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Writing as Tea Ceremony: Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics
Peter M. Carriere, Georgia College & State University In his article "Alternative Modernity? Playing the Japanese Game of C ulture" (1994), Andrew Feenberg suggests that Yasunari Kawabata's novel The Master of Go (1954) embodies the Zen Buddhist principle that playing Go in traditional Japan constituted a quest for self-realization and a path to spiritual unity-in effect, a "Tao," or "Way," the Way of Go.  The goal of the contest was not victory but spiritual enlightenment: as a momentary refugee from culture, the self was reduced by subjection to rule and struggle to the nothingness of Zen, and the game became an agent of consciousness effacement, the Zen "no-mind" that is a prerequisite for spiritual unity. This insight, that immersion in Go constituted a Way in traditional Japanese culture, suggests that Kawabata's immersion in the aesthetics of religion and culture was an attempt to create an aesthetic Way in the spirit of cha-no-yu, or tea ceremony, which he described in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 12 December 1968 as "sad, austere, autumnal," concealing "a great richness of spirit."  The object of the tea ceremony is to awaken or reinforce in the participant a sense of cultural identity and spiritual connection through its ritualized aesthetics. The object of other forms of aesthetic rituals, such as the art of fiction, for instance, might do the same. Indeed, such a connection between art and religion flourished during Japan's medieval period (950-1400), when "religious and aesthetic values became virtually co-terminous in what was called geido-the 'Tao' (or Way) of aesthetics."  This essay will examine the aesthetic, cultural, religious, and historical contexts out of which Kawabata's prewar masterpiece Snow Country (1947) and his last novel, Beauty and Sadness (1961), emerged in order to show that geido was an abiding element of Kawabata's fiction. The phrase "alternative modernity" implies that Kawabata's modernism differs from traditional understandings of the term. By definition, however, the art of modernism is subjective, recondite, esoteric, and avant-garde. Furthermore, the symbolist aesthetic often noted in Kawabata, with its emphasis on spirituality and culture, informs the works of modernism's most celebrated writers, including T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Joseph C onrad, and W. B. Yeats. Yeats's well-known affinity for Japan originated in his symbolist perception that Japan supported a culture infused with myth, legend, and a hazy kind of spirtualism arising out of a unique blending of Shinto and Buddhism. Because of geido's similarity to the symbolist writing of some modernists, critics often suggest that Kawabata's art tends toward the symbolic. Gwen Boardman relates that in Kawabata's rewriting of Snow Country , his characterizations went from "more 'realistic' and straightforward to 'lyrical' and symbolic."  According to Paul St. John Mackintosh, Snow Country "does the native spirit good by going back to the oldest Japanese literary traditions," and yet the novel is "modern in its narrative discontinuity and almost symbolist imagery."  And Kawabata's involvement with other young artists in the Shinkankaku-Ha and its publication Bungei Jidai (1924) was, according to Boardman, "a reaction against the naturalistic writing and the 'proletarian' literature of their
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religion. cherry blossoms. or wabi (a calm.eremony 18/11/12 : Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics | Carriere | International Fiction Rev iew time. Dogen suggested to Kawabata "the deep quiet of the Japanese spirit" (JBM 69). / in the summer the cuckoo. The dominance of aesthetics in a culture infused with the traditional spiritual mysteries of Shinto and Buddhism means that a complex layering occurs in Japanese artistic expression as aesthetics. / In autumn the moon. and in / winter the snow. for example-has aesthetic as well as social components. Kawabata is insistent on this point and he returns to it at the close of his address: "My own works have been described as works of emptiness. art. though the