Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior
Wolfology Item # 1314
Asian Folklore Studies
v56 n1 (1997)
On the Extinction of the Japanese Wolf
John Knight
Although the Japanese wolf officially became extinct in 1905, this position has been challenged by many local sightings across the country. The present paper, presenting data from the Kii Peninsula, analyzes the wolf controversy as a form of environmental sybolism. Wolf folklore is presented to show how, for generations of Japanese upland dwellers, the moral character of the wolf was environmentally predicated. Similarly, modern and contemporary local claims about the presence of the officially absent wolves can be understood as metonymical references to the yama (mountain forests) and to the historical changes that have taken place in the upland environment in modern times.
Officially, the two species of wolves that once inhabited the Japanese archipelago have long been extinct. The Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophylax) is said to have become extinct in 1905 due to an epidemic of contagious diseases like rabies, something that "reported sightings by inhabitants of mountain villages around the turn of the century of large numbers of dead and ailing wolves" apparently confirms. The Ezo wolf of the northernmost island of Hokkaido (Canis lupus hattai) died out in the Meiji period (1868-1912) when, with the establishment of American-style horse and cattle ranches in the area, wolves came to be viewed as a serious threat to the livestock. Following American advice, strychnine-poisoned bait was used to reduce wolf numbers, and by 1889 the Hokkaido wolf had disappeared.
Among many Japanese living in upland areas, near to the forests, this official extinction orthodoxy is disputed. Since 1905 and up until quite recently there have been many claimed sightings of wolves in different parts of Japan. That such claims should exist is not in itself particularly remarkable -- the sightings of wolves (as well as other animals and beings whose existence is not recognized) is a phenomenon found quite widely, not least in England, where wolves have been officially extinct for over four hundred years.) Yet I shall argue that the persistent character of such sightings, coupled with their spatial distribution, suggests something more than archetypical rural superstition.
I conducted fieldwork in mountain villages on the peninsula between 1987 and 1989 and again in 1994 and in 1995. In the later trips my research focused on upland forests, and in the course of collecting data on forestry and boar hunting I met and interviewed many wolf-sighters and others who believed that the animals still exist.
My own interest in these claims concerns not so much their veracity as their potential for telling us something about the local understandings of the upland forest environment typical of the peninsula. Accordingly, no zoological, ethological, or ecological evidence that could either confirm or deny the extinction orthodoxy is offered here. My concern is rather the social anthropological one of exploring the way in which the upland environment is imagined by those who live in it. I shall argue that the presence or absence of wolves in the mountains -- or rather the uncertainty surrounding their possible existence there -- says in itself something about 1) the relationship of Japanese mountain villagers with the forests that surround them, and 2) the changes to the upland environment that have occurred over the course of this century. The refusal to accept the extinction of the wolf among certain rural Japanese offers insight into the local cultural perception of the upland natural environment and its recent history. I shall examine wolfsightings on the Kii Peninsula in terms of the much more widespread phenomenon whereby particular animal species take on a larger, emblematic status within human society.
Environmental Metonyms
In his three-nation study, Stephen Kellert found that "respondents in the United States, Japan and Germany expressed strong, positive attitudes toward large and higher vertebrates, especially mammalian and bird species generally regarded as aesthetically appealing, culturally important, and historically familiar." This sort of skewed emotional attachment is the reason for the tendency, widely noted in wildlife conservation, for the focus on particular "charismatic" species of animals, such as pandas, elephants, and whales, while other species attract far less, if any, public concern. The saving of such "celebrity" species can come to represent the conservation of wildlife as a whole....
Lerge terrestrial carnivores such as the wolf have also been accorded special status. In North America, "[t]he wolf has functioned as a particularly powerful barometer of changing and conflicting attitudes toward wildlife" (Kellert et al. 1996). Special status...continues to be invoked for wolves and other large carnivores in relation to future conservation strategy. The scale of their home range makes them "umbrella species," species whose habitat encompasses the habitats of a great many other species and that can serve as "good indicators of complete and healthy ecosystems"....
The Mountains
In Japan mountains are dangerous, frightening places that are associated with death, not only as sites of physical burial but also as the abode of the spirits of the dead. There is a large body of Japanese folklore featuring encounters in the mountains with ghosts and a range of other, often malevolent, spirits....The mountains form a world with its own separate way of thinking and ethics, one that belongs to the yama no kami (mountain spirit)....Man's presence there is a potential infringement on the kami's territory, and thus potentially provocative....
