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Studies in Modern Japanese Art History 101: Art and National Identity (1): Fine Art and Museums


The Meiji Restoration (1868) marked a period of rapid transformation in Japan, as the country sought to modernize its institutions, industry, technology, and culture. Fine art, including traditional Japanese art and Western-influenced art, played several important roles in this modernization process. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japanese modern art and national identity were always closely related. The Meiji government aimed, as a national campaign, to redefine "Japaneseness" through the representation of Japanese art by establishing a sense of unity, brotherhood, belonging and patriotism. One of the approaches was to participate in international expositions to showcase to the West the country’s modernization and the Japanese artistic achievements. Furthermore, many scholars and art critics of the Meiji era, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) and Okakura Tenshin (1863-1913) contributed to the reshaping of national cultural heritage with their texts that addressed the importance of preserving and promoting Japanese craftsmanship. While touching upon the history of Japanese modern art, this series will guide the reader towards understanding how Japanese national identity was strategically shaped by fine art in the Meiji period, and how modern artists and scholars aimed to preserve Japanese culture despite the country’s Westernization.

The series contains the following 7 chapters:

  1. Art and National Identity (1): Fine Art and Museums

  2. Art and National Identity (2): Universal Expositions

  3. Cultural Identity between Japan and the “West”

  4. Cultural Identity between Japan and the “West”: Nihonga

  5. Art and State Authority: The Establishment of State-Sponsored Exhibitions

  6. Art and Social Critique (1): The Occupation and the 50s

  7. Art and Social Critique (2): The Hiroshima Series by Maruki Iri and Toshi

Studies in Modern Japanese Art History 101: Art and National Identity (1) - Fine Art and Museums

Art and national identity are closely tied in many ways. Art served as a means of creating a sense of unity in Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912). The Meiji period, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, was a pivotal era in the history of Japan since it marked a significant transformation from a feudal and isolated society into a modernized and industrialized nation. Before the Meiji period, Japanese society was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate, also known as the Tokugawa Bakufu, a centralized military government that exercised absolute dominance and authority over the country. During this Edo period (1603-1868), Japan isolated itself from any foreign contacts due to the Sakoku Edict from 1639 until the middle of the 19th century. Therefore, after centuries of national isolation, the Meiji government, which came to power in 1868, aimed to modernize Japan and reshape its national identity. To grasp the impact of art on national identity, it is important to first understand the concept of a nation and how national identity is established through art and cultural products within the community. Benedict Anderson (1936-2015), one of the most prominent scholars in the research of nationalism , discusses in Imagined Communities (1983): Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) the concept of "nation":

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion (Anderson, 1983, p. 6).

According to Anderson, nations are "imagined" communities since they are not based on direct personal interactions among all the members, but based on a shared ideology (Anderson, 1983). In modern states, individuals will never have the opportunity to know all of their fellow citizens. However, despite this lack of direct personal connection, individuals still feel connected to the same national ideology within the society. Anderson claims that this sense of belonging is shaped by shared narratives, symbols, language, and cultural products of nationalism including poetry, prose fiction, music, and art (Anderson, 1983, p. 141). In his words, nationality, nation-ness, or nationalism are, therefore, "cultural artefacts" (Anderson, 1983, p. 4).

Figure 1: Photograph of Eiffel Tower (Anonymous, 1889).

Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), another renowned historian known for his analysis of nationalism, also addressed alternative ideas of a nation and its relation with Anderson's "cultural artefacts". Acknowledging that cultural factors do shape state unity, in his book, Invented Tradition (1983), Hobsbawm claims that the cultural symbols that citizens often associate with traditional culture are intentionally constructed, and this deliberate invention of “tradition” does play a crucial role in establishing a shared sense of identity and cohesion among the people. To support his theory, he uses the example of the Eiffel Tower. In 1899, the Eiffel Tower [Figure 1], nowadays known as a cultural symbol of Paris, was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World's Fair), which was held in Paris to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution of 1789. According to Hobsbawm, traditions which unite people are invented through a shared symbol or cultural product. In the case of France, the Eiffel Tower can be a symbol that established the state's identity and pride among the citizens after the revolution. The following essay will guide the readers to understand how Japan shaped national unity through traditional objects during the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Asian Objects in Anthropology