difference is that symbolism is subjective and somewhat occult.ca/index. four-line expression of the four seasons: "In the spring. "but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. In the Nobel address." But Kawabata's explanation of it sheds light on the poem's embodiment of yugen. while Myoe inspired the severe beauty and austere cold of Snow Country . limitless" (JBM 56). analyses based on Japanese aesthetics leave Western readers unsatisfied as to the real purpose of Kawabata's art. It is rather the reverse. Kawabata began his Nobel speech by quoting a poem by Dogen called "Innate Spirit. These two poems set the tenor of the rest of Kawabata's address.hil. Kawabata alluded to significant and abiding figures from Japan's literary history in his artistic development. and spirituality through the disciplined application of aesthetics. the moon. that he "may well have connected Buddhist 'emptiness' or 'nothingness' with the nihilism of Western philosophy." he notes. which is a discussion of Japanese aesthetic principles and their meaning and importance to the writer. Even behavior-bowing and sitting."  Those who interpret Kawabata through Japanese aesthetic categories usually point out that his art contains yugen (mysterious or shadowy essence). mono no aware (poignant melancholy). A unique feature of Japan is what Steve Odin refers to as "the primacy of aesthetic value experience or artistic intuition as the distinguishing feature of Japanese culture. it is labeled symbolist. to the extent that ordinary store purchases are wrapped with painstaking attention paid to their final aesthetic presentation. words expressive of the seasons as they move one into another. Hence Kawabata's fiction must be seen as an expression of what it means to be Japanese: the self living in harmony with nature. In "Elements of Existentialism in Modern Fiction. clear state of mind perfected in the tea ceremony).php/IFR/article/v iew/7716/8773 ."  When this same reaction in Europe takes a spiritual direction. seasoned simplicity)." Mita Luz de Manuel suggests that Kawabata's modernism originates in the pervasive existential personality of his characters. Kawabata used all of these aesthetic labels as keys to his art in the Nobel speech (though in his English translation Edward Seidensticker used descriptive phrases rather than these esoteric terms). and culture merge." followed by one by Myoe on the winter moon. We may see mono no aware as an abiding element in The Sound of the Mountain (1954) or Beauty and Sadness. in which he insists that it would be a mistake to confound the nihilism of Western existentialism with the nothingness of Zen: "This is not the nothingness or emptiness of the West.unb. The fact that Snow Country may illustrate wabi or sabi does not tell us what these two aesthetic qualities achieve. sabi (refined. culture. Their art and the eras in which they wrote epitomize the geido aesthetics Kawabata adopted as he strove to achieve the same degree of harmony with nature. spirituality. Enlightening as these efforts may be. Dogen's poem seems like a simple. in which that which is described becomes simply the foreground to the greater essence that lies behind: "The snow. Both poems illustrate yugen. or food is prepared and served with a focus on its aesthetic appeal. an established religion."  This primacy of aesthetics permeates even the most mundane conditions of life in Japan. Writers such as Dogen (1200-1253) and Myoe (1173-1232) were not just early inspirations. Western discussions of Kawabata's art imply that his fiction may be grasped either in terms of unique Japanese aesthetic categories or Western existentialism. a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything. include in the Japanese tradition the beauty of mountains and rivers and grasses journals. clear. the blossoms. however. Wabi and sabi also suggest the quiet sadness Kawabata spoke of in reference to the tea ceremony. but we still want to know what purpose it serves. The spiritual foundations would seem to be quite different" (JBM 41). whereas geido uses aesthetics as a Way within Buddhism. and culture that he perceived in their work. transcending bounds. The existential model is at odds with Kawabata's symbolist propensities as well as his Nobel speech. cold.
