2008 Year in Review
After a disastrous year for sumo in 2007, I concluded that year-end report with the statement "it's all up from here". And while 2008 was an improvement over 2007, a good start to the year was overshadowed by the same problems that have plagued sumo the last few years. Anyone whose surname isn't Van Winkle should know what I'm talking about...namely, the Sumo Association's board of directors and particularly the commissioners' inability to manage their sport. In a year where we had an epic battle between the sport's two Yokozuna for a yusho, where we saw Kotooshu pick up his first career yusho, and where a new Ozeki was crowned, what do you think is foremost on the minds of the Japanese right now when someone brings up the topic of sumo?
Let's review a few examples of this mis-management in 2008 keeping in mind the huge scar that still remains after the Sumo Association completely botched their handling of the Tokitaizan death in 2007. In response to Tokitaizan's death, the Sumo Association hoped to right the ship in the PR department by establishing a committee of outsiders called the Sai-Hatsu Boushi I-in-kai. Literally translated, the name means Reoccurrence Prevention Committee. What they don't want to reoccur of course is another death of a rikishi by means of torture and abuse. This committee promptly went to work visiting morning keiko at each stable and handing out a questionnaire to all of the rikishi. Ooooh...a questionnaire! That'll learn 'em. When the committee was formed, we here at Sumotalk scoffed at it correctly labeling it as a PR gesture that was meaningless. In late January after the said committee had made its rounds, Juryo rikishi Toyozakura struck a young stablemate in the head with a soup ladle so hard the kid required 8 stitches to close the gash. Then in May, Magaki-oyakata beat one of his prodigies with a bamboo sword, another incident that shows how useless the committee is/was, especially after they had singled out the practice of using the sword for discipline and banned it. Furthermore, the news of the two incidents didn't surface until well after they occurred; a move employed by the Association to try and ease the blow of having the committee look so foolish after its inception. In reality, that committee is as effective as a Mary Kay consultant who needs a shave.
One thing I would like to know, however, is how did the committee morph from being a group trying to prevent another death into another anti-Asashoryu faction? The most prominent member of the committee is a cartoonist, Mitsuru Yaku, who has used his position on the committee to do absolutely nothing but criticize Asashoryu's every move. The news media caught on quickly, and now knows to go to Yaku anytime they need a quote to slander the Yokozuna further. Exactly how does Mitsuru Yaku's commenting on Asashoryu going back to Mongolia for a vacation have anything to do with preventing another death in sumo? 2008 started on a high note with one radio station actually resuming its broadcast of the daily Makuuchi bouts starting with the final 15 minutes that feature the two Yokozuna fighting. The radio station was attempting to capitalize on the attention Asashoryu brings to the dohyo, so major kudos to the Sumo Associaiton for not only creating a meaningless committee that was exposed early, but also allowing its most prominent member to try and tear down the very thing sumo needs most...a rikishi that demands publicity. Yaku's criticism even got out of hand in 2008 to the point where the Sumo Association actually defended Asashoryu. During the summer exhibitions, Asashoryu was battling Kakuryu in the practice ring where the Kak was going at it half-assed. The Yokozuna performed his duty by kicking Kakuryu's ass around the dohyo and emphasizing the lesson with a couple of tsuri-otoshi. Yaku protested that the keiko was too rough and could invite injury, but none of the oyakata could deny that Kakuryu deserved what he got. The sooner the Reoccurrence Prevention Committee goes away the better.
