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Don Roley

The Myth of the Straight Bladed Ninja Sword

Rating: 11 votes, 4.64 average.
The reason I write and post things on blogs such as this is to try to end the confusion that often surrounds ninjutsu. Past things I have put up on the internet about the Koga ryu, the Godai and such help folks to correct mistaken impressions, and there are a lot of them in the art of ninjutsu.
One of the most pervasive ones is the idea that the ninja used a straight bladed sword because they could not afford to make ones like those used by the samurai. This mistaken impression is one of the most common ones and seems unwilling to die.
As far as some of us can tell the idea came about from the writings of a Westerner, Stephen Hayes, and then spread around the world due to the volume of his writings and the influence they had. First they showed up in the West, then they showed up in Hong Kong movies and now they even can be found in Japan!
If the last surprises you, it should be noted that there is no mention of the ninja using straight bladed swords in a Japanese source prior to Hayes writing that they did.
All the evidence so far points to this being a mistake by Hayes due to a misunderstanding of the subject matter on his part. According to Japanese teachers who were there when he was actually training in Japan, he could not get to many classes, his Japanese ability is still very poor and he never advanced far enough to learn things like sword. Viewed in this light, mistakes are to be expected. Many people think that the ninja used straight swords because the story is also included in the book "Ninjutsu, History and Tradition" accredited to Masaaki Hatsumi. However, that book is not a straight translation, but a collection of things taken from some stuff Hatsumi had printed in Japanese with some "explanation" added in by Hayes.
It is important to note that there are no Japanese sources by Hatsumi where he says that the ninja used straight blades. In addition, he and other Japanese have denied that they use them when asked. There was even a humorous incident when Fumio Manaka first laid eyes on a practice wooden sword with a straight blade and asked what they heck it was and why people were using them in ninjutsu training. In sources in English where Hatsumi had a great amount of control, there is no mention of the ninja using straight bladed swords. The only references we can find in any language are in English. One of them is the previously mentioned book, the other seems to be something added by an editor of the now defunct Ninja Magazine and does not originate with Hatsumi.
To those not familiar with the publishing world, editors do add their own copy to articles and such. Sometimes it is to make clearer what the writer is saying. Sometimes it is to add in some details they think were overlooked. And sometimes they even do it to make a short article a bit longer. The passage attributed to Hatsumi in the Ninja Magazine article is so close to the terms first written by Hayes that most objective folks have concluded that it was the source of what the editors added.
It is not just the similarity in writing style, though that is fairly clear if you are familiar with translations, that convince folks that the passage was added by the editors. The fact that Hatsumi has denied that the ninja used straight swords when asked, all his Japanese members have confirmed that he never said anything of the sort and the lack of a single source in Japanese by Hatsumi also is overwhelming evidence that Hatsumi never said that the ninja used straight swords.
And it is safe to say that the ninja did not use straight swords.
Logically, it makes no sense. When crafting a blade, it is not easier to make a straight blade compared with a curved one. The ninja also would not want to stand out with a different blade if they could help it. If the ninja were using a blade different from the norm, it would cause notice and someone would make mention of it in an historical source. So far, no one has been able to find such a source and give its name.
Indeed, after writing for years that the ninja used a straight blade and even licensing his name to a series of weapons including straight bladed training swords with Taipei, Hayes reversed himself in one of his books by Ohara Publications and claimed that the idea that the ninja used a straight sword was a cultural myth. He claimed that the common people thought that the ninja used a straight blade due to their association with Fudo Myo- ou and not because they ninja actually used them.
This last part is a little strange since you would assume that if Japanese people mistakenly thought that the ninja used straight blades, we would be able to find some sort of reference to the ninja using them. If they did use them, then there would be historical references that could be named where people commented on it. If it were a common mistake, then you would assume that historians and writers would take the time to correct the mistake.
However, there is NOTHING in Japanese we have been able to find before Hayes started writing about the straight bladed ninja sword. Hatsumi in his "Ninpo Zukan" book only notes that the sword was shorter. Authors such as Yumio Nawa never mention anything about the ninja using a straight sword either as if it were fact, or a mistake they need to correct their reader's impression of. The lack of any source saying anything about the ninja using a cruder, straight blade in Japanese by historians and writers should be looked at in the same light as the lack of reference to American Indians using machine guns. There is no reference in any way because there was nothing to support the idea.
Since the ninja made a large splash in the West, there is now some places that cater to this image of the straight bladed sword. While serious publications in Japanese still do not say that the ninja used straight swords, the ninja museum in Iga Ueno in an attempt to attract foreign tourists have added a modern made straight bladed ninja sword made in Taiwan. The museum is really more of a tourist trap than a serious museum and they have no actual historical examples of the ninja sword and so they have to use one made in the last few years instead.
