January 1, 2000

Ancient Temple in Tokyo Rings in Just a New Year


TOKYO, Saturday, Jan. 1 -- As the monks in their long black robes and golden sashes put the finishing touches on preparations for the New Year celebrations here, there was little room for doubt that this was a big day for Zojoji Temple, one of Tokyo's great Buddhist houses of worship. There was the altar to be prepared in front of the huge bronze bell to be sounded 108 times to relieve the soul of its many agonies and frustrations. There was the huge tarpaulin-like collection vessel to be strung up and secured to gather in the many pounds of coins to be tossed in offering. And there were the helium balloons to be filled that at the right moment would carry people's prayers skyward.

Thousands of transparent balloons soared into the sky as crowds of revelers released them to mark the new year at the Zojoji Temple. To the right is the Tokyo Tower.

But as that moment drew near, conversations with the people who filled the sprawling grounds of the huge complex to the bursting point made clear that for Japanese, from the Buddhist cleric to the high school lovebirds strolling arm in arm, the celebration of the New Year, always a huge event for the nation's Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, was only incidentally related to the global hoopla about the year 2000.

Almost every aspect of the millennium events here bore reminders that Japan, more than any other place on earth, has managed to absorb all of the outward trappings of the Western world while at the same time remaining profoundly, and quite proudly, different.

Indeed, the Tokyo television tower, a replica of the Eiffel Tower that glowed brightly close by at the stroke of midnight, seemed like a neon advertisement of the dichotomy, as visitors crowding the temple grounds snatched up the last of the white arrows on sale there to be hung in the home to ward off evil, while clerics blew the reedy, ancient court music, or gagaku, from their flutes.

And then there was the sermon delivered by Kyoshin Todo, the elaborately robed head monk of this temple, which was founded in 880. "It has been 1999 years since the birth of Christ, but Buddha was living long before then," he said, stooping deeply as he clutched a long white hairy whisk. "We have all -- whether Japanese or Chinese or Indian Buddhists -- gone over to keeping dates this way. If the Buddha were alive today, what would he think? "He wouldn't say anything, because he has a huge heart. And that is what God is trying to teach us, that we must accept each other."

In fact, Japanese have a wide variety of choices for keeping calendars, from the birth of Buddha, in 563 B.C., to the imperial-based date system still in official use. This year is Heisei 12, the 12th year of Emperor Akihito's reign, according to that method. There are others, too, from the traditional Chinese lunar calendar to the Shinto dating system, whose count begins with the reign of Jimmu, the mythical, divinely born first emperor, starting in 660 B.C. The celebration of the new year on Jan. 1 only began with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar and other Western inventions under the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Still, the little lecture, which seemed in part a mild reproach to Asians for having forsaken many of their traditions for Western ways, seemed almost redundant, judging from the comments of those who flocked here. Almost none of them said they regarded the start of the new year as an entry into a new era in the first place.

"Mill, millen, millennium," Yaeko Mizoguchi, a 60-year-old woman said, laughing as she struggled with the word borrowed from English. "We are Japanese. It is too hard to pronounce, and we cannot be bothered with it anyway." Her husband, Mutsumi Mizoguchi, 63, a retired engineer, added: "We have our own culture to live in, just as Americans have theirs. We enjoy our own traditions, our own flags, our own songs. When you celebrate your own culture properly, then you can go forth into the world proudly." The couple said they had been celebrating the New Year in the same way all their lives. But young couples who turned out here in large numbers showed no greater interest in the millennium and no less fidelity to this country's traditions.

Buddhism came to Japan from China and Korea in the sixth century and gradually took its place alongside Shinto, the ancient indigenous animistic religion, as one of the country's two principal forms of worship. Although it has not always been the case, the two now live in a sort of easy cohabitation.

Japanese pick and choose which of the two religions to use to mark important moments during the year, often on the basis of nothing more spiritual than which temple or shrine is closest to their homes. "To be honest, we don't have much faith," said Yukio Hoshi, 28, a salaryman who came to the temple to make New Year's wishes with his girlfriend, Akiko Kuji. "More than anything else, we've come here out of habit. This is how you celebrate occasions like this in Japan."

At a long table provided for the occasion, the couple carefully filled out cards listing their wishes for the new year and then joined the long line to enter the temple where a golden Buddha sat atop a richly decorated altar. Their wishes? "Health for our families, success in work and happiness together," said Miss Kuji, 25, tugging a blanket around her shoulders against the cold.

For most young couples, Christmas is the biggest time for year-end parties. New Year's, by contrast, is traditionally a quiet, contemplative holiday, when ancestors are remembered, people seek atonement and make new wishes, and families draw close. "At this time of year I believe Japanese are seeking renewal and spiritual refreshment," said Nichihiro Kuya, a monk who is director of publications for Zojoji Temple. "That's pretty much the same thing that Westerners are seeking too, isn't it?"

Asked how he felt about the ease with which Japanese people switch among religions, including Christianity, which claims less than 1 percent of the population as regular worshipers but whose wedding rites are wildly popular here, he managed to find a virtue. "Japanese have a history of flexibility, and will accept anything if they think it is good, whether it is Buddhist, Shinto or a Christian-style wedding," he said. "Of course we would like as many believers as possible for our sect, but this adaptability is a strong point of our culture."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company