Beliefnet
Tokyo, Dec. 26--(UPI) At the ending and the beginning of a year, many Japanese who for 50 other weeks are content to leave religious thoughts well enough alone find their spiritual side. Oddly enough, it begins with Christmas Eve.

Traditional Christmas carols and other such jingles take over the loudspeakers in shopping arcades, while families in Japan chose cedar trees instead of the West's traditional spruce and fir, and decorate them, large or small.

From Sapporo to Okinawa, cities vie for splendor and glory in festooning themselves with ropes of lights shaped as Christmas trees. Tokyo's main business district features a street covered with glittering bulbs and even declares a title: "Beyond Light." Is this a nation of Christians?

Hardly. Japan's Christian population represents less than 1 percent of the whole. Yet Christmas is firmly established as one of the nation's seasonal events. Couples get excited over fixing a date of wining and dining in a hotel or gorgeous restaurant. Many children anticipate who they know as St. Claus to arrive at their bed side overnight. Once the Christian phenomena are over, then come all sorts of fortune-telling books for the coming year based on Oriental philosophies, astrology and Buddhism.

It's also traditional to clean house, be it home or business. And once the scrubbing and tidying is over, houses and corporations alike cannot be neglected in decorative efforts to bring fortunes for the next year. Lucky items may include a bamboo rake (to rake the coming fortunes), decorative pine trees in front of entrances (to await fortunes) and an elaborately decorated hagoita, a wooden paddle to bat a shuttlecock back and forth in a New Year's game for girls.

At the midnight of Dec. 31, Buddhist temples begin ringing large bells slowly 108 times in all, representing the call to cleanse oneself from the 108 kinds of worldly desires, according to Buddhist teachings based on the six senses, the Western five--sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste--plus the mind.

However, the most significant religious demonstration comes on New Year's Day, when people go for prayer at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples across the country. Some large shrines with a particularly distinguished history can attract millions of worshippers within a couple of days starting at the midnight of Jan. 1.

This year, many Japanese will likely be adding to the usual prayer list for marriage, health, business success or entrance exams. In these days of continuing economic recession and social uncertainty has come a curb on Japan's tradition of lifetime employment and jobless rates have doubled in recent years.

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