67. More on Kamae

My previous blog touched upon the kamae; the “stance” or “posture” in budo.  Some readers joined in the discussion, especially Chuck Clark and “Kit” LeBlanc, from their own perspectives, adding more fuel to the fire and encouraging me to write more.

To be honest, I’m still struggling to understand the whole concept myself, so what I write is a combination of conjecture, half-formed opinions and thoughts that I myself have barely digested. It’s more food for thought, as it were. So this entry is a mish mash. I’m not entirely happy with it as a composition. I’m just laying out ideas as they come to me. But I hope this will be more food for thought.


One of the interesting observations raised was that in some koryu, the term kurai is used instead of kamae for body postures. I never gave it much thought, but the concept does lead to some conjecture about the whole notion of what “stance” means in classical martial systems. Kurai is a single character that usually means “level,” as in first rank, second rank, and so on, developed from a descriptor for imperial court ranks. It can, however, mean a position in space, not just rank, as rank was partly defined by your position in the court; the closer you were to the emperor and the inner chambers, the higher ranked you were.

It may also be of some significance in that kamae, translated into English often as “stance,” tends to have a harsher, stiffer feel to it. On the other hand, kurai can be described as “posture,” which tends to have a more relaxed feeling to it. These are not necessarily hard and fast definitions in Japanese, mind you, but something to consider. Kurai is also used in some koryu to categorize a set of kata, or individual kata.

I recall taking karate classes as a young man and when the instructor barked, “Kamae-te!” We had to jump into a “fighting stance,” better known in koryu systems as a kind of hanmi. We had to “take” a stance. –A position somewhat apart from and separate from our usual postures. In contrast, what many old and weathered teachers advise is that you look at your whole life and how you stand, walk, sit and move about as all active, martial postures, so really, there is no need to “take” a stance. You are already in “stances,” if your regular, everyday posture is proper and your body is in spinal alignment. That doesn’t mean you are stiff and “ready to fight” every moment of your life. It means your body is in proper alignment and you are aware of your surroundings (zanshin).

There is a story (told several ways) about Sen No Rikyu, the founder of the wabi (meditative) style of tea ceremony. He once invited his patron, the regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who subsequently invited several of his warriors, to a tea gathering, or chakai. One of the warriors was Kato Kiyomasa, famed for his spearwork. Kiyomasa protested, saying he was just a crude samurai who knew nothing of the refinement of something like chanoyu.

“A samurai only needs to know how to fight on the battlefield. He doesn’t need such pastimes like tea!” he protested.

Hideyoshi replied, “Well, just observe Rikyu’s presence, and think of it as a martial art.”

Kiyomasa thought to himself, “Well, then, if I see an opening in his posture I will consider hitting him!”

The great warriors gathered in one of Rikyu’s little tea huts and sat quietly as the tea service was performed in front of them. Kiyomasa stared intently at Rikyu, searching for a break in the tea master’s posture. Just before Rikyu was about to whisk tea, he paused, as if forgetting what he was doing.

Kiyomasa thought, “I could strike him now!” But just as quickly as it appeared, the momentary lapse vanished, and Rikyu continued with his temae. Kiyomasa thought, “I missed the moment! He beat me with his presence!”

After the formal tea ceremony, Rikyu asked if everyone enjoyed their tea. Hideyoshi then said, “I noticed you hesitated just before you made the first bowl…?”

Rikyu sighed. “Yes. I had a break in my concentration. For some reason, I just had a feeling that someone was watching me with sakki (malicious intent), but that must have been a silly notion because we are all friends. No one here would think of striking me. So I continued on. But I must practice more in order to be free of such stray thoughts.”

Kiyomasa was flabbergasted. The only break in Rikyu’s posture and movements occurred when he sensed Kiyomasa’s thoughts. He confessed to the game he was playing in his mind, and Rikyu, Hideyoshi and the rest of the guests laughed. And Kiyomasa never gave short shrift to chanoyu ever again. So even as mundane a chore as making a bowl of tea can have “kamae,” if it is in done in proper posture and concentration.


