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Japanese Buddhism

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Japanese Buddhism

Template:JapaneseBuddhism Template:Mahayana Buddhism

Buddhism in Japan has been practiced since at least 552, though some Chinese sources place the first spreading of the religion earlier during the Kofun period (250 to 538). Buddhism has had a major influence on the culture and development of Japan over the centuries.[1] About 90 million people in Japan, accounting for some 70 percent of the total population, are affiliated with Buddhism in some way (often nominally).[2][3][3] Many Japanese Buddhists also identify in some way with Shinto; neither of the two religions demand exclusivity, and both are well-entrenched into Japanese society and popular culture. In modern times, Japan's most popular schools of Buddhism are Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

The root of the Japanese word for Buddhism, bukkyō (仏教?) comes from (butsu, “buddha”) + (kyō, “teaching”).[4]

History of Japanese Buddhism

Arrival of Buddhism in China along the Silk Road

The arrival of Buddhism in Japan is ultimately a consequence of the first contacts between China and Central Asia, where Buddhism had spread from the Indian subcontinent. These contacts occurred with the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century BC, following the travels of Zhang Qian between 138 and 126 BC. These contacts culminated with the official introduction of Buddhism in China in 67 AD. Historians generally agree that by the middle of the 1st century, the religion had penetrated to areas north of the Huai River in China.[5]

Kofun period (250 to 538)

According to the Chinese historical treatise Liang Shu, which was written in 635, five monks from Gandhara traveled to Japan in 467. At the time, they referred to Japan as the country of Fusang (Chinese: 扶桑, Jp: Fusō: "The country of the extreme East" beyond the sea), and they introduced Buddhism to the residents of the island nation:[lower-alpha 1]

Fusang is located to the east of China, 20,000 li (1,500 kilometers) east of the state of Da Han [Korea] (itself east of the state of Wa in modern Kansai region, Japan). (...) In former times, the people of Fusang knew nothing of the Buddhist religion, but in the second year of Da Ming of the Song Dynasty (467), five monks from Kipin [Kabul region of Gandhara] travelled by ship to Fusang. They propagated Buddhist doctrine, circulated scriptures and drawings, and advised the people to relinquish worldly attachments. As a result the customs of Fusang changed.
—Monk Hui Shen (慧深) in the book Liang Shu, 7th century[lower-alpha 2]

Asuka Period (538 to 710) and Nara Period (710 - 794 )

Although there are records of Buddhist monks from China coming to Japan before the Asuka Period, the "official" introduction of Buddhism to Japan is dated to 552 in Nihon Shoki[6][lower-alpha 3] when Seong of Baekje sent a mission to Nara that included some Buddhist monks or nuns, together with an image of Buddha and a number of sutras to introduce Buddhism.[7][8] The powerful Soga clan played a key role in the early spread of Buddhism in the country. Initial uptake of the new faith was slow, and Buddhism only started to spread some years later when Empress Suiko openly encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism among all Japanese people.

According to legend in Japan 552 C.E. there was an attempt to destroy a tooth relic, one of the first of Buddha’s to arrive in the country; it was hit by a hammer into an anvil; the hammer and anvil were destroyed but the tooth was not.[9] On January 15, 593, Soga no Umako ordered relics of Buddha deposited inside the foundation stone under the pillar of a pagoda at Asuka-dera.[10]

In 607, in order to obtain copies of sutras, an imperial envoy was dispatched to the Sui Dynasty in China. As time progressed and the number of Buddhist clergy increased, the offices of Sojo (archbishop) and Sozu (bishop) were created. By 627, there were 46 Buddhist temples, 816 Buddhist priests, and 569 Buddhist nuns in Japan.

