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Burakumin (部落民, "hamlet/village people", "those who live in hamlets/villages") is an untouchable group in Japan at the bottom of the traditional social hierarchy.

Burakumin were originally ethnic Japanese people with occupations seen as kegare (穢れ "defilement") during Japan's feudal era, such as executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers, or tanners. Burakumin became a hereditary status of untouchability and an unofficial caste in the Tokugawa class system during the Edo period. Burakumin were victim of severe discrimination and ostracism in Japanese society, and lived as outcasts in their own separate villages or ghettos. Burakumin status was officially abolished after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, but the descendants of burakumin have since continued to face stigmatization and discrimination in Japan.


Burakumin is derived from buraku (部落), a Japanese term which literally refers to a small, generally rural, commune or hamlet. People from regions of Japan where "discriminated communities" no longer exist (e.g. anywhere north of Tokyo) may refer to any hamlet as a buraku, indicating use of the word is not necessarily pejorative.[citation needed] Historically, the term buraku was used for an outcast community that was heavily discriminated against officially and formally.

Romaji Kanji Meaning Annotation
Hisabetsu-buraku 被差別部落 discriminated community/hamlet is a commonly used, polite term, with people from them called hisabetsu-burakumin (被差別部落民 "discriminated community (hamlet) people") or

hisabetsu buraku shusshin-sha (被差別部落出身者 "person from a discriminated community / hamlet").

Burakumin 部落民 hamlet people is either hamlet people per se or an abbreviation of people from discriminated community/hamlet. Very old people tend to use the word in the former meaning. Its use is sometimes frowned upon, though it is by far the most commonly used term in English.
Mikaihō-buraku 未解放部落 unliberated communities is a term sometimes used by human rights pressure groups and has a degree of political meaning to it.
Tokushu buraku 特殊部落 special hamlets was used in the early 20th century but is now considered pejorative.

A widely used term for buraku settlements is dōwa chiku (同和地区 "assimilation districts"), an official term for districts designated for government and local authority assimilation projects.

The social issue surrounding "discriminated communities" is usually referred to as dōwa mondai (同和問題 "assimilation issues") or less commonly, buraku mondai (部落問題 "hamlet issues").

In the feudal era, the outcaste were called eta (穢多, literally, "an abundance of defilement" or "an abundance of filth"), a term now considered derogatory. Eta towns were called etamura (穢多村).

Some burakumin refer to their own communities as "mura" ( "villages") and themselves as "mura-no-mono" (村の者 "village people").[citation needed]

Other outcaste groups from whom Buraku may have been descended included the hinin (非人, literally "non-human"). The definition of hinin, as well as their social status and typical occupations varied over time, but typically included ex-convicts and vagrants who worked as town guards, street cleaners or entertainers.[citation needed]

In the 19th century the umbrella term burakumin was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods.[1]

Historical origins[edit]

Urban burakumin were originally destitute peasants who abandoned their fields and became camp followers of samurai in the Sengoku period. As the samurai camps became more permanent Japanese castles, the camp followers settled into various professions. Some became professional beggars, but most became street workers such as musicians, dancers, actors, puppeteers, monkey trainers, and low-class artisans of various kinds such as matcha whisk makers.[2] Other burakumin were initially migrant farmers, often called kawata because of the rice-paddies (ta) which they farmed on undesirable land near rivers (kawa). Many migrant burakumin eventually accumulated enough money to purchase the land on which they farmed, to the extent that laws were sometimes passed to dispossess them of their land.[3]

Because the various types of camp followers were seen as impoverished and homeless, they were regarded as hinin or non-citizens by medieval samurai, and taboos of pollution arose around them. In the Tokugawa period, this polluted status sometimes became hereditary, due to Confucian construction of the ie family system. At other times and places, pollution was not hereditary but was associated with jobs involving blood such as hunting, fishing, and tanning. The belief in pollution ebbed and flowed throughout the Tokugawa period, being most strictly observed in the 19th century as Tokugawa society came under increased pressure.[4]

