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Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Wringing out the year


When I arrived in Japan in the 1970s, I was both young and stupid. Now, over three decades later, I can only make half that claim.

Back then I looked forward to my first Japanese New Year's with electric anticipation. I knew New Year's ranked as the calendar's chief highlight and I naively blended this knowledge with my American New Year's Eve experience. I envisioned all-night parties, streets gushing with champagne (or at least sake), kimono-clad girls with twirling noisemakers, and everyone ringing out the old year with maybe bows instead of smooches.

What a let down when I trudged about my neighborhood to find nothing open whatsoever. I collected some drinks from a vending machine and sat in my apartment alone, watching some sappy singing show on TV.

"Sheesh," I thought. "What a New Year's!"

Thirty years later, I have come to appreciate the family occasion that is the Japanese New Year's, but still do not share the same happy sparkle that my wife feels for this season. The foods and traditions leave me largely yawning and most years I would trade all the omochi in the world just to see one football game on TV.

Yet, there is one moment I never miss. That very same sappy singing show of over 30 years past is now my holiday highlight.

Yes, the annual NHK "Kohaku Uta Gassen" — "Red and White Song Battle!" The name alone makes me smile. What better proof that the years here haven't wised me up more than to say I am a fan of such schlock.

And the show has gotten schlockier with time. There was a day when Kohaku was the most widely viewed TV show on earth, when the competition between red and white/female and male singing teams seemed to unite the land in an orgasm of pageantry, with the climax of the final tally serving to nail down an entire year. To appear on Kohaku, performers had to be either very good or very popular and usually they were both.

These days we have an expanded show with the resulting dilution of talent propped up with louder delusions of grandeur. Now the climax comes when NHK announces the lineup, weeks in advance. After that we have just sound and fury, with last year's program adding a dash of fake nudity.

Aw, but who cares? Kohaku is a shared spectacle. Much of it doesn't happen on the screen. It happens at home.

Kohaku is reclining under the living room kotatsu with an endless supply of tea and mikan. It's spooning down a banana split, while my wife and sons slurp away their end-of-the-year noodles. It's everyone for once putting down their laptops, their iPods, their homework, their worries. It's drifting slowly into the brand new year — together.

With the Kohaku as background music. Not that we ignore it.

For example, we always trade jokes about what awful costume Sachiko Kobayashi will trot out this time. And then gas about what we'd like her to wear — perhaps one of DJ Ozma's body suits. Now that would spike the ratings for sure. As would seeing her or fellow stage-flyer Kenichi Mikawa get yo-yoed about on their wires.

There is also the drama of the contest. No one cares who wins, but the fun comes in watching everyone fake the excitement. Sometimes the victors will even weep tears of joy at program's end. Of course, in a show this long they might just be happy it's over.

If anything, the exaggerated zeal of the red-white battle diminishes the celebration. It's a four-hour live concert of some of the best talent in Japan, knocking themselves out. That alone should be enough to sell it. Yet, who am I to tell the Japanese how to sell?

And then, 15 minutes to midnight it ends. The larger-than-life TV smiles are replaced by the quiet bells of the subsequent program — "Yuku Toshi, Kuru Toshi" (Fading Year, Coming Year) — a gentle tour of Buddhist temples across the land, all awaiting the next tomorrow in the echo of the passing one's final heartbeat.

I treasure the serenity of those few fleeting minutes. Always it seems but a few days since the last time I heard those bells, not 365 of them. And always I think this is the year's finest moment. This soft settling when none of what has happened or what will happen matters at all. All that matters is now — being home and being together with family.

Then, just as suddenly, the serenity ends and it is another new year. The rat race roars up again in earnest.

And this time in more ways than one. Happy Year of the Rat to you all.



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