Another major blunder occurred in between the Nagoya basho and Aki basho when the Sumo Association administered its first ever drug test. The drug test itself is completely fine, and it's a move I actually supported, but you cannot conduct a drug test without stipulating the punishment for anyone caught using banned substances BEFORE you conduct the tests. What if a rikishi had tested positive for an anabolic steroid? How was the Association going to handle it? Hell if they knew. And what if two rikishi tested positive for marijuana? What was the punishment? The Sumo Associaiton hadn't thought that far ahead. The result was two brothers testing positive for marijuana, getting kicked out of sumo prematurely, and then hiring a lawyer to publicly expose all of the flaws with the testing. I guess justice was served, however, because one of the brothers belonged to the Kitanoumi-beya, and when the then commissioner stood by his guy...who was lying through his teeth...he had no choice but to resign his post when a credible organization retested Roho and Hakurozan's urine and confirmed the positive result. The marijuana debacle was the final straw, and the Ministry of Education (who oversees the Sumo Association) had no choice but to demand that outsiders be placed on the board, a request that was made over a year ago but ignored by the arrogant Kitanoumi Rijicho. Kitanoumi dug his own grave, but the biggest problem is he is still a director on the Association's board and is still influencing the sport. Does anyone think that Kitanoumi's right-hand man turned new commissioner in Musashigawa-oyakata is no longer going to defer to his former boss? As for Roho and Hakurozan, yes I think they smoked marijuana; and yes, I think they should have been kicked out of sumo. There is no doubt that one of the largest factors in the Association's decision to boot the brothers out was a result of their performances in the ring. The two mocked the sport with their shenanigans inside of the ring and contributed nothing to sumo. I mentioned repeatedly over the years how painful it must have been to scratch that monthly check and pay Roho, so when it came time to decide the two Russians' fate, it was an easy call.
A final area of mismanagement was Musashigawa-oyakata's first order of business as the new commissioner, namely to call all of the judges together the night before the Aki basho and order them to get strict on the tachi-ai. The same message was sent to the referees and the result was a disaster, mainly because the only problem that needed to be fixed was the tachi-ai henka. Clancy aptly pointed out that being the proud Japanese they are, the judges and referees actually had to make up false start calls to show that they were doing their jobs. The results have been disastrous, and things got so bad by week two of Aki that even the Japanese media was criticizing the inconsistency. Takanohana-oyakata actually let a questionable tachi-ai go that featured Asashoryu saying that "the two rikishi had synchronized their breathing, so I thought it was okay." Musashigawa Rijicho had no choice but to publicly reprimand the former Yokozuna, but he looked ridiculous in doing so. Not even the staunchest defenders of the Sumo Associaiton can find any merit to this latest call to "clean up" the tachi-ai.
I don't like to always sound so critical of the Sumo Association, but in answer to the question I posed in my first paragraph, the first thing that comes to mind when sumo is mentioned in Japan is scandal. I'll touch more on the danger sumo faces at the end of this report unless they make some changes, but for now, let's examine the best and worst of in 2008.
Basho of the Year
Sumo got off on the right foot in 2008 with the Hatsu basho. After ending the previous year with two lame basho where a dai-Yokozuna was banned for the wrong reasons, Asashoryu did not disappoint in his return. Ever since Hakuho was crowned Yokozuna, sumo fans have been waiting for both Yokozuna to go 14-0 only to meet on senshuraku for all the marbles. That feat wasn't realized in Hatsu 2008, but with both Yokozuna entering the final day at 13-1 and with neither rikishi owing the other any favors, you had Asashoryu who wanted to re-establish himself and make a statement after his two basho ban, and you had the younger, stronger Hakuho looking to make a stand. Regardless of what transpired the first 14 days, the two Yokozuna gave sumo fans more than they could have asked for in a bout that was labeled as one for the ages, and it was a bout that singly made the Hatsu basho better than the remaining five tournaments combined. Hakuho prevailed in the 45 second affair and established himself as the new number one in sumo. The basho doesn't need any more hype, but it should be noted that Toyonoshima had his break-out basho in Hatsu 2008. And speaking of Toyonoshima, I really see him playing the role that Akinoshima played in the 90's. Akinoshima never could make the Ozeki rank, but he's the record holder for career kin-boshi at 16, which means he always kept himself among the jo'i. I don't think Toyonoshima will reach that kin-boshi mark, but he should always remain among the jo'i and give the Ozeki and Yokozuna eternal fits.