In the 1920s a mythology formed around burakumin which claimed them to have become outcaste due to their work in the tanning industries. In fact, tanning was a minority profession among burakumin and, strictly speaking, ritual pollution was considered separately from the four occupations in the Tokugawa period. It was kawata (かわた) or eta (穢多) who treated dead bodies of horses and cattle. Their status was immobile and they were thought to be more polluted, although hinin’s status was not necessarily immobile.[5] Burakumin were recognized members of the farmer caste, who only became seen as polluted due to the medieval connection to poverty.[3] Bakuhu regarded beggars as hinin and allowed them to beg in designated areas. They had to work as restroom attendants, prison officers, executioners or something. One of famous hinin or eta is Danzaemon (弾左衛門), who was the head of eta, kawata and street performers in Kantō, and he was given the exclusive license of tanning, candle wicks and others and made a fortune.[6] 

End of the feudal era[edit]

The most famous leader of the BLL, Jiichirō Matsumoto (1887–1966), who was born a burakumin in Fukuoka. He was a statesman and called "the father of buraku liberation".[7]

The feudal caste system in Japan formally ended in 1869 with the Meiji restoration. In 1871, the newly formed Meiji government issued a decree called Senmin Haishirei (賤民廃止令, Edict Abolishing Ignoble Classes) giving outcasts equal legal status. It is currently better known as the Kaihōrei (解放令, Emancipation Edict). However, they were deprived of the exclusive rights of disposal of dead bodies of horses and cattle[8][9][10] and the elimination of their economic monopolies over certain occupations actually led to a decline in their general living standards, while social discrimination simply continued. During the early Meiji era many anti-Kaihōrei riots (Kaihōrei-hantai-ikki (解放令反対一揆)) happened around the country. For example, in a village in Okayama when "former eta" tried to buy alcohol, four men were killed, four men were injured and 25 houses were destroyed by commoners,[11] and in another village 263 houses of eta were destroyed and 18 people of former eta were killed, which was part of an anti-Government riot.[12] The practice of eating meat existed even during the edo period,[13] but the official ban on consumption of meat from livestock was lifted in 1871 in order to "westernise" the country, and many former eta moved on to work in abattoirs and as butchers because they were thought not to be “clean” and they had special techniques to treat dead bodies. Prejudice against eating meats still existed. In 1872, a group of Yamabushi, who objected to the Emperor’s consumption of meats, tried to enter the Tokyo Imperial Palace and four of them were killed. They claimed gods would leave Japan because Japanese had eaten meats.[14]

However, slow-changing social attitudes, especially in the countryside, meant that abattoirs and workers were met with hostility from local residents. Continued ostracism as well as the decline in living standards led to former eta communities turning into slum areas.

There were many terms used to indicate former outcastes, their communities or settlements at the time. Official documents at the time referred to them as kyu-eta (旧穢多 "former eta"), while the newly liberated outcasts called themselves shin-heimin (新平民 "new citizens"), among other things.

The term tokushu buraku (特殊部落, special hamlets", now considered inappropriate) started being used by officials in the 1900s, leading to the meaning of the word buraku ("hamlet") coming to imply former eta villages in certain parts of Japan.[citation needed]

Movements to resolve the problem in the early 20th century were divided into two camps: the "assimilation" (同和, dōwa) movement which encouraged improvements in living standards of buraku communities and integration with the mainstream Japanese society, and the "levelers" (水平社, suiheisha) movement which concentrated on confronting and criticising alleged perpetrators of discrimination.

Post-war situation[edit]

Although legally liberated in 1871, with the abolition of the feudal caste system, this did not put an end to social discrimination against them nor their lower living standards because Japanese family registration was fixed to ancestral home address until recently, which allowed people to deduce their Burakumin membership.