According to Conn Steven, a professor of cultural history, one of the ways that cultural identities are formed is through the practices of collecting and exhibiting cultural products (Conn, 2010). In 1929, Benjamin March (1899-1934) who worked as a curator specializing in Asian art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, conducted a study on the presentation of Asian objects, both Japanese and Chinese, in American museums in the 19th century. March's research uncovered, that until the mid-19th century, Asian objects were typically classified within the realm of anthropology rather than fine art (Conn, 2010). For example, collections of Chinese materials were commonly housed in the Department of Anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Additionally, significant Chinese sculptures were often displayed in galleries of the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. Viewing Asian objects through an anthropological lens implied that the "West" regarded Asia as "others" or "primitive" (Conn, 2010). After experiencing the great industrial revolution and modernization, the West aimed to distinguish itself from others by emphasizing its civilization. However, by the mid-19th century, there was a gradual shift in the classification of Asian objects, placing them in the same category as the great Western civilizations like Greece and Rome, considering them as art (Conn, 2010).

Figure 2: Japanese section at Centennial International Exhibition 1876 (Anonymous, 1876).

The discussion whether Asian objects should be categorized as fine art or anthropology began in 1876 at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Both China and Japan exhibited artifacts, but in the main building, rather than alongside the fine art exhibited in the Memorial Hall. Although Japanese objects were not yet classified as fine art, the exposition in Philadelphia was a significant event which provided Japan with the opportunity to showcase its cultural heritage and made the world question why Japanese objects were not yet exhibited in the same space as fine art [Figure 2] (Conn, 2010). At the exhibition, Japan displayed porcelain objects, vases, silks, paintings, bronze sculptures and cotton goods. Conn described that Japanese “triumph” (Conn, 2010, p.89) at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia made it possible for Japan to enter into the popular consciousness of the West. James McCabe, the author of the illustrated history of the Centennial Exhibition (1877) wrote a comprehensive history of the fair and addressed how Japan succeeded in leaving a great impression and presence on the West. McCabe mentioned in this text:

The visitors who makes even a hasty inspection of the display [...] must amend his ideas of Japan. We have been accustomed to regard that country as uncivilized, or half civilized at the best, but we find here abundant evidences that it outshines the most cultivated nations of Europe in arts which are their pride and glory, and which are regarded as among the proudest tokens of their high civilization (McCabe, 1877, p. 417).

McCabe concluded that since the traditional Japanese objects were typically exhibited as anthropology, not fine art, the Western world has been long accustomed to regard Japan as uncivilized or half-civilized at best. However, in Philadelphia, Japan finally proved to the world that their cultural production should be considered fine art. The great triumph which Japan achieved at the fair revealed that Japanese cultural pieces even outshined objects from the West, McCabe argued (Conn, 2010, p.99).

Asian Objects as Fine Art

Seventeen years later in Chicago, at the World Columbian Exposition of 1892, Japanese objects were finally exhibited in the Palace of Fine Arts, making their debut as fine art. It was for the first time that Japan was able to convince the exposition organizers to display Japanese craft in the fine art hall. The countries that were represented in the art galleries were France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Japan (Wison, 1893, p.10). While Chinese objects were not yet exhibited as fine art, the exhibition of Japanese objects as fine art had an elaborate display at the exposition. To attract visitors and gain as much attention as possible, Japan beautifully ornamented the entrance for the Japanese section in the Fine Arts Building with traditional Japanese paintings and sculptures [Figure 3] (Tateno & Bourn, 1893). Inside the hall, Japan showcased a remarkable series of 12 in copper alloys, gold, and silver, which demonstrated both the technical and aesthetic achievements of Japanese art in the Meiji period (1868–1912), an era when a major social transformation happened (Tateno & Bourn, 1893). The guidebook of the Chicago Exposition (1893) written by James Wison (1856-1927) revealed the great achievement of Japanese objects as fine art at the Chicago Exposition, "Japan leads all foreign countries in the amount of its appropriation for the World's fair. [...] Japan makes a magnificent display in all of the principal buildings" (Wison, 1893, p. 130).