....Wild animals, such as bears, feral dogs, and vipers, are a further source of perceived danger to humans. The boundary between wild animals and spirits in the yama is often blurred on account of the theriomorphic character of the spirits. Many forest animals, particularly remote-dwelling ones, are associated with the yama no kami.
....The association of the wolf with the mountains is indicated by the many wolf-related place-names found in upland areas of Japan. In the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, for example, there are places known as Okamitaira (Wolf Plateau), Okamizawa (Wolf Marsh), Okami'iwa (Wolf Rock) and Kobirotoge (Howling Wolf Pass...). These tend to be sites of past encounters with or sightings of the wolf. In some cases an area may be associated with wolves even when the name does not reflect it, such as the forest around one remote village in the Hongu area, which is said to be cold in the summer and warm in the winter. The wolf is also associated with Shinto shrines on the peninsula, shrines such as Tamaki Jinja and Takataki Jinja (both in Totsukawa Mura), where they serve as the kami's otsukai (messenger).
The Japanese Wolf
The Honshu wolf (okami) was grey-haired, and, standing just over one foot at the shoulder, was the smallest wolf of all. It has long been recognized as significantly different from other wolves, even to the point where its very status as a wolf has been called into question....
.... The Japanese zoologist Imaizumi Yoshinori, stressing its difference from other wolves, claims that the Honshu wolf was in fact a distinct species. But most mammalogists have not accepted this position and continue to regard the animal as a miniature subspecies of the common wolf.
Perhaps adding to this uncertain taxonomical status has been the incorporation into scientific nomenclature of certain Japanese terms. Thus the Honshu wolf has been known as the shamainu, a corruption of yamainu, literally "mountain dog," the name by which the wolf was known in much of Japan....
....An extension of this semantic affinity of the wolf with the dog is the image (in myth and legend) as a protector of mankind -- a sort of banken (watchdog) in the mountains. This watchdog role appears in the benign okuri-okami (sending wolf) stories. "When someone is walking along mountain roads at night sometimes a wolf follows without doing anything. On nearing the house the wolf disappears." Sometimes the ubiquitous okuri-okami tales also mention the danger of looking back or falling over while being followed by the wolf, acts that may invite the wolf to attack....Nonetheless, what is usually stressed is that the wolf's purpose is not to prey but to protect, to see the lonely human being safely home through the dangerous night-time mountains....Even today many villagers claim to have had such experiences in their youth....
In this connection the scientific name of the Japanese name, hodophylax, is worth reflecting on, for it is related to the okuri-okami legend described above. Hodo derives from the Greek for "way" or "path," and phylax from the Greek for "guard," together giving the meaning of "guardian of the way."....
....A local Hongu saying attests to the wolf's singular capacity to conceal itself: "The wolf can hide even where there is only a single reed."....
....Japanese folklore credits other wild animals, such as the fox, tanuki (raccoon-dog), and snake, with a capacity for concealment. The difference is that these animals are said to achieve this by assuming human (often female) form, while Japanese wolf-lore -- unlike European wolf-lore -- has little to say about wolf shapeshifting or lycanthropy. Rather, the Japanese wolf is concealed by the natural environment itself. This virtual invisibility of the wolf in the yama is the basis for the claims to have encountered it after its supposed extinction. Even when the wolf actually did exist, in the yama it was able to keep well out of sight of man, while keeping man in its sights.
A Benign Beast?
Much folklore -- not least from the Kii Peninsula -- presents the wolf as a good animal. Chiba argues that up until the second half of the seventeenth century the wolf was considered an ekiju, or "benign beast."....
The okuri-okami legend above is an example of the way the wolf protects the vulnerable -- in this case the lone traveler in the night-time mountains. Other stories tell of how the wolf protects the young and helpless, some echoing the famous Romulus and Remus legend in which the founders of Rome are suckled and raised by a she-wolf. In the Nonaka area of the southern Kii mountains an abandoned infant (of the court noble Fujiwara Hidehira, on a pilgrimage to the area with his wife) is said to have been brought up and protected by wolves; and in the postwar years the tale was told of an old man who lived to be nearly one hundred years old after having drunk the milk of a mother-wolf as an infant. During a 1994 trip to Hongu I was told of the existence of an okami jizo, the wolf Jizo, a form of the bodhisattva Jizo associated with the wolf. This statue would be petitioned by mothers to care for the spirits of dead infants buried nearby and to protect the remains from the attentions of forest animals.
