English in Japanese Language and Culture

A Socio-Historical Analysis

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

46 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. History of Japanese-English language contact
2.1 Early language contact
2.2 The Yokohama dialect
2.3 Rise of English
2.4 Bamboo English
2.5 Post-war rising

3. The contemporary status of English in Japan
3.1 Relations with the outside
3.2 A need for (better) English
3.3 Japanese ESL
3.4 English in arts and ads

4. Loanwords: borrowed or made in Japan?
4.1 The process of borrowing
4.2 Wa-sei eigo: English-made-in-Japan
4.3 Reasons for borrowing

5. Conclusion


Tables, Figures and Pictures

1. Introduction

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Were it not for the foreign scripture, the above Japanese sentence could be understood at least vaguely by the majority of speakers of the English language. Transcribed in romaji, the way of writing Japanese with Roman characters, the sentence reads:

toyota no sarariman wa nekutai to sofutoaisukarimu o kaimasu.

If this sentence is dissected, one will probably first notice the famous name Toyota, well- known for decades of motorized transportation. However, three more words in that sentence are actually known if one looks more closely. Pronouncing the sentence aloud multiple times may help to discover that sarariman is salary man, nekutai is necktie and sofutoaisukarimu is soft-ice-cream. Now, at least the most probable sentence subject (the salary man), and the objects are clear. Given that one has at least a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, kaimasu translates to to buy, and now one can understand what the sentence is about: a typical office worker is buying another necktie and a cold snack. The few words that could not be translated are probably the grammatical items: no meaning from, wa marks the subject or sentence-topic, to means and and o marks an accusative relationship to the sentence-final verb.

Although, admittedly, of slightly obscure content, the example sentence could have been ut- tered in a perfectly normal Japanese conversation. Present-day Japanese is full of foreign loanwords, and everyday communication is virtually impossible without relying on a huge variety of loans, mostly from English. “According to Japanese statistical surveys, English ‘loanwords’ and phrases account for between 5 and 10 percent of the daily Japanese vocabu- lary” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 1), letting the number of anglicisms in, for example, German pale in comparison1. Even though various groups fear the loss of a substantial amount of Japanese identity due to excessive borrowing (Stanlaw, 2004 : 273), it is a fact that Western items of any variety and description have entered the Japanese vocabulary during the past century with the speed and proportions of a landslide. Walking down a street in a shopping district of any Japanese city, one will notice that among the innumerable signs and adverts there is a huge amount of western letters, which can be found right next to Japanese script. They come as initials like DVD, national and international brand names (Sony or Nike) and in slogans as well (I’m lovin’ it!). This shows that English has an enormous presence in commercial contexts, implying that the average Japanese customer has sufficient proficiency in written English for the advertising to be effective. The use of English also extends into Japanese popular culture. The music industry heavily relies on English, as can be seen to some extent if one looks at the Japanese Top 202 in 2009, revealing that the whole list consists of either songs by (mostly American) international artists, or songs by Japanese artists with completely English titles or titles that at least contain some English loans.

One might want to conclude from the above examples that there is a generally high profi- ciency of English in Japan. This impression is supported by the very organized and thorough approach to ESL, with an average of six years of English education in the overall strictly or- ganized and high-level educational system. However, as Stanlaw points out, even though “the popularity of English has risen dramatically, […] this has found greatest expression not in the creation of large groups of […] ‘near-native’ speakers of the language, but rather through the nativization of English loanwords […] within the Japanese language system” (2004 : 81-82). This means that although the Japanese are able to recognize a wide range of English words, these are mostly nativized loanwords and are not treated as part of an actual foreign langua]ge. English proficiency for purposes of international communication, gained through school and college training, is often considered insufficient; for example “74.9 percent of college gradu- ates evaluated their English instruction in Japan negatively” (Koike, et al., 1995 : 19) in a General Survey of English Language Teaching conducted between 1983 and 1990.