Why did Hayes think that the ninja used straight swords? We may never know unless he chooses to tell us. Hayes is also famous for the story that the ninja were an oppressed minority, hunted and hated because of their mystic powers. This mistaken view of history is the background for the need for an easily made sword. The reality is far different.
Certainly we can say the following,
-There is no mention of the ninja using a crudely made, straight sword in anything written by Hatsumi in Japanese.
-He and several of the senior Japanese teachers in the Bujinkan have denied that the ninja used such weapons when asked.
-No Japanese historian seems to have made mention of the ninja using a straight sword.
-There are no historical sources that have been named that talk about the ninja using a crude, straight sword.
-The ninja were not an oppressed minority and they did have access to regular swords.
-The idea that a straight sword is easier to make than a curved one is false.
So I hope that people reading this will know that those that portray themselves as previously secret ninja traditions come to light in the 20th century and use their traditional straight sword are in fact using a weapon that did not exist prior to 1980. So the secret traditional version of ninjutsu they claim to teach is probably no older than the cars they drive.
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  1. Mekugi's Avatar
    Great article. Brings this essay by Karl Friday to mind
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  2. AlexJK's Avatar
    Thank you!!! Finally!!
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  3. Bruno@BS's Avatar
    I can actually say that due to the metallurgy involved, available resources and the Japanese way of making swords, making straight swords is a heck of a lot harder than making the curved design. Before a katana is quenched, it is straight as a ruler. The clay coating causes a differential heat treatment and effectively causes the sword to bend backwards during the heat treatment.
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  4. lfos847's Avatar
    This subject is far outside my area but I did want to mention two things. I recently watch a Japanese movie from 1962 caledl Shinobi No Mono about a Ninja garrison. The picture was mostly at night but it looked like many of the Ninja were using straight swords, especialy when they were in shozoku. Lots of Ninja toys were used. It was just a movie after all. The straight sword did exist in Japan in the early years, 800-900 AD, Heian and Kofun periods and has been found in Kofun tombs. It was referred to as a Jokoto or Chokuto.
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  5. Mekugi's Avatar
    A few years back I was involved in a discussion regarding the chokuto with Dr. Friday on another board (e-budo). He said that they were produced up until Edo, and were not uncommon during the warring states period. Over the years, I have found that this is true as true can be...there is just more hubbub around the curved blade...
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  6. Don Roley's Avatar
    Antony Cummings has produced a youtube video that has caused me to laugh. His sole source to back up his arguments is a book about the foot soldiers that have illustrations of what appear to be straight bladed swords.
    For some reason, Cummings goes on a lot about illustrations from there and comic books that show a square handguard. Strangely, I never mentioned anything about handguards at all. If you read the above, I say that the ninja did not use straight bladed swords different from the samurai because they were an oppressed underclass and could not make curved swords. Why would illustrations from a book about foot soldiers have anything to do with the ninja? And I should point out, there is no mention of a ninja using a straight sword. Illustrations could be the fault of the artist being lazy. The book Cummings uses either does not mention straight swords, or Cummings didn't read the text. I know he can't read Japanese, so maybe he was just looking for illustrations that might further his argument without going fully into the matter by trying to read the historical work.
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  7. Mekugi's Avatar
    Antony needs an art history lesson, but will that change his mind? Doubtful...
    tell tale comparisons:
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    Updated 02-10-2011 at 10:59 by Mekugi
  8. Don Roley's Avatar
    Personally, I am finding the reaction by Stephen Hayes interesting. While I was in Japan, I was told that he had not been taught sword work during the brief time he lived there. I actually can look at his stuff on youtube and see him doing things with a sword that I was told never to do. When I pointed out in a blog that Hayes made several mistakes (as we all do) and the ninja sword was one of them, I pointed out that no Bujinkan dojo in Japan teaches or has taught straight sword and that the idea is a myth. Hayes seems to have really tried to argue that they did exist, mainly so that his students won't question what else he might be teaching that he had no personal instruction in.
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  9. Mekugi's Avatar
    I don't understand that line of thinking. If it's wrong, it's wrong and move on. Academic humility! Mistakes are made and when they are found out, just correct them and get on with it!
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  10. Don Roley's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Mekugi
    I don't understand that line of thinking. If it's wrong, it's wrong and move on. Academic humility! Mistakes are made and when they are found out, just correct them and get on with it!
    Well, it looks like Hayes is concerned about what this might do to his cash flow. Look at what he wrote about the matter.