Bout of the Year
If the Asashoryu - Hakuho bout that capped off the Hatsu basho was good enough to make Hatsu the basho of the year no exceptions, then of course it was also the bout of the year. Since I know of no one better than myself to call the bout, here's how I saw it a year ago:
Requiring no stall tactics or shenanigans at the tachi-ai from either party, Hakuho came with a quick right harite slap while looking to get his left arm on the inside as well that would have set up moro-zashi, but Asashoryu focused on grabbing the front of Hakuho's belt with the right hand from the start, so he slapped Hakuho's left to the outside leaving both Yokozuna in the migi-yotsu position. Knowing that Hakuho had the height and reach advantage, Asashoryu looked to avoid a straight-up yotsu contest by attempting a quick maki-kae with his left arm about three seconds into the bout an then again a few moments later, but Hakuho fought the move of both times keeping the bout at migi-yotsu and more importantly gaining a solid left outer grip in the process at about 10 seconds in. Hakuho gathered his strength a bit before mounting the first force-out charge of the bout, but as he began pushing Asashoryu back, the veteran Yokozuna was able to grab a left outer grip of his own and force the bout back towards the center of the ring and into the gappuri migi-yotsu position, a stance that favors the taller and longer Hakuho. Asashoryu wouldn't give in, however, and seemed to be mounting a charge of his own set up by a brief tsuri attempt, but Hakuho dug in exerting so much force that between the two rikishi they began to float sideways with neither budging a centimeter backwards. After about five seconds of this pure chikara sumo, the rikishi settled back into the center of the ring to regroup as the Kokugikan crowd roared. While leaning heavily on each other's chests, Hakuho looked to reposition his right inside grip on the front of Asashoryu's belt, but Asa pinched the move off forcing Hakuho to return to the original inside grip. Hakuho didn't wait long, however, and began another force-out charge that moved Asashoryu back about two steps, but as the two neared the tawara, Asa went for the only move he could leaning back a bit and lifting Hakuho clear off his feet, but it was only for a second or two as the younger Yokozuna is just too big of a load, and with Asashoryu having expended a great deal of energy on the move, Hakuho moved in for the kill pivoting firmly and executing a throw with the left outer grip. Asashoryu just couldn't survive the move and was thrown to the clay after 48 seconds of kick-ass o-zumo.
Rikishi of the Year
Even before Asashoryu was banned from sumo for two basho in the summer of 2007, you could see the changing of the guard coming. You had a younger, stronger rikishi who didn't necessarily have the same technique as Asashoryu, but he was better grounded to the dohyo and less reckless. He also wasn't intimidated. When this guy was a Juryo rikishi, he happened upon a keiko session with Asashoryu at an exhibition and promptly picked the Yokozuna up by the belt with both hands and sent him from the dohyo via tsuri-dashi as if it was nothing. I'm of course talking about Hakuho, the rikishi of the year in 2008. Hakuho's accomplishments included four of the six yusho and the most wins in the year by any rikishi. The funny thing is, however, that Hakuho needs Asashoryu active to be his best. At the basho where Asashoryu is healthy and well, Hakuho shines and is usually only beaten by a tachi-ai henka. At the basho where Asashoryu is injured, Hakuho lets down his guard and suffers a careless loss along the way. Still, Hakuho is the future of sumo for the next few years and has a far better chance of chasing down the big two (Taiho at 32 yusho and Chiyonofuji at 31) than Asashoryu does.
Runner up is Ama who started 2008 ranked as a Sekiwake, a position he would emphatically hold for the entire year. Overshadowed by his fellow countrymen at the Hatsu basho, he worked his way to a quiet 9-6 record that included a win over Hakuho. He would defeat Hakuho two more times in 2008 as he changed from a good Sekiwake who could manage nine wins, to a legitimate Ozeki threat who wouldn't accept anything other than double-digit wins. Ama developed a signature tachi-ai during the year that saw him go for the immediate push at his opponent's throat that set up the quick force out win from there. Ama became a feared rikishi in 2008 and enhanced his superior technique with the hardest work ethic in sumo. Considering his size, Ama's rise to the Ozeki ranks at the end of 2008 was the biggest story of the year next to the ai-boshi-kessen between Asashoryu and Hakuho previously mentioned at the end of the Hatsu basho.
