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Japanese purists prepare to welcome new millennium

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TOKYO — It's a chance that comes but once in 1,000 years — the start of a new millennium. And Japan, renowned for its attention to detail, is determined to get it right.

Instead of joining much of the rest of the world to hail the start of the 21st century in the first minute of the year 2000, Japan is being purist.

The first rays of the new millennium will dawn on the Land of the Rising Sun on New Year's Day 2001.

"The new century officially begins on January 1, 2001," said an official at the prime minister's office.

"But perhaps because of the Y2K problems, people around the world focused their attention on the year 2000," he said, referring to the millennium bug problems that threatened the world's computers as the clock ticked from 1999 and into 2000.

So while the rest of the world has this year been hailing firsts after marking New Year's Day 2000 in a sea of champagne and with festivals of fireworks, Japan has been hailing lasts.

The trend is picking up steam as the end of the year approaches until virtually everything — whether marathons, sales or political events — gets a "last of the century" tag.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's attendance at a recent gathering of Southeast Asian nations plus Japan, Korea and China, for example, was touted by Japanese officials as the "last major diplomatic event in the 20th century."

The "Forget the Year" parties that Japanese typically enjoy in December, the equivalent of Christmas parties, are being billed as the final chance to party this millennium.

Last year, on the final day of 1999, crowds swarmed into special concerts and events in Tokyo, but, overall, millennium fervor was muted in comparison with other countries.

Most Japanese clung to their usual New Year's habits, staying quietly at home with their families or visiting temples, where bells tolled 108 times at the stroke of midnight in a traditional ritual to dispel the evils of mankind.

Yet it is unlikely there will be many special events this year, despite the fuss about the new millennium.

In large part this is because Japan mostly marks time by the year of the emperor's reign, even though use of the Western calendar is widespread.

Next year will only be Heisei 13, the 13th year of Emperor Akihito's reign and no occasion for special celebration.

There are exceptions.

Artist Ikuo Hirayama, one of Japan's most famous painters, will complete a mural on the wall of a temple in the central Japanese city of Nara, near the ancient capital of Kyoto.

As bells toll for midnight, the 70-year-old Hirayama will brush the final stroke of a 6-foot-by-130-foot painting he has been working on for the past 20 years.

"I took this on under the condition that I finish it within the 20th century," Hirayama recently told a Japanese magazine. "Now there is only the last bit left."

The government, struggling to propel a laggard Japan to the forefront of cutting edge technology, is to sponsor an Internet expo to celebrate the start of the 21st century.

It is customary in Japan to leave no business unfinished to drag over into a new year, resulting in a breathless rush at the end of December as people hurry to take care of last-minute matters left undone.

In the same way, Japanese leaders have long said they wanted to conclude all the problems of the 20th century before it ended.

Yet even with the extra year granted by Japanese precision, several vital issues remain unsolved as the clock ticks down to midnight on December 31.

Most regretted is the failure to resolve a thorny territorial dispute between Japan and Russia that has kept them from signing a World War Two peace treaty.

"We are holding talks at all levels to work on concluding the peace treaty before the 20th century is over. There is little time left, but we want to make every efforts," Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said recently.

Confusion on Japan's political scene, where the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) only barely managed to quell a reformist rebellion that would have split its ranks as the 20th century drew to a close, has prompted laments among LDP elders.

"Can we really pass the baton of politics to the 21st century in such a confused situation?" said then-LDP Secretary General, Hiromu Nonaka in the wake of the failed revolt last month.