    A friend asked me why this was important enough to put on my web site. He was concerned that it made me look defensive arguing back against my inferiors. Why would a master need to justify what he teaches?
    I post it because the “no straight blade ninja sword” argument makes me look wrong. If you just follow the foolishness on those critical internet sites, you could assume that others who know more than I do proved me wrong. And if I were wrong, I would expect my best students to be alarmed over what else I might be teaching wrong.
    You do not teach for a living, neither do I. So we are rather free to admit we goofed and moved on. If you make your money off of teaching then you have to worry about what people would think and how they might stop buying your product if you ever admitted you had made mistakes.
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  11. Mekugi's Avatar
    Hmm...have we gone that far astray in Budo as a whole? I mean, that is pretty much against everything I have learned in Budo, not to mention the shared, like-mindedness that goes along with pedagogy and of course, professionalism. The truth with set you free. There's nothing about the internet "saying this" or "that". It's a tool, not an entity.While there is information on "the internet", the idea is communication of people (which of course, the thing is made up of) and that includes the basics of academia, research and proofing. I am of the opinion (and I don't think I am alone) that these principles need to play a big part in one's work, especially if one is selling something of any value. One has to go deeper than hubris to find out where one has erred and they have to be brave enough to admit it. This to me is the true mark of a professional. Personally, I believe that whole line fed there there reeks of something else entirely....umm...let's just leave it at that.

    Here's more. It's confusing.

    Don have you spoken to Hirai?

    Do I believe that all ninja of feudal Japan carried straight-blade short swords as some sort of badge of official ninja-ness? No, of course not, and I never said anything like that.

    Many ninja may not have even thought of themselves as ninja. They called themselves Iga no Mono “men of Iga” and rappa “grass-roots” and the like. Many or most carried standard curved-edge swords of the times.
    My first books in the early 1980s were an introduction to the ninja tradition of Japan. I chose not to conflict with stereotype at that stage. Later, once the practice was established, I mentioned on page 22 of my 1988 book Ninja Vol 5; Lore of the Shinobi Warrior that the straight sword was a stereotype, and that indeed many ninja did not carry such a weapon.

    My original ninjutsu teacher Masaaki Hatsumi had this to say on the subject:

    “The shinobi-gatana was little more than a straight slab of heavy steel with a single ground edge; the tsuba was a hammered thick steel square barren of ornamentation, but it could also be used as a prying device or by leaning the sword against a wall or tree as a booster step for climbing; the saya was usually longer than the short blade.”
    by Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi
    Ninja Magazine – Winter 1987
    Translated by Masaru Hirai
    This kind of educational integrity has nothing to do with loyalty. It is intelligence. If I am wrong, I expect my students to be concerned. I expect to be held accountable for the veracity of what I teach. I would certainly be the first to hold my own teacher to the same standards.