The wolf may also help the poor. In the tale Okami no mayuge [The wolf's eyebrow], a starving man resigns himself to death and goes to the mountains to offer himself to the wolf. But the wolf, instead of eating him, offers him an eyebrow hair, and with this the man returns to human society to become wealthy and happy.
Another dimension of the protective character of the wolf has to do with its powers of prophecy vis-av-vis the natural world. In the high Tamaki mountains north of Hongu there is a giant tree known as "the cypress of dog howls." Here wolves are said to have howled continuously on the eve of the great flood of 1889, which killed many people in Hongu and nearby areas....The wolf appears as a human ally in the mountains, protecting villagers from the vicissitudes of the natural world around them.
The Japanese stress on the protective, benign character of the wolf contrasts with the widespread view outside Japan of the wolf as a threat to human livelihood, if not human life intself, and therefore as the very embodiment of evil. Accordingly, wolf-killing has often been encouraged, celebrated, and institutionalized in places like northern Europe, where this took the form of large-scale wolf chases, the levying of taxes in wolf-skins, or even the hanging of wolves. In southern Europe too a strongly negative view of the wolf has been documented....[A] report from the Iberian peninsula points to villagers' loathing of wolves -- the "most hated creatures from the wild" -- and mentions the custom of "begging for the wolf." "[W]hen someone has killed a wolf, he or she takes it from house to house around the village and is given eggs, sausage, potatoes, and other foods by grateful cattle-owners." Greek mountain villages are another place where, even in recent years, wolf-killing is an occasion for great celebration....
Japan offers a marked contrast. In yamanashi Prefecture, for example, there is the tradition known as inu no ubumimai...whereby sekihan (azuki bean rice) is offered to the wolf when wolf cubs are born. Sekihan is a ceremonial food traditionally served to celebrate human births and other felicitous occasions...; its offering to the wolf therefore appears to be a striking expression of the belief in the wolf's benign character (indeed, in some cases the ubimimai practice included the belief that the wolf, in return, would make a congratulatory offering [deer, wild boar, hare, or even bear's paw] on the occasion of a human birth in the village.)....
In practice, wolves were on occasion killed in Japan. Indeed, there are tales of villages organizing wolf-hunts (inugari) in response to livestock predations.However, through his actions the wolf-killer exposed himself, and his family, to the risks of spiritual retribution. There are stories from the Kitayama area of the Kii Peninsula of wolf killers who subsequently met with great misfortune, from successive sudden deaths in the family to dissipation of the family wealth and property. Moreover, the death of the last recorded Japanese wolf in Yoshino in 1905 is annually remembered in the form of a kuyo (requiem) ceremony carried out in the local temple at the time of the Bon midsummer festival. Thus the existence of wolf killing in Japan seems to reinforce, not undermine, the cultural status of the wolf as an animal that should not be killed.
A common reason given for the positive view of the wolf in Japan is that, far from being a threat to village livelihoods, it helped to protect them from farm-raiding forest animals such as wild boar, deer, and hares. The autumn incursions of the wild boar have long been a major source of anxiety among upland farmers on account of the devastation the animals can cause to maturing crops....
Wolves were [a] form of farm protection, as they mitigated losses by keeping down wild boar numbers. Whenever a wolf was sighted, villagers in the Sendai area would beseech it thus: "Lord Wolf [oino tono], please protect us and stop the ravages of the deer and wild boar." But even when a wolf was not physically present its power could be invoked through a charm. Some villages in the Hongu area enshrined a wolf ofuda (charm) -- known as shishiyoke, or "boar deterrent" -- in the village shrine to guard against wild boar predations. There are...Shinto shrines throughout Japan that have the wolf as their otsukai, the most famous of which is Mitsumine Shrine in Saitama Prefecture....A significant number of such shrines are to be found on the Kii Peninsula.