Figure 3: Entrance to Japanese Department of the Palace of Fine Arts (The Bancroft Company, 1893).

However, why was only Japan, and not China as well, finally accepted by the West to exhibit their objects in the Palace of Fine Arts at the Chicago Exhibition? Conn argued that Japonism, the craze for Japanese art and design which was spread in late 19th-century Europe, raised the international recognition and reputation of Japanese art in the West. Many famous artists, such as Édouard Manet (1832-1883) incorporated either iconography or concepts of Japanese art into European art. Among others, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the most influential American artist in this aesthetic movement as he contributed to spreading Japanese aesthetic in art (Conn, 2010). As it is evident in his works, such as Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864) [Figure 4], Whistler often incorporated Japanese motifs; such as the use of bold and harmonious colours, an emphasis on decorative elements, a flattened perspective, and the motif of a lady in a kimono. His enthusiasm for Japanese taste shaped the discourse that insisted on seeing Asian objects as fine art, in the same way as Western objects. Thanks to the influence of Japonism in the West, Japanese objects were therefore regarded as fine art at the end of the 19th century, entering into the new Western framework of art.

Figure 4: Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (Whistler, 1864).

The Term, Bijutsu (Fine Art) in Japan

In the West, the term "fine art" was first used in the category of displays at the 1851 international exhibition in London. Traditionally, a classification system was divided solely into three main sectors, Raw Materials, Machinery, and Manufactures, representing the three stages of the manufacturing process. Fine art, having no place in this classification, thus, became the new fourth section (Tseng, 2008). However, it took Japan 20 years to introduce fine art because it wasn’t immediately clear what might be equivalent to this European notion of “fine art”. What was fine art in Japan? What belonged in fine art museums? Did functional objects qualify as art? How about calligraphy and poetry? Kitazawa Noriaki (1951-), a Japanese art critic, claims that the term bijutsu (fine arts) was coined in 1873 as a Japanese translation of the German word, die Kunst. Die Kunst, which means Fine Art in English was written in the document sent from Austria to Germany on the occasion of the Vienna Exposition in 1873, and the term was included as the exhibit classification (Tseng, 2008). Otori Keisuke (1833-1911), a prominent Japanese diplomat during the Meiji era, translated this German term as 美術 (Fine Art) (Otori, 1872, p. 2) to prepare for Japan's participation at the exposition in Vienna [Figure 5].

Figure 5: Illustration of Japanese national display at Weltausstellung, Vienna, 1873 (TNM Image Archives, 1873).

Bijutsu was a new term that combined characters bi 美 (beauty) and jutsu 術 (craft or skill) in Japanese. According to Tseng, Otori explained in his text that in the West, fine art referred to music, painting, sculpture, poetry, etcetera (Hino, 1986, p. 24). However, by the mid-Meiji period, the notion of bijutsu had been further narrowed to exclude poetry, literature, and calligraphy from the framework of fine art. The term bijutsu, in the end, solely represented painting and sculpture, which are regarded as the core element of fine art today. The globalization of the category of fine art in Japan, motivated the Meiji government to enact several official policies that worked to establish fine-art museums and galleries (bijutsukan 美術館), fund art exhibits (bijutsu tenrankai 美術展覧会), and even create new public art schools (bijutsu gakko 美術学校) in the country (Storm, 2022). The concept of fine art in Japan displaced an older category schema around geijutsu 芸術 (skilful arts). Early in the period, people considered fine art to be solely craft. However, the new art schools, which were influenced by the West, brought new artistic styles and taught the students that arts and crafts were no longer on equal footing (Storm, 2022). As a result, bijutsu (fine art) was recognized and introduced in Meiji Japan and increasingly ascended as the more prestigious category (Storm, 2022).

