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A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

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This provocative book is a tractate—a treatise—on beauty in Japanese art, written in the manner of a zuihitsu, a free-ranging assortment of ideas that “follow the brush” wherever it leads. Donald Richie looks at how perceptual values in Japan were drawn from raw nature and then modified by elegant expressions of class and taste. He explains aesthetic concepts like wabi, sabi, aware, and yugen, and ponders their relevance in art and cinema today.

Donald Richie is the foremost explorer of Japanese culture in English, and this work is the culmination of sixty years of observing and writing from his home in Tokyo.

80 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 2007

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About the author

Donald Richie

131 books94 followers
Donald Richie is an American-born author who has written about the Japanese people and Japanese cinema. Although he considers himself only a writer, Richie has directed many experimental films, the first when he was 17. Although Richie speaks Japanese fluently, he can neither read nor write it.

During World War II, he served aboard Liberty ships as a purser and medical officer. By then he had already published his first work, "Tumblebugs" (1942), a short story.

In 1947, Richie first visited Japan with the American occupation force, a job he saw as an opportunity to escape from Lima, Ohio. He first worked as a typist, and then as a civilian staff writer for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. While in Tokyo, he became fascinated with Japanese culture, particularly Japanese cinema. He was soon writing movie reviews in the Stars and Stripes. In 1948 he met Kashiko Kawakita who introduced him to Yasujiro Ozu. During their long friendship, Richie and Kawakita collaborated closely in promoting Japanese film in the West.

After returning to the United States, he enrolled at Columbia University's School of General Studies in 1949, and received his Bachelor's Degree in English in 1953. Richie then returned to Japan as film critic for the The Japan Times and spent much of the second half of the twentieth century living there. In 1959, he published his first book, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, coauthored with Joseph Anderson. In this work, the authors gave the first English language account of Japanese film. Richie served as Curator of Film at the New York Museum of Modern Art from 1969 to 1972. In 1988, he was invited to become the first guest director at the Telluride Film Festival.

Among his most noted works on Japan are The Inland Sea, a travel classic, and Public People, Private People, a look at some of Japan's most significant and most mundane people. He has compiled two collections of essays on Japan: A Lateral View and Partial Views. A collection of his writings has been published to commemorate fifty years of writing about Japan: The Donald Richie Reader. The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 consists of extended excerpts from his diaries.

In 1991, filmmakers Lucille Carra and Brian Cotnoir produced a film version of The Inland Sea, which Richie narrated. Produced by Travelfilm Company, the film won numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the Hawaii International Film Festival (1991) and the Earthwatch Film Award. It screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992.

Author Tom Wolfe describes Richie as: "the Lafcadio Hearn of our time, a subtle, stylish, and deceptively lucid medium between two cultures that confuse one another: the Japanese and the American."

Richie's most widely recognized accomplishment has been his analysis of Japanese cinema. From his first published book, Richie has revised not only the library of films he discusses, but the way he analyzes them. With each subsequent book, he has focused less on film theory and more on the conditions in which the films were made. One thing that has emerged in his works is an emphasis on the "presentational" nature of Japan's cinema, in contrast to the "representational" films of the West. His book, A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film includes a helpful guide to the availability of the films on home video and DVD mentioned in the main text. In the foreword to this book, Paul Schrader says: "Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie." Richie also has written analyses of two of Japan's best known filmmakers: Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa.

Richie has written the English subtitles for Akira Kurosawa's films Kagemusha (1980) and Dreams (1990)[8].

In the 21st century, Richie has become noted for his erudite audio commentaries for The Criterion Collection on DVDs of various classic Japanese films, notably those of Ozu (A Story of Floating Weeds, Early Summer), Mikio Naruse (When a Woman Ascend

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 44 reviews
Profile Image for Steve.
441 reviews491 followers
October 19, 2015
As Richie explains in his preface, he has deliberately chosen to write A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics as a zuihitsu , the form in which many influential Japanese chose to address aesthetic matters. Such an essay is not logically organized, not linear, not deductive. The author is supposed to "follow the brush" (I suppose we must say follow the pen, though, now, are we to follow the keyboard?), follow his thoughts as they arise. To heighten this, for him necessary, nonlinearity, he juxtaposes alongside the main text further texts which enrich the reader's understanding but which he apparently felt that he could not work into the main text in a more organic manner.

