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Torch-lighter Ito personifies paradoxes of the Japanese

Midori Ito lighted the Olympic Cauldron with her torch, and Japan rejoiced.

Not only had the Winter Olympics commenced - seven years and $1.5 billion after Nagano won the bid to be host - but national heroine Ito was smiling again.The enduring image of Ito, the finest figure skater in Japanese history, is not of her gravity-defying triple-axel jump but of her downcast apology to her country. At the 1992 Albertville Olympics, Ito was favored to win the gold but fell during the short program and settled for silver, behind American Kristi Yamaguchi.

I am sorry, Ito told Japan.

How sad, we thought. How strange. How very Japanese.

Japan has opened its doors to the gaijin (foreigners) for the Olympics. Greeks, Argentines, Austrians, Latvians and a Bermudan marched in Saturday's Opening Ceremony. The German Olympic team has rented a 630-year-old Jodo Buddhist temple for its athletes. The Americans bowed to the spectators and kept saying "hai," the all-purpose yes word in a society where it's impolite to say no.

During the ceremonies we got to gawk at the sumo wrestlers and wondered how men so huge can be idolized in a country of such petite people. We got a glimpse of the emperor and empress, and wondered how such a thoroughly modern democracy can still retain some of the elements of its feudal past.

The Japanese don't expect you to understand. They don't expect you to understand their alphabet, to know whether the sign on the door you're entering means dry cleaner or dentist. They don't expect you to understand how 120 million people can live in nonviolent harmony on an island archipelago the size of California.

This is my third visit to Japan and it still is a puzzle that cannot be solved. You always need a map to get through the maze of streets; addresses are useless. We tour Japan's high-tech cities and peaceful countryside and fixate on how very "different" it is. It still is exotic Asia, despite Tokyo's similarities to New York City, despite seeing more designer suits than kimonos.

Japan is a land of paradoxes, like the Opening Ceremony stadium constructed to resemble a sakura, or cherry blossom: delicate yet sturdy, simple yet ingenious.

It is the land of gentle monks and raucous salary men splayed on subway platforms in drunken stupor singing karaoke songs at the top of their lungs. It is the economic juggernaut suddenly vulnerable. When Nagano bid for the Olympics, Japan was so flush with cash that businessmen were not only buying up Honolulu but organizers offered to pay the way of every athlete. Now that the bubble has burst, Nagano's debt is estimated at $30,000 per household.

Ito was the perfect choice to officially ignite these Games. She personifies the pressures Japanese impose on themselves and the humility they exude, whether they're selling you lacquerware, welcoming you into their homes or winning a silver medal.

In 1984 speed skater Kuriowa Akira was expected to win gold but finished 10th.

"I could feel myself crushed by the pressure," he said this week. "Some people say there's a monster in the Olympics. But the Olympics does not create this monster. It is actually myself."

Nancy Kerrigan did not apologize when she placed second in Lillehammer. Nor did Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, after his team failed to defend its Super Bowl title. Richard Nixon had to be dragged from office and never said he was sorry for shaking citizens' faith in the presidency.

Here, bank presidents and finance ministry officials have resigned in the wake of allegations about extortion and collaboration with gangsters.

During a nuclear power plant scandal, the head engineer jumped out of a hotel window. Jyuzo Itami, director of such films as "A Taxing Woman" and "Tampopo" threw himself off a building because of rumors he was having a love affair.

1997 was called the year of "gomenasai," or apology, because of the number of public self-flagellations. Even the governor of Nagano prefecture apologized for calling speed skating uninteresting.

An expression of regret, a willingness to accept responsibility, is better than disgrace. There is nothing worse than losing face.

This reflects the samurai spirit. The warrior might go days without food, but he would stick a toothpick in his mouth to pretend he had feasted rather than admit he was starving.

Don't expect the Japanese ski jumpers to ski off a cliff if they don't come close to a medal sweep, or at least win Japan's fourth Winter Olympic gold medal. But they already are feeling the weight of tremendous home-country expectations.

"Maybe I felt unnecessary pressure," Masahiko Harada said after a disastrous jump in Sapporo three days ago. "I have to remember this bitter lesson."

American figure skater Kyoko Ina was born in Japan and speaks Japanese. But she grew up in the New York City area. She has never understood why her friend Ito apologized for her silver medal.

"It was really confusing to figure out why she did it," Ina said. "Whenever I come here, I say it's like coming to a foreign country."