Six sects

The initial period saw the six great Chinese schools, called Nanto Rokushū (南都六宗 lit. the Six Nara Sects?) in Japanese, introduced to the Japanese Archipelago:

  1. Ritsu (Vinaya),
  2. Jōjitsu (Satyasiddhi),
  3. Kusha (Abhidharma)
  4. Sanron (Madhyamika),
  5. Hossō (Yogacara),
  6. Kegon (Hua-yen),[11]

These schools centered around the ancient capitals of Asuka and Nara, where great temples such as the Asuka-dera and Tōdai-ji were erected respectively. These were not exclusive schools, and temples were apt to have scholars versed in several of the schools. It has been suggested that they can best be thought of as "study groups". The Buddhism of these periods, known as the Asuka period and Nara period – was not a practical religion, being more the domain of learned priests whose official function was to pray for the peace and prosperity of the state and imperial house. This kind of Buddhism had little to offer the illiterate and uneducated masses, and led to the growth of "people’s priests" who were not ordained and had no formal Buddhist training. Their practice was a combination of Buddhist and Taoist elements, and the incorporation of shamanistic features of the indigenous religion. Some of these figures became immensely popular, and were a source of criticism towards the sophisticated academic and bureaucratic Buddhism of the capital.

Esoteric Buddhism

The Late Nara period saw the introduction of Esoteric Buddhism (Jp. mikkyō) to Japan from China, by Kūkai and Saichō, who founded the Shingon and Tendai schools respectively.

Heian Period (794 to 1185)

During the Heian period the capital was shifted from Nara to Kyoto. Monasteries became centers of powers, even establishing armies of Sōhei, warrior-monks.[12]

Shinto and Buddhism became the dominant religions, maintaining a balance until the Meiji-restoration.[12]

Kamakura Period (1185-1333)

The Kamakura period was a period of crises in which the control of the country moved from the imperial aristocracy to the samurai. In 1185 the Shogunate was established at Kamakura.[13]

This period saw the introduction of the two schools that had perhaps the greatest impact on the country: (1) the Amidist Pure Land schools, promulgated by evangelists such as Genshin and articulated by monks such as Hōnen, which emphasize salvation through faith in Amitabha and remain the largest Buddhist sect in Japan (and throughout Asia); and (2) the more philosophical Zen schools, promulgated by monks such as Eisai and Dogen, which emphasize liberation through the insight of meditation, which were equally rapidly adopted by the upper classes and had a profound impact on Japanese culture.

Additionally, it was during the Kamakura period that the influential monk Nichiren began teaching devotion to the Lotus Sutra. Eventually, his disciples formed their own school of Nichiren Buddhism, which includes various sects that have their own interpretations of Nichiren's teachings.

Muromachi Period (or Ashikaga) (1336-1573)

In Muromachi period, the Zen school, particularly the Rinzai sect, obtained the help of the Muromachi shogunate and the Emperor, and accomplished considerable development.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1600) and Edo Period (or Tokugawa)(1600-1868)

After the Sengoku period of war, Japan was re-united in the Azuchi–Momoyama period. This decreased the power of Buddhism, which had become a strong political and military force in Japan. Neo-Confucianism and Shinto gained influence at the expense of Buddhism, which came under strict state control.[14] Japan closed itself off to the rest of the world. The only traders to be allowed were Dutchmen admitted to the island of Dejima.[15] New doctrines and methods were not to be introduced, nor were new temples and schools. The only exception was the Ōbaku lineage, which was introduced in the 17th century during the Edo period by Ingen, a Chinese monk. Ingen had been a member of the Linji school, the Chinese equivalent of Rinzai, which had developed separately from the Japanese branch for hundreds of years. Thus, when Ingen journeyed to Japan following the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Manchus, his teachings were seen as a separate school. The Ōbaku school was named after Mount Ōbaku (Ch. 黄檗山; Huángbò Shān), which had been Ingen's home in China. Also notable during the period was the publication of an exceptionally high quality reprint of the Ming Dynasty Tripitaka by Tetsugen, a renowned master of the Ōbaku school.[14]

Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the new government adopted a strong anti-Buddhist attitude, and a movement to eradicate Buddhism and bring Shinto to ascendancy arose throughout the country due to the strong connections of Buddhism to the Shoguns.