I had no problem with this approach and regretted only that the book is so short. I wish Richie had further developed his sketch of how certain central aesthetic terms had evolved through time and had provided more of his aptly chosen examples to illustrate this evolution. I wish he had submitted the more secondary terms, whose existence he merely indicated, to the fuller treatment accorded to the primary terms. I further wish he had followed up the deliciously suggestive analogies between Japanese and Western aesthetics he so briefly drew. Please, sir, may I have more?
Profile Image for Alex Pler.
Author 6 books227 followers
April 13, 2021
Texto breve que consigue profundizar en conceptos de la estética japonesa que llegaron a convertirse en una forma de vida para artistas, artesanos y poetas: fûryu, shibui, wabi y sabi, yûgen, aware, iki... Un buen punto de partida.
Profile Image for Diletta.
Author 8 books198 followers
January 26, 2019
Nocciolo duro dei termini che indicano (quando ciò è possibile) la forma e l'esperienza dell'estetica giapponese. Precisissimo e curato molto bene.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,099 reviews701 followers
October 9, 2016
This is a useful book explaining what makes Japanese art, literature, and philosophy unique. Donald Richie has lived in Japan since the end of World War II and is responsible for a series of illuminating works, including an early survey on Japanese film. A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics is a short work with large implications:
Many people everywhere spend their whole lives trying to escape the thought that one day they and all of theirs will be no more. Only a few poets look at the fact, and only the japanese, I believe, celebrate it.

This commemoration takes many forms but the most common might be looking into a mirror, seeing one more gray hair, discerning one more wrinkle, and then saying to oneself: "Good, all is well with the word -- things are proceeding as they must."
The book ends with a useful glossary and an exhaustive bibliography.
Profile Image for Onírica.
415 reviews36 followers
June 20, 2022
Una sintética disertación sobre varios elementos estereotípicos de la estética japonesa. La obra está plenamente orientada a un público occidental. Decide intercalar extractos de textos de otros autores e insertarlos rivalizando con el espacio del discurso principal, lo cual entorpece un poco la lectura, pero también enriquece el contenido.
Profile Image for JeanBaptisteClamence.
20 reviews3 followers
December 27, 2021
igual soy muy occidental para apreciar las sutilezas del zuihitsu que emula el ensayo, pero, pese a ser un librito precioso, se queda extremadamente corto. muchos conceptos quedan sin desarrollar suficientemente, muchos son sólo menciones sin mayor atención... mucho se ha quedado en el tintero. quizá que haya 10 páginas de bibliografía en un libro de 50 páginas sugiera que podía haber sido *un poco* más extenso. de todos modos, las 50 páginas que sí se han escrito son hermosísimamente sugerentes.
Profile Image for Quiver.
996 reviews1,336 followers
August 19, 2018
When seeking an introduction to an unfamiliar topic, I am wary of two types of books: the highly technical, impenetrable beasts dense with signs and meta-signs aimed at experts in a neighbouring field, and the colloquial, jokey-breezy anecdotal stories filled with mental candyfloss aimed as those seeking educational fairground entertainment. Once in a while, I find myself in either readership, but usually I seek a middle ground, and even then I require a particularly fortuitous opening into a subject that caters to my strengths and knowledge.

I found Donald Richie’s Tractate belonged to a middle ground that suited me: it is a serious introduction to the Japanese aesthetic values deriving from a consensus of taste, but an introduction which can be read fairly quickly, read for pleasure and insight, and at a later stage it can be mined for references and ideas.

For example:
If aesthetics in the West is mainly concerned with theories of art, that of Japan has always been concerned with theories of taste. What is beautiful depends not upon imagination (as Addison thought) nor qualities proper in the object (as Hume said) nor in its paradoxes (as Kant maintained) but rather on a social consensus.

You may be unfamiliar with Addison, Hume, and Kant, yet the gist of what Richie is saying remains intact. Likewise, familiarity with the names only enhances the experience.