The long history of taboos and myths of the buraku left a legacy of social desolation and since the 1980s, more and more young buraku have started to organize and protest against alleged social misfortunes, encouraged by political activist groups. Movements with objectives ranging from liberation to encouraging integration have been tried over the years to put an end to this problem.[citation needed]


The number of Burakumin asserted to be living in modern Japan varies from source to source. A 1993 report by the Japanese government counted 4,533 dōwa chiku (同和地区, assimilation districts) throughout the country. Most were located in western Japan, while none were located in Hokkaido and Tōhoku. Around three quarters of the districts are in rural areas. The size of each community ranged from under five households to over 1,000 households.[15]

According to a survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2003, 76% of Tokyo residents would not change their view of a close neighbor whom they discovered to be a burakumin; 4.9% of respondents, on the other hand, would actively avoid a burakumin neighbor. There is still a stigma attached to being a resident of certain areas traditionally associated with the burakumin and some lingering discrimination in matters such as marriage and employment.[16]

The Buraku Liberation League (BLL), on the other hand, extrapolates Meiji-era figures to arrive at an estimate of nearly three million burakumin.[17] A 1999 source indicates the presence of some two million burakumin, living in approximately 5,000 settlements.

In some areas, burakumin are in a majority; per a 1997 report, they accounted for over 70 percent of all residents of Yoshikawa (now Kōnan) in Kōchi Prefecture. In Ōtō, Fukuoka Prefecture, they accounted for over 60 percent.[18]

Japanese government statistics show the number of residents of assimilation districts who claim buraku ancestry, whereas BLL figures are estimates of the total number of descendants of all former and current buraku residents, including current residents with no buraku ancestry.

Discrimination in access to services[edit]

While in many parts of the country buraku settlements, built on the site of former eta villages, ceased to exist by the 1960s because of either urban development or integration into mainstream society, in other regions many of their residents continued to suffer from slum-like housing and infrastructure, lower economic status, illiteracy, and lower general educational standards.[citation needed]

In 1969, the government passed the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects (同和対策事業特別措置法 dōwa taisaku jigyō tokubetsu sochihō)[19] to provide funding to these communities. Communities deemed to be in need of funding were designated for various Assimilation Projects (同和対策事業 dōwa taisaku jigyō [ja]), such as construction of new housing and community facilities such as health centers, libraries and swimming pools. The projects were terminated in 2002 with a total funding of an estimated 12 trillion yen over 33 years, with the living standards issue effectively resolved.[citation needed]

Social discrimination[edit]

Cases of social discrimination against residents of buraku areas are still an issue in certain regions. Outside of the Kansai region, people in general are often not even aware of the issue, and if they are, usually only as part of feudal history. Due to the taboo nature of the topic, it is rarely covered by the media, and people from eastern Japan, for example, are often shocked when they learn that it is a continuing issue.[citation needed]

The prejudice most often manifests itself in the form of marriage discrimination and, less often, in employment. Traditionalist families have been known to check on the backgrounds of potential in-laws to identify people of buraku background. These checks are now illegal, and marriage discrimination is diminishing; Nadamoto Masahisa of the Buraku History Institute estimates that between 60 and 80% of burakumin marry a non-burakumin, whereas for people born in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the rate was 10%.[20]

Cases of continuing social discrimination are known to occur mainly in western Japan, particularly in the Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, and Hiroshima regions, where many people, especially the older generation, stereotype buraku residents (whatever their ancestry) and associate them with squalor, unemployment and criminality.[21]

No discriminated-against communities were identified in the following prefectures: Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Tokyo, Toyama, Ishikawa, and Okinawa.[22] Hokkaido and Okinawa have had their own separate history of discrimination of their native ethnic groups the Ainu and the Ryukyuans, respectively.

Yakuza membership[edit]

According to David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan's Criminal Underworld (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1986), burakumin account for about 70 percent of the members of Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza syndicate in Japan.

Mitsuhiro Suganuma, an ex-member of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, testified that burakumin account for about 60 percent of the members of the entire yakuza.[23]

"Tokushu Buraku Chimei Sōkan" incident[edit]

In November 1975, the Osaka branch of the Buraku Liberation League was tipped off about the existence of a book called "A Comprehensive List of Buraku Area Names" (特殊部落地名総鑑 Tokushu Buraku Chimei Sōkan). Investigations revealed that copies of the hand-written 330-page book were being secretly sold by an Osaka-based firm to numerous firms and individuals throughout Japan by a mail order service called Cablenet, at between ¥5,000 and ¥50,000 per copy. The book contained a nationwide list of all the names and locations of buraku settlements (as well as the primary means of employment of their inhabitants), which could be compared against people's addresses to determine if they were buraku residents. The preface contained the following message: "At this time, we have decided to go against public opinion and create this book [for] personnel managers grappling with employment issues, and families pained by problems with their children's marriages."[citation needed]

