Rangaku (Kyūjitai: 蘭學/Shinjitai: 蘭学, literally “Dutch Learning”, and by extension “Western learning”) is a body of knowledge developed by Japan through its contacts with the Dutch enclave of Dejima, which allowed Japan to keep abreast of Western technology and medicine in the period when the country was closed to foreigners, 1641–1853, because of the Tokugawa shogunate’s policy of national isolation (sakoku).
Through Rangaku, Japan learned many aspects of the scientific and technological revolution occurring in Europe at that time, helping the country build up the beginnings of a theoretical and technological scientific base, which helps to explain Japan’s success in its radical and speedy modernization following the opening of the country to foreign trade in 1854.
The Dutch traders at Dejima in Nagasaki were the only European foreigners tolerated in Japan from 1639 till 1853 (the Dutch had a trading post in Hirado from 1609 till 1641 before they had to move to Dejima), and their movements were carefully watched and strictly controlled, being limited initially to one yearly trip to give their homage to the Shogun in Edo. They became instrumental, however, in transmitting to Japan some knowledge of the industrial and scientific revolution that was occurring in Europe: The Japanese purchased and translated numerous scientific books from the Dutch, obtained from them Western curiosities and manufactures (such as clocks), and received demonstrations of various Western innovations, such as the demonstrations of electric phenomena, and the flight of a hot air balloon in the early 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch were the most economically wealthy and scientifically advanced of all European nations, which put them in a privileged position to transfer Western knowledge to Japan.
Altogether, thousands of such books were published, printed, and circulated. Japan already had at that time one of the largest urban populations in the world, with more than one million inhabitants in Edo, and many other large cities such as Osaka and Kyoto, offering a large, literate market to such novelties. In the large cities some shops, open to the general public, specialized in foreign curiosities.
The first phase of Rangaku was quite limited and highly controlled. Western books were prohibited since the full repression of Christianity in Japan in 1640. Initially, a small group of hereditary Japanese–Dutch translators labored in Nagasaki to smooth communication with the foreigners and transmit bits of Western novelties.
Also, the Dutch were requested to give updates of world events and to supply novelties to the Shogun every year on their trips to Edo. Finally, the Dutch factories in Nagasaki, in addition to their official trade work in silk and deer hides, were allowed to engage in some level of “private trade”. A small, lucrative market for Western curiosities thus developed, focused on the Nagasaki area. With the establishment of a permanent post for a surgeon at the Dutch trading post Dejima, high ranking Japanese officials started to ask for treatment in cases when local doctors were of no help. One of the most important surgeons was Caspar Schamberger, who induced a continuing interest in medical books, pharmaceuticals, treatment methods etc.
Liberalization of Western knowledge (1720–)
Although foreign books were strictly forbidden from 1 640, rules were relaxed under Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune in 1 720, which started an influx of foreign books and their translations into Japanese. One example is the 1 787 publication of Morishima Chūryō’s Sayings of the Dutch (紅毛雑話 Kōmō Zatsuwa , lit. “Red Hair Chitchat”), recording much knowledge received from the Dutch. The book details a vast array of topics: it includes objects such as microscopes and hot air balloons; discusses Western hospitals and the state of knowledge of illness and disease; outlines techniques for painting and printing with copper plates; it describes the makeup of static electricity generators and large ships; and it relates updated geographical knowledge.
Between 1804 and 1829, schools opened throughout the country by the Bakufu as well as terakoya helped spread the new ideas further.
By that time, Dutch emissaries and scientists were also allowed much more free access to Japanese society. The German physician von Siebold, attached to the Dutch delegation, established numerous exchanges with Japanese students. He invited Japanese scientists to show them the marvels of Western science, learning, in return, much about the Japanese and their customs. In 1824, von Siebold began a medical school with fifty students, appointed by the Shogun. They helped with the botanical and naturalistic studies of von Siebold. His school, the Narutaki-juku (鳴滝塾), grew into a meeting place for about fifty rangaku-sha (students of rangaku).
Expansion and politicization (1839–)
The Rangaku movement became increasingly involved in Japan's political debate over foreign isolation, arguing that the imitating of Western culture would strengthen rather than harm Japan. The Rangaku increasingly disseminated contemporary Western innovations.