During the Meiji period (1868–1912), after a coup in 1868, Japan abandoned its feudal system and opened up to Western modernism. Shinto became the state religion. Within the Buddhist establishment the Western world was seen as a threat as well as a challenge to stand up to.[16][17] Buddhist institutions had a simple choice: adapt or perish. Rinzai and Soto Zen chose to adapt, trying to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity. Other schools, and Buddhism in general, simply saw their influence wane. The edict of April 1872 ended the status of the buddhist precepts as state law and allowed monks to marry and to eat meat. This "codification of a secularized lifestyle for the monk coupled with the revival of the emperor system and development of State Shinto were fundamental in desacralizing Buddhism and pushing it to the margins of society".[18]

Japanese Imperialism

Japanese identity was being articulated in the Nihonjinron-philosophy, the Japanese uniqueness-theory. A broad range of subjects was taken as typical of Japanese culture. D.T. Suzuki contributed to the Nihonjinron-philosophy by taking Zen as the distinctive token of Asian spirituality, showing its unique character in the Japanese culture.[19]

During World War II, almost all Buddhists temples strongly supported Japan's militarization.[20][21][22][23] In contrast, a few individuals such as Ichikawa Haku,[24] and Seno’o Girō were targeted, and the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, a lay believers' organization was ultimately banned by military authorities. “The Japanese government decimated the Soka Gakkai pre-World War II membership by jailing much of its leadership because of the Soka Gakkai's refusal to support the war effort or to obey laws pertaining to the control of religious organizations.[25] The founders of current Soka Gakkai, the two leaders Makiguchi and Toda, were imprisoned by the military government: “Resisting the rise of Shinto militarism, Makiguchi was arrested by the Japanese authorities and in 1944 died in prison” [26] Post World War II, there was a high demand for Buddhist priests who glorified fallen soldiers, and gave funerals and posthumous names, causing a strong revival.[27] However, due to secularization and materialism, Buddhism and religion in general, continued to decline.[need quotation to verify]

With the appearance of new Buddhist movements such as Rissho Kosei-kai and Soka Gakkai who are both NGO at the United Nations,[28] a considerable focus in Japanese Buddhism is made on the concept of global citizenship [29] as the ground of the practice of Bodhisattva.[30] with some Buddhist writings condemning militarism and the “devilish nature of nationalism.” [31]


Japan has seen a growth in post war movements of lay believers of Buddhism[32] and a decline in traditional Buddhism in the 20th century, with roughly 100 temples[need quotation to verify] a year closing.[33] However 70% of Japanese people still follow Buddhism in some form, and 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted according to Buddhist rites.[34] "In 1963 Tamamuro Taijo coined the term Funeral Buddhism that came to be used to describe traditional Buddhism in Japan as the religion engaged in funerary rites and removed from the spiritual needs of people".[35]

Contrary to the ritualistic practice of traditional Buddhism, a revived modern of Nichiren Buddhism of lay believers Soka Gakkai “…grew rapidly in the chaos of post war Japan’ [26] from about 3000 members in 1951 to over 8 million members”in 2000,[36] and has established schools, colleges and a university, as well as cultural institutions.[37] A study about the reason for lay believers growth and engagement in society attributes the cause to Nichiren teachings of ‘social responsibility’: “In the tradition of Nichiren Buddhism, however, we find the Lotus Sutra linked to a view of social responsibility that is distinctive”.[38] According to an academic study, lay believers of Buddhism “… offer an alternative view of Japan where their form of Buddhism would form the religious foundation of a peaceful and psychologically and materially enriched society” [39]

Japanese Buddhist schools

In the post-Meiji, pre-WWII period, there were officially 13 schools and 56 branches (ja:十三宗五十六派) of traditional Buddhism (i.e., those not established in modern times). The official schools included three from the Nara period, two from the Heian period (Tendai and Shingon), four Pure land schools, two Zen schools (Sōdō and Obaku), and Nichiren. During the war, this was halved to 28 branches, but the law enforcing this was repealed following the end of the war, allowing former branches to return. Further, since then, many groups have split off from existing branches.


Introduced into Japan in 625.