Richie covers a lot of details, though this is an eighty-page treatise, not a textbook or systematic study, so to some it may appear like the structure is haphazard. I enjoyed being free of a strict setup. Especially in such a vast subject as the aesthetics of another culture, following a formal learning curve can be overwhelming. Having the informal structure allowed me to get a feeling for the ideas, without having to master volumes of terminology and history.

Anecdotes helped.
Simplicity—this was something that Rikyu tried to teach his pupil, Hideyoshi, at whose “court” he was arbiter. One famous anecdote illustrates his method.

Rikyu’s garden of morning glories was known for its beauty. Hearing of it Hideyoshi demanded that he be invited to visit. So he was, but when he arrived all the morning glories were no more; they had all been scythed. Perturbed, Hideyoshi retired to the nearby tea house, and there the modest flower arrangement in the alcove was a single morning glory, the only survivor, superb in its focused simplicity. The warlord is supposed to have stared, then nodded, and said that he understood the lesson.

The Glossary at the end defines succinctly the terms mentioned in the book. Only a number of those terms were discussed in some detail—here they are, excerpted from the Glossary and given in the order in which they are encountered in the book.

furyu: refined manners as reflected in things regarded as tasteful or elegant.

shibui: astringent, dry, subdued.

jimi: good taste in an understated, plain style.

hade: loud and showy, but not necessarily garish.

sabi: a slightly bleak quality suggesting age, deterioration, and the passage of time.

hie: chill beauty, somewhat like sabi.

wabi: a cultivated aesthetic that finds beauty in simplicity and an impoverished rusticity.

aware: the aspects of nature (or life, or art) that move a susceptible individual to an awareness of the ephemeral beauty of a world in which change is the only constant.

yugen: rich and mysterious beauty, now largely associated with Nō drama.

shin-gyo-so: a tripartite pattern of formal, mixed, and informal styles. 

ten-chi-jin: a tripartate pattern of “heaven,” “earth,” and “human” as an embodiement of different styles, especially in flower arrangeming. 

jo-ha-kyu: a tripartite pattern of introduction, development, finale.

iki: an urbane, chic, bourgeois type of beauty whith undertones of sensuality (as defined by Ueda Makoto).

If I may tentatively use the terms I've learned in a fashion that Richie suggests is also possible (applying them beyond art and to Western concepts too), I would say that the Tractate has a so-no-shin writing style (informal formal) and a shin-no-so structure (formal informal).

Though the words in the Glossary and my application of them in the previous sentence may give the appearance of simplicity, any simplicity—to use the word deliberately for its core relation to wabi and sabi—is deceptive. The anecdotes, quotes, and knowledge that Richie has beautifully woven into the narrative of the Tractate hint at depths only a further study of the subject would reveal. Depths, I am now more motivated to see revealed.
It is still believed that, although the elements found common to beauty are perhaps universal, it is their reception (the universal standard) that creates the excellence of the art.
Profile Image for GONZA.
6,476 reviews112 followers
April 24, 2021
Libro breve, ma intenso come dire. Una serie di collegamenti tra la storia, la filosofia e lo sviluppo dello studio sull'estetica giapponese.
Quando anche il modo in cui disponi i fiori rivela la tua classe sociale...
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews814 followers
July 3, 2018
Richie claims to have written a zuihitsu; lots of high school students claim to have written haiku, as well, but, you know. They aren't Basho, and Richie is not Chomei. I'm not really the audience for this text, which feels very 'mystical East,' a feeling that is probably more about me than Richie, who obviously knows more about Japan than I will ever know; I'm just very sensitive (i.e., I object) to the idea that there is some impassible barrier between Japanese thinking and everyone else.

Reading Japanese authors on this topic is more enjoyable, and not that hard to do; for those looking for a very easy way in, this is a flawed but approachable book.
Profile Image for Dragonfly.
140 reviews2 followers
October 24, 2022
Para lo cortito que es, me parece de lo más completo. Eso sí, en el caso que no tengas ni idea de estética asiática, en el caso que ya tengas nociones y quieras entrar más en profundidad, este no es tu libro, te introduce y te da los conceptos básicos, a los que le da una explicación breve, clara y concisa para que los puedas entender, sin entrar en mayor profundidad acerca de ellos.