This brings up a related pet theory of mine (more clearly and earlier raised by other, more skilled teachers, I would hasten to add): that people who did martial arts “back in the day,” over a hundred years ago, had slightly different body morphologies than us moderns (whether Japanese or not), and they moved in a different way. Their lives were defined as “tatami mat” culture. They sat on the floor. The ground was close up. Using the toilet meant you squatted. They had more limber, stronger legs in general compared to us. Many of the original students of the bugei were hereditary warriors, expected by their heritage to wield a sword, even if only symbolically when in peacetime. They ate, slept, drank and defecated with a sword nearby, as if it was an extension of their bodies. Many bugei schools accepted merchants and farmers, but these folk also were accustomed to physical labor, to using their bodies to swing a hoe, to fell a tree, to chop firewood. They had, in general, a better innate sense of their body and martial weaponry than many of us do.

Taking a “stance” to them may not have been as esoteric or difficult an experience compared to what I see in some students, who have not done much physical work in their lives previous to budo training. Rather than “stance,” “assuming particular postures” may have been a simple everyday aspect of their lives. Chopping firewood with an axe? Put one foot forward, hold the axe in two hands, swing and chop. Don’t cut off your own leg. Now, here’s the sword. Cut kirioroshi with a sword. Save for some finer points, the mechanics are nearly the same. Put one foot forward, cut down straight, don’t cut yourself at the end of the swing. The knees are flexed, the hips sunk to give a strong base for the swing. People used to hard physical labor, to holding and wielding a sword from childhood, would naturally have an easier time assuming a natural and proper posture compared to us moderns.

Some students, however, take months, if not years, trying to get the rudiments of a posture right. And I’m not talking about refining the minor details of angle of degree holding the sword, or other stylistic characteristics. I’m taking about not being able to have proper spinal alignment, not being able to relax the shoulders properly, not having knees aligned with one’s feet, causing undue stress on the joint, and so on. They have to overcome decades of prior bad posture and bad movements, ingrained into their bodies. They have to develop muscles that are nearly nonexistent because of a sedentary life style and bad body alignment, bad habits. They have to develop a sense of whole body awareness not available to them from playing video games with their thumbs and fingers into the wee hours of the night. They have to learn how to hit something with a tool and not have the tool bounce back into your own face.

So what might have been once a simple matter of assuming a particular posture in the past has perhaps become a real steep learning curve for some modern students. “Stances” thus become strange and weird positions because their bodies aren’t used to physical work and addressing a particular movement out of the most efficient postures. We may think kamae is a hard subject to talk about because it IS a hard subject for many of us who aren’t used to physical movements with our bodies.

 Part of a whole

Kamae/kurai is also part of a whole, interconnected fabric. Without proper distancing and timing, one’s own position, no matter how good it is by itself, will still be ineffective. So assuming a kamae is related to distancing and the timing and rhythm of the situation, much like time and space are interrelated in modern physics. You can’t talk about one without considering the other.

For example, in one of the systems I study, the standing unarmed kata start from a distance of at least six feet or more. The protagonists are both in a “natural” position: feet about shoulder width apart, hands hanging lightly along the sides, body relaxed, knees slightly flexed. This is a starting position, and it attempts to train the student to assume a “natural” stance, but also to become sensitized to distance. Six feet or more requires a normal person to take at least two regular steps towards you in order to hit you or grab you. By that time, you would be able to react to the attack. If the aggressor is too close, you’re too much in danger and should move. The distance and position are closely tied together.

In this “natural” standing posture, there is no sense of aggression or fear. Y ou’re just there. You’re just standing, in good posture, in good balance. The attacker can’t get a sense of what you know or how you feel. You’re a mystery, a cipher. He can’t get a bead on what you are thinking or what you will do. It’s only when you start moving that your intent becomes visibly expressed.

In the most basic interpretation of an entry-level kata, the aggressor is allowed to grab a wrist, sleeve or lapel, and then you go through the prearranged movements step by step. In more advanced work, if one observes a higher-ranking exponent of the style, just before the aggressor makes contact, the defender moves to a different position in reaction to the upcoming grab. By the time the grab is made, the defender is already well into his movement to take advantage of the attacker’s momentum seamlessly, and then taking charge of the distance and “flow” of the encounter.

Thus, within one kata, there are different “levels,” or kurai. The higher level flows more realistically, relying upon a developed sense of positioning and timing. They only work by working together.