Still, in spite of their lack in proficiency, the Japanese appear to be very fond of English - but apparently, only the language, not the people who speak it. The Japanese attitude towards foreigners can of course only be described as very polite, but ultimately, foreigners are always treated as outsiders, even if they have been residents of Japan for decades or even generations. For example, “many Americans are infuriated by their ultimate rejection and irritated by the unconsciously pejorative overtones of words used for foreigners” (Reischauer, et al., 1995 : 400). Early obviously impolite terms like ijin (strange people) and keto (hairy barbarians) may have been removed from official and most of everyday language, but the now prevalent politically correct term gaijin still shows what most non-Japanese are seen as: outsiders. This strongly contrasts with the excessive use of foreign loans in Japanese and the general interest in Western cultural items, creating a paradoxical situation: how can a culture that puts such strong emphasis on its seclusion from the rest of the world be so fond of the language spoken by much of the very same world?

In this paper, the history of English-Japanese language contact will be described and how the current status of English in Japan was established. Also taken into consideration are both socio-historical developments in politics, economy and the media, as well as the vivid history of language contact Japan has to offer; also with other languages than English. This paper will begin with a thorough history of Japan’s encounters with foreigners as well as their languages, then continue with a detailed description of the status of English in today’s Japanese culture and conclude with an analysis of the status of loanwords in Japanese culture and the concept of wa-sei eigo, the so-called English-made-in-Japan. This thesis’ intention is to show the connections between a long history of international language contact, English education and socio-historical factors and how these resulted in today’s Japanese variety of English.

2. History of Japanese-English language contact

Japans history of language contact is unique in multiple ways. First, it is characterized by in- terchanging periods of seclusion (first geographically, then politically) and relative openness to other cultures. In a comparably short period of time, the secluded island-country made a huge turn “from internalization - being internally oriented - toward internationalization” (Koike, et al., 1995 : 14). This was strongly driven by economic developments: “the Japanese economy in 1988 was nine times its size in real GNP [Gross National Product] in 1955” (Koike, et al., 1995 : 14). In less than a century, a nation changed from a system of feuda l lords and prevalent seclusion from anything ‘outside’ to one of the world’s leading economic forces, especially through export. The internationalization resulted in a rising demand for English education, which led to quick developments in both the school system and on the pri- vate sector. Today, English is practically compulsory in most Japanese schools and effectively an entrance requirement for most colleges (Koike, et al., 1995 : 17). Furthermore, Japanese businessmen and women are eager to participate in additional English courses, since higher proficiency greatly improves the chances for promotion (Morrow, 1995 : 87).

The second unique aspect is related specifically to English-Japanese language contact. The contact with English speaking foreigners resulted not in one, but two pidgins. A pidgin is a simplified language system that may evolve when two groups of different origin are in need to communicate without having a common linguistic base - they will create one of their own, a so-called pidgin language (Sebba, 1997 : 13-15). A pidgin comes with a reduced set of gram- matical rules and vocabulary, mostly restricted to the topic at hand: trade and everyday needs. Usually, one party’s language becomes the dominant one, contributing most of the grammar and structural items to the new pidgin, while the other language primarily just contributes further vocabulary items. Concerning this, Japanese-English language contact is not only unique because two different pidgins developed at two different points in history, but also because these pidgins differ very much in their basic structures: the first pidgin, the so-called Yokohama Dialect, was dominated by Japanese structures, while the second pidgin, Bamboo English, was based on English structures.

In this chapter, a chronological overview of the different periods of language contact in which Japan was involved will be given. At the same time, an explanation of how these periods are related to socio-historical developments in the country will be discussed. Starting with early (non-English) language contact, the aforementioned pidgins will be explored and the chapter will be concluded with a description of the transitional period, to lead on towards the next chapter on contemporary use of English in Japan.