Es por eso que para mí ha sido un libro fascinante con el que he descubierto muchas cosas nuevas e interesantes, dejándome con ganas de saber más acerca de su estética e historia del arte. Muy agradecida por este pequeño libro, me ha fascinado.
Profile Image for Powersamurai.
231 reviews
March 9, 2013
Dealing with Japanese aesthetic terms in translations is difficult, because the Japanese terms in themselves can be ambiguous depending on the context. Richie in this brief book does an excellent job in explaining where each term fits in the spectrum in relation to others and the world it describes. An invaluable reference for wordsmiths dealing with the word in relation to Japan.
Profile Image for Alexander Páez.
Author 35 books623 followers
March 7, 2022
Un ensayo muy conciso y sintético que repasa algunos de los aspectos mas interesantes e intrigantes de la estética japonesa. Un complemento ideal al reconocido clásico de Junichiro Tanizaki El elogio de la sombra.
Profile Image for Rodrigo Delgado.
27 reviews
July 12, 2023
Buen ensayo pero, desafortunadamente, tiene defectos de formato que no son compatibles con la seriedad que requiere la materia. Más parecido a una revista, al final del día.
Profile Image for Patekita.
151 reviews2 followers
June 25, 2022
7,5/10⭐️ como siempre, todo lo referido a Japón me fascina.
Profile Image for Keith Bouchard.
21 reviews1 follower
May 9, 2017
"Taste is an indication of an aesthetically legitimate dominance. Hence its rules and regulations, its complications, and its numerous dicta to be observed."

"'Simplicity--this was something that Rikyu tried to teach his pupil, Hideyoshi, at hose "court" he was arbiter. One famous anecdote illustrates his method. Rikyu's garden of morning glories was known for its beauty. Hearing of it Hideyoshi demanded that he be invited to visit. So he was, but when eh arrived all the morning glories were no more; they had all be scythed. Perturbed, Hideyoshi retired to the nearby tea house, and there the modest flower arrangement int he alcove was a single morning glory, the only survivor, superb in its focused simplicity. The warlord is supposed to have stared, then nodded, and said that he understood the lesson.'"

"Many people everywhere spend their whole lives trying to escape the thought that one day they and all of theirs will be no more. Only a few pots look at the fact, and only the Japanese, I believe, celebrate it. This commemoration takes many forms but the most common might be looking into a mirror, seeing one more gray hair, discerning one more wrinkle, and then saying to oneself: "Good, all is well with the world--things are proceeding as they must."

"Cherry blossoms are to be preferred not when they are at their fullest but afterward, when the air is thick with their falling petals and with the unavoidable reminder that they too have had their day and must rightly perish."

"Immortality, in that it is considered at all, is to be found through nature's way. The form is kept though the contents evaporate. Permanence through materials ... is seldom attempted. Rather, the claims of immortality are honored in another way. Here the paradigm would be the Shinto shrine of Ise, made of common, razed every twenty years an at the same time identically rebuilt on a neighboring plot."

"Suzuki Daisetz ... described wabi as 'an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty,' adding that it means 'to be satisfied with a little hut, like the log cabin of Thoreau ... with dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps listening to the pattering of gentle spring rainfall."
Profile Image for Nawfal.
321 reviews1 follower
October 8, 2017
As a rule, I dislike rating non-fiction books. This little work (70 small pages) is pocket-size, which is fine - it only claims to be a tractate. I read this with little knowledge/experience of Japanese aethetics. I have had several helpings of ancient Chinese aesthetics as well as all the Western stuff. So, I read this as a type of introduction/overview. As such, I am giving this four stars.

The author does not come across as one who wants to sound pretentious or supercilious. I do think he is genuinely trying to teach as opposed to impress. One must be careful of this in nonfiction nowadays. The layout of the book is somewhat akin to free-association... so anyone who needs heavy structure in a learning a new topic might be unhappy. Usually "introduction" and "free-association" means floofy and fluffy. Neither of those terms describe this text. Do not fear that this is some sort of air-headed star-struck-with-Japan nonsense. It isn't laborious, but it certainly isn't a "stocking-stuffer."