During the active portion of a kata, there is a lot of right and left hanmi positions, akin to the karate “kumite no kamae.” The turning, stepping and rotating of the body while connected in some way to the opponent must be done while still in balance, so the kamae is important, but so is the distancing and disbalancing of the opponent. Competitive grappling arts, such as judo or modern competitive combatives are highly effective in developing this sense of balance and shifting postures because they deal with a non-compliant partner. If you don’t do it right, your partner will simply counter your attempts and throw you down. The weakness of kata training is that some people may “fudge” their technique and posture and think that they are doing okay because their too-easily-thrown partner will “take” the throw and fall for you.

That is why I often encourage younger students with time on their hands to cross train in other arts, such as modern competitive budo arts. There’s a lot to be learned from other systems, as long as you know the limitations of all of them, including your own “main” art.  I say this partly because I’ve had a pretty mixed bag of training in my own life, from judo to karatedo and other arts all the way to koryu training. When done right, competitive training has its place in a comprehensive training regime, if you have the time and energy to do it all.

Flowing from one kamae to another is very much dependant on the nature of the situation; the distance and timing, the rhythm and the technique you are trying to do. It is fluid. A stance is momentary, in between movement, as someone commented, rather like a “snapshot” of a particular moment, not meant to be set in stone. But again, this is not meant to mean that the posture is unbalanced. It should maintain composure and balance. I found that by doing arts such as tai chi chuan or pakua, where every posture is linked to another in a seamless flow, this concept of “flowing” really made much more sense. If you “play” judo or other kind of grappling with someone who is very, very skilled and who wants to focus on technique, not strength, you may also feel the same thing. The skilled technician will try to “flow” his techniques from one to another, trying to focus on transitions in reaction to your counters. Rather than focusing on “beating” the other guy, two master technicians will try to move as efficiently and quickly as possible, exacting the best technique they can with the best form. It’s an exhilarating practice but possible only with skilled performers who leave their ego at the dojo door.

Presence: street punk vs. “warrior mentality”

Put most basically, one’s body position reflects one’s mental attitude. It’s like body language. You are expressing yourself via your body. The opponent will “read” you and you can affect his reaction by your posture. The thing with body language, though, its that it’s really hard to fake it. Two people can take the same general posture, but if one person doesn’t have as much self-confidence, it will show through via very subtle differences in the posture, most of which you have no control over, especially in a real combative situation. That’s why having a specific frame of mind, and training for it over and over, is stressed in koryu training.

This calls for a regression to talk about what that attitude is. The concept of a “warrior” mentality differs from culture to culture, and is interpreted differently in a culture’s subcultures. The bushi, the hereditary Japanese warrior class, assumed a kind of stoicism that finds closest parallels in the Greek and Roman stoic philosophers, such as that of the warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius, and find resonance in later military traditions such as the British, with their “stiff upper lip” and understatement. It was not a culture where you kept your emotions on your sleeve, ready to burst forth uncontrollably at the drop of a hat. That’s not to say that you are unfeeling and unemotional. That’s to say that in classic warrior ethos, you had to be in control of yourself on the battlefield and not lose your head.

That is not to say that bombastic, hyperventilating, excessive posturing and posing are absent from Japanese and Western military cultures. Hitler and Mussolini were prime examples of heating up rhetoric (and military culture) to excessive emotional frenzies.

Other cultures also have different ways of approaching organized violence. The Maori of New Zealand used to stick their tongues (and expose their buttocks) in disdain out at the British redcoated soliders before battle.

In the classical samurai period, there were highly individualized combats on the battlefield. But such individual combats, however, quickly faded away as armies grew bigger, wars more chaotic, and arrows and musket balls made charging out by yourself to challenge a worthy foe a bit more hazardous to one’s health. In its place were commandments that emphasized a proper military chain of command, the need for group discipline and holding the line.

What does this mean for kamae and kurai? At least in terms of classical koryu bugei, having a posture wasn’t meant to be bombastic or “show-offy.” It isn’t meant to display a “punk-ass” brawler attitude. As one of my friends said, “You know, the problem with a lot of koryu is that it wasn’t meant to be something to show off at a demo. It’s kind of boring. There are no cartwheels in the air or jumping down into splits and backflips while throwing a sword up in the air.  Look at our kata. The guy comes at you with a sword and you don’t do a backflip and double jumping kick. You just hit him in the neck and kill him. It’s a lot more practical. It’s not going to be like a Las Vegas show.”