2.1 Early language contact

Centuries before Westerners arrived at Japanese shores the Japanese had already established contact with other Asian countries. According to Coulmas (1989 : 122), it was through a Ko- rean scholar that Chinese writing, the characters later to be called kanji, were introduced to Japan. Over time, the Japanese introduced changes to the syntax of written Chinese to make it usable as a means to transcribe Japanese, but not until the introduction of the kana syllabaries, especially hiragana, a natural transcription of spoken Japanese was possible (Coulmas, 1989 : 129). Before that, Chinese writing became one foundation of Japanese culture: it was kanbun, an often grammatically abnormal form of Chinese, which became the dominant means of written communication concerning scholarship, religion and literature, comparable to the status of Latin in Europe (Coulmas, 1989 : 123). While English is considered by many the language that moved Japan into the 20th century, it was Chinese which propelled it out of late Stone Age. The influence of Chinese culture, knowledge and technology “led to a shift from a nomadic, tribal society to a settled, agrarian one” (Loveday, 1996 : 30). During this process, first borrowings occurred, and although there are no reliable resources from the time, many terms related to the innovations brought by the Chinese are suggested, such as agricultural terms like shio (salt), ine (rice) and mugi (wheat) as well as society-related ones like sato (village), kuni (state) and haka (grave) (Loveday, 1996 : 30).

While English is the most dominant Western contributor to the Japanese language today, its strong influence only started in the 1850s when the American commodore Matthew Perry re- opened the islands after two hundred years of self-imposed seclusion (Stanlaw, 2004 : 49). Before that, English only played a minor role among other European languages, namely the tongues of the big trading nations of the sixteenth century: Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. Being the leading mercantile nation, Portugal made the first lasting linguistic impression on Japan after reaching the country in 1544. Stanlaw explains (2004 : 46), that the Portuguese not only brought “European-style mercantilism, but also Christianity, which was soon established in Japan”, resulting in two percent of the Japanese population being converted by 1600. Be- sides economical and cultural influences, Portuguese also “evidently gave Japan its first European loanwords, many of which are still in use today” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 46):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

According to Stanlaw (2004 : 46), these first borrowings established many processes that be- came very productive in the process of nativization, for example the combination of a loan- word with a Japanese prefix or suffix, as in rasha-men, affixing the Japanese word for cotton, men e. This literally meant cotton-cloth, but was often used to refer to women who “covered” themselves with foreign men later. Until 1637, borrowing from Portuguese and Spanish con- tinued, but due to European quarrels spilling over into Japan and the various intrigues the Catholic missionaries were involved in, Japan felt the need for consequences (Stanlaw, 2004 : 47): Christianity was banned, Japanese converts who refused to give up the religion were killed and most Europeans were expelled from the country. Thus began the sakoku, a self- imposed isolation enabled by the Tokugawa regiment, to protect Japan from negative foreign influences (Dettmer, 1973 : 105).

There were, however, some exceptions to the sakoku. Besides contact to the Asian continent, there was still contact to Europe via the Dutch traders. This contact was “restricted to the small artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 47), but the bi-annual vis- its of the Dutch traders were an important chance for the shogun and Japanese scholars to gain access to information on world affairs and new developments. According to Stanlaw (2004 : 47), the linguistic aspects of these encounters were managed by the so-called oranda-tsuuji (Dutch interpreters), who also served as customs officials. Dutch was the only Western lan- guage that was allowed to be studied during the sakoku and the oranda-tsuuji were the only ones who were given this privilege. These scholars also observed the Dutch doctors and occa- sionally conversed with them to gain insight on Western medicine. This unofficial interest became the foundation of ran-gaku (Dutch Studies), the study of Western science and medi- cine dur ing the isolation. This field was expanded when shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune lifted some of the bans established by his predecessor and allowed the importing of books contain- ing secular knowledge, thus enabling the oranda-tsuuji to expand their knowledge of the Dutch language together with other topics, resulting in the first Dutch-Japanese dictionary in 1796. Some Dutch traders even tried to learn Japanese, “a practice forbidden one hundred years earlier” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 48) and still dependent on the local authorities. Nevertheless, a considerable number of Dutch loanwords entered the Japanese vocabulary during the sakoku and many everyday terms are still used today (Stanlaw, 2004 : 48):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The influence of Dutch on the Japanese vocabulary does not only show in new nouns, but also in grammatical items. According to Stanlaw (2004 : 48), many linguists observed a rising frequency in the use of pronouns in standard Japanese, a language comparably free of pro- nouns. This might have been triggered by the direct translations from pronoun-rich Western languages, even resulting in the invention of new pronouns like tokoro no to deal easier with common relative clauses in Western languages (Miura, 1979 : 22). Dutch also had a huge im- pact on written Japanese, when the oranda-tsuuji noticed the close resemblance between spo- ken and written Dutch. It appeared as a stark contrast to diglossic Japan where the writing system based on Chinese characters forced writers to compose written Japanese in a totally different way than the spoken vernacular (Stanlaw, 2004 : 48). Translations originating from Dutch texts showed “a comparably plain register of Japanese, an innovation that shook ac- cepted literary traditions” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 49), which makes Dutch influence one of the initiating factors for later written language reforms.