The earlier benign character of the wolf was therefore related to its identity as a spirit: the beneficial ekiju was also a reiju, a "spirit beast." Indeed, the wolf has often been more specifically identified with the yama no kami (mountain spirit) in rural Japan. Teira suggests that in ancient Japan the wolf was viewed as "the dog belonging to the mountain spirit" (yama no kami ni shitagau inu) (1987, 66)....
....In some cases, such as among villagers in Gifu, a wolf's skull, standing for the yama no kami, was an object of worship. Even where no such explicit association was made, the wolf skull or wolf charm was used in folk religion to expel harmful animal and other spirits that possessed human beings. Nomoto presents a photograph of a wolf leg nailed to a post at a house entrance to deter evil or harmful spirits from entering the house (1994, 107).
....Not only does the wolf rid villagers of farm pests, it even leaves behind part of its prey for villagers, something known as inu'otoshi or inutaoshi (dog-prey). While inu-otoshi tends to be cited as evidence of the wolf's benign disposition toward human beings, it is important to remember that when this happens villagers are expected to leave something behind for the wolf in return, whether this be a limb of the animal (in the case of a whole carcass) ot some salt, lest they incur its anger....
The principle of reciprocity also works the other way around, as we saw in the ubumimai custom above. When a human is kind to a wolf the animal will give something in return, for the wolf is girigatai, that is, it possesses a strong sense of duty. One story from Hongu tells of a wolf that falls into a pit used for trapping wild boars. On finding the wolf sometime later the villagers, after their initial fear had been overcome, take pity on the beast and decide to help it out of the pit rather than leave it to a slow death. The wolf is released to return to the mountains. A few days later the villagers hear a wolf-howl from the direction of the pit, in which they discover a large deer (in some versions a large wild boar). The wolf has made its return gift (ongaeshi, oreigaeshi, okami ho'on). Kindness to the wolf is ultimately to the villagers' benefit because it obligates the wolf to make a return of some kind. Similar examples of the wolf's sense of reciprocity can be found elsewhere on the peninsula and beyond.
Offerings to and worship of the wolf notwithstanding, we should be wary of simply attributing a "benign" character to the animal in neat contradistinction to the "evil" of Mediterranean wolves. The Japanese wolf does not have an essential or fixed character, either good or evil. Rather like a human being, a wolf can be good or bad, helpful or dangerous, depending on how the relationship with it is conducted and managed. Provided that a relationship of reciprocity is properly and faithfully maintained, the wolf is a benign beast. It is only when this principle is not observed by humans...that the positive relationship with the animal breaks down and it develops an ada (enmity) towards human beings....The disposition of the wolf to mankind, whether benign or malign, is an expression of the state of the moral relationship with it. Dangerous wolves are more a sign of human infidelity than of the animal's bad nature....Japanese wolf lore tells not of good or bad wolves but of good or bad people.
Bad Beast
There are very few documented wolf attacks in Japan prior to the seventeenth century. Three main reasons are given for the emergence of rogai (wolf damage): rabies, deforestation, and changes in farming practices. Rabies entered Japan in the late seventeenth century, and the early reports of inukurui (dog madness) were soon followed by reports of rabid wolves, foxes, and tanuki. The first report of rabid wolves (in Kyushu and Shikoku) occurred in 1732, and the disease then spread eastward....
The urban development that took place from the late sixteenth century, involving the construction of castles, temples, shrines, mansions, bridges, and roads, consumed vast amounts of wood. In addition, rapid population growth led to sharp increases in the use of the forests for fertilizer, fuel, and fodder, and to the conversion of woodland to tillage. The result was wide-spread deforestation. While deforestation, insofar as it leads to grassy new growth, may have been initially favorable to deer, the subsequent establishment of timber plantations ultimately meant less forage, with a resultant fall in deer numbers that reduced the amount of prey available to wolves. This is the background, it is argued, to the rise of wolf predation of village livestock in the later Tokugawa period.
There also occurred a shift of farming away from the mountains towards the reclaimed land of river valleys.... While this arrangement did not preclude field-raiding by animals like deer and boars, it did make it more difficult....If the wolf was looked to for protection from forest farm pests before, in these new circumstances it was no longer needed.
Not only did this change in farming patterns make obsolete the wolf's earlier, protective role, it also led to a new form of predatory relationship between the wolf and the village. As noted above, the earlier pattern of farming...created gatherings of deer and wild boar, providing the wolf with a highly successful hunting ground ....But with the passing of this...earlier farming, the wolf's opportunity for such easy predation was lost....