The Satyasiddhi school, known in Japan as Jōjitsu-shū (成實宗), is considered to be an offshoot of the Bahusrutiya school, one of the Nikaya schools of Indian Buddhism (see early Buddhist schools). They were distinguished by a rejection of the Abhidharma as not being the "word of the Buddha". The name means literally, "Ends with the Sutras", which refers to the traditional order of texts in the Tripitaka—vinaya, sutra, abhidharma.


654: Dōshō introduces the Hossō (Faxiang) school to Japan.

The Yogacara (瑜伽行派 Yugagyōha) schools are based on early Indian Buddhist thought by masters such as Vasubandhu, and are also known as "consciousness only" since they teach that all phenomena are phenomena of the mind. The Hossō school was founded by Xuanzang (玄奘, Jp. Genjō), China, c. 630, and introduced to Japan in 654 by Dōshō who had travelled to China to study under Xuanzang.[40] The Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-Only (Jōyuishiki-ron 成唯識論) is an important text for the Hossō school.


This school was transmitted to Japan in the 7th century.

Literally: Three-Discourse School; a Madhyamika school which developed in China based on two discourses by Nagarjuna and one by Aryadeva. Madhyamika is one of the two most important Mahayana philosophies, and reemphasizes the original Buddhist teachings that phenomena are neither truly existent or absolutely non-existent, but are characterized by impermanence and insubstantiality.


736: Bodhisena introduces the Kegon (Avatamsaka) school to Japan.

Also known by its Chinese pronunciation Huayan (華厳), the Kegon school was founded by Dushun (杜順, Jp. Dojun), China, c. 600, and introduced to Japan by the Indian monk Bodhisena in 736. The Avatamsaka Sutra (Kegon-kyō 華厳経) is the central text for the Kegon school. The Shin'yaku Kegonkyō Ongi Shiki is an early Japanese annotation of this sūtra.


753: Ganjin introduces the Ritsu (Lü, Vinaya) school to Japan.

Founded by Dàoxuān (道宣, Jp. Dosen), China, c. 650
First Introduction to Japan: Ganjin (鑑真), 753. The Ritsu school specialized in the Vinaya (the monastic rules in the Tripitaka). They used the Dharmagupta version of the vinaya which is known in Japanese as Shibunritsu (四分律)


Introduced into Japan from China during the Nara period (710–784).

Kusha school takes its name from its authoritative text, the Abidatsuma-kusha-ron(Sanskrit:Abhidharma-kosa), by the 4th- or 5th-century Indian philosopher Vasubandhu. The Kusha school is considered to be an offshoot of the Indian Sarvastivada school.[41]


807: Saichō introduces the Tendai (Tiantai) school to Japan.

Known as Tiantai (天台) in China, the Tendai school was founded by Zhiyi (智顗, Jp Chigi) in China, c. 550. In 804 Saichō (最澄) traveled to China to study at the Tiantai teachings, at Mount Tiantai. However, before his return he also studied, and was initiated into, the practice of the Vajrayana, with emphasis on the Mahavairocana Sutra. The primary text of Tiantai is Lotus Sutra (Hokke-kyō 法華経), but when Saichō established his school in Japan he incorporated the study and practice of Vajrayana as well.


816: Kūkai founds the Shingon (Zhenyan) school.

Kūkai traveled to China in 804 as part of the same expedition as Saichō. In the T'ang capital he studied esoteric Buddhism, Sanskrit and received initiation from Huikuo. On returning to Japan Kūkai eventually managed to establish Shingon (真言) as a school in its own right. Kūkai received two lineages of teaching—one based on the Mahavairocana Sutra (Dainichikyō 大日経), and the other based on the Vajrasekhara Sutra (Kongōchōkyō 金剛頂経).

Amida (Pure Land) Schools

1175: Hōnen introduces the Jōdō (Pure Land) school to Japan.


