Dear Alice,

Coming back to Japan, one tends to notice things anew. For me, returning from a stay in Ireland, I picked up on what seems to be the constant tinkling of little bells. Of course, they’ve always been around, on souvenirs and the odd key ring, but now they seem to be everywhere, on bags and backpacks and especially mobile phones. So, what the heck is that about? I suspect there’s some deep, traditional meaning, but does that still apply to the middle-aged businessman on the train who wouldn’t dream of disturbing other passengers by using his phone, yet continually shakes the bell attached to it?

David B., Tokyo

Dear David

I have to say, this didn’t have a familiar ring to me. But since I haven’t been out of Japan in a while, I figured I’d better not rely on my own powers of observation. So I went on the Internet where, a bit to my surprise, I found lively discussions on the topic.

Participants were divided down the middle as to whether the sound is pleasant or annoying, but they provided innumerous reports of public jingling and jangling, all caused by small bells on bags and backpacks and especially mobile phones.

My next step was to contact Strap-ya World, a company that sells absolutely nothing but those decorative straps people hang from their phones and bags. President Tomo Higuchi estimated that roughly 10 percent of the straps they sell feature small bells, with a somewhat higher prevalence on items with branded characters (such as Hello Kitty). But he has not observed any discernible jump in demand for belled merchandise.

“Our company is very sensitive to consumer trends,” he said, “So if there was a bell boom in progress, we’d definitely know about it.”

Nevertheless, once I knew to listen, I picked up plenty of telltale tinkling. And whenever I could, I stopped the source to ask what’s with the bells. Most of the older people I spoke to said they bell important items, like keys, so they’ll hear if they accidentally drop them. Or so they can check if they’ve got their keys just by shaking their bag. Three retirees, riding the train in full hiking garb, said their bells were kumayoke suzu (bear-scaring bells), worn in the mountains to reduce the risk of bear attacks by giving fair warning that humans are approaching.

But most of the people I surveyed didn’t have a specific reason for bearing bells.

“I guess because they’re cute,” was the best one young woman could offer. Another said bells are “friendly and cheerful,” and “It’s nice to have the sound with you.” Neither had considered, until I gently suggested it, that people might find the sound of their bells annoying.

Hoping for more thoughtful analysis, I took your question to Tomiko Kojima, professor emeritus of the National Museum of Japanese History and a musicologist with a special interest in sound and culture. “Most Japanese have an affinity for the sound of bells because, since ancient times, bells have been associated with protection,” she said. “Modern Japanese may have very little consciousness of this connection, but somewhere deep inside there is a sense that it’s better to have bells than not.”

Bells have certainly had a long history in Japan. Archaeologists have discovered bells made of clay, called dorei, which date back to the prehistoric Jomon Era (10,000 B.C.-300 B.C.).

“We don’t know why our ancestors made these bells,” Kojima allowed, “but a fair guess is that they were meant to scare away evil.”

In Shinto, bells have long been used at shrines and in ritual dances to get the attention of gods and bring them down among the people to offer protection.

“Because of these and other traditions, there is a deeply rooted belief in Japanese culture that the sound of bells wards off evil and brings protection. That’s why you so often see bells on omamori (protective charms), Kojima explained. “It’s also why, well into the 20th century, parents used to attach little bells to children’s geta (clogs).”

Kojima pointed out that Japanese used to be highly attuned to nature’s sounds.

“If you consider that most people were engaged in agriculture and fishing, you can understand how important it was to pay attention to changes in the sound of wind, for example, because that could signal critical weather changes,” Kojima said. “And our poetry is full of references to the sounds of wind, water and insects. So it’s not surprising that a sound, such as that made by bells, could be considered so powerful.”

This seems as good a time as any to peel off into a lesson on bell-related giseigo (onomatopoeia). Small round bells that make sound because of a metal object inside are generally called suzu, and the sound they make can be expressed as “rin rin” (roughly equivalent to “ting-ting” or “tinkle-tinkle”). Another common way to sound like a bell is “chirin chirin” (something between “ting-a-ling” and “jingle-jingle”), which is somewhat more likely to carry the implication that you find the noise irritating. In which case it might best be translated as “jingle-jangle.”

You know the big bells that hang at the front of a shrine? And the sound they make when you shake their ropes? That’s “gara gara” (“rattle-rattle”) or “garan garan” (“clank-clank”). If you need to describe sound made by the cup-like metal bells on Buddhist altars or in temples, which are called rin and only make noise when struck, try “chiin” (if it’s small) or “gon” (if it’s big).

Personally, the sound of bells is less likely to take a toll on my patience than some other sounds I hear in Japan. My current gripe is with women who wear backless sandals with pointy heels that produce a painful racket, particularly when the wearer is clack-clack-clacking down subway stairs. I also run the other way when I hear piyo piyo sandaru, those little-kid sandals that squeak. In fact, this gives me an idea: If readers send me their pet sound peeves, I’ll compile a list and run it in a future column.

Feel free to chime right in.

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