The Foundation of Museums in Japan

The Meiji government was also dedicated to the foundation of museums in Japan. Before museums were built in the Meiji era, the people traditionally appreciated cultural products through public gatherings during the Tokugawa era (1630-1868). For instance, since 1757, Yushima Seido, which was a Confucian temple in Yushima, Tokyo, had been hosting displays of man-made and natural pieces known as bussankai 物産会 (product meetings), honzokai 本草会 (botanical meetings), and hakubutsukai 博物会 (public learning meetings) (Kornick, 1994). All the meetings were held for scholars to display their research and related collections to the public (Aso, 2014). Among these, the product meeting, bussankai, was a public display, which had quite similar functions as museums today. Bussankai had two exhibition forms, kaicho 開帳 (temple fairs) which was a temporary exhibition of relics or images from shrines and temples (Storm, 2022). Although throughout the Edo period, public gatherings such as hakubutsukai provided the people with opportunities to appreciate their cultural heritage, they were held only temporarily. In the Meiji era, several scholars and bureaucrats from the government visited the West and observed museums, which permanently exhibited objects. The investigations and observations in the West influenced the first domestic exhibition in Ueno, Tokyo, which later developed into the first national museum in 1882 [Figure 6].

Figure. 6: The first domestic Exhibition in Ueno (Shosai, 1872).

The Meiji Japanese scholars and bureaucrats learned from the West that the construction of museums was important to increase Japanese reputation in the western world (Tseng, 2008). For example, after foreign missions, Sano Tsunetami (1822-1902), a leading politician, reported his observations in the West and submitted a proposal for the establishment of the first museum in Ueno, Tokyo. His proposal began with the following sentence, “the museum aims to promote man’s wisdom and craft through teaching the eye” (Tseng, 2008). Sano referred to the South Kensington Museum in London as the most appropriate model for Japan to follow, as he observed and was fascinated by a great preservation and exhibition of art when he visited on 19th August in 1872 (Iwamoto, 1999). The Meiji government, therefore, constructed its version of South Kensington in Ueno Park, Tokyo in 1882 (Tseng, 2008). British architectural styles were apparent in the two-story brick exteriors with two small decorative domes topping the centre roof [Figure 7]. Thanks to the scholars who observed the great civilization in the West, museums were finally built and became accessible to the Japanese citizens in Meiji era.

Figure 7: Tokyo National Museum (Anonymous, 1882).

Three Early Texts Defining the Construction of Museums in the Meiji Era

Many scholarly texts discuss the discoveries from the foreign missions which aimed to observe civilizations in the West, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Conditions in the West (1866-1870), Kume Kunitake’s A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation through the United States and Europe (1878), and Sano Tsunetami’s Report on the Austrian Exposition (1875). Together, all these texts illustrated Meiji scholars' and politicians’ great interest and motivation in building museums in Japan. The first text to discuss is Conditions in the West by Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), a prominent Meiji scholar, who joined the first campaign to the United States in 1860 and to Europe in 1862 [Figure 8]. His three-volume work, Conditions in the West, addressed his observations from the visits to the United States, England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Prussia, and it described the institutions and customs of the West. Once his book was published, it rapidly attracted public attention and became a bestseller. People were amazed by his narratives and discoveries from the foreign missions that revealed what differentiated the West from Japan (Tseng, 2008). In the book, Fukuzawa defined a museum as a place where the world’s material goods, ancient artefacts, and rare objects were gathered and exhibited for the sake of knowledge.

Figure 8: Conditions in the West (Fukuzawa,1866-1870).