More than 200 large Japanese firms, including (according to the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute of Osaka) Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Daihatsu, along with thousands of individuals purchased copies of the book. In 1985, partially in response to the popularity of this book, and an increase in mimoto chōsa (身元調査, private investigation into one's background) the Osaka prefectural government introduced "An Ordinance to Regulate Personal Background Investigation Conducive to Buraku Discrimination".[citation needed]

Although the production and sale of the book has been banned, numerous copies of it are still in existence, and in 1997, an Osaka private investigation firm was the first to be charged with violation of the 1985 statute for using the text.[citation needed]

Nonaka incident[edit]

Hiromu Nonaka

In 2001, future Prime Minister of Japan Tarō Asō, along with Hiromu Nonaka, was among the LDP's chief candidates to succeed Yoshirō Mori as prime minister of Japan. During a meeting of LDP leaders at which Nonaka was not present, Asō reportedly told the assembled group, "We are not going to let someone from the buraku become the prime minister, are we?"[24] Nonaka subsequently withdrew as a candidate. Asō's comment about Nonaka's heritage was revealed in 2005. Asō denied that he had made the statement, but Hisaoki Kamei, who was present at the 2001 meeting, stated in January 2009 that he had heard Asō say something "to that effect".[24]

Hashimoto incident[edit]

Tōru Hashimoto is a lawyer, former governor of Osaka Prefecture, former mayor of Ōsaka City and the founder of the political party Nippon Ishin no Kai. In 2012, the magazine Shukan Asahi [ja] published the Article ハシシタ・奴の本性 (“hashishita”, the nature of that guy), which claimed that his father is Burakumin and his relatives are yakuza and tried to explain why he was so eccentric and dangerous based on his “blood”. Hashimoto, who was the mayor of Ōsaka at that time, excluded the newspaper The Asahi Shimbun, whose wholly owned subsidiary company the publisher is, from a press conference and demanded an explanation from the publisher,[25] and sued the publisher and the writer Shinichi Sano [ja] for defamation. [26][27] The Buraku Liberation League, who did not support his policies, also remonstrated.[28] The publisher had a third party examine the incident and apologized for that. [29] The president of the publisher Hideo Kotoku [ja] resigned to take responsibility.[30]

Burakumin rights movement[edit]

As early as 1922, leaders of the Hisabetsu Buraku organized a movement, the "Levelers Association of Japan" (Suiheisha), to advance their rights. The Declaration of the Suiheisha encouraged the burakumin to unite in resistance to discrimination, and sought to frame a positive identity for the victims of discrimination, insisting that the time had come to be "proud of being eta The declaration portrayed the burakumin ancestors as "manly martyrs of industry" and argued that to submit meekly to oppression would be to insult and profane these ancestors. Despite internal divisions among anarchist, Bolshevik, and social democratic factions, and despite the Japanese government's establishment of an alternate organization Yūma movement, designed to undercut the influence of the Suiheisha, the Levelers Association remained active until the late 1930s.[citation needed]

After World War II, the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded, changing its name to the Buraku Liberation League (Buraku Kaihō Dōmei) in the 1950s. The league, with the support of the socialist and communist parties, pressured the government into making important concessions in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1960s the Sayama Incident (狭山事件), which involved the murder conviction of a member of the discriminated communities based on circumstantial evidence (which is generally given little weight vs. physical evidence in Japanese courts), focused public attention on the problems of the group.

One concession was the passing of the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects, which provided financial aid for the discriminated communities. Also, in 1976, legislation was put in place which banned third parties from looking up another person's family registry (koseki).[citation needed]

This traditional system of registry, kept for all Japanese by the Ministry of Justice since the 19th century, would reveal an individual's buraku ancestry if consulted. Under the new legislation, these records could now be consulted only in legal cases, making it more difficult to identify or discriminate against members of the group.