In 1839, scholars of Western studies (called “rangaku-sha”) briefly suffered repression by the Edo Shogunate in the Bansha no goku (蛮者の獄, roughly “imprisonment of the barbarianists”) incident, due to their opposition to the introduction of the death penalty against foreigners (other than Dutch) coming ashore, recently enacted by the Bakufu. The incident was provoked by actions such as the Morrison Incident, in which an unarmed American merchant ship was fired upon under the Edict to Repel Foreign Ships. The edict was eventually repealed in 1842.
Rangaku ultimately became obsolete when Japan opened up in the Bakumatsu period, 1853–67. Students were sent abroad, and foreign employees (o-yatoi gaikokujin) came to Japan to teach and advise in large numbers, leading to an unprecedented and rapid modernization of the country.
It is often argued that Rangaku kept Japan from being completely uninformed about the critical phase of Western scientific advancement during the 18th and 19th century, allowing Japan to build up the beginnings of a theoretical and technological scientific base. This openness could partly explain Japan’s success in its radical and speedy modernization following the opening of the country to foreign trade in 1854.
Types of Rangaku
From around 1720, numerous books on medical sciences were obtained from the Dutch, and then analyzed and translated into Japanese. Great debates occurred between the proponents of traditional Chinese medicine and those of the new Western learning, leading to waves of experiments and dissections. The accuracy of Western learning made a sensation among the population, and new publications such as the Anatomy (蔵志 Zōshi , lit. “Stored Will”) of 1759 and the New Text on Anatomy (解体新書 Kaitai Shinsho , lit. “Understanding [of the] Body New Text”) of 1774 became references. The latter was a compilation made by several Japanese scholars, led by Sugita Genpaku, mostly based on the Dutch-language Ontleedkundige Tafelen of 1734, itself a translation of Anatomische Tabellen (1732) by the German author Johann Adam Kulmus.
In 1804, Seishū Hanaoka performed the world’s first general anaesthesia during surgery for breast cancer (mastectomy). The surgery involved combining Chinese herbal medicine and Western surgery techniques, 40 years before the better-known Western innovations of Long, Wells and Morton, with the introduction of diethyl ether (1846) and chloroform (1847) as general anaesthetics.
In 1838, Dr. Ogata Kōan established the Rangaku school named Tekijuku. Famous alumni of the Tekijuku include Fukuzawa Yukichi and Ōtori Keisuke, who would become key players in Japan’s modernization. He was the author of 1849’s Introduction to the Study of Disease (病学通論 Byōgaku Tsūron ), which was the first book on pathology to be published in Japan.
Some of the first scholars of Rangaku were involved with the assimilation of 17th century theories in the physical sciences. This is the case of Shizuki Tadao an eighth-generation descendant of the Shizuki house of Nagasaki Dutch translators, who after having completed for the first time a systematic analysis of Dutch grammar, went on to translate the Dutch edition of Introductio ad Veram Physicam of the British author John Keil on the theories of Newton (Japanese title: Rekishō Shinsho (暦象新書, roughly: “New Text on Transitive Effects”), 1798). Shizuki coined several key scientific terms for the translation, which are still in use in modern Japanese; for example, “gravity” (重力 jūryoku ), “attraction” (引力 inryoku ), “centrifugal force” (遠心力 enshinryoku ), and “center of mass” (集点 jūten ). A second Rangaku scholar, Hoashi Banri, published a manual of physical sciences in 1810 – Kyūri-Tsū (窮理通, roughly “On Natural Laws”) – based on a combination of thirteen Dutch books, after learning Dutch from just one Dutch-Japanese dictionary.
Electrical experiments were widely popular from around 1770. Following the invention of the Leyden jar in 1745, similar electrostatic generators were obtained for the first time in Japan from the Dutch around 1770 by Hiraga Gennai. Static electricity was produced by the friction of a glass tube with a gold-plated stick, creating various electrical effects. The jars were reproduced and adapted by the Japanese, who called it “Elekiter” (エレキテル Erekiteru ). Just as in Europe, these generators were used as curiosities, such as making sparks fly from the head of a subject, or for supposed pseudoscientific medical advantages. In Sayings of the Dutch, the Elekiter is described as a machine that allows one to take sparks out of the human body, in order to treat sick parts. Elekiters were sold widely to the public in curiosity shops. Many electric machines derived from the Elekiter were then invented, particularly by Sakuma Shōzan.