Jōdo-shū was founded by Hōnen (法然), 1175
Japanese name: 浄土, "Pure Land"
Major Influences: Chinese Jingtu Zong (净土宗 "Pure Land"), Tendai
Doctrine: nembutsu (念仏, "prayer to Buddha")
Primary Text: Infinite Life Sutra (Muryōju-kyō 無量壽経)

Jōdo Shinshū

Jōdo Shinshū was founded by Shinran (親鸞), 1224
Japanese name: 浄土真, "True Pure Land"
Major Influences: Jōdo-shū, Tendai
Doctrine: nembutsu no shinjin ("nembutsu of true entrusting", that is, saying nembutsu is a declaration of faith in Amida's salvation plan for the individual rather than a plan for salvation.)
Primary Text: Infinite Life Sutra (Muryōju-kyō 無量壽経)


Ji-shū was founded by Ippen (一遍), 1270
Japanese name: 時宗 or 時衆, "Time"
Major Influences: Jōdo-shū
Doctrine: nenbutsu (念仏, "mindfulness of the Buddha")
Primary Text:


Yūzū-nembutsu-shū was founded by Ryōnin (良忍), 1117
Japanese name: 融通念仏
Doctrine: sokushitsu ōjō (速疾往生,)
Primary Text: Avatamsaka Sutra (Kegon-kyō 華厳経)・Lotus Sutra (Hokke-kyō 法華経)

Zen Schools

Several variants of Zen's practice and experiential wisdom (禅宗) were separately brought to Japan. Note that Zen influences are identifiable earlier in Japanese Buddhism, esp. cross-fertilization with Hosso and Kegon, but the independent schools were formed quite late.


1191: Eisai introduces the Rinzai school to Japan.

Founder: Linji Yixuan (臨済義玄), China, c. 850
Chinese name: Linji school (臨済宗), named after founder
First Introduction to Japan: Eisai (栄西), 1191
Major Influences: Hossō, Kegon
Doctrine: zazen (坐禅, "sitting meditation"), especially kōan (公案, "public matter") practice
Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita Sutras (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra


1227: Dogen introduces the Sōtō (Caodong) school to Japan.

Founders: Caoshan (曹山, Jp. Sosan) and Dongshan (洞山, Jp. Tosan), China, c. 850
Chinese name: Caodong (曹洞), named after its founders
First Introduction to Japan: Dogen (道元), 1227
Major Influences: Tendai, Hosso, Kegon
Doctrine: zazen (坐禅, "sitting meditation"), especially shikantaza
Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita Sutras (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra

Ōbaku School

1654: Ingen introduces the Obaku school (Huangbo) school to Japan.

Founder: Ingen (隠元), Japan, 1654
Japanese name: 黄檗, named for the mountain where the founder had lived in China
Major Influences: Rinzai
Doctrine: kyōzen-itchi (経禅一致, "Unity of Sutras and Zen")
Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita Sutras (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra


The Fuke school was founded Puhua Chanshi (普化禅師)
First introduction to Japan: Shinchin Kakushin (心地覚心), 1254
Major Influences: Rinzai
Abolished: 1871

Nichiren Buddhism

1253: Nichiren founds the Nichiren school. 1282: Nichiren school begins to split into several schools.

The schools of Nichiren Buddhism trace themselves to the monk Nichiren (日蓮: "Sun-Lotus") and the proclamation of his teachings in 1253. Doctrinally, the schools focus on the Lotus Sutra (妙法蓮華經: Myōhō Renge Kyō; abbrev. 法華經: Hokke-kyō), while the practice centers on the mantra Nam(u) Myōhō Renge Kyō (南無妙法蓮華經).

Nichiren Buddhism split into several denominations after the death of Nichiren, typically represented by tradition-oriented schools such as Nichiren-shū and Nichiren Shōshū and Shinshūkyō ("new religions") such as Sōka Gakkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai, and Reiyūkai. See Nichiren Buddhism for a more complete list.

Cultural influence

Japanese culture maintained an uneasy relation to Buddhist culture. While the Chinese culture was admired, Buddhism was also regarded as a strange influence.