Newcomer of the Year
In January you had Ichihara who coincidentally just changed his fighting name to Kiyoseumi, which can be roughly translated as "not quite as fat as Yamamotoyama", but an injury sent him back to Juryo where he still resides. The lone rookie in Haru, Sakaizawa, suffered the same fate although he only lasted a few days before a serious knee injury sent him back to the Juryo ranks, and area where he now struggles to win eight. The Natsu basho gave us Tochinoshin, Kotokasuga, and Hakuba, and while Tochinoshin looked great his first three days, he was aptly glossed by Clancy at the end of the year as TochiNoShine. I had completely forgotten about the other two until I looked them up. Nagoya produced four newcomers in Kimurayama, Koryu, Chiyohakuho, and Masatsukasa, and while the latter two should be able to hang around in the lower half of the division, the former two are flat out duds. The Aki basho gave us Kitataiki and Tamawashi, and while I thought Kitataiki looked great in the Juryo ranks in Nagoya, he suffered a severe left knee injury that has left him short of his potential. Kyushu brought us the year's final two rookies in Bushuyama and Aran. Bushuyama is one of those guys who gets mentioned as one of the slowest of all time to reach the division, so he'll last about as long as a dude during his conjugal visit while Aran has the potential to rise high in the ranks albeit with unsavory sumo. It's not a bright list whatsoever, and if I had to rank all of the 2008 rookies, my top three would be:
The problem with that list is major knee injuries have stifled numbers 1 and 3, and Aran's sumo has the potential to be great, but he won't be able to shake that Eastern Euro penchant to pull. Since there isn't a clear-cut rikishi in the bunch, the newcomer in 2008 is the Takanohana-beya's latest Mongolian addition who should be ranked on the banzuke come Haru. Adiya Basandolj known as Takanoiwa...remember the name.
Anyone who has read Sumotalk for any length of time knows that I always repeat my takes basho after basho. The reason I do of course is because they're correct, and since we are adding new readers at a healthy pace, I repeat my takes for them. So here we go...another repeat. The most improved rikishi of 2008 was Ama. For reasons previously mentioned, Ama was the most improved rikishi of the year. You look at the Hatsu basho banzuke of 2008 and the Hatsu basho banzuke of 2009, and the rikishi who made the most significant jump was Ama. Yes, I know that Ama only climbed one whole notch, but obtaining the Ozeki rank is a stellar achievement, especially when you're not blessed with a good sumo body like Ama. Baruto, who enjoys the ultimate sumo body, made a healthy climb himself going from M6 to two consecutive basho ranked at Sekiwake, but he has had the potential all along. The runner up to Ama for 2008 goes to Toyonoshima, who firmly established himself as the next pain in the ass rikishi among the jo'i.
I realize that Kotooshu picked up his first career yusho in 2008, but he had to henka in two key bouts to get it, and Wakanoho's allegation that he was paid off to lose to Kotooshu in that basho makes more and more sense when you consider Kotooshu's record in the other five basho: 36-39. Yes, Kotooshu did withdraw from the Haru basho midway after a 2-7 start, but when an Ozeki withdraws due to a phantom injury, I'm counting those losses. But it's not just the Ozeki's record in the non-Natsu tournaments; his sumo has become awful. His tachi-ai are weak and tentative, and his footwork is so bad that when compared to mine on the dance floor, you'd think I was a shoe-in for Blackpool. Kotooshu was at least seven years younger than the other three Ozeki on the board in 2008, and he has the best sumo body by far; yet, he looked the worst of the quartet. Kotooshu's sumo has gotten so bad that even the Bulgarians have stopped emailing telling us not to be so harsh on their guy. Look at every Makuuchi rikishi on the Kyushu 2008 banzuke, and you can't find a single guy whose sumo digressed as much as Kotooshu's in 2008. Guys like Kokkai and Kotoshogiku were close, but considering his rank and ability, Kotooshu is the least improved rikishi in my book.
Sumo desperately needs Asashoryu, so to not have the Yokozuna healthy and ready to go for the majority of 2008 was by far the biggest disappointment in sumo. I know that Asashoryu has that chronically injured left elbow, but dude was 27 for most of the year, not 32. I just don't see the same determination, grit, and fire that Genghis has showed us his entire career, and I know I'm not the only one that has asked "what has changed?". Asa was treated so unfairly in 2007 and still has hardly any support from the oyakata in the Association, so could it be that he has finally been broken mentally...outside of the ring? That's probably part of it, but I also think that the recent doping laws that went into effect prior to Aki are playing a part as well. That's not to imply whatsoever that Asashoryu was doing anything illegal or that his career achievements deserve an asterisk next to them. Had the Yokozuna been taking an illegal substance, it would have been leaked to the media without question. Early on in 2008, Asashoryu revealed that he was receiving regular garlic injections (whatever the hell that is) but that they would be banned with the new doping laws adopted by the Association. My guess is that Asashoryu was also taking other supplements legal, over the counter, and acceptable before the new rules, but supplements that are now banned. If Asashoryu was taking something legally and available to every other rikishi, then the playing field was level, and there's no problem; thus no need for an investigation. But if rikishi know that certain substances will be banned in an upcoming drug test, they will stop taking them months in advance to make sure their bodies are clean when the tests are administrated. Considering Asashoryu's jun-yusho in Hatsu, yusho in Haru, and then obvious decline after that, you have to wonder if the new doping laws are taking their toll. I think it's a combination of the two things I mentioned: Asashoryu having lost his will to serve an Association that has disrespected him for years and the new doping laws that have forced him to change his training regime. Whatever the cause is, not having a healthy Asashoryu physically and mentally in 2008 was the year's biggest disappointment.