Japan’s first electricity manual, Fundamentals of the Elekiter Mastered by the Dutch (阿蘭陀始制エレキテル究理原 Oranda Shisei Erekiteru Kyūri-Gen ) by Hashimoto Muneyoshi, published in 1811, describes numerous electrical phenomena, such as experiments with electric generators, conductivity through the human body, and the 1750 experiments of Benjamin Franklin with lightning.
In 1840, Udagawa Yōan published his Opening Principles of Chemistry (舎密開宗 Seimi Kaisō ), a compilation of various scientific books in Dutch, which describes a wide range of scientific knowledge from the West. Most of the Dutch original material appears to be derived from William Henry’s 1799 Elements of Experimental Chemistry. In particular, the book contains a detailed description of the electric battery invented by Volta forty years earlier in 1800. The battery itself was constructed by Udagawa in 1831 and used in various experiments, including medical ones, based on a belief that electricity could help cure illnesses.
Udagawa’s work also reports for the first time in details the findings and theories of Lavoisier in Japan. Accordingly, Udagawa also made numerous scientific experiments and created new scientific terms, which are still in current use in modern scientific Japanese, like “oxidation” (酸化 sanka ), “reduction” (還元 kangen ), “saturation” (飽和 hōwa ), and “element” (元素 genso ).
Japan’s first telescope was offered by the English captain John Saris to Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1614, with the assistance of William Adams, during Saris’ mission to open trade between England and Japan. This followed the invention of the telescope by Dutchman Hans Lippershey in 1608 by a mere six years. Refracting telescopes were widely used by the populace during the Edo period, both for pleasure and for the observation of the stars.
After 1640, the Dutch continued to inform the Japanese about the evolution of telescope technology. In 1831, after having spent several months in Edo where he could get accustomed with Dutch wares, Kunitomo Ikkansai (a former gun manufacturer) built Japan’s first reflecting telescope of the Gregorian type. Kunitomo’s telescope had a magnification of 60, and allowed him to make very detailed studies of sun spots and lunar topography. Four of his telescopes remain to this day.
Kunitomo’s reflecting telescope, 1831.
Microscopes were invented in Europe during the 17th century, but it is unclear when exactly they reached Japan. Clear descriptions of microscopes are made in the 1720 Nagasaki Night Stories Written (長崎夜話草 Nagasaki Yawasō ) and in the 1787 book Saying of the Dutch. Although Europeans mainly used microscopes to observe small cellular organisms, the Japanese mainly used them for entomological purposes, creating numerous detailed descriptions of insects.
Magic lanterns, first described in the West by Athanasius Kircher in 1671, became very popular attractions in multiple forms in 18th-century Japan.
Karakuri are mechanized puppets or automata from Japan from the 18th century to 19th century. The word means “device” and carries the connotations of both mechanical devices as well as deceptive ones. Japan adapted and transformed the Western automata, which at the time were fascinating the likes of Descartes, giving him the incentive for his mechanist theories of organisms, and Frederick the Great, who loved playing with automatons and miniature wargames.
Many were developed, mostly for entertainment purposes, ranging from tea-serving to arrow-shooting mechanisms. These ingenious mechanical toys were to become prototypes for the engines of the industrial revolution. They were powered by spring mechanisms similar to those of clocks.
Mechanical clocks were introduced into Japan by Jesuit missionaries or Dutch merchants in the sixteenth century. These clocks were of the lantern clock design, typically made of brass or iron, and used the relatively primitive verge and foliot escapement. These led to the development of an original Japanese clock, called Wadokei.
Neither the pendulum nor the balance spring were in use among European clocks of the period, and as such they were not included among the technologies available to the Japanese clockmakers at the start of the isolationist period in Japanese history, which began in 1641. Later Japanese clock makers introduced more sophisticated clock technology through the Dutch, leading to spectacular developments such as the Universal Myriad year clock designed in 1850 by Tanaka Hisashige, the founder of what would become the Toshiba corporation.