For such a short text the Glossary and the Bibliography are relatively extensive and can direct the reader to his next path of inquiry into Japanese aesthetics.

I will most likely re-read this text. On my first reading, I was most intrigued by the concept of shin-gyu-so. In fact, the paragraph on page 63 where the author attempts to use Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as examples is oddly cutely amusing. I think in order to understand this whole concept it will take a lot more study and understanding; so much so that the student would be able to come up with examples of their own. But this was an easy-going introduction.

Overall, this would interest anyone who needs to learn a bit about Japanese aesthetics (obviously). The reason that this did not get five stars from me is that I felt there was a little too much comparative aesthetics - comparisons/contrasts with Western art and understanding. And maybe the author leaned just a wee tiny bit too much on Thorstein Veblen. But this is me being very picky.
Profile Image for Rubén Jerez Brenes.
21 reviews1 follower
January 19, 2022
Excelente ensayo sobre un tema muy difícil de abordar, por sus múltiples aristas, y por la necesidad de familiarizar al lector con muchos conceptos nativos, para poder discutirlo con propiedad. Creo que Richie logra realizar una síntesis muy buena de la estética nipona, dotando su "ensayo libre" de un "hilo conductor" que le permite examinar las principales nociones de belleza japonesas. La traducción está muy bien lograda, pero la diagramación del texto pudo ser mejor. En ocasiones, no queda claro, en qué lugar exactamente se debe retomar la lectura principal y qué párrafos constituyen epígrafes independientes o de revisión optativa. Considero que este libro lo aprovechará más quien ya tenga alguna experiencia con el tema, pues aunque el autor se esmera en definir cada concepto que introduce a su análisis, algunos de estos se esbozan rápidamente antes de contrastarlos a otros o revisar su impacto histórico. Uno de los puntos fuertes del texto de Richie son sus constantes referencias a la obra de académicos, japoneses y occidentales, que han discutido ciertas facetas de estos temas; y su mención abre al lectora nuevas fuentes a las que recurrir.
Profile Image for Patrick McCoy.
952 reviews75 followers
June 2, 2018
Donald Richie has always wrote elegantly about Japanese culture and in A Tractate On Japanese Aesthetics (2007), he looks at Japanese concepts of beauty. As a result, I found the analysis of concepts like wabi sabi, mono aware, sibui, and the others interesting. However, this slim volumes is more akin to an introduction-it is only 80 pages long and interspersed throughout the essay are inserts with parallel discussion about western aesthetics. Essentially it is a long essay rather than a book, thus over priced as well. That is not saying that he doesn't make some valid observations and novel commentary. For example:

Stagnation, however, is no longer an option-not in our volatile times. The arts that such a concept of aesthetics supported are now largely fossilized, and those that remain are now commonly vulgarized. Any manual of Japanese aesthetics is to this extent now a closed book.

So, I guess my biggest qualm is that I would have liked more analysis and discussion of the concept broached in this cursory introduction to Japanese aesthetics.
Profile Image for David Kintore.
Author 3 books1 follower
January 21, 2023
Donald Richie wrote this little book (80 pages) in the zuihitsu style, a form that’s been described as ‘following the brush’, an essay style featuring free-flowing associations of ideas with fragments of meditation and abstraction. This style works very well for Richie’s book, with its free-standing panels of text inserted into the top of some pages, and other pages given over to poems. Zuihitsu may be an elusive concept but we get a feel for it in this engaging treatise.

The sparse uncluttered text reflects some of the aesthetic terms that Richie reflects on, like sabi which in its earliest incarnation ‘referred to scenes desolate and lonely, finding in them a lyric melancholy’, or yūgen, ‘the subtle, as opposed to the obvious; the hint, as opposed to the statement’.