This attitude of deadly intent, without much regard to showing off or being a “gangsta” wannabe, is why the classical kamae are rather unassuming. They are meant to be practical, not showy or gaudy.

However, as one correspondent noted, in some classical ryu, there’s a sense of “looming” over the opponent. Within the confines of a classical kata, there has to be a sense of combat not just physically, but mentally. In this case, I’m not talking about the “monkey dance,” as Rory Miller describes in his excellent book Meditations on Violence. The classical koryu weren’t interested in street fights, fist fights in the cafeterias or bars, or anything that Miller called a “monkey dance;” aggressive domination posturing, or beat-downs to assuage one’s prickly masculinity. The koryu were interested in surviving combat between trained warriors, not so much in salving one’s macho ego.

Having a mental attitude that best expresses your kamae may differ from ryu to ryu. Of the very few ryu that I have been exposed to long enough to understand their respective attitudes, I can only say that they are all different, some in subtle ways, and others in enormously huge ways. The attitude is expressed through the kamae of each ryu. If you are attuned to them, you can pick them out, and quickly understand, “Oh, yeah. That guy is really doing X-ryu. You can sense it in their kamae and timing. But that other guy may go through the motions but he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t know what the kata is really about, and he doesn’t understand the feeling of the ryu.”

One teacher said, of his ryu, “…It’s an elegant style. This was for the upper class samurai, after all, only the top-ranked warriors. But it also taught them that within the elegance, if you are in combat, you do it like a stone-cold killer. If someone comes at you to strike you, you kill him. Period.” And that attitude really showed in his kata. It was elegant, beautiful, and deadly. Like it was saying, “Alright, come and get it. I may die but I’m going to take you down with me.” That kind of mental attitude and physical manifestation is scary.

Another style I study was passed on through a daimyo clan, and it was extremely large, with wide, sweeping cutting arcs. One of my teachers said, “You have to have the feeling that you are a lord of a huge domain. If someone attacks you, you don’t go to them. They have to come to you if they want to attack you. You are a lord and you are going to be there, thinking, ‘You want some of this? Well come on and get it if you dare.’” You have to express that attitude in your kata in order to make the kata come “alive.” That attitude, again, was meant to shock and awe an opponent before swords were even crossed.

I’ve seen other systems that had very, very different mental attitudes, obvious from their movements and kamae. One school definitely developed for ashigaru (lower-ranked foot soldiers) eschewed upper class attitudes and relied upon attacking the opponent, rushing in and not giving the other side a chance to recover, screaming bloody murder to frighten anyone around you. Different strokes for different folks.

I know, I’m having a hard time explaining this difference. Having a strong, aggressive attitude is not the same as having a pugnacious, punk-ass attitude. Having, as they say, fudoshin (indomitable spirit), is not the same as having an abusive, bullying attitude. The former is having a spirit to enable you to survive bad situations. The latter is being a sicko who seeks out and instigates such situations. Let’s use this analogy: Both criminals and police officers can have guns and are capable of violence. Criminals use guns to commit crime. Law enforcement officers use guns to stop criminals from committing crimes. Big difference.

Friends often send me links to videos on YouTube. As anyone who has watched anything on that web site knows, alongside the video being presented are also links to other videos that may be related. So I end up clicking on a lot of them. One link led me from a classical jujutsu video to one that seemed to demonstrate a kind of mish-mash modern grappling system, blending traditional-seeming methods and dress (in hakama) with more modern grappling-inspired methods.

The teacher at a seminar was showing an aikido-like wrist throw. He slowly walked through the entering and initial disbalancing, and then suddenly gave his partner an unexpected, quick wrench, nearly dislocating uke’s elbow and shoulder as he threw the hapless volunteer to the ground. As soon as uke hit the mat, the teacher turned his back on him, as if disdainfully, and walked off. In another demonstration on the same video, the teacher performed a similar jarring, dangerous wrist throw, and this time he stood over the uke, sticking his chin out, then walking backwards, as if having just beat down someone in a fist fight.