He insisted that in the 1860s and 1870s, the enlightenment of knowledge was a key Western value which was useful for the development of Japan. According to Fukuzawa, the construction of museums was vital to further facilitate bunmei kaika 文明開化, the phenomenon of modernization during the Meiji era, and to become internationally recognized by the West as a civilized nation (Horio, 1985). Tseng addressed that Fukuzawa was an influential educator who strongly believed that civilization could be measured by man’s progress in knowledge. For Fukuzawa, the advancement of Japanese civilization could therefore greatly benefit from what the museological institutions could generate. However, Fukuzawa understood that a great civilization could not be achieved by simply purchasing modern arms, machinery, and external structures. Instead, he believed that to achieve civilization, it was important to develop the inner spirit and national identity, in his words "virtue" and "knowledge", through education (Tseng, 2008). Learning from the missions, Fukuzawa as a leading scholar in the Meiji era, addressed that western civilization was superior to Japan and should be used as a model for Japanese advancement.

Figure 9: Japanese ambassadors to foreign missions in 1862 (London News, 1862).

In addition to Fukuzawa, Kume Kunitake (1939-1931), a prominent historian in the Meiji era, also provided his thoughts on museums based on his observations from a foreign mission led by Iwakura Tomomi, a crucial diplomat in the Meiji government [Figure 10]. In his publication, A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation through the United States and Europe, he primarily highlighted his impression with the museums he visited. The Iwakura Mission included several prominent members, including Ito Hirobumi (1841-1904), Okubo Toshimichi (1830-1878), Kido Takayoshi (1833-1877), and Matsukata Masayoshi (1835-194), who all played significant roles in shaping Japan’s modernization. Kume served as a private secretary of the mission. From December 1871 to July 1873, the group visited Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. During the travel, they observed several museums including the British Museum in London, the Altes Museum in Berlin, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Kume’s account illustrated the atmosphere of Western museums by supplying informative descriptions of the architecture, physical organization, and visitor activity (Tseng, 2008). At the beginning of the Meiji era, there were no institutions that functioned as museums; Kume’s deliberate narratives of Western museums provided completely new insights for Japanese readers. In his text, Kume especially highlighted his observation when he visited the British Museum in London on 19th August 1872:

When one looks at the objects displayed in its museums, the sequence of stages of civilization through which a country has passed are immediately apparent to the eye and are apprehended directly by the mind. [...] Nothing is better than a museum for showing clearly the stages by which these processes happen. “Seeing but once is better than hearing a hundred times”, said the ancients, and truly the sense of sight is more important than the sense of hearing in enabling people to absorb information (Kume, 1878, pp. 109-112).

Figure 10: Iwakura Mission in 1871 (Anonymous, 1871).

At the British Museum, Kume was fascinated by how the stages of civilization were displayed. Learning from that, he claimed in his text that the museum where the visitors learn its own history by "seeing" was what Meiji Japan needed in order to achieve a civilization. The act of seeing was a fundamental way to enlighten people, Kume believed. For him, a museum was, therefore, a place where people could gain true knowledge and understand their cultural heritage as well as national identity. By observing the cultural objects at the museums, Kume hoped that Japanese people could obtain a better comprehension of how Japan developed as a nation with a beautiful history. Kume's report, therefore, emphasized that the foundation of the museum was necessary for Meiji Japan to boost overall national unity.

Figure 11: Report on the Austrian Exposition in 1873 (Sano, 1873).

The other influential text that addresses Meiji museums is Report on the Austrian Exposition (1875) [Figure 11] by Sano Tsunetami (1822-1902), who was the Austrian exposition bureau’s vice director. He recorded the consequences of the international exposition in Vienna in 1873 and observations of museums in the West. Sano, as a member of the exposition bureau, was responsible for absorbing as much information as possible from the assembly of international participants at the fair. According to Tseng, Sano and other ambassadors were required to carry out all the tasks below during their participation at the exposition:

(1) The promotion of Japan’s natural and man-made products for political and commercial purposes. (2) The evaluation of those products exhibited by European nations. (3) The study of the latest manufacturing and engineering technology from these European nations. (4) The compilation of intelligence pertinent to erecting a museum in Japan (Tseng, 2008, p. 28).