Reading this made me want to read more by Donald Richie, so now it’s on to The Inland Sea…
Profile Image for Aileen Montero.
53 reviews21 followers
June 21, 2021
Es un excelente ensayo. Muy sintético e informativo.
Trata de una forma sencilla, un tema bastante complejo e intangible.
La estética japonesa es un fenómeno único que tiene que ver con la filosofía y espiritualidad de ese pueblo. Es producto de una serie de condiciones históricas e incluso geográficas de la isla.
Como amante de las expresiones del arte japonés, este pequeño libro ha quedado subrayado y anotado, para volver muchas veces a él.
Hay un tema de la edición, que no sé si tiene que ver con la estructura del ensayo, pero me hizo la lectura un poco incómoda. Tiene una serie de recuadros explicativos que parecen ser anotaciones al texto principal, sin embargo no se manejan como anotaciones sino como cuadros intercalados en el ensayo.
Eso me hizo perder un poco el hilo de la lectura.
Por lo demás cumplió totalmente mis expectativas.
Profile Image for Poetaprecaria.
14 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2021
Breve acercamiento a términos de la estética japonesa. Y aunque se hace corto y quiero más, en la brevedad reside su valor. Lo empecé incómoda por eso de leer a un hombre occidental dándome lecciones sobre estética oriental... Pero reconozco que, a medida que avanza la lectura, con la perspectiva del relato de Richie, ese prejuicio desaparece. No escribe como un señoro rancio que viene a aleccionarte sobre "algo exótico" que solo él es capaz de entender, sino que te hace comprender la complejidad de la belleza en la sencillez, la burocracia en la "no-categorización" de la disciplina estética y, además, señala el elitismo y la jerarquización del gusto que se esconden tras la constitución de (cualquier) canon estético. Y eso siempre está bien. 💚
Profile Image for Sean Chou.
18 reviews14 followers
August 3, 2021
A whirlwind tour through Japanese aesthetics which touches on key concepts like wabi sabi, aware, iki and shin-gyo-so.

I would have liked a more in depth explanation of each of these concepts, as well as less of the author's own subjective views on them. But this treatise certainly serves its purpose as a brief introduction to Japanese aesthetics - would recommend to those interest in reading about traditional Japanese aesthetics which differ a lot from the Western tradition which typically imposes logic and abstraction to explain beauty as the goal of aesthetics (Japanese aesthetics wouldn't stick with the dichotomy between truth and beauty, instead valuing both following from beauty found in nature.)
Profile Image for Margaryta.
Author 6 books39 followers
March 19, 2018
A quick but thoughtful look at Japanese aesthetics, conveniently compiled for people like myself who have no prior experience with the subject. While I didn't find the writing style of the essay itself to be as daring as some have described it, it was the ending that made me sit back and think for a while about Richie's words and wondering to what extent they are true.
Profile Image for Paritosh.
84 reviews2 followers
May 8, 2023
It’s a heavy read made easy with analogies and examples. The book is just the right size to get a brief understanding of the philosophy underpinning the Japanese aesthetic sense, which always fascinated me.. trying to seek the why and how of the different art forms associated with Japanese culture. That’s not really covered in much detail, but a good educational read nonetheless
Profile Image for Jake Bell.
14 reviews8 followers
September 11, 2018
Interesting comparisons between western aesthetics and the aesthetic discipline of Japan (or lack thereof) Not crazy in depth but a nice primer on concepts that will get one thinking about the difference in standards of taste and beauty between the east and the west
Author 5 books25 followers
November 22, 2021
A good overview of Japanese aesthetic terms and some of their history. I was disappointed in the ending where there was no attempt to apply these terms to Japanese arts past the Edo period. I'll be seeking that elsewhere.
Profile Image for Sem.
842 reviews27 followers
January 20, 2022
I've never met a Donald Richie book that I didn't dislike and this one was no exception. At least it was mercifully short and I finished it, unlike 'The Inland Sea' which was so distasteful that I threw it at the wall (metaphorically). I'll never attempt another.
Profile Image for Count Gravlax.
143 reviews29 followers
June 13, 2017
Just a plain glossary which concludes that japanese aesthetics is dead. Japanesa cinema never existed, it seems. You could do better with wikipedia.
536 reviews2 followers
February 1, 2020
Near vertical learning curve but many fascinating ideas and implications.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 44 reviews

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