For whom the bell tolls

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A 200-year-old pagoda bell gathers dust in a museum warehouse in northern Vietnam, but a Japanese man wants it to chime the sound of peace again

  Japanese lawyer Takuro Watanabe caresses an old friend at the Bac Ninh Museum last September. This ancient bell was taken away from Ngu Ho Pagoda in Bac Ninh Province in the 1940s by a Japanese army officer, and Watanabe found and bought it in Tokyo and returned it to Vietnam in 1978.

An 89-year-old Japanese man has one last wish in life that a 19th century bronze bell from a northern Vietnamese pagoda, which he retrieved from Tokyo, is restored to its rightful place and tolls again.

Takuro Watanabe, a lawyer, told Tuoi Tre newspaper about the bell during a visit to Vietnam in September to attend a Japan Friendship Organization prayer for peace.

The bronze bell, cast in 1828, arrived back in Vietnam in 1978 after being taken away by a Japanese military officer three decades earlier. It has been languishing at a museum warehouse since.

For Watanabe, bells symbolize peace. But the wheelchair-bound man said he is too old now to do anything more except ring its chimes of peace.

But to go back to the beginning, he first saw the bell, standing as tall as a man, at an antique store in Ginza, Tokyo, in September 1977.

He read the Chinese inscriptions on the bell and decided he would buy it and return to its owners in Vietnam. Vietnam was strongly influenced by the Chinese language system before French missionaries brought Latin alphabets.

The inscriptions say the bell belonged to Ngu Ho Pagoda, Kim Thoi Village, Bac Ninh Province, and that it was the third bell to be made by local residents after two others were stolen.

"The villagers have become used to the sound of a bell. Since there is none now, we are sad. So we decided to make another one. It took three years before enough money and bronze were donated to cast one."

Hue Hong, the head of Ngu Ho Pagoda in Bac Ninh Province, with the bronze bell cast in 1828 that lies in a museum warehouse three decades after being returned to Vietnam by a Japanese Samaritan
The names of around 300 people who helped build the bell are carved on it.

Watanabe wanted to return the bell to its rightful owners since it was the result of a lot of love and labor.

The store owner told him that the bell had been brought by a Japanese military officer who had managed a timber mill inside the pagoda in the early 1940s.

He managed to bargain the price down from 9 million yen to 5 million yen (currently US$64,000). But he needed another 2 million yen to send the bell to Vietnam.

He discussed his idea with several friends and historians and they decided to raise funds with help from Ryokei Oshini, a Zen master and then the chief monk of Kiyomizu Pagoda, Nitatsu Fuji of Nihon zan Myohoji pagoda, and the famous late writer Seicho Matsumoto.

Watanabe put in his life savings. He wanted to speed up things since he knew that a senator was also interested in the bell.

He raised enough in a couple months, but then the antique store owner learned about his story and halved the price to 2.5 million yen, Watanabe said.

The lawyer and the monks then held prayers for it across the

country for six months at the Zojiji pagoda in Tokyo, then others in Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Kobe, before ending at Kaneiji pagoda in Tokyo.

In June 1978 the bell was handed back to Vietnam at a ceremony held at Quan Su Pagoda in Hanoi.

Things should have ended there, but they did not.

Miyuki Komatsu, a Japanese teacher in Hanoi who also donated money for buying the bell, received an email from Watanabe in 1993 asking how it was doing and hoping it was tolling regularly.

It took Komatsu nine years to answer him since she could not find it anywhere.

Komatsu said she went to But Thap Pagoda in Bac Ninh, which was supposed to be keeping it for Ngu Ho.

Ngu Ho Pagoda was destroyed during the war in the early 1950s and had not been rebuilt by the 1970s, so monks in Hanoi decided to leave it at But Thap, since several villagers there had helped build the bell.

But Komatsu found that no one at But Thap knew about it.

She then began a frantic search, going everywhere and asking everyone. She visited almost every pagoda in Hanoi and Bac Ninh, and even flew to Ho Chi Minh City once after a reporter described seeing a similar bell there.

Nine frustrating years went by until, in 2002, a Japanese historian who knew his way around Vietnam told her to try Bac Ninh Museum.

There she found it in the warehouse.


"When I saw it lying in a corner, behind a wardrobe, covered in dust, I would have burst into tears if no one had been around," Komatsu recalled.

Her biggest concern at the moment was what to tell Watanabe.

She learned that since But Thap Pagoda already had a bell, it had handed over this one to the museum, but no one at the latter place could read Chinese to understand its true worth.

The museum director, Le Viet Nga, told Tuoi Tre that he would allow visitors to ring the bell whenever they want.

But that did not mollify Watanabe.

"A pagoda bell needs to be at a pagoda, so that people can hear it toll every day. People only donated money to build the bell for the third time as they missed its ringing."

Nga refused to speak over the phone, and asked Vietweek to come to his office instead.

Hue Hong, the chief nun at Ngu Ho Pagoda which was rebuilt in 2001 said nuns and villagers have filed requests to have the bell back three times so far.

Discouraged after hearing nothing from anyone, they planned to make a new similar bell, but Watanabe has dissuaded them.

He said the new bell can only look like the old one, but cannot have its spirit.

The tolling of the old bell contains the feelings and experiences of a chaotic time, he said.

He believes that all bells find their way back to their pagodas.

He had joined protests against the Vietnam War since it broke out, and still cares about peace in this country.

Vietnam does not have peace yet and he wants the bell's tolls to help achieve that, he said.

Meanwhile, the nuns at Ngu Ho have used the money meant for the new bell to build a bell tower.

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