"it is then that we think most of those close to us. To Kawabata. The excitement of beauty calls forth strong fellow feelings. and the word 'comrade' can be taken to mean human being" (JBM 68). who see the mountain as a mere photographic object to be venerated for its crude aesthetic rather than its sacred spiritual essence. the snow cold?" The austere beauty of nature in winter. Some critics have observed that he turned away from it. one of the better Western hotels in Kyoto. but his fiction now warned against the vulgar intrusion of Western culture into Japanese life. Kawabata's preference for the geido aesthetics of earlier writers makes it clear that he saw life in contemporary Japan as vulgar. of all the myriad manifestations of nature. The ambiguous animism of the mountain-evoking the traditional Japan of Myoe and Dogen-coexists with Shingo's daily business existence in modern Tokyo." writes Kawabata. This contemporary setting serves as a metaphor for the intrusion of foreign elements into Japanese life and contributes to the novel's mono no aware or melancholy tone. clearly suggests that geido became for him an artistic goal. Speaking of his novel A Thousand Cranes (1959). yearnings for companionship. clear air and moonlit night. When Oki arrives in Kyoto he does not go to a traditional ryokan. Ryokan (1758-1831) was important because in his work "one feels … the emotions of old Japan and the heart of a religious faith as well" (JBM 65). where the daily routine of the protagonist. in order to participate in the ceremony of the New Year's bells. Kawabata did write again. Both incidents are projections of Kawabata's conservative artistic and cultural attitude and create ironic juxtapositions that serve as moral warnings against the decadence into which contemporary Japanese culture has fallen. of human feelings. The Sound of the Mountain. who was immersed in the elegance of earlier centuries … lived in the spirit of these poems. three short lines on the cold wind and winter moon. Behind this description of Ryokan lies Kawabata's self-portrait: the twentieth-century author rejecting the vulgarity of a decadent present through immersion in the elegance of traditional Japanese aesthetics. where Shingo's son is having an affair with his secretary. Shingo. an American couple photograph Mount Fuji as the train passes.  Kawabata's declaration following Japan's defeat in World War II that he would never write again reinforces such observations and suggests that the author interpreted the war's outcome as a destruction of the potential of geido to merge nation. These warnings sometimes appear as the insertion of foreign elements into moments focused on Japanese tradition. In this context "tea ceremony" may be seen as a metaphor for Japanese culture. since it was a session of Zen meditation that evoked the poem: "Winter moon. Kawabata's evaluation of later writers. immerses him in the conditions of life in a contemporary industrial city while his traditional house and the mountain that speaks to him provide a cultural refuge. For example. of human feelings as well" (JBM 68). The winter moon becomes the simple foreground for "the myriad manifestations of nature. but straight to the Miyako Hotel. and spirituality through art. The discordant note sounded by Oki's preference for a nonJapanese hotel during a trip to recover the "old Japan" creates an inescapable irony and reveals a degree of ambivalence in his quest to recover tradition. in the abstruse" (JBM 65)." even spiritual feelings. Myoe's poem. is set near Tokyo. whose theme contrasts the animism of Japan's Shinto past with life in the fragmented and vulgar present. / Is the wind piercing. of course.… The profundity of religion and literature were not. whose "lingering reverberations held an awareness of the old Japan and of the flow of time. for him. who shook off the modern vulgarity of his day. suggest that which is not part of the scene: "When we see the beauty of the snow. those whose historical moments were closer to his own. evokes the same ephemeral sensations. the cold. Mount Fuji's status as a sacred mountain creates a severe contrast with the superficial act of the American tourists. culture."  During the trip. and want them to share the pleasure. Beauty and Sadness begins with Oki Toshio traveling to Kyoto by express train on December 29 in an undefined year.and trees. perhaps the late fifties or early sixties. coming from the / clouds to keep me company. an expression of doubt about and a warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen" (JBM 68). Ryokan suggested that Japanese artists must be guided by the aesthetic purity of the past rather than the vulgar present: "Ryokan. Kawabata declared it "a negative work. .
