Dignitaries including Consul General Kazuyuki Takeuchi, Mr. Carter state legislators and Georgia Department of Economic Development officials participated in the groundbreaking. Photo: Consulate General of Japan

A groundbreaking ceremony for a traditional Japanese bell tower at the Carter Center Friday took on a somber air as morning news reports confirmed that Japan’s former prime minister had been assassinated. 

Shinzo Abe, who led the government from 2012-20 as well as during one previous term during the 2000s, took two shots from an assailant’s makeshift gun Thursday. Authorities confirmed his death Friday morning. 

The irony was not lost on those providing remarks that the news arrived as Atlanta’s Japanese community took another step toward building a home for what has become known as the Peace Bell, which symbolizes U.S.-Japan ties and the promise that instruments of war can be traded for bonds of friendship.

Cast in 1820, the bell’s life began at Shoganji Temple in the town of Konu, in Hiroshima prefecture. During World War II, it was sent along with many similar bells to be melted down for ammunition to aid the Japanese war effort. The war ended before it faced the furnace, and it eventually landed in the hands of a Brit whose son inherited the bell and brought it to Florida. Before moving back to the United Kingdom, the son sold the bell to the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta in 1985 for about $3,000. 

The consulate and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Georgia presented the bell to President Carter to show appreciation for his work toward world peace and in driving the Japan-Georgia relationship. It was dedicated in 1989 and still sits in the foyer of the Carter Center’s executive offices. Japan’s government has since been a major funder of the Carter Center’s health work, including on Guinea worm eradication in Africa. 

Initially, plans were made to return the bell to its original home at Shoganji Temple, but the people of Konu were so delighted to hear of its place of prominence at the Carter Center that they asked that it stay in Atlanta. 

“The mayor of Konu invited President Carter to visit in October 1990 for the unveiling of the replica bell, which is now in the city of Konu, and it is called the bell of friendship,” said Jessica Cork, a vice president for YKK Corp. of America and the current chair of the Japan-America Society of Georgia. 

Mr. Carter, she said, also went back 1994 for the dedication of another Carter Center — a civic center Konu named in honor of the former president. Since then, Konu and Americus, Ga. — a larger city near Mr. Carter’s home in small-town Plains — have hosted multiple sister-city exchanges.  

A renewed effort to build the bell a more prominent, permanent home, where it can toll for peace over Atlanta, started last year. The Japan-America Society of Georgia has spearheaded the initiative, raising funds from individual donors, corporate sponsors and cultural events to accumulate the more than $300,000 needed to complete the project. 

Carpenters from Konu have now hewn the beams from a 150-year-old cypress tree harvested for this purpose. A shipping container carrying them just arrived in California by boat and is now being sent by rail across the country. The carpenters will come to Atlanta from Konu in August to oversee construction from Aug. 2-19, Ms. Cork said. 

Jason Carter, the chair of the Carter Center and the grandson of the former president, offered his condolences to the people of Japan and the Abe family, noting that on a day like Friday, the bell’s utility as an interactive fixture at a nonprofit devoted to peace-building is particularly poignant.

“You’re going to be able to come to this place, experience it, look at it and ring it for peace, and if there’s one thing that we can do more of, it is to acknowledge that, and to let that peace ring out from this place and from the rest of the world,” Mr. Carter said, with the Carter Presidential Library’s flags lowered to half staff behind him to honor victims of the latest American mass shooting, this time in Highland Park, Ill. 

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican representing East Cobb and Sandy Springs who chairs the Georgia Japan Legislative Caucus, said Georgians who had experienced the “glories of Japan” as travelers and those who cherished the longstanding business and trade ties with the country were mourning with its people. 

“It’s really ironic to me the timing of when we’re having this gathering, and I’m so glad that we’re all here to highlight the need for peace in our troubled world,” Ms. Kirkpatrick said. 

After remarks, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest led a ceremony featuring prayer, the tolls of a singing bowl and purification rituals, chanting peacefully as the aroma of incense wafted over the audience. 

Offerings of peaches, Coca-Cola and Georgia peanuts were presented to the spirits, along with snacks, sake and rice. As the chant concluded, a red-tailed hawk alighted in a tree just above the site where dignitaries had turned the dirt, letting out piercing cries that some saw as a sign of nature’s approval for the sylvan site just off the Carter Center’s parking lot. 

Kiyo Kojima, an attorney at Smith, Gambrell and Russell and the current chair of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, closed the event by acknowledging that the pace of the project moved faster than he personally expected thanks to “good people, coming together in good faith, working together.”

“I think this is a true testament to that, and after all, isn’t that how we accomplish peace?”

Construction on the Peace Bell Tower is slated to be completed in September, with a ribbon-cutting planned for Sept. 30 at 4 p.m.

Learn more about the project and donate at https://www.jasgeorgia.org/Georgia-Japan-Peace-Bell.

The Japan-America Society offered this statement about the prime minister’s death:

“As we woke up this morning excited to celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony for the Peace Bell Tower at The Carter Center, we were devastated to learn of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Prime Minister Abe was a strong advocate of the Japan-U.S. relationship, not only in politics but also economics, culture, education, and person-to-person exchange. Our hearts are with our friends in Japan as we mourn his passing.”

The consulate announced late Friday that a book for those wishing to write their condolences to the people of Japan over Mr. Abe’s loss will be opened at the consulate July 11-12 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Find details about the process here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...