    But I am not wrong, and my teacher quoted above is not wrong, and you need to be very confident in that.
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    Updated 02-10-2011 at 11:06 by Mekugi
  12. Mekugi's Avatar
    I found that video...

    Cummings is slanting this information. While he is correct, a lot of longer swords were cut down, the curve was not "cut out of them" . That is PURE rubbish. I don't think that is possible actually, it just reduces the curve slightly. The ones I play with are still curved a great deal...but one can see where the extended blade would go in terms of actual curvature and length. The old saying goes "the longer the sword, the more curve, the more likely it was a battlefield sword". They cut them down because of the laws of the Edo jidai regarding blade length, or they simply wanted something shorter to carry (they were more suitable and effective for fighting at close quarters, which is something civilian life would have more of, rather than a full scale war theater). As far as spears and nagamaki made into blades, yes that is true and again, I have played with the real thing first hand. He's either misled or misquoting the museum curator at the armory. There's nothing to suggest that those were Ninja-to.

    My resource? Will talking to a living national treasure togishi do, my teacher for many, many years:

    ...or perhaps I will need some kind of paperwork?
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    Updated 02-10-2011 at 11:41 by Mekugi
  13. Bruno@BS's Avatar
    You're right. That is not possible.
    Well, it is possible to grind away part of the blade to make it straight (simple geometry of course) but the problem is that you'll also have to cut away the hard part of the blade (the half cm to 1 cm of the blade that is hard) which is the only part of the blade that can be sharpened, and is also the only part that is made of high quality 'sword skin' steel. The core and back are made from lower quality steel, which also ends up being much softer due to the clay coating that is used when quenching.

    So, while you could do this, technically, it would take ages. Really, some people have no idea just how hard an edge (61 HRc) is and how long it takes to grind it away (a looooooong time, using resources and methods available to the Japanese of that time). and you would end up with something vaguely sword shaped, but with no ability to hold any sort of edge sharper or more durable than a garden shovel, and it would bend like a noodle if you hit anything harder than a cucumber. And of course, the tsuka would be mis-aligned with the actual blade.

    Swords were sometimes cut down for the reasons you already mentioned, but also because they sometimes just broke, and had to be remodeled into a short sword with a longer tsuka. Waste not want not. Good steel is expensive. Half of a daito is still the length of a wakizashi or slightly longer.

    It is of course possible to make straight swords, chinese style or western style for example, but not ninja-to style, and not using Japanese methods. Some katana were straighter than others of course. The curvature can be controlled to some degree. But it will be there, and noticable.
    I am not knowledgeable enough to comment a lot on Anthony's historical claims, but if he has said that one could grind the curve out of a katana, then he is completely and utterly bonkers.
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  14. lfos847's Avatar
    Just a note, on the show Pickers an appraiser explained that many swords carried in WW2 were cut down because of military regulations. They were cut at the handle end which many times destroyed the makers name.

    Mekugi do you have any access to military regs?
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  15. Mekugi's Avatar
    Yeah I am sure I could find something on that. Give me some time.
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  16. Mekugi's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by lfos847
    Just a note, on the show Pickers an appraiser explained that many swords carried in WW2 were cut down because of military regulations. They were cut at the handle end which many times destroyed the makers name.

