At the First Sunrise, A Rural, Ritual Welcome

NABAU VILLAGE, Fiji, Jan. 1 (Saturday)

The first dawn of 2000 came as a shy sliver of dim white light just after 6 a.m. over the hills of this island in the Pacific Ocean. The sound of morning church hymns competed with rooster crows and bird calls as villagers celebrated the new millennium by quietly following the time-honored rituals of their ancestors.

In a pattern repeated in thousands of villages that make up the Fiji Islands, there was a church service before midnight, then the gathering around the kava bowl to share cupfuls of the powerful local brew. And just before dawn, 50 families huddled under a tin roof supported by 14 bamboo polls to pray, receive Holy Communion, hear a sermon from the village priest, and then watch in awe as the timid sun arched slowly over the hilltops to turn the dark velvet sky a brilliant morning white.

Eighty miles away, in Suva, the Fijian capital, the ceremonies had a more decidedly modern, big-time flair: DJ Tu Kini interspersing Pacific island rifts with hard-core rap and reggae; midnight fireworks lighting the sky over the city greens; and two dozen flamboyantly dressed transvestites jamming with other revelers into O'Reilly's Irish pub for a "Millennium Meltdown" party that included all the hot dogs you could eat.

The clash of the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, the understated and the extravagant, was evident around the globe as the New Year moved from time zone to time zone across the continents. From the simple villages of Fiji to the Shinto shrines of Japan; from Afghanistan to the Kenyan coast; from London's Millennium Dome gala to the beaches of Copacabana in Brazil, people around the world marked the passing of the 20th century in contrasting styles at once simple, sophisticated, sizable, and sometimes just plain silly.

Washington Post foreign correspondents fanned out to 17 sites around the globe for New Year's Eve celebrations, to record how people in different parts of the world celebrated this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Fiji proudly proclaimed itself the first country to ring in the new millennium, and the first to welcome the new century's initial rays of sun.

Fiji's claim stemmed from its geographic location, smack against the 180 degree longitudinal line that generally makes up the meandering International Date Line. Despite competing claims to be first--from New Zealand and also neighboring Kiribati--Fiji went all-out to capitalize on the millennium madness, producing its own millennium currency, a special millennium postage stamp, a millennium time capsule to be deposited at the date line and even a special offer for millennium buffs to purchase commemorative square-inch chunks of Taveuni island, which the 180 degree line bisects. (Celebrations on Taveuni had to be canceled when the island's chief died and the islanders went into the traditional 100-day mourning period.)

The local Fiji Times declares itself: "The first newspaper published in the world today!"

But in the traditional Fijian villages, this New Year arrived with many of the same rituals and simple customs as New Years before. In villages like Nabau and neighboring Semo, many of the most hyped technological innovations of the last century have made hardly a dent.

There are no computers here, and no Internet access. Only about a half-dozen houses have a telephone. They farm sugar cane and corn, they grow bananas, and for church services and important village meetings they still ring the lali, a bell made of a hollow log, beaten with two sticks. They say their ancestors protect their village from danger, and the elders who pass away are buried beneath stone monuments in front of the houses where they lived.

Yet even these villages are changing. In Emosi Kunaika's cement house there is a new NEC color television, receiving news broadcasts from the BBC, across the rectangular living room from a 70-year-old wooden Singer treadle sewing machine. Kunaika, at 18, still knows how to crush the kava and make the ritual spin before he serves it to a visitor. But the kava these days is made in a bowl of plastic, not wood, and strained not through the husk of a coconut, as in tradition, but in a cotton cloth.

"We try to revive our tradition all the time," said Kunaika's father, Sitiveni, 47, watching with pride as his eldest son mixed the kava juice and performed the ritual. "We don't have any schools or any place where we can teach our kids about our customs. They just sit, and they learn it."

He fears the old customs will be lost. "We see people come from the city and change, and that is what we don't want," he said. Pointing to the plastic kava bowl, he added, "Things have changed. Now we use this. Maybe in the new millennium, we'll use a glass one."