The early contact with European languages already shows the open-mindedness of the Japanese towards anything Western; even the strong restrictions of international contact during the sakoku could not stop the stream of cultural and linguistic items assimilated into Japan. But this only foreshadowed the later processes of intercultural contact, which started to gain momentum with the arrival of the Americans.

2.2 The Yokohama dialect

According to Stanlaw (2004 : 49-50) English was rarely heard in Japan during the roughly 200 years of sakoku - save for a few exceptions, of course. One incident involved a British ship entering Nagasaki harbour under a Dutch flag, followed by a raid of storehouses and later the suicide of Nagasaki’s magistrate commissioner to take responsibility for the incident. The negotiations with the intruders once more made fluency in English a valuable skill for the oranda-tsuuji of the already weakening Tokugawa regime. Much input came from Japanese Nakahama Manjiro, a fisherman’s son who acquired near-native skills in English since he spent ten years in the USA after being rescued by an American whaler from ship wreckage. A few years later, an adventurous American by the name of Ranald MacDonald intentionally went the other way round, as he reached the coast of Japan in a small life-boat, pretending to be the victim of a ship wreckage The oranda-tsuuji “were overjoyed at gaining access to a ‘native speaker’ of English” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 50), since even during the sakoku, they contin- ued their study of English and other foreign languages, if only for defensive measures. Their efforts culminated in the ‘Official Office for the Translation of Barbarian Books into Japa- nese’, an organized translation bureau which to some extent still exists today, after various renaming and restructuring, at the famous Tokyo University (Stanlaw, 2004 : 52). The institu- tion also was the first example of government-sponsored education, showing how curiosity and competitiveness concerning the West led to reforms and innovations in Japan, often even without the direct influence of foreigners.

In 1853, the sakoku was effectively ended with the arrival of Commodore Perry and a squad- ron of American ships, forcing Japan to join “the world of ‘civilized nations’” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 53) and securing America a favoured position as a trading partner as well as a safe ha- ven in Japan. The Japanese representatives saw no choice to counter the ‘invasion’ of the Americans (and later various European countries) but by making contracts with the foreigners, even against the emperor’s will (Dettmer, 1973 : 116). This resulted in the Kanagawa treaty with the Americans and later the Ansei (five-power) treaty with the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, France and the Netherlands (Dettmer, 1973 : 115). “The ports of Yokohama, Nagasaki and Hakodate were opened in 1859” and a rising fear of the Western influence turned some Japa- nese into “committed xenophobes” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 56). The Tokugawa government, already weakened, could not deal with the Western threat effectively and was replaced by Emperor Meiji in 1868, whose government immediately set various reforms into motion almost over- night - these changes in nearly every part of Japanese life are known as the Meiji Restoration or the Meiji Enlightenment, and an integral part of the reforms was the establishing of com- pulsory education with a curriculum in which English played an important role; often both as “the medium as well as the subject of instruction” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 56). But even though the new government had realized the importance of English (or rather, the West) to modernize Japan, it would take at least a decade until English language education was showing results. Thus, in the meantime, the growing numbers of Westerners entering Japan needed to be dealt with differently. The situation asked for a simple means of communication to enable both the foreigners and the Japanese to go about daily life and business immediately. It did not take long, as usual when money is at stake, to find a suitable way to communicate: the Yokohama dialect.