There have been many claimed sightings of wolves in Japanese rural areas after the date at which they supposedly became extinct. Wolf sightings continue right up to the present day. At a 1994 conference in Nara, it was reported that no less than seventy people had recently either seen a wolf themselves or heard wolf-howls.
Hiraiwa (1992) gives details of twenty-six separate claims made between 1908 and 1978. Twelves of these claims are distributed fairly evenly across the country from Aomori in the northeast to Oita in the southwest. All of the remaining fourteen claims are from the prefectures of Nara and Wakayama on the Kii Peninsula. These are either sightings or the finding of the remains of animal prey, and such figures do not include the countless claims of having heard wolf howls or having found wolf-tracks (said to be twice as big as dog tracks) or wolf feces (distinctive because of the conspicuous presence of the matted hair of the animal prey.)
....Let us consider some of the claimed wolf encounters in more detail. In the 1930s numerous encounters with wolves were reported from the southern area of the [Kii] [P]eninsula. In 1932 in the Hongu area a man saw a wolf on a mountain peak....In 1934 in Ryujin Mura, the northwest of Hongu, a group of foresters encountered a pack of wolves (five or six animals) when out hunting deer. In 1936, again in the Hongu area, a man is said to have captured a wolf cub in the mountains, but decided to release it straight-away lest the parent wolf come after him to retrieve it.
Ue Toshikatsu, a local forester-turned-writer, challenges the official extinction chronology by detailing wolf encounters claimed by members of his immediate family, relatives, and other acquaintances....
Ue argues that the spate of wolf sightings in the late 1940s and early 1950s is highly significant. For at that time, he claims, there were many wild boar, deer, and serow in the mountains. On account of conscription, the war effort, and the general displacement of upland villagers, relatively little hunting took place in the mountains before, during, and immediately after the Second World war, and the numbers of forest animals multiplied accordingly. This in turn meant that there was more food available for the wolves, which were therefore able to increase in number.
By the late 1950s the sightings had greatly diminished in number, and most of the claims at this time, Ue accepts, lack credibility. By then the ecology of the mountains had changed fundamentally....
Ue offers a contrasting historical context for wolf extinction from that of the existing orthodoxy: the tragedy of the wolf is part of the larger tragedy of forest wildlife brought about by the overexploitation of the yama for wood to support urban industrial recovery in the early postwar period. Thus the extinction of the wolf belongs to a more recent time than is officially claimed, and responsibility for it resides firmly with postwar industrial Japan rather than with contagion by an exogenous disease introduced through the international contacts of Meiji Japan (as the official history maintains)....[T]he eventual large-scale transformation of the mountain forests into industrial timber plantations brought about a new artificial upland environment in which the wolf was unable to live.
....The Honshu wolf -- whether extinct or not -- continues to symbolize something much larger than itself, something about modern Japan as a whole.
Outside experts have not confirmed local claims. There now exists a long inventory of local wolf observations extending over decades, yet the local witnesses see their claims dismissed by scientists and the government as mistaken and unreliable. A number of wolf-like animals have actually been caught and killed over the years, including two notable examples on the Kii Peninsula in 1908 and 1948....
There was an incident more recently, in the 1970s, when the remains of an animal locally believed to be a wolf was taken away by experts for examination....However, as with other such incidents, nothing more was heard. Ue attributes this nonconfirmation to the timidity of experts deeply reluctant to oppose the prevailing extinction orthodoxy, no matter how solid the evidence presented to them....
Skepticism is not, however, confined to zoologists and other outside experts. Claimed wolf sightings meet with local skepticism too....[A] former schoolteacher...warned me not to take too seriously a lot of the old folklore about strange creatures in the yama...because many of these frightening tales of meetings with ghosts, with tengu (bird-men), and with one-eyed, one-legged monsters were actually stories made up by people with reasons for discouraging others from visiting a particular mountainside or valley. He had in mind the matsutake mushroom picker seeking to protect a favored spot from rival pickers, or the hunter wishing to keep secret a wallowing ground or other spot where wild boars gather.