    Mekugi do you have any access to military regs?
    48 – 69cm blade length

    2.4-3.9cm blade width

    96 – 119cm sheath

    22– 26cm handle

    37-60oz blade with sheath

    30-39oz blade without sheath

    How's that?
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  17. Bruno@BS's Avatar
    Cool. Quite the opposite of the 'night of the long knives'
    It's a shame that blades had to be damaged. You'd think that that would go against the importance and respect that they attach to their swords.
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  18. Don Roley's Avatar
    The question remains where Hayes got the idea that the ninja used straight swords. On page 22 of his 1988 book Ninja Vol 5; Lore of the Shinobi Warrior, Hayes says that the ninja sword was a "stereotype" and that people thought the ninja used them because of the ninja's close associations with Fudo Myo-o who wields a straight, double edged blade.
    However, if it was a stereotype we would expect to be able to find references to the stereotype and/or images of ninja using straight blades in Japanese sources prior to Hayes. So far, we have been unable to find anything of the sort. There is nothing about the ninja using straight blades prior to Hayes that we can find.
    For years, people have been searching. One source that people keep bringing up are pictures where the sword looks a little straight. In every case, it has turned out to be a curved blade. You can take the most curved blade on the planet and turn it 90 degrees so that you stare down the edge and it will appear straight. A slight turn in angle in a partially obscured picture situation can cause a lot of confusion. As an example of this, for years people looked at the 1973 book by Andrew Adams that introduced ninjutsu to many of us and a picture of a sword in the Iga- Ueno museum and said it was straight. People who have been to the museum, myself included, noted that the only straight sword there was the modern version I previously mentioned. Since I first posted this blog, a user who posts on youtube as scottbaioisdead and has a Facebook account called Korisuya ningu, has published photos of the Iga- Ueno museum sword in the a Japanese book and it is definitely curved when viewed from another angle.
    In every picture that Hatsumi has ever published of the ninja sword, it has been curved. Again, in some cases from some angles while being used it may appear straight. But on examination, the blades have all been curved. People such as myself and others who are curious about the matter have asked Hatsumi and other Japanese. The response has been that there has been no use at any time of a straight sword by Hatsumi as a ninja weapon. The sword for the Togakure ryu that Hatsumi has commissioned for use and that he details in books and articles is clearly curved. Hayes could not have gotten the idea that the ninja used straight swords from Hatsumi because Hatsumi has never said they did. This is confirmable to anyone who wishes to speak to him or his senior Japanese students.
    In some cases, people have actually tried to use crude cartoon images of ninjas with what appear to be straight swords as some sort of proof that either the ninja used straight swords, or at least the Japanese thought they did. Basing things off of cartoons is not really recommended academic practice. In these cases, it has turned out that the illustrator just was not clear enough on making the sword look curved, causing the confusion. As a matter of fact, in his book "E de Miru. Jidai Koushou Hyakka" Yumio Nawa has a few illustrations of swords that clearly are meant to be curved, but look straight in some cases. My favorite is the picture on page 86 of a person running turning and cutting someone chasing him with what might appear to be a straight blade, but the scabbard on his belt is clearly curved. Obviously, illustrations are not to be trusted on their own.
    What we can't find is any mention of the ninja using straight blades in a Japanese text prior to 1980. If it was a stereotype, someone should have said something about it. You would either find someone saying they did, arguing that maybe they did or historians correcting a popular but incorrect stereotype. But we can find no reference in any Japanese sources so far. References should be common for a stereotype, instead they can't be found.
    As an example of what I am talking about, you can find references to Western knights wearing plate armor. That is a fact and you can find it in too many sources to mention. You can find debates about whether one of the medieval popes was in fact a female. You can also find comments by people saying that the armor the knights wore was so heavy they could not stand if nocked from a horse and articles showing how this is a common, but incorrect, stereotype. You can find all three of these examples about medieval history, but we can't find anything in any Japanese source in any of the three categories about the ninja using a straight blade. It is as non- existent as references to medieval knights using assault rifles. It just does not register at all in any Japanese source. And as I said, stereotypes are commonly held because people talk about them.
    In the Yumio Nawa book I mentioned, Nawa does talk about the ninja sword on pages 217 and 218. He talks about how the ninja sword was shorter and things like that, but never says they were straight. He does deal with the idea that the ninja wore full sized blades on their back and drew them quickly from there which is a common stereotype that is incorrect. To dispel the myth, he points out that without undoing the cords or otherwise fooling with the scabbard a full sized blade can't be drawn over the back. This stereotype is a common one in Japanese cinema and you can often see ninja drawing swords off of their back, but usually the camera changes angle at some point to give the actors a chance to get the sword out by some other means. Nawa says that the ninja sword was shorter, but does not mention they were straight. He says that the idea of the ninja drawing them off the back is wrong, but does not try to correct any idea about them using straight blades. You would expect there to be some mention, but instead researchers are met with only this sort of silence.
    Scotbaioisdead has been quiet helpful is posting various photos of illustrations from as far back as the 17th century of ninja clearly using curved blades. If there was a stereotype of the ninja using straight swords prior to Hayes, why are so many ninja using curved blades and none using clearly straight ones? Why is there no mention in any text of them using straight blades?
    So it seems clear that the Japanese did not think that ninja used straight swords prior to Hayes. Hatsumi did not use them in Bujinkan training in Japan so Hayes could not have gotten the impression from his training. And I have it on good authority that he did not get basic sword training in Japan. The question remains, where did Hayes get the idea that the ninja used straight swords? We are not the ones who can answer that question.
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  19. orovalleydude's Avatar
    Don, et al: Thanks for this excellent post, and for the dialogue. One thing that has always bothered me is that Mr. Hayes, for all his positive influence either does not want people to find out certain things, or does not have the integrity to correct himself when he is "found out." Pardon the pejorative term.