In the 1980s some educators and local governments, particularly in areas with relatively large hisabetsu buraku populations, began special education programs which they hoped would encourage greater educational and economic success for young members of the group and decrease the discrimination they faced.[citation needed] Branches of burakumin rights groups exist today in all parts of Japan except for Hokkaidō and Okinawa.

"Human Rights Promotion Centers" (人権啓発センター) have been set up across the country by prefectural governments and local authorities; these, in addition to promoting burakumin rights, campaign on behalf of a wide range of groups such as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, foreign residents and released prisoners.[citation needed]

Even into the early 1990s, however, discussion of the 'liberation' of these discriminated communities, or even their existence, was taboo in public discussion.

Buraku Liberation League and the Zenkairen[edit]

The Buraku Liberation League is considered one of the most militant among burakumin's rights groups. The BLL is known for its fierce "denunciation and explanation sessions", where alleged perpetrators of discriminatory actions or speech are summoned for a public hearing before a panel of activists.[citation needed]

Early sessions were marked by occasions of violence and kidnapping, and several BLL activists have been arrested for such acts. The legality of these sessions is still disputed, but to this date the authorities have mostly turned a blind eye to them except in the more extreme cases.[31][32][33]

In 1990, Karel van Wolferen's criticism of the BLL in his much-acclaimed book The Enigma of Japanese Power prompted the BLL to demand the publisher halt publication of the Japanese translation of the book.[citation needed] Van Wolferen condemned this as an international scandal.[citation needed]

The other major buraku activist group is the National Buraku Liberation Alliance (全国部落解放運動連合会, Zenkoku Buraku Kaihō Undō Rengōkai, or Zenkairen), affiliated to the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). It was formed in 1979[34] by BLL activists who were either purged from the organization or abandoned it in the late 1960s due to, among other things, their opposition to the decision that subsidies to the burakumin should be limited to the BLL members only. Not all burakumin were BLL members and not all residents of the areas targeted for subsidies were historically descended from the out-caste.[35]

The Zenkairen often came head-to-head with the BLL, accusing them of chauvinism. The bickering between the two organizations boiled over in 1974 when a clash between teachers belonging to a JCP-affiliated union and BLL activists at a high school in Yoka, rural Hyōgo Prefecture, put 29 in hospital.[citation needed]

In 1988, the BLL formed the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). The BLL sought for the IMADR to be recognized as a United Nations Non-Government Organization, but in 1991, the Zenkairen informed the United Nations about the alleged human rights violations committed by the BLL in the course of their 'denunciation sessions' held with accused 'discriminators'.[35][36]

According to a BLL-funded think tank, when suspected cases of discrimination were uncovered, the Zenkairen often conducted denunciation sessions as fierce as those of the BLL. Nonetheless, the IMADR was designated a UN human rights NGO in March 1993.[37]

On 3 March 2004, the Zenkairen announced that "the buraku issue has basically been resolved" and formally disbanded. On 4 March 2004 they launched a new organization called "National Confederation of Human Rights Movements in The Community" (全国地域人権運動総連合, Zenkoku Chiiki Jinken Undō Sōrengō') or Zenkoku Jinken Ren.[38][39]

Religious discrimination[edit]

According to BLL sources, nearly all Japanese Buddhist sects have discriminated against the burakumin.[citation needed] Zenkairen disputes this.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism was the original supporter of lower castes. The side-effect of this liberating philosophy, however, was that it led to a series of anti-feudal rebellions, known as the Ikkō-ikki revolts, which seriously threatened the religious and political status-quo. Accordingly, the political powers engineered a situation whereby the Jōdo Shinshū split into two competing branches, the Shinshu Otani-ha and the Honganji-ha. This had the consequence that the sects moved increasingly away from their anti-feudal position towards a feudal one.