Yokohama was the first port that was opened to world trade, and soon enough a manifold se- lection of Westerners bustled about in the city. Quickly, they developed a pidginized Version of Japanese English, the so-called Yokohama dialect (Stanlaw, 2004 : 57). The pidgin was already extinct by the middle of the twentieth century, so written records are the only source of information regarding how communication worked in Yokohama and what the dialect sounded like. One of the most useful resources is a pamphlet called ‘Exercises in the Yoko- hama Dialect’ by Hoffman Atkinson, “a long-term resident in the Yokohama foreign settle- ment” (Stanlaw, 1987 : 94). The text was not designed to be a scientific resource but rather as a humorous insight into the emerging contact between Japan and its foreign guests. The most notable feature of the ‘Exercises’ is the way Atkinson used English words as a means of tran- scribing the phonetic features of Japanese expressions, often choosing intentionally humorous correlates (Stanlaw, 2004 : 57-58):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In spite of the rather ‘recreational’ aims of Atkinson’s text, he still supplied linguists with a comparably huge amount of data on the properties of the Yokohama dialect. Most importantly, it showed that at least 80-85 percent of the vocabulary came from Japanese, reflecting the ratio of native speakers of Japanese and English in the country. At the time, Westerners were mostly visitors rather than permanent residents: Yokohama was “home to some 1,500 West- erners, 3,000 Chinese and 25,000 Japanese” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 57). The Yokohama Dialect also utilized the complex system of honorifics in Japanese, notably preferring “self-deprecatory versions instead of neutral forms” (Stanlaw, 1987 : 95) on both sides. While Japanese con- tributed most verbs and nouns concerning everyday life, the English items reflect the influ- ence of the Westerners and how concepts of internationalization became important (Stanlaw, 2004 : 58):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Many English terms are related to the growing foreign community, and many terms did undergo semantic shift, as can be seen in the multiple meanings of house. Similar semantic extension can be observed with other items as well, such as sacky (derived from sake, Japanese rice-wine), which served as a descriptive for any kind of alcoholic beverage, including beer sacky, akai (red) sacky and the more obscure square-face sacky, which refers to a gin bottle with a typical square shape (Stanlaw, 2004 : 59). The speakers of English also contributed items inadvertently when their speech habits were observed by the Japanese. The word kameya, referring to the Western breeds of dogs the traders occasionally brought with them, is derived from the owners calling come here to their dogs, which was misinterpreted by the observing Japanese as the word for the animal itself.

Yokohama dialect usage was mostly restricted to the very port it originated from and other trading intersections. Its speakers were mainly merchants and traders who had little time and interest to learn each other’s native language, since they were busy dealing with everyday matters. For the upper classes and the regime of Meiji-reformed Japan, however, English gained a highly prestigious value, since in the constant strive for modernization, “English re- placed Dutch as the language to learn about the West. [...] The Meiji administration brought in a whole cadre of ‘foreign experts’ to instantly modernize the country [including] many official teachers of English, as well as others who offered their linguistic expertise for fee or favour” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 59). The importance of the Yokohama dialect declined until it vanished, but it left a lasting impression on the Japanese language as many loans which developed during that period persisted for a couple of decades or even until today.

2.3 Rise of English

The Yokohama dialect was not the only pidgin language that developed at the time. Seem- ingly, for every major aspect of life in Japan where contact between natives and foreigners was imminent, a speech developed with a set of items and rules restricted to the topic at hand. Stanlaw (2004 : 60) lists various semi-languages like ‘nurse-talk’, ‘merchant-talk’, ‘driver- talk’, ‘brothel-talk’ and ‘sailor-talk’, but beside these practically-inspired varieties, there also developed more professionally motivated Japanese attempts at the English language, such as the early textbook-inspired ‘Interpreter’s English’ and the contents of various phrasebooks.

All the while, English became more and more fashionable among the nation’s elite, together with the Western lifestyle in general. Students and the so-called haikara people fancied the West, emulating its ways - including the clothing. Haikara is a loan derived from high-collar, referring to Western fashion. English was deemed an important aspect of Western culture and thus it became a habit among students “to intersperse their daily conversation with English borrowings” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 60) as a sign for sophistication. A few samples of such speech are shown below; sentences from a conversation between Meiji university students taken from an 1875 novel Stanlaw cites (2004 : 61). English items are highlighted.