when recovery of tradition seemed possible. nation.ca/index. Snow Country embodies the innate spirituality of Dogen and the severe beauty of Myoe. the novel reads less like an attempt to revisit traditional Japan than a story concerned with the tangled web of relationships between Oki. the project arose out of the need to assert traditional Japanese culture and the superiority of Japan's organic social structure against encroaching influences from the West: "But filial piety [and by extension devotion to culture. in contrast with the sixties era that produced Beauty and Sadness. since Japan has always traced the origins of both country and emperor to its mythological past. Beauty and Sadness. fast trains. but Japan is not Tokyo" the saying goes. intense and instinctive as shown in the Manyo poems is not likely to be duplicated by any other people and under any other social order. the same year that saw the publication of the first part of Snow Country . cafés and coffee shops. who says at one point in the novel. "Tokyo is Japan. his wife. Western-style hotels. was also the home of Ryokan." as Kawabata noted enthusiastically in his Nobel speech (JBM 64). In the course of the novel. who "lived his whole life in the snow country.  There is a spiritual condition in this appraisal. not so coincidentally."  The direct effect on art and culture of this spiritual mobilization may be seen in the translation project involving The Manyoshu. his former mistress. which makes it the perfect embodiment of yugen. The novel's snow-country setting is a northerly region of the main island of Honshu in what is known as the reverse side of Japan. and some of Kawabata's short stories. Whereas Tokyo embodies Japan's contemporary. Begun in 1934. with the obvious implication that visitors wanting to know the "real" Japan must venture into rural areas. which. the spirit of The Manyoshu. Beauty and Sadness is an elaborate presentation of the tragic consequences of life in a tainted culture. and the children of these relationships. industrial. unlike those of Shimamura.  the project marked the first attempt by Japanese scholars to produce an English translation of The Manyoshu. journals. away from Tokyo. the area close to the Japan Sea that is swept by cold winds from Siberia during the winter."  Komako's feelings are intact and vibrant. the novel epitomizes Kawabata's twentiethcentury triumph over what he described in reference to A Thousand Cranes as "the vulgarities into which the tea ceremony has fallen" (JBM 68). which was republished in 1940. making the novel yet another "negative work. What immediately strikes the reader of Snow Country is that the story takes place in Niigata Prefecture. Eurocentric energies. and emperor]. when the fervor for tradition and cultural unity became intense. In the Japanese mind the region evokes the shadowy cold of winter. so sincere. They live in such noise and confusion that their feelings are broken to little bits. Despite the novel's traditional title which proclaims a principle of Japanese art-only that which is sad or tragic can be truly beautiful-its subject is infidelity and involves the intrigues of unrequited love." a powerful artistic expression of the decadence of postwar life in a battered nation. "Tokyo people are very complicated. The Lake . life rich with aesthetic and spiritual potential far removed from the bustle of life in the twentieth century. But the moment responsible for Snow Country was the prewar 1930s.500 poems were compiled during the eighth century. was "constantly invoked by literary men" during the war years between 1941 and 1945 because certain works contained expressions of clan unity and therefore a sense of filial obligation to country and emperor. Begun during a time of hope. the city that represents in the Japanese mind all that is modern and Western in Japanese culture. whose more than 4. Less complicated by Western intrusions into the story than The Sound of the Mountain. This historical moment.unb.php/IFR/article/v iew/7716/8773 4/7 . the Tokyo refugee she is destined to love.eremony : Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics | Carriere | International Fiction Rev iew While the Kyoto of Beauty and Sadness may boast Japan's most traditional cultural environment. These form the setting of Kawabata's novel. The two major characters of the novel are the Tokyo visitor Shimamura and the snowcountry native Komako."  According to Donald Keene. Japan's modern Nationalist period. the reverse side of Japan represents the Japan of unbroken tradition.hil. As the introduction indicates. and the setting could be any modern country. of life close to nature. even the suggestion of a lesbian relationship between Oki's former mistress and her young protégée all give the novel a contemporary feeling. Oki's son has an affair with the young protégée of Oki's former mistress and drowns in a motorboat accident on Lake Biwa. Motorboat accidents. was permeated by "government efforts at national spiritual mobilization.