The biggest surprise in 2008 was the Marijuana scandal that eventually led to the ex-communication of three Russian rikishi and the resignation of his post by the sport's commissioner of eight years, Kitanoumi Rijicho. After all that sumo had gone through the previous 18 months, the marijuana scandal once again provided evidence that the Association's board of directors had no control over their sport. I had been calling for Kitanoumi's resignation since before you knew the facts surrounding Tokitaizan's homicide, so to see the former commissioner finally get taken down by a boneheaded rikishi from his own stable was classic. What's ironic too is that Kitanoumi didn't even recruit Hakurozan...he inherited him when the Hatachiyama stable folded a few years back. As I mentioned previously, Roho and Hakurozan got what they deserved. As I blogged a few months back, Wakanoho did not. The guilt lies squarely with the Association in failing to take care of a minor. Since the three Russians were kicked out of sumo, which of them have you felt sorry for? The one who deserved a second chance. It was gut-wrenching to read the headlines the months after the scandal and see a repentant Wakanoho claim this and deny that and accept money for this only to recant later on that. Roho and Hakurozan have been treating it like adults...consulting with lawyers and plotting their attack. Wakanoho handled his punishment like a confused kid weeping at press conferences, saying anything to please anyone, and begging to be let back into the only lifestyle he knew. Wakanoho's case was a tragedy.
The year's least biggest surprise was of course was the case of the two Japanese rikishi who initially tested positive for marijuana but who were later quietly exonerated with nary a fuss.
I get it that sumo is unique and more than just a sport in the eyes of many. By law in Japan, for example, only sumo rikishi are allowed to wear their hair in the chon-mage fashion; and sumo is the only profession that I know of where the participants are expected to be in formal kimono whenever they are seen in public regardless of the occasion. The Sumo Association understandably would like to hold onto their traditions forever, but like other industries unique to Japan, sumo is a dying breed unless some changes are put into place. Go back to the modern era of sumo, which began roughly 80 years ago, and examine another group of professionals unique to Japan in the geisha. Prior to World War II, the geisha industry flourished and was the staple of high-class Japanese entertainment. After the war, the industry enjoyed a brief comeback, but over time it has mostly died off due to the westernization of Japan today and inventions like the television and the karaoke box that give people other forms of entertainment. What do we know of geisha these days? Mainly that some damn ugly ones show up to watch sumo in Nagoya and Fukuoka a few days per basho. The geisha are a dying breed because the current Japanese society has no need for them anymore.
Take a different industry like ryokan, or Japanese inns, and you find the same thing. I love to stay at ryokan as much as the next person, but in order to lodge at one these days, you have to get as far away from civilization as possible to find one. The western version of ryokan--hotels--has largely destroyed the industry. And how about the pottery industry (toki)? You had families pass down the craft more than 10 generations as they created a substantial legacy, but where are such industries today? You can still find them, but you have to get as far away from civilization as possible again (just ask Mark). Sons born into families that specialize in manufacturing something no longer want to carry on the family business; women don't want to marry those sons; and these unique industries to Japanese culture are going by the way side. Even Toyonoshima's family business of manufacturing tofu will likely die when his father passes away. Oh, and where is Toyonoshima from? One of the least populated areas of Japan...Shikoku. New fans of sumo will find it as no surprise then to learn that the majority of all of the rikishi in sumo come from small towns in Japan.