Since Japan participated in the international exposition for the first time, the Bureau directly addressed the assignments for those who participated in the fair. Two years after the Vienna Exposition, Sano submitted, based on his investigation, the Report on the Austrian Exposition in 1875 to the Meiji government, which contained his proposal for the new museum in Tokyo (Tseng, 2008). In the proposal of the museum, Sano also referred to the recommendations from Gottfried Wagener (1831-1892), who was a German technical consultant employed by the Meiji government.

Figure 12: The South Kensington Museum (Anymous, n.d.).

The section on the museum in the report presented the South Kensington Museum as the ideal model for the museum in Tokyo [Figure 12]. The South Kensington Museum, now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), located in London, was internationally known for its extensive and diverse collection of art, design, and cultural artefacts from around the world during its time. For Sano, the South Kensington Museum stood out with its beautiful and diverse displays of objects. Furthermore, in his proposal, Sano emphasized the museum could inspire individuals' wisdom as he believed that the power of vision stirred great emotions (Sano, 1875). Just like Fukuzawa and Kume, Sano also acknowledged that the museums would serve as the source for nation-building and the people’s enlightenment. His proposal for the new museum was, indeed, a definitive plan of action, specifying the site in explicit detail, the organization, and the function of the first comprehensive museum in Meiji Japan. Sano took the initiative that brought the museum from the West to Japan.

Shared Observations

Primary texts of Japanese ambassadors to foreign missions revealed the great civilization in the West and its relationship with the enlightenment of knowledge, which was lacking in Meiji Japan. However, why did museums appeal to the Japanese to this extent? Why did scholars find the construction of museums important for Japan's progress? Japanese scholars, such as Fukuzawa who advocated the traditional confucian view of learning in Japan could no longer foster nation-building and civilizarion (Tseng, 2008). Although Fukuzawa recognized the importance of confucian thoughts in Japanese culture, Fukuzawa pointed out its flaw in his text:

In the education of our samurai, there was certainly dignity, refinement and high moral principles of which they had no cause to be shamed, and indeed in which they were far superior to the West. But in the one matter of physical laws our Confucian scholars, despite all the learned tomes they read, know no more than an ignorant housemaids (Fukuzawa, 1881, p. 258).
Figure 13: Photograph of officials gathering in Ueno Exhibition in 1872 (Anonymous, 1872)

While on foreign missions, many scholars witnessed that personal and national independence was the core foundation of modern society in the West, which was completely missing in Japanese society. Learning from the West, Fukuzawa, for instance, claimed that Japan needed to follow western and more practical learning instead of the traditional studies of the Chinese confucian in order to achieve self-independence (Tseng, 2008). The better their national independence could be asserted, the more national identity would be generated. Many scholars including Fukuzawa, Kume, and Sano shared one common thought that museums would be able to present Japanese cultural heritage, which would ultimately lead Japan to become a great civilization and enlightenment. Museums were, thus, national self-images. As an authority of “showing”, art productions and objects displayed in the museums serve as invaluable sources of national pride. Due to the centuries-long isolation, Japan needed to reshape its national unity and transform itself from “uncivilized” to “civilized” to catch up with the great modernization which was rapidly developing in the West. Therefore, many Meiji scholars who witnessed the West insisted that the foundation of museums was inevitable to achieve the new transformation in Meiji Japan.

Bibliographical References

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Aso, N. 2014. Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Notehelfer, F. G., Saveliev, I. R., & Walle, W. F. V. (2004). An Extraordinary Odyssey: The Iwakura Embassy Translated. Sophia University Press.

Storm, J. Ā. J. (2022). Excavating the Hall of Dreams: The Inventions of “Fine Art” and “Religion” in Japan. Religions, 13(4), 313.

Tateno, G., & Bourn, A. O. (1893). Foreign Nations at the World’s Fair. The North American Review, 156(434), 34–47.

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Visual Sources


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Kotono Sakai

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