Later the state also forced all people to belong to a specific Buddhist school according to the formula:

the imperial family is in Tendai, the peerage is in Shingon, the nobility is in Jōdo (Honen's followers), the Samurai is in Zen, the beggar is in Nichiren, and Shin Buddhists (Shinran's followers) are at the bottom.[40]

In consequence the Honganji, which under Rennyo's leadership had defiantly accepted the derogatory label of 'the dirty sect' (see Rennyo's letters known as the Ofumi/Gobunsho) now began to discriminate against its own burakumin members as it jostled for political and social status.[citation needed]

In 1922, when the National Levelers' Association (Zenkoku-suiheisha) was founded in Kyoto, Mankichi Saiko, a founder of the movement and Jodo Shinshu priest, said:

We shouldn't disgrace our ancestors and violate humanity by our harsh words and terrible actions. We, who know how cold the human world is, and how to take care of humanity, can seek and rejoice from the bottom of our hearts in the warmth and light of human life.[41]

After many petitions from the BLL, in 1969 the Honganji changed its opinion on the burakumin issue.[citation needed] Zenkairen, which split from the BLL in 1968, regrets this decision.[citation needed]

Religious discrimination against the burakumin was not recognized until the BLL's criticism sessions became widespread. For example, in 1979 the Director-General of the Sōtō Sect of Buddhism made a speech at the "3rd World Conference on Religion and Peace" claiming that there was no discrimination against burakumin in Japan.[42]

Notable burakumin[edit]

Tadashi Yanai
  • Tōru Hashimoto, politician, lawyer, the 52nd Governor of Osaka Prefecture, and former Mayor of Osaka city[43][44]
  • Jiichirō Matsumoto, politician and businessman who was called the "buraku liberation father"
  • Ryu Matsumoto, politician of the Democratic Party of Japan, a member of the House of Representatives in the Diet (national legislature)
  • Toru Matsuoka, politician of the Democratic Party of Japan, a member of the House of Councillors in the Diet (national legislature)
  • Rentarō Mikuni, actor[45][46]
  • Manabu Miyazaki, writer, social critic and public figure known for his underworld ties
  • Kenji Nakagami, writer, critic, and poet
  • Hiromu Nonaka, chief cabinet secretary (1998–1999)[47]
  • Takashi Tanihata, politician serving in the House of Representatives in the Diet (national legislature) as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party
  • Tadashi Yanai, founder and president of Uniqlo[48]

See also[edit]

Discrimination in Japan:



Main text originally from Library of Congress, Country Studies. Religious Discrimination and Jodo shinshu Honganji sections adapted from Shindharmanet and BLHRRI.Org.

  • Alldritt, Leslie D. The Burakumin: The Complicity of Japanese Buddhism in Oppression and an Opportunity for Liberation
  • Amos, Timothy P. " Portrait of a Tokugawa Outcaste Community," East Asian History (2006) Issue 32/33, pp 83–108
  • Amos, Timothy P. Embodying Difference: The Making of Burakumin in Modern Japan (2011)
  • Amos, Timothy. "Fighting the Taboo Cycle: Google Map Protests and Buraku Human Rights Activism in Historical Perspective." Japanese Studies 35.3 (2015): 331–353.
  • Amos, Timothy. "Binding Burakumin: Marxist historiography and the narration of difference in Japan." Japanese Studies 27.2 (2007): 155–171.
  • Fowler, Edward. "The Buraku in Modern Japanese Literature: Texts and Contexts," Journal of Japanese Studies (2000) 26#1 pp 1–39
  • Groemer, Gerald. "The Creation of the Edo Outcaste Order." Journal of Japanese Studies 2001 27#2 pp 263–293 in JSTOR
  • Kasahara, Toshinori. Shin Buddhism and the Buraku-min (1996 Honolulu Higashi Honganji)
  • Neary, Ian. "Burakumin in contemporary Japan," in Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, Michael Weiner, ed.
  • Neary. Ian. "Burakumin at the End of History," Social Research (2003) 70#1 pp 269–294, online.
  • Shimazaki, Toson. The Broken Commandment
  • Suzuki, D.T., Oiwa, K. The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery (Stoddart Publishing, Toronto: 1996)
  • The Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute, ed. (1986). 部落問題事典 [Burakumin Problems Dictionary]. 解放出版社(Kaihou).


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