Getting back to the topic at hand, sumo finds itself in the same boat as these other industries, and it has to make changes in order to survive. No, changes don't have to be made to the rules of the sport, or the uniforms worn by the combatants, referees, and judges; but changes do have to be made in the way that sumo is managed, or the Japanese will no longer patronize it just the same as the other industries, especially when they are getting their asses kicked by fellow Asians. Foreigners who have lived in Japan are easily infatuated with sumo, and if you're reading this, you're not only smart, but you know the reasons why. Some foreigners, however, have taken their infatuation to new levels. They move to Ryogoku; they stalk the rikishi at morning keiko like groupies; and they refuse to accept sumo as a sport opting to refer to it as something almost spiritual, a "way" that consumes their every waking minute when they should be out cruising for chicks. I sometimes refer to them as the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil fans. The Sumo Association under Kitanoumi Rijicho's reign adhered to this same belief...namely, that since they have existed for hundreds of years having changed little along the way, they are untouchable and will always be able to run their organization on their terms, doing the same things that they have done for decades. Well, the Sumo Association can have their "way" if they want it, but if they continue to treat sumo as something untouchable just because it's been around for hundreds of years, then they will suffer the same fate as other traditional Japanese industries. No, sumo will never become completely extinct just as you can still find ryokan, geisha, pottery makers, and the ma and pa manufacturers of traditional foods and textiles today, but the Japanese will continue to abandon their nation's past-time simply because it's no longer accessible within their lifestyle.
Sumo was a booming industry until the late 90's, so what happened at the end of the century that began to turn the tide? Was it the influx of foreign rikishi and their dominance? Nope. It was the internet and the ability for people to begin networking socially by electronic means. I grew up in the marvelous 80's, a time when there where only a few television channels available, when computers had a whopping 64K memory if you were lucky, and when playing video games meant that I went without lunch so I could walk to the bowling alley after school with my friends and spend my lunch money on such timeless classics as Asteroids and Donkey Kong. I'm sure it was largely the same with the Japanese as well. Now, however, the entertainment options are endless, and fewer and fewer Japanese are opting for sumo, especially when they read headlines in the media that talk of death, drugs, and scandal.
Sweeping changes to sumo do not need to be made. In fact, just one change will do the trick, and of course I've mentioned it before, but here it is again:
* Move the start time of the bouts back by two hours.
Which one of us foreigners hasn't started up a conversation with a Japanese person about sumo only to be told by them "that's a sport for old people." The reason it's a sport for old people is because it's only accessible during the day when kids are at school and when adults are at work. Name one other sporting event that schedules its regular season at a time on weekdays when no one can watch it. Unless you're in Fukuoka, which doesn't have the population to sustain a serious hon-basho these days, Sundays, Saturdays, and national holidays are guaranteed sell-outs for sumo. Why? Because people don't have to take off work or school to go see it. The Japanese are infatuated with sumo the same as us foreigners, but their culture doesn't allow them to skip out on their duties (work and school) in the name of entertainment.
Move sumo back two hours so the main Makuuchi bouts get going around 6:30 PM and not only do you move the broadcast into primetime for television purposes, but you provide the perfect venue for businessmen to go share a few pops with each other after work while enjoying a great sport. Those who have worked in Japan know how vital time after work is in building relationships with your co-workers aided by alcohol. Sumo is a can't-miss in providing that environment. One one end you're exposing your sport to the younger generation via television, and on the other spectrum, you are guaranteeing sell-outs everyday at the gates.
As for the broadcast on NHK, the station could still air it's customary 6 PM news program at it's regular time and pick up the bouts around 6:30 PM. No one gives a crap about the early bouts anyway. The Juryo bouts and the early Makuuchi bouts could be broadcast on NHK's education channel for the true die-hard fans. The logistics are not tough. I would of course like to see the Sumo Association implement a few other changes, but I've mentioned them here and blogged on them there at other times, so I'll conclude.
The Sumo Association obviously does not want to budge and change any of their current practices, but budge they must if they hope to ever regain their former glory. The Ministry of Education had no choice but step in last year and use their position as the Association's superiors to demand that three outsiders be placed on the board. I do not like to constantly criticize the Association, and I know the majority of you don't like to read it as well. But it's reality, and this is the only forum that I know of in any language where you will get the straight talk on what is actually occurring in sumo. So no, the fart jokes, the name calling, and general adolescent behavior will never go away, but rest assured we will continue as usual in 2009 to bring you the best sumo commentary on the planet. Enjoy the new year everybody.
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