Air pump mechanisms became popular in Europe from around 1660 following the experiments of Boyle. In Japan, the first description of a vacuum pump appear in Aoji Rinsō’s 1825 Atmospheric Observations (気海観瀾 Kikai Kanran ), and slightly later both pressure pumps and void pumps appear in Udagawa Shinsai’s 1834 Appendix of Far-Western Medical and Notable Things and Thoughts (遠西医方名物考補遺 Ensei Ihō Meibutsu Kō Hoi ). These mechanisms were used to demonstrate the necessity of air for animal life and combustion, typically by putting a lamp or a small pump in a vacuum, and were also used to make calculations of pressure and air density.
Many practical applications were found as well, such as in the manufacture of air guns by Kunitomo Ikkansai, after he repaired and analyzed the mechanism of some Dutch air guns which had been offered to the Shogun in Edo. A rather vast industry of perpetual oil lamps (無尽灯 Mujin Hi ) also developed, also derived by Kunitomo from the mechanism of air guns, in which oil was continuously supplied through a compressed air mechanism. Kunitomo also developed agricultural applications of these technologies, such as a giant pump powered by an ox, to lift irrigation water.
Aerial knowledge and experiments
The first flight of a hot air balloon by the brothers Montgolfier in France in 1783, was reported less than four years later by the Dutch in Dejima, and published in the 1787 Sayings of the Dutch.
In 1805, almost twenty years later, the Swiss Johann Caspar Horner and the Prussian Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, two scientists of the Kruzenshtern mission that also brought the Russian ambassador Nikolai Rezanov to Japan, made a hot air balloon out of Japanese paper (washi), and made a demonstration of the new technology in front of about 30 Japanese delegates.
Hot air balloons would mainly remain curiosities, becoming the object of numerous experiments and popular depictions, until the development of military usages during the early Meiji era.
Knowledge of the steam engine started to spread in Japan during the first half of the 19th century, although the first recorded attempts at manufacturing one date to the efforts of Tanaka Hisashige in 1853, following the demonstration of a steam engine by the Russian embassy of Yevfimy Putyatin after his arrival in Nagasaki on August 12, 1853.
The Rangaku scholar Kawamoto Kōmin completed a book named Odd Devices of the Far West (遠西奇器述 Ensei Kiki-Jutsu ) in 1845, which was finally published in 1854 as the need to spread Western knowledge became even more obvious with Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan and the subsequent increased contact with industrial Western nations. The book contains detailed descriptions of steam engines and steamships. Kawamoto had apparently postponed the book’s publication due to the Bakufu’s prohibition against the building of large ships.
Modern geographical knowledge of the world was transmitted to Japan during the 17th century through the works of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. This knowledge was regularly updated through information received from the Dutch, so that Japan had an understanding of the geographical world roughly equivalent to that of contemporary Western countries. With this knowledge, Shibukawa Shunkai made the first Japanese globe in 1690.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, considerable efforts were made at surveying and mapping the country, usually with Western techniques and tools. Numerous maps of Japan were made; thanks to the up-to-date methods, they do not significantly differ in accuracy with modern ones, just like contemporary maps of European lands.
The description of the natural world made considerable progress through Rangaku; this was influenced by the Encyclopedists and promoted by von Siebold (a German doctor in the service of the Dutch at Dejima). Itō Keisuke created numerous books describing animal species of the Japanese islands, with drawings of a near photographic quality.
In a rather rare case of “reverse Rangaku” (that is, the science of isolationist Japan making its way to the West), an 1803 treatise on the raising of silk worms and manufacture of silk, the Secret Notes on Sericulture (養蚕秘録 Yōsan Hiroku ) was brought to Europe by von Siebold and translated into French and Italian in 1848, contributing to the development of the silk industry in Europe.
Various other publications
- Automatons: Karakuri Instructional Pattern Notes (機訓蒙鑑草 Karakuri Kinmō Kagami-Gusa ), 1730.
- Mathematics: Western-Style Calculation Text (西洋算書 Seiyō Sansho ).
- Optics: Telescope Production (遠鏡製造 Enkyō Seizō ).
- Glass-making: Glass Production (硝子製造 Garasu Seizō ).
- Military: Tactics of the Three Combat Arms (三兵答古知幾 Sanpei Takuchiiki ), by Takano Chōei concerning the tactics of the Prussian Army, 1850.