To me, as a classical stylist, that was just plain bizarre. It smacked of Miller’s “monkey dance” attitude.  That wasn’t being a “warrior,” that was being a street punk striking an attitude, an affected pose. There was no zanshin. There was no watchfulness. There was a lot of unconscious and conscious posing and “attitude,” in the negative sense of the term. That’s not what I mean by having a strong spirit.


Tied in with these attitudes about posturing is a concept in some koryu called damasare, or in English, a feint, subversion, or trickery.  As noted, kamae or kurai will be a physical manifestation of the ryu’s attitude. On a purely technical/physical level, it is also a way to maintain proper balance within a proper space and timing.

A particular kamae can also deliberately draw in an attacker. It can be a trick, a fake-out, a bait. Professional samurai were very attuned to seeking weaknesses in an opponent’s armour and stances. In popular culture, that’s why in Japanese samurai movies, you may see dueling samurai staring down each other for a very, very long time before they clash swords. They’re both looking for a suki, an opening. And if both are nearly equally matched, finding an opening will be very hard.

In many ryu, a warrior will take advantage of this by tricking the opponent. You deliberately make yourself appear to be just ever so slightly off balance, or just a tad too high with your hands, or your head slightly tipped forward. The trick is not to make it look too deliberate; it should look like a real error on your part, not a glaringly bad posture that obviously looks faked. Thus, one’s posture becomes a bait to lure the opponent into a fatal mistake.

This concept can be hard for some students to understand if they are having a hard time actually assuming a “proper” posture. If they don’t know how to align their bodies, timing and distance to be in proper kamae, they won’t be able to assume an “improper” posture properly. It’s a paradox, but there you have it. Having proper kamae is the only way you can learn how to assume a proper improper kamae.

Damasare, faking out one’s opponent, also means you should have a pretty good notion of how the enemy is thinking so that you CAN fake him out.

So in concluding this entry, kamae is not all that hard to assume, yet it IS hard to assume properly because it entails proper body posture and should also express the style’s attitude. It’s not just a physical position. It’s a mental attitude. It’s connected to distancing, rhythm and timing. It can be used as a feint, or to overpower someone mentally and physically, but not as a kind of “tough guy” chin-jutting out modern “monkey dance” fashion.

9 thoughts on “67. More on Kamae

  1. Nice discussion – I like your warrior mentality note, it is the diametric opposite of the gangsta/thug/”bandit” idea and something I believe is latent within bujutsu practice, if at times asleep within its practitioners.

    Glad to see you promoting cross training in modern competitive budo arts. There can be a bit too much of taking refuge in an artificial idea of “deadly warrior arts” and decrying sport, when elements of the latter can in fact be vitalizing for the former. You can go too far with combat sport, some things don’t apply, but the people without it simply don’t move and don’t have the same ‘feel’ as those who have it.

  2. Some thoughts one kamae and kurai…

    In Shinkage-ryū, kamae is thought of as “outer” and kurai is thought of as “inner”. A core philosophy of our ryū is “mukei no kurai” — mukei meaning formless, and it’s often said that there are no kamae in our ryū. But watch a YSR embu, and you’ll see all sorts of kamae. So what gives?

    The “mukei” stance, or posture, is essentially what people think of as “gedan”. The practitioner stands straight and erect, holding the sword in front of him. This is the stance they used for the statute of Kamiizumi Hidetsuna erected in Maebashi, Gunma a few years ago:

    The “inner” form of mukei is that the practitioner is standing free and natural, with no preconceptions, no unneeded tension, no muri, no muda.

    Then there’s “raitō”. Raitō is what everyone else pretty much calls “jodan”. Sword held directly above the head. The inner form of raitō is that of “lightning sword” – you never know when and where it’s going to strike.

    Now, obviously, one cannot be in both the raitō kamae and the mukei kamae at the same time. But kurai, those can be layered on top of each other as much as you like. So you can be in mukei, but with the raitō kurai — read to strike anywhere, at anytime. You can be in raitō and still have the mukei no kurai — totally free and natural, with no tension, no muri, no muda. And while I didn’t include chudan above, that’s part of it, too. One of the past masters makes reference to the Zen concept of 1,2,3,3,2,1, which you might have seen in tea, as well, Wayne.