So the Ruler of Heaven separates the two young stars: they will exist for eternity on opposite sides of the Heavenly River. Kawabata. trees."  Mishima was referring to the novel's merging of culture. the sadness of their transience.. and "we might liken them to exoteric ."  The transitions among the planes occur in "an atmospheric haze of concealing mists and vapors . since geido merges spirituality and culture. Yukio Mishima recognized this principle in the introduction to Kawabata's collection The House of Sleeping Beauties and Other Short Stories. at least to some extent. In the case of Mr. Buddhism.php/IFR/article/v iew/7716/8773 5/7 . defined by Mackintosh in a reference to Snow Country as "the pathos of things. Seeking journals. religion. Paradoxically. must remain intuitive and ephemeral. Snow Country falls in [this] category. The story is simple. The ubiquitous references to the Milky Way in the last chapter of the novel and Shimamura's once-a-year visit to Komako's snow-country village. But the love affair becomes a foreground vehicle for the expression of deeper cultural perceptions. on what is missing. however.. with his side trip to the C hijimi cloth weaving region famous for its weaver maidens. impermanence defines the relationship between Shimamura and Komako. and becomes an embodiment of the opposite of itself. The Oxherd star and the Weaver Maid star love each other so much that they are constantly together and neglecting their duties.. this artistic concept suggests in the empty character of Shimamura precisely those things he lacks and those things missing in the austere. sumie drawings contain three planes: a clear foreground. and an expression of mono no aware .. the transitory love affair between Shimamura and Komako reinforces a sense of cultural unity. Tanabata is a national festival celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month every year. a festival from mythology that celebrates the story of the Oxherd and the Weaver Maid. and the connection between it and the love story of Shimamura and Komako. it found its way into Japanese cultural mythology and became such an established feature of the literary landscape of early Japan that 120 songs about it found their way into The Manyoshu. and both he and Komako know why Shimamura visits each year. that which is missing. as in the sumie drawing. or mono no aware ." writes Kawabata (SC 125).hil.ca/index. where he noted that in the works of great writers. Their mutual awareness that the affair is fated to flower only briefly casts over the story a feeling of recurring poignancy.eremony : Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics | Carriere | International Fiction Rev iew The novel's setting recalls Myoe's poem on the winter moon in which that which is foregrounded in the poem becomes the spartan expression of all things not seen-summer. suggest that the world of Shimamura and Komako retains its ancient mythological roots: "the land of C hijimi [symbolically the land of weaver maidens] was very near this [Komako's] hot spring. and aesthetics as an expected and predictable characteristic of Japanese art. a midground. snowy region that serves as the novel's setting. being allowed to meet one day a year. and a distant background. Taken to an extreme. who would be expected to grasp Kawabata's aesthetic motives. Both know their affair is doomed from the start: the Japanese male visits hot springs more for momentary relief from the monotonous patterns of his organized life at home than to discover anything of lasting value or importance. though one would naturally expect a Japanese reading audience to agree. But Shimamura is disillusioned by C hijimi.unb. Rather than being precisely defined and enumerated. grass. creates for readers a refined cultural ritual similar to the tea ceremony.  Shimamura is no different. Kawabata's use of geido as a principle of the novel's development. or Milky Way. there are those whose meaning is culturally obvious. and the intricate layering of some of its cultural conditions. the seventh day of the seventh month. both cultural and spiritual. The allusion to the Tanabata myth in Shimamura's side trip to C hijimi. and close friends and fellow human beings-forming a literary counterpart to the traditional sumie inkwash drawing. which flowers for a brief moment then fades. Such readers would instantly recognize that the love affair between Shimamura and Komako is both a literary allusion to Tanabata .  Symbolized by the cherry blossom. especially the art of the Master intended for Japanese readers. reinforce the novel's connection to this traditional myth. Though the myth was originally C hinese." a Buddhist concept at the heart of Japanese life and thought. "which fades into the mystery and depth of enveloping pictorial space. particularly in Japanese readers. further enhancing the quality of yugen in its sense as 'hidden depths.'"  This spartan art evokes in the Japanese mind a rich sense of unity with those things not expressed. Rendered in monochrome black ink on a white or pale background.