- Description of the method of amalgam for gold plating in Sōken Kishō (装劍奇賞), or 装剣奇賞 in Shinjitai, by Inaba Shin'emon, 1781.
When Commodore Perry obtained the signature of treaties at the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, he also brought numerous technological gifts to the Japanese representatives. Among them was a small telegraph, and a small steam train complete with tracks. These were promptly studied by the Japanese as well.
Essentially considering the arrival of Western ships as a threat and a factor for destabilization, the Bakufu ordered several of its fiefs to build warships along Western designs. These ships, such as the Hōō-Maru, the Shouhei-Maru, and the Asahi-Maru, were designed and built, mainly based on Dutch books and plans. Some were built within a mere year or two of Perry’s visit. Similarly, steam engines were immediately studied. Tanaka Hisashige, who had made the Myriad year clock, created Japan’s first steam engine, based on Dutch drawings and the observation of a Russian steam ship in Nagasaki in 1853. These developments led to the Satsuma fief building Japan’s first steam ship, the Unkō-Maru, in 1855, barely two years after Japan’s first encounter with such ships in 1853 during Perry’s visit.
In 1858, the Dutch officer Kattendijke would comment:There are some imperfections in the details, but I take my hat off to the genius of the people who were able to build these without seeing an actual machine, but only relied on simple drawings.
Last phase of “Dutch” learning
Following the Commodore Perry’s visit, the Netherlands continued to have a key role in transmitting Western know-how to Japan for some time. The Bakufu relied heavily on Dutch expertise to learn about modern Western shipping methods. Thus, the Nagasaki Naval Training Center was established in 1855 right at the entrance of the Dutch trading post of Dejima, allowing for maximum interaction with Dutch naval knowledge. From 1855 to 1859, education was directed by Dutch naval officers, before the transfer of the school to Tsukiji in Tokyo, where English educators became prominent.
The center was also equipped with Japan’s first steam warship, the Kankō Maru, given by the government of the Netherlands the same year, which may be one of the last great contributions of the Dutch to Japanese modernization, before Japan opened itself to multiple foreign influences. The future Admiral Enomoto Takeaki was one of the students of the Training Center. He was also sent to the Netherlands for five years (1862–f67), with several other students, to develop his knowledge of naval warfare, before coming back to become the Admiral of the Shogun’s fleet.
Enduring influence of Rangaku
Numerous scholars of Rangaku continued to play a key role in the modernization of Japan. Scholars such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, Ōtori Keisuke, Yoshida Shōin, Katsu Kaishu, and Sakamoto Ryōma built on the knowledge acquired during Japan’s isolation and then progressively shifted the main language of learning from Dutch to English.
As these Rangaku scholars usually took a pro-Western stance, which was in line with the policy of the Bakufu but against anti-foreign imperialistic movements, several were assassinated, such as Sakuma Shōzan in 1864 and Sakamoto Ryōma in 1867.
- Arai Hakuseki (新井 白石, 1657–1725), author of Sairan Igen and Seiyō Kibun
- Aoki Kon'yō (青木 昆陽, 1698–1769)
- Maeno Ryōtaku (前野 良沢, 1723–1803)
- Yoshio Kōgyū (吉雄 耕牛, 1724–1800)
- Ono Ranzan (小野 蘭山, 1729–1810), author of Botanical Classification (本草綱目啓蒙 Honzō Kōmoku Keimō ).
- Hiraga Gennai (平賀 源内, 1729–79) proponent of the “Elekiter”
- Gotō Gonzan (後藤 艮山)
- Kagawa Shūan (香川 修庵)
- Sugita Genpaku (杉田 玄白, 1733–1817) author of New Treatise on Anatomy (解体新書 Kaitai Shinsho ).
- Asada Gōryū (麻田 剛立, 1734–99)
- Motoki Ryōei (本木 良永, 1735–94), author of Usage of Planetary and Heavenly Spheres (天地二球用法 Tenchi Nikyū Yōhō )
- Shiba Kōkan (司馬江漢, 1747–1818), painter.
- Shizuki Tadao (志筑 忠雄, 1760–1806), author of New Book on Calendar Phenomena (暦象新書 Rekishō Shinsho ), 1798.