    And it’s funny. You have someone stand in mukei, and they look just fine. Then they lift their sword up to raitō, and all that naturalness goes out the window. They’re tense, their spiritual and physical center of gravity, which had been low and stable, now rises up to chest level. Their intent goes right to their hands. I can see it clearly in the newer folks, and though I’m “better” than them, I daresay my seniors can see it in me. (In other words, I’m not *really* better, I’m just not so obvious about it. Which is a kind of better… /lionelhutz)

    So one sees that some of the more unusual “kamae” that we have in YSR are not really because each kamae has a particular purpose and meaning, but rather to train so that we have that 1,2,3,3,2,1 layers of kurai in any position, any posture. Formless, and ready to strike like thunder and lightning. Open, adjustable, adaptable, but with no suki, defense and offense as one. Where exactly the sword is held being beside the point.

    1. Josh, you get bonus points for the Lionel Hutz tie-in.

      And thanks for the evocative explanation. Personally, it’s taken me a few years to just get physically comfortable in jodan — never mind feeling any degree of freedom — sometimes injury creates a bit of a “breaking-in” period before one can let the body relax. And one of my teachers talks about the abuses of posture we put ourselves through in our daily lives, which are obstacles to kamae: sitting at the computer, driving the car, etc. It’s difficult to feel what’s correct if incorrect is the day-to-day norm. Jodan, I think, is a more difficult position to keep from rising than others.

      Wayne, what of the sense of kurai as it is used in design?


      1. Beth,
        I struggle with how to teach design to my community college students every time I step into the classroom. I try to pass on color theory, composition, design “rules”…but we primarily have to teach techniques in two years’ time and then kick them out the door to entry-level graphics work (grunt work) or encourage them to go on to a four-year university program. Here is where koryu and art are similar: you can teach guidelines for design, but they aren’t “rules,” just as a kamae exactly how a teacher takes it is not exactly right for you, if your morphology is different. It’s the concept behind the kamae (and the kimochi, or feeling) that is more important, and that forms the basis of the position. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about Rule of Thirds and assymetrical vs. symmetrical design, but most of my students don’t get it. They don’t see it. There’s no sense of construction or the “bones” of a piece of art. Those that do tend towards rigidity and ONLY try to follow strict guides. Most students, however, NEED a sense of composition because they have none, nada, nothing. It’s all a visual jungle for them. So I have to keep banging away at them in composition, composition. It’s sort of like my students who can’t stand up straight. Kamae, kamae, kamae. The form first. If they ever get beyond that, then I can talk about the “fit and feel”; or as Josh says, the “kurai,” but like a lot of my art students, it’s all just form first.

        I don’t know the answer. My own sense of design and composition came after years and years of working at art, studying it, and taking classes in design, and simply doing it over and over again. Looking at my own work, at really good works of art, and getting not just a sense of the rigid compositional rules, but also an innate “feel” for it. And I also have the outliers. Students who come into a class and have a “knack” for outstanding work. Why? Who knows. Maybe they always paid more attention to visual information all their lives. Sort of like “natural” athletes who have a knack for assuming good postures right away.

  3. Just spent the weekend in Dallas working on posture and movement within Tomiki sensei’s version of “the “inner form” of mukei is that the practitioner is standing free and natural, with no preconceptions, no unneeded tension, no muri, no muda” as Josh wrote above. Appropriate waza seem to “invent themselves” when needed… I’m really enjoying these blogs Wayne, and of course the comments that appear also.

    – Chuck

  4. Thanks all for the comments and discussions. I’m really not happy with my blog…I don’t think it touches on enough about kamae and kurai, but I think comments by all of you really add to the general discussion, from each of your own POVs. You say better what I was struggling to say.

    1. It’s a complicated subject, and words are not quite adequate to convey what can much more easily be seen. I’ll note as well for the other readers that an opportunity to see a number of classical ryuha with very different “attitudes” or “presences” is upcoming in just a few short weeks, at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Japanese Festival in St. Louis, Labor Day weekend. You’ve got to see them in person in order to really see them, and this is one of the few opportunities in North America to do so.


      1. Thanks for the plug, Beth. Yes, it’s complicated. To further add to the complication, a friend sent me a link to a (badly but at least it’s rendered into a kind of English) translation of an essay on Sagawa Yukiyoshi’s ideas on kamae. Sagawa was one of Takeda Sokaku’s top disciples, sort of an anthithesis to Ueshiba Morihei, in some ways. Interesting.



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