existential end. and during his visit he thinks about leaving Komako. as he loses connection with Komako's material world. Each mention of it in the novel tends to merge the Tanabata myth with the spiritual origins of Japan's mythical past." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 12. culture. When he returns to Komako's village the end of their relationship is near. and Kawabata ends the novel with Shimamura's head falling back and the Milky Way flowing down inside him with a roar (SC 142).unb. he finds instead villages mostly deserted. "The Penumbral Shadow: A Whiteheadian Perspective on the Yugen Style of Art and Literature in Japanese Aesthetics. he finds himself drawn up into the Milky Way with the sparks of the cocoon warehouse fire that ends the novel: "The sparks spread off into the Milky Way. where an old woman smiles knowingly at his suggestion that the maidens of the village might occupy themselves during the winter by weaving C hijimi cloth. the Milky Way seemed to dip and flow in the opposite direction" (SC 139). and culture for these geido qualities to be mere coincidence." The Contemporary Review 262. These expressions are typical: "the Milky Way came down to wrap itself around the earth" (SC 136) or. In the last few pages of the novel. Japan the Beautiful and Myself. But it is not a final. and Shimamura was pulled up with them. The Milky Way is often referred to in Japanese mythology as the Bridge of Heaven. where "generation after generation of his ancestors had endured the long snows" (SC 128). Shimamura is being spiritually absorbed into the region of the snow country. for even as Shimamura's connection to Komako and her snow-country village is terminating. "Alternative Modernity? Playing the Japanese Game of C ulture. the Milky Way "like a great aurora flowed through his body to stand at the edges of the earth" (SC 137)." writes Seidensticker in the introduction to the novel's English translation. John Mackintosh. His absorption is so intense that it becomes a religious experience. Shimamura remembers that his guidebook had told him that weaving cloth in the old way was impractical and too labor-intensive for modern times. trans. Return to article [2 ] Yasunari Kawabata.php/IFR/article/v iew/7716/8773 6/7 . Return to article journals. the ending seems too saturated with aesthetics.  And it is not incidental that both the setting and the story evoke the cultural. referring to Shimamura. 1968) 52.ca/index. a Way. "Snow Country is perhaps Kawabata's masterpiece. Shimamura stumbles. the path taken to earth by the country's founding deities. As the smoke drifted away. Notes [1 ] Andrew Feenberg. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text in parentheses with the abbreviation JBM. Snow Country 's final scenes constitute both a rejection of the vulgar and decadent present and an apotheosis of geido. and spiritual sensitivities of the tea ceremony and become an embodiment of the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles designated by geido.eremony 18/11/12 : Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics | Carriere | International Fiction Rev iew the ancient cloth-weaving villages and weaver maids engaged in their personal weaving rituals." Journal of Modern Literature 2 (1971): 88. and self through art. disillusioned by the intrusion of the contemporary industrial present into this isolated rural environment." Cultural Critique 29 (1994-95): 111-14.1527 (1993): 204.hil. "Kawabata Yasunari: A C ritical Introduction. transfers his disillusionment to the affair with Komako. While it is easy to see the symbolic connection between the love affair and the Tanabata myth. C hijimi predicts the novel's final outcome as Shimamura. of Kawabata's insistent demand for the traditional Japanese unity of spirit. Return to article [3 ] Steve Odin. references to the Milky Way occur nineteen times. Return to article [4 ] Gwen Boardman. "The Warm Heart of Japan's Snow C ountry. spirituality. Return to article [5 ] Paul St. artistic.1 (1984): 63. Edward Seidensticker (New York: Kodansha. in which.
2 (1989-90): 32. Return to article [1 8 ] Yukio Mishima. Return to article [1 4 ] Donald Keene. foreword. trans. UNESC O C ollection of Representative Works-Japanese Series. Return to article [1 3 ] The Manyoshu. 1965) lvi. Return to article [8 ] Odin 63. trans. Howard Hibbett (1961. The Manyoshu v. trans. 1956) 99.unb. Snow Country . introduction.eremony 18/11/12 : Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics | Carriere | International Fiction Rev iew [6 ] Boardman 90. Return to article [1 1 ] Brown 376. UNESC O C ollection of C ontemporary Works. Return to article [1 7 ] Odin 79. 1969) 7.ca/index. Return to article [2 0 ] Edward Seidensticker. Beauty and Sadness. Edward Seidensticker (New York: Ballentine Books. rpt. Return to article journals. Return to article [1 2 ] Snow Country was published piecemeal between 1934 and 1947. Edward Seidensticker (1947. "Elements of Existentialism in Modern Asian Fiction. Snow Country 5. Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai (1940. trans. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text in parenthesis with the abbreviation SC. Return to article [1 5 ] Yasunari Kawabata. Return to article [1 6 ] Odin 79.php/IFR/article/v iew/7716/8773 . Return to article [9 ] See Sidney DeVere Brown. Return to article [7 ] Mita Luz de Manuel. Return to article [1 9 ] Mackintosh 204. Return to article [2 1 ] Seidensticker 8. "Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972): Tradition Versus Modernity. The House of the Sleeping Beauties." World Literature Today 62 (1988): 379. New York: C olumbia University Press. New York: KnopfBerkley. Return to article [1 0 ] Yasunari Kawabata." Likhãa 11. 1975) 2. introduction. New York: Knopf-Berkley.hil.
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