- Hanaoka Seishū (華岡 青洲, 1760–1835), author of the first general anaesthesia.
- Takahashi Yoshitoki (高橋 至時, 1764–1804)
- Motoki Shōei (本木 正栄, 1767–1822)
- Udagawa Genshin (宇田川 玄真, 1769–1834), author of New Volume on Public Welfare (厚生新編 Kōsei Shinpen ).
- Aoji Rinsō (青地 林宗, 1775–1833), author of Study of the Atmosphere (気海観瀾 Kikai Kanran ), 1825.
- Hoashi Banri (帆足 万里, 1778–1852), author of Physical Sciences (究理通 Kyūri Tsū ).
- Takahashi Kageyasu (高橋 景保, 1785–1829)
- Matsuoka Joan (松岡 恕庵)
- Udagawa Yōan (宇田川 榕菴, 1798–1846), author of Botanica Sutra (菩多尼訶経 Botanika Kyō , using the Latin “botanica” in ateji) and Chemical Sciences (舎密開宗 Seimi Kaisō )
- Itō Keisuke (伊藤 圭介, 1803–1901), author of Western Plant Taxonomy (泰西本草名疏 Taisei Honzō Meiso )
- Takano Chōei (高野 長英, 1804–50), physician, dissident, co-translator of a book on the tactics of the Prussian Army, Tactics of the Three Combat Arms (三兵答古知幾 Sanpei Takuchiiki ), 1850.
- Ōshima Takatō (大島 高任, 1810–71), engineer — established the first western style blast furnace and made the first Western-style cannon in Japan.
- Kawamoto Kōmin (川本 幸民, 1810–71), author of Strange Machines of the Far West (遠西奇器述 Ensei Kikijutsu ), completed in 1845, published in 1854.
- Ogata Kōan (緒方 洪庵, 1810–63), founder of the Tekijuku, and author of Introduction to Pathology (病学通論 Byōgaku Tsūron ), Japan’s first treatise on the subject.
- Sakuma Shōzan (佐久間 象山, 1811–64)
- Hashimoto Sōkichi (橋本 宗吉)
- Hazama Shigetomi (間 重富)
- Hirose Genkyō (広瀬 元恭), author of Science Compendium (理学提要 Rigaku Teiyō ).
- Takeda Ayasaburō (武田 斐三郎, 1827–80), architect of the fortress of Goryōkaku
- Ōkuma Shigenobu (大隈 重信, 1838–1922)
- ^ “The first use of general anaesthesia probably dates to early nineteenth century Japan. On 13 October 1804, Japanese doctor Seishu Hanaoka (1760–1835) surgically removed a breast tumor under general anaesthesia. His patient was a 60-year-old woman named Kan Aiya.” Source
- ^ Seeing and Enjoying Technology of Edo, p. 25.
- ^ Ivan Federovich Kruzenshtern. “Voyage round the world in the years 1803, 1804, 1805 and 1806, on orders of his Imperial Majesty Alexander the First, on the vessels Nadezhda and Neva”.
- ^ Kattendijke, 1858, quoted in Seeing and Enjoying Technology of Edo, p. 37.
- Dutch missions to Edo
- Japanese words of Dutch origin
- Japan–Netherlands relations
- Philipp Franz von Siebold
- Meiji restoration
- Fukuzawa Yukichi
- Bansha no goku
- Keio University
- Seeing and Enjoying Technology of Edo (見て楽しむ江戸のテクノロジー), 2006, ISBN 4-410-13886-3 (Japanese)
- The Thought-Space of Edo (江戸の思想空間) Timon Screech, 1998, ISBN 4-7917-5690-8 (Japanese)
- Spackman, Chris, Encyclopedia of Japanese History, Open History, http://www.openhistory.org/jhdp/encyclopedia/ .
- Rangaku World maps, Japan: Kyoto U, http://ddb.libnet.kulib.kyoto-u.ac.jp/exhibit/muroga/mateo.html .
- Rangaku Kotohajime: Dawn of Western Science in Japan, The Human Brain project, http://www.thehumanbrainprojectlec.com/doc-dawnofwesternscienceind.html .
- Further reading/bibliography, ENG, UK: East Asia Institute, University of Cambridge, http://www.oriental.cam.ac.uk/jbib/edoint9.html .
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