Emosi Kunaika, too, sees a simple village life that survived the 20th century that may not last long into the 21st. "I don't think it will be the same," he said. "I think the new millennium will be a little bit worse. There will be changes, like crime and everything else coming up."

So far, though, the village is holding its own. Rural Fiji in 2000 still resembles rural Fiji of a generation ago. "Computers have not yet come to this village," said Kunaika, who is contemplating buying his own PC soon. "Fiji will always be on Fiji time."

-- Keith B. Richburg

As the Bells Toll, Reflections on War


The bells tolled 108 times at every Buddhist temple in Japan to greet the new year, the traditional plea by the weary living to the dark spirits for a small respite from trouble.

Millions gathered at the temples and Shinto shrines to pray and reflect as heavy wooden logs swung slowly against the temple bells. They came in peaceful congregation--some subdued, others festive--to judge their lives by an inner scale, not scripture or edict.

Among those who gathered at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine were veterans of World War II, the pivotal conflict of the 20th century, one that changed history for Japan, the United States and large parts of the world.

Soshiro Aburaya came to honor old friends who never returned from the hell of war in Burma that he survived. "From childhood, I was taught that Japanese who lost their lives for their country become gods at this shrine, so we worship them as a god," said Aburaya, 79.

The Yasukuni Shrine, more than any other, embodies Japan's difficult transition from its warring past to its peaceful present. Built in 1869, it is the shrine to the war dead, where the emperor himself once worshiped. It is a place whose name embodies a nationalism that many Japanese would rather forget.

Many Japanese see the shrine as a monument to the zealotry of Japan's ruinous attempt to conquer Asia in World War II, a bid that left 3.1 million Japanese dead.

Aburaya, who helps collect signatures urging the emperor to visit the shrine again, disagrees. "War should never take place. Even for the victors, it is miserable," he said. "But what is good, because we lost, is that the Japanese decided, spontaneously, that there should be no more war anymore."

Aburaya marvels that he survived the war. A truck driver, his vehicle was crippled by a British tank, and he and other stragglers wandered in the jungle for three months. Exhausted and wracked with pain from skin rot, he set out for a mountain to commit suicide, only to be rescued by a column of retreating Japanese soldiers.

He crawled with them for three days, collapsed, and regained consciousness in a hospital in Bangkok. Of 320,000 Japanese sent to Burma, fewer than half survived.

"The war was wrong. But my view of it is ambivalent, because I learned I could survive. In that sense, it gave me more strength," Aburaya said.

Tomoji Sato said he sees the shrine only as a place to pay simple respect for the dead. "Every nation should honor those who sacrificed their lives for their country," he said.

Sato, 78, also served in Burma. He sometimes wears his old private's uniform, the one he was given to replace the tattered rags in which he emerged from the jungle in 1945.

A butcher, he was drafted at age 21 and "considered it an honor to serve my country." Even when it was clear Japan was losing and they had no food or bullets, Sato and his fellow soldiers gave no thought to resisting orders to advance against enemy tanks.

"To be caught as a prisoner would be unthinkable," Sato said. "We would first commit hara-kiri, or explode a grenade against our bellies, or commit a suicide attack."

To those who see that trait as Japanese fanaticism, against which Japanese themselves should be on guard in the next millennium, Sato offered reassurance.

"Those who went to war are those who hate it most," he said. "There were too many needless deaths. They never want their sons or grandsons to do that."

-- Doug Struck

CAPTION: Fireworks over the Harbor Bridge in Sydney usher in the new year--a joyous scene repeated as 2000 marched across the globe. Twenty tons of fireworks were used in the Australian celebration, costing $3.9 million.

CAPTION: As the sun rises in Auckland, New Zealand, a Maori warrior calls across the misty bay with a traditional trumpet. New Zealand was one of the first countries to welcome the new year.