Other skeptical reactions included that of the forest landowner who dismisses the wolf-spotters as the same sort of "uneducated" (mugake) people who join new religious sects and believe in things like laying-on-of-hands healing or ancestral curses that bring misfortune on descendants, notions that this man dismissed as foolish.
It is against this background of growing skepticism that efforts have been made to prove that wolves still exist in the mountains. There have been a number of expeditions into the okuyama, the remoter parts of the mountains associated with wolves, as well as baiting experiments in which meat or even caged live animals are placed at observation points in the mountains in the hope of drawing out the animal.
Most ambitiously of all, there have even been attempts to communicate directly with wolves. In 1994 the Nara Prefecture Wildlife Protection Committee carried out the following experiment, known as sasoidashi (luring out) in the Yoshino area.
....Observers with tape-recorders were strategically placed in the mountains in the hope that the amplified howls [from a tape of a Canadian wolf howling] would elicit a response from any real wolf present. No response was heard....
I attended a repetition of the experiment in 1995 -- this time in the area of Okuchichibu in Saitama Prefecture near the famous Mistumine Shrine where, as mentioned above, the wolf is enshrined at the otsukai, or messenger. Speakers were strategically placed in two high-up locations on a steep north-facing mountainside overlooking a deep river valley. After this, the group with the tape recorders gathered at spot further down the mountain. There the group spent the night, sleeping around a campfire. In the morning they carefully listened to the tape of the night before. The six-hour long set of tapes consisted of two-minute long amplifications of wolf-howls, followed by intervals of around eight minutes during which the tape recorder picked up any subsequent noises. They listened to the tapes at double speed, slowing them down when an interesting noise came up. But the interesting noises emanated from deer, birds, airplanes, and (at dawn) monkeys, rather than from wolves.
....Although disappointed, the group vowed to continue the experiment the following year, returning to the Kii Peninsula.
In the wolf lore surveyed above, the wolf appears to serve as a natural symbol of society. Tales about exchanges between humans and wolves...can be understood...as a kind of social instruction or edification in which the importance of exchange between (different groups of) people is emphasized. Just as medieval Japanese tales of the human mistreatment of animals warn of the negative consequences of selfish, cruel behavior by showing the karmic retribution incurred by those responsible, so the tales of conscientious animals point to the future benefits of helping others.
However, the wolf is not simply a metaphor of society, but it is also a metonym of nature. Underlying the ostensive references to the wolf are implicit references to the mountain forests. The controversy over the wolf's existence can be usefully viewed against the background of major changes in the upland natural environment. The question of the existence or extinction of the wolf seems to be bound up with that of the scale of change that has occurred in the mountains....It is as though the issue of the wolf's existence is animated by a local nostalgia for the yama of the past.
....The relationship between man and wolf stands for the relationship between man and nature, for the wolf can be viewed as the symbol of animal spirits, the symbol of nature (daishizen). Nature brings all manner of blessings. When in return for those blessings and that protection man keeps his promises and obligations, the relationship will be one of harmony. But where such promises are broken and obligations forgotten, then only animal savagery (mojusei) emerges. It would be as well if the Japanese saw in the various tales of the wolf, with their emphasis on exchange between man and beast, the way in which the relationship between themselves and nature should be conducted.
There is a sense that the extinction of the wolf stands for the end of a whole tradition of upland settlement. This is a tradition epitomized by Ue....He decries the exodus from, and abandonment of, upland interior settlements that have occurred in the postwar period, and defiantly proclaims the virtues of a life in the mountains. There is in Ue's writings an undeniable tendency to romanticize an upland way of life....
It is against this background that in recent years there have been calls for the reintroduction of wolves to Japan. Premised on wolf extinction, the idea has of course been rejected by those who believe that wolves still exist in the remote interior. But the rationale is that, as a keystone species, the wolf would help restore order to the Japanese forest ecology by regulating the numbers of herbivores so destructive to forestry. Proponents argue that wolf reintroduction would simultaneously restore nature, reinstate human control, and make the Japanese mountains manageable once more.....The recovery of human control requires the return of the yama no banken, the "guard dog of the mountains." The wolf is a symbol both of the wild yama and of its control. Perhaps that is why a formally nonexistent animal continues to preoccupy upland dwellers. If the wolf is extinct, it is not obsolete.
Figure 1: Map of the Kii Peninsula
Figure 2: Mitsumine Shrine ofuda
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