A happy Heisei 12 to all our readers

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The Independent Online

For a few moments in the earliest minutes of yesterday morning, in a few places in Japan's biggest cities, it was possible to convince yourself that the arrival of the third millennium was more than just a rather quiet Friday night.

For a few moments in the earliest minutes of yesterday morning, in a few places in Japan's biggest cities, it was possible to convince yourself that the arrival of the third millennium was more than just a rather quiet Friday night.

On the waterfront in Tokyo, politicians and celebrities gathered beneath a big firework display - though far less spec- tacular or well-attended than the ones held all over Japan every August. In the shrines and temples, bells were tolled and drums beaten as midnight arrived, but this happens every year anyway.

Beyond the glow of the big entertainment districts, empty taxis cruised idly along streets as empty as they ever get except in the run-up to an imminent typhoon. Even in the hottest party spots, a large proportion of the revellers were drunk foreigners. The true spirit of the Japanese New Year continued inside, where millions of people marked the century's passing in the traditional manner - sitting in front of the television.

Japanese "greeted the millennium" dutifully enough yesterday. Like their counterparts in South Korea, China and south-east Asia, the all-night TV programmes reported the celebrations in Kiribati, and cast an anxious eye over New Zealand for signs of the Y2K bug. The Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, gave a 1am press conference to report the absence of computer-related catastrophes, despite lesser millennium malfunctions at three nuclear power plants.

But in the becalmed streets of Tokyo yesterday, where shops, museums and businesses had closed for the annual five-day holiday, the atmosphere was one of relieved anticlimax. For Japanese, as for many of the world's 3.2 billion Asians, there was a sense that, although the millennium could not be ignored, they were guests at someone else's party.

The most obvious reason is that, for large numbers of the world's people, this is not really the year 2000 at all. Despite its international dominance, the system of year-counting promulgated in 1582 by Pope Gregory III is only one among numerous other systems in Asia.

In the calendar used by the ethnic Tamils of southern India and Sri Lanka, the third millennium began three decades ago; according to the Saka system employed by Hindus in Bali, it is not due for another 77 years and a half. By Muslim reckoning yesterday was the 24th day of Ramadan in the year 1420. Even in Japan, the Gregorian calendar exists alongside a widely used system based on the length of the Emperor's reign, in which the year 2000 is also the 12th year of Heisei.

The Asian lunar calendar lags more than a month behind the Western version and, for ethnic Chinese communities all over Asia, the celebrations marking the Year of the Dragon will not begin until February. In the big cities of China, those with the means took advantage of the excuse for a party. But in rural areas of the world's most populous country - just as in jungles, deltas and on mountain sides throughout Asia - the flickering over of the digits from 99 to 00 had no cultural resonance whatsoever.

Enthusiasm for the new millennium might have burned a little brighter in Asia if the past decade had been a happier one. Ten years ago, the Japanese economy was booming apparently unstoppably and the economies of South Korea and south-east Asia were spoken of as tigers. Leaders in the East and the West spoke confidently of an "Asian century" in which China would emerge as the world's newest superpower and Tokyo's economic strength would quickly surpass that of the United States.

Within three years Japan's bubble had burst, and in 1997 Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea were ruined by the Asian financial crisis. Its effects on poverty, health, employment and education will be felt for years. The cost of recovery is a drastic restructuring of ways of doing business and the dismantling of the cosy relationships between governments and private companies.

"The 1990s dawned with a stock crash in the first market session after the New Year holiday," says Morihiro Hosokawa, a former Japanese prime minister. "It was in the 1990s that Japan noticed for the first time how poor it is at coping with changing situations." Rather than the prologue to the Asian century, the past 10 years are spoken of as the "lost decade".

At Meiji Jingu, Tokyo's biggest and most famous Shinto shrine, families gather at New Year to offer prayers, written out on wooden plaques which are hung from roofed stands. A few of the supplications yesterday were typically millennial - prayers for world peace, harmony, an end to disease and suffering. But most were personal and mundane - a prayer for a pay rise, a girlfriend, a place at a good university, a new job, or any job at all.

"A good marriage for my daughter," one man answered, when I asked him what he hoped for in the 21st century. In difficult times, perhaps it is not surprising that most Japanese are less interested in a glorious new millennium than in a prosperous Heisei 12.