    For example, one his students states on his website:
    As far as I am concerned, An-shu, you were the first. You were the first American to get the inside view of ninjutsu. You were the first American to train with Hatsumi Sensei. You were the first American to get close to Hatsumi Sensei; and you were the first American to bring ninjutsu to the United States.
    First American to get the "inside view of ninjutsu"? How do you verify that?
    First American to "train with Hatsumi Sensei?" Wrong. If I recall it was John Lindsay (sp?) who noted that it was Terry Dobson who was the first American to train with Hatsumi Sensei. BTW, I called Ellis Amdur on the phone and confirmed the truth of this, as Mr. Amdur accompanied Mr. Dobson on some of these visits. Mr. Dobson has passed away. Mr. Hayes, whom I used to respect, has never to my knowledge given credit to those non-Japanese who preceded him in training with Dr. Hatsumi: Messrs Navon and Waxman to name only two.

    If I may, on a personal note, I am tired of Mr. Hayes protesting against the assertions and propositions in the discussion, speaking like someone who wants to take the high ground, garnering praise and accolades, here are a few from Mr. Hayes own blog:
    "It is great to see the use of the phurba dagger to pierce the haze created by rumors to reveal the truth,"
    "Im happy to see the social impurities being pounded from the steel historical authenticity. Thank you for keeping the sword of truth burning bright!"
    While at the same time, he does not have what as a Marine I would call the simple honor to admit that he is no longer a member in good standing of the organization led by the man upon whose shoulders he stands. I am not perfect, in fact sometimes those who know me find me to be an arrogant, hyper-sensitive, self-absorbed son-of-an-unmarried-mother; but I don't admire anyone who plays so loosely with honor. And, for what it is worth I love it when my students tell me that I am full of stercoraceous material, which they have done on several occasions, to my great benefit.

    Thank you Don...

    Oro Valley Dude.
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  20. Don Roley's Avatar
    Yes that does complicate things. But now we have a whole lot of people who claim to have been trained in previously secret ninjutsu traditions and because of Hayes, they use straight blades and say that was what they were trained in. Since their story depends on the ninja using straight swords, they are not going to admit that it was false.
    Tony, the guy who does the youtube videos, seems to have some sort of partnership with a woman who claims to be a member of such a previously secret style. Her art is called Tomo ryu, there is no reference to it in any Japanese source and she can't seem to show proof she even had a real teacher in it. But she claims that her style uses a straight blade. So Tony seems to be trying to cover for her and her story.
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