.

“What I love about the Peace Bell tower is that now it can be an active symbol; we can ring the bell, we can hear it and we can talk about peace and use it as a way to educate the next generation,” Cork said.

Building the tower

The bell previously sat in a building of The Carter Center before talks began years ago of housing it within a traditional Japanese tower like it would have been in Japan.

Originally, the idea was to build a Japanese-style tower for the bell, but that idea soon evolved into building a replica of the bell’s specific original tower in Konu where it was part of a Buddhist temple. The town was immediately on board and the collaboration began.

The tower itself was made with the intention to be as close to authentic as possible. The wood used in the traditional Japanese style comes from trees in Miyoshi, along with half of the construction crew.

While a language barrier certainly existed, it was minimized due to the love shared between both parties according to Jessica Cork.

“The Japanese crew was here to not actually build it, but to really act as advisors to the American crew. The Japanese crew did not speak any English, and the American crew did not speak any Japanese,” Cork said. “We had one volunteer that was fluent in both, but I was thinking ‘how is this going to work? How do we communicate?’ Within 10 minutes of meeting, I was sitting back and I watched this American construction worker talking to the Japanese construction worker and neither of them were speaking the same language. They don’t know what [each other] are saying. But they’re talking about one part and because I can understand both, I knew they were saying the exact same thing. They were absolutely communicating through the process of building this together.”

Cork says this instance was a great example of not just building the tower, but how friendships were built, too. She added the idea was like completing the other half of a coin — Miyoshi having the original bell tower with a replica bell, and now Atlanta having the original bell with a replica tower.

A friendship across oceans

President Jimmy Carter has a long-standing relationship with Japan. 

In the early 1970s, then-governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter sought to attract foreign investment into the state. That investment came in large part from Japan, particularly from groups like YKK Corporation of America — the first Japanese Company to locate in Georgia.

The original temple was happy to let the bell stay in Atlanta as a sign of friendship after learning it was being displayed as a symbol of peace between the two countries that were once locked in bitter warfare.

In 1990, President Carter paid a visit to Miyoshi, in a town that was then-called Konu after learning of the origins of his Carter Center’s “Peace Bell” and being invited by the temple to the ceremony for the replica bell that would replace its long-lost one. 

His visit was welcomed by hundreds lining the streets to welcome him. 30 years later, his presence and importance to the town can still be felt, with baseball stadiums named after the former president, a Jimmy Carter Civic Center and one of the most important streets called “Carter Ave”.

“To his very great credit, I think, [he] went there. [Konu] was a town of 2000 people. This was not a big city, and it was not an easy place to get to. It was quite the undertaking for him to be able to go to this remote village,” Cork said.

“This Peace Bell demonstrates many things in addition to peace. Among the most important is a continuing friendship and mutual trust and partnership between the people of Japan and the people of my country,” said President Carter during the ceremony in 1990.

The wake of a loss for Japan

The occasion was that much more special for Japan, a nation still reeling from the assassination of its longtime former prime minister in July. 

It’s almost poetic, then, that this bell and the tower could be celebrated on the Carter Center grounds, built to continue the mission of peace for the United States’ former president Jimmy Carter.

One thing that’s for sure: the bell is a symbol of a relationship that looks to move forward renewed and strong as ever.

“This will be the symbol of friendship between the Japanese people and Georgian [and American] people,” said Kazuyuki.

As echoed throughout the ceremony, both parties hope that the bell’s permanent resting spot — at least for now — is not the conclusion of the strong friendship forged; rather, it’s hoped that the bell rings in a new era of peace and friendship.


Note:  SaportaReport photojournalist Kelly Jordan also attended the Peace Bell tower dedication. See his photos from this inspiring event.

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