1. Webster no daijiten - jitsu-ni kore wa yuusufuru ja. This ‚Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary’ is really useful.
2. Ningen no tanoshimi wa ani sekkusu nomi naruya. Man’s only pleasure is sex.
3. Fragility. The name is woman. Fragility [sic, ‘frailty’ from Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1] thy name is woman.

This kind of usage utilizes English as something fanciful, without any apparent sensible rea- son but one: to speak English was to be educated, to be modern, or even daring. In addition to that, more and more English-speaking foreigners entered Japan, most of them experts in one way or another, working as teachers or consultants in various fields. “These people did not speak Japanese and had little desire to learn it” (Stanlaw, 2004 : 61), forcing the Japanese interested in the mostly English lectures of these experts to become proficient in the Western tongue. Not only were most lectures held in English, written materials were usually imported from the West as well (Stanlaw, 2004 : 61). The government tried to support the enthusiastic learners in their country with a thorough reform of educational policy - by actually establish- ing one, since formal education had usually been a luxury of the upper classes in the pre-Meiji era. “As early as 1871, the fourth year of the Restoration, the government founded the Minis- try of Education” (Koike, et al., 1995 : 16), which then quickly initiated a nationwide educa- tional system. At the core of the new curriculum was a total of six years of English instruction for boys (a second foreign language was also compulsory in the final two years). English les- sons at girls’ schools followed later. Initially, large numbers of foreign teachers were hired to help Japan “to catch up with the advanced civilization of the Western world […] but by 1890 most foreign teachers were replaced by the Japanese ones” (Koike, et al., 1995 : 16). After the initial phase of ‘catching up’, the situation changed a little due to a rise of nationalism at the very end of the 19th century. The pressure to “emphasize […] Japanese culture and language […] undermined the policy of encouraging foreign language teaching” (Koike, et al., 1995 : 17), resulting in the abolishment of secondary foreign language courses and a general de- crease in English lessons.

The Japanese were very enthusiastic learners of English, and there were many Westerners who tried to master the Japanese language in turn. Stanlaw argues that “there were a number of contact languages in use, both Japanese-based as well as English-based” (2004 : 62). However, there are multiple reasons for Standard English to become the dominant form of communication whenever Japanese and Westerners met. As one reason, Stanlaw (2004 : 63) quotes a commentary by an adjutant of Commodore Perry, Lt. George Preble:

“They have a great aptitude at catching English sounds and ask the American name of every- thing they see, and so pick up a vocabulary of our language. They generally give us the Japa- nese, but it sounds so barbarous to our ears, we are not at much trouble to remember it.”

The aforementioned passage is also known as ‘Preble’s Law’ and outlines an attitude that became prevalent. English was the preferred way to communicate, since Westerners were unable (and mostly unwilling) to acquire the Japanese language - and the Japanese generally agreed with that, showing a condescending attitude towards most of the Westerners trying to master Japanese. This Japanese view is neatly summarized by influential linguist Suzuki Takao in 1978 (Stanlaw, 2004 : 268):


1 Ulrich Busse examined the number of loanwords found in volumes of German “DUDEN”-dictionaries (which are considered the ‘standard’ of German vocabulary) and concluded that the percentage of loanwords rose from 1.36% to only 3.46% between 1880 and 1986 (see “Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart”, Vol. 3, Peter von Polenz, de Gruyter 1999, p. 402)

2 For an example see [http://top40-charts.com/chart.php?cid=16]

Excerpt out of 46 pages


English in Japanese Language and Culture
A Socio-Historical Analysis
University of Siegen  (Fachbereich 3 - Sprach-, Literatur- und Medienwissenschaften)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Japanese, Culture, Language, Loanwords, Wa-Sei Eigo, English made in japan, language contact
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Kai Hilpisch (Author), 2009, English in Japanese Language and Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/139312


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