TOKYO -- Last night, as Americans celebrated the advent of 1991 with liquor, carousing and cheers, most of Japan stayed home.

They were watching television.

And if New Year's Eve parties reflect the American character, then the show that held Japan in thrall also perfectly reflects the society from which it springs.

"The Red-White Song Wars" is a lavish extravaganza that has been shown on Japan's top TV network, NHK, every Dec. 31 since television broadcasting began here in 1952. A seemingly endless marathon of songs -- this year's edition ran 4 hours 25 minutes -- it is always the No. 1-rated TV show of the year here.

If Japan were to sink into the Pacific, leaving behind nothing but a single video of the New Year's Eve show, archaeologists could probably reconstruct the whole nation from the clues found in that one tape.

Japan is famous for its group orientation and its abhorrence of individualism. Sure enough, on the show, every singer is assigned to one of the two battling teams, the Red (female) or the White (male). Even singing groups that include both male and female members are assigned to one of the two teams. When any member of either team is on the stage singing, the other team members routinely come out to cheer their "teammate" on.

Japan is marked by intense competitiveness in almost everything, and the whole structure of the New Year's popular song marathon follows that principle. Instead of just letting the nation's most popular singers come out and do their thing, NHK turns the annual event into a contest.

While the Red and White team members alternate on the stage, a corps of telephone operators, wearing the NHK corporate uniform, polls selected families around the country. Based on those calls, and the votes of a jury of celebrities present in NHK Hall, one of the two teams is awarded the championship flag at the end of the show amid tumultuous cheering.

Japan is known for its ready willingness to mix the old and the new, the East and the West. That too is part of the "Song Wars" tradition.

On last night's show, the singers ranged from sedate opera stars in evening dress to teenage rockers in spangled purple tunics who danced on roller skates while singing. There were elderly women in tasteful kimonos warbling the traditional settital love songs -- Japan's equivalent of country-western. And there were teenage "idols" in sequined microskirts -- beautiful young women who generally couldn't sing a note -- croaking out top-40 tunes.

At the end of the show, all the performers gathered onstage to sing the traditional Western New Year's song "Auld Lang Syne" -- but with a completely different set of Japanese lyrics titled "The Beam of the Firefly."

Since New Year's in Japan is a time to stay home, many bars and restaurants are closed for the night. With the whole country home watching TV, all the networks put on major specials for the evening, ranging from samurai dramas to docudramas to variety shows.

But none can match "The Red-White Song Wars." On some New Year's Eves, the show has been watched by more than 80 percent of all Japanese households.

To be selected as one of the five dozen singers asked each year to take part in the program is the ultimate tribute in Japan's entertainment world. The stars and their record companies wage mega-yen campaigns to win slots, including big ads in the major newspapers and constant visits to the office at NHK where a team of producers works all year on this one program.

And this year, for the first time ever, NHK chose two American singers -- Paul Simon and Cyndi Lauper -- to battle in the "Song Wars." Simon sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water," as much a standard in Japan as it is at home. In a tribute to his stature here, Simon was permitted to sing from a stage in New York, with only his electronic image making the trip to Tokyo.

Lauper was here in the flesh to sing "I Drove All Night."

NHK, a public corporation something like America's PBS -- except that its shows regularly score at the top of the ratings charts -- says it added Americans to the traditional New Year's Eve songfest this year out of recognition that the 1990s will be a time for increased international awareness.