Yoi otoshi wo

The Japanese have a word for the feeling at the end of the year: shiwasu, which literally translates as “teachers running.” The connotation is that things are getting so busy that even professors, who are normally laid back and mellow, are in a tizzy. By the end of the year, bonuses will have been paid, dozens of year-end parties will have been attended, all manner of gifts will have been exchanged, debts should be settled, new year’s greeting cards painstakingly addressed, homes thoroughly cleaned—and it all leads up to a climactic December 31 eve when…everybody stays home.

Sound plays an important part in the ritual crossover from old year to new, and I have to say it ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. On public television, we have the annual Red and White Song Contest. Born in post-war Japan and hosted by the very proper NHK public television network, it still garners as much as 80 percent of household eyeballs in the hours leading up to midnight. A battle of the sexes with a Red team (female) pitted against a White team (male), this music entertainment show, with enough gaudiness to make a Las Vegas review seem like a high school production of Uncle Vanya, is the settling ground for Japanese pop music culture of all ages and tastes. Like the French restauranteur who offed himself after losing a star in the Guide Michelin, some singers have actually attempted suicide when denied a slot on the Red and White Song Contest. Some costumes, all of which are custom made, have been said to have cost more than $800,000. Last year, a sequence in the show featured a group of dancers cavorting in a “wardrobe malfunction” of all-too-convincing flesh colored body stockings that had the phones jangling all night at the NHK switchboard. Personally, I found the afro-headed dancing clowns much more disturbing, but the nudity, however faux, engendered a 1st-of-the-year apology from NHK the next day.

On the other side of the serenity spectrum, the time-honored ritual of the walk to the local temple to ring the midnight bell 108 times is the one I prefer. It is known as the joya no kane (end-of-the-year bell). The tolls represent the leaving behind of 108 bonno, or worldly concerns of the old year, which, according to Buddhist belief, torment mankind. Each toll is struck after the reverberations from the previous one have died out, and it is timed so that the last stroke will be exactly at midnight. It’s a beautiful way to put the sins of the past year—and the vulgarities of the previous couple of hours—far away.

Happy New Year! I’m looking forward to meeting you here again in 2008.

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