Societal influence

During the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi (1336–1573) Buddhism, or the Buddhist institutions, had a great influence on Japanese society. Buddhist institutions were used by the shogunate to control the country. During the Edo (1600–1868) this power was constricted, to be followed by persecutions at the beginning of the Meiji-restoration (1868–1912).[15]

Artistic influence

In Japan, Buddhist art started to develop as the country converted to Buddhism in 548. Some tiles from the Asuka period (shown above), the first period following the conversion of the country to Buddhism, display a strikingly classical style, with ample Hellenistic dress and realistically rendered body shape characteristic of Greco-Buddhist art.

Buddhist art became extremely varied in its expression. Many elements of Greco-Buddhist art remain to this day however, such as the Hercules inspiration behind the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples, or representations of the Buddha reminiscent of Greek art such as the Buddha in Kamakura.[lower-alpha 4]


Various other Greco-Buddhist artistic influences can be found in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon, the most striking being that of the Japanese wind god Fujin. In consistency with Greek iconography for the wind god Boreas, the Japanese wind god holds above his head with his two hands a draping or "wind bag" in the same general attitude.[lower-alpha 5] The abundance of hair has been kept in the Japanese rendering, as well as exaggerated facial features.

Another Buddhist deity, named Shukongoshin, one of the wrath-filled protector deities of Buddhist temples in Japan, is also an interesting case of transmission of the image of the famous Greek god Herakles to the Far East along the Silk Road. Herakles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples.[lower-alpha 6]

Artistic motifs

The artistic inspiration from Greek floral scrolls is found quite literally in the decoration of Japanese roof tiles, one of the only remaining element of wooden architecture throughout centuries. The clearest one are from the 7th century Nara temple building tiles, some of them exactly depicting vines and grapes. These motifs have evolved towards more symbolic representations, but essentially remain to this day in many Japanese traditional buildings.[lower-alpha 7]


Soga no Umako built Hōkō-ji, the first temple in Japan, between 588 to 596. It was later renamed as Asuka-dera for Asuka, the name of the capital where it was located. Unlike early Shinto shrines, early Buddhist temples were highly ornamental and strictly symmetrical. The early Heian period (9th–10th century) saw an evolution of style based on the esoteric sects Tendai and Shingon. The Daibutsu style and the Zen style emerged in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Buddhist Holidays in Japan

Obon (お盆)

Though its date and practices vary region to region, the Buddhist Obon festival is celebrated primarily in Japan and in communities with large Japanese diasporic communities. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to earth for three days and visit the family shrines or graves. Similar to Mexico's Day of the Dead, it is customary to clean the graves and to hold family reunions.

See also




  • Bunyiu Nanjio (1886), A short history of the twelve Japanese Buddhist sects, Tokyo, Bukkyo-sho-ei-yaku-shupan-sha Internet Archive (PDF 9,3 MB)
  • Matsunaga, Daigan; Matsunaga, Alicia (1996), Foundation of Japanese buddhism, Vol. 1: The Aristocratic Age, Los Angeles; Tokyo: Buddhist Books International. ISBN 0-914910-26-4
  • Matsunaga, Daigan, Matsunaga, Alicia (1996), Foundation of Japanese buddhism, Vol. 2: The Mass Movement (Kamakura and Muromachi Periods), Los Angeles; Tokyo: Buddhist Books International, 1996. ISBN 0-914910-28-0
  • Yoshiro Tamura (2005), Japanese Buddhism, A Cultural History, Kosei Publishing Co., ISBN 4-333-01684-3
  • PDF

Further reading

  • Asakawa, K., and Henry Cabot Lodge (Ed.). Japan From the Japanese Government History.
  • Eliot, Sir Charles. Japanese Buddhism. London: Kegan Paul International, 2005. ISBN 0-7103-0967-8. Reprint of the 1935 original edition.
  • Covell, Stephen G. "Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation", Univ of Hawaii 2006. ISBN 0824829670
  • Kawanami, Hiroko: Japanese Nationalism and the Universal Dharma, in: Ian Harris (ed.): Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia. London/New York: Continuum, 1999, pp. 105–126. ISBN 978-0-8264-5178-1

External Links

  • 日本仏教史
  • Buddha world
  • 仏教百科事典
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