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A Martial Arts Perspective on Using Uchinaaguchi in Okinawan Karate and Kobudo

by Samantha May, PhD


Okinawa is known as the birthplace of karate and kobudo (weapons). Most sources agree that karate, originally referred to as “China technique” (唐技) is a blend of Okinawan and Chinese martial arts forms, while kobudo utilizes common Okinawan farming implements in techniques native to Okinawa (Nishiyama and Brown, 1960; Rusak, 2009). Designated as intangible cultural assets by Okinawa Prefecture in 1997 (Okinawa Traditional Karate Liaison Bureau, 2015), karate and kobudo are now practised in over 150 countries (Okinawa Prefecture, 2014), and are perhaps the most recognizable Okinawan cultural arts in the world today. However, unlike sports, martial arts practise involves the direct study of culture in addition to the martial arts techniques themselves (Joseph, 2008; Dykhuizen, 2000). Language is one example of the Okinawan cultural forms transmitted through Okinawan martial arts (OMA) (May, 2012), and most karate and kobudo classes around the world today utilize a mix of Japanese and the local language of where they are taught (May, 2015). However, in the case of Okinawan martial arts, this fact is somewhat surprising because these arts were originally taught in Okinawan languages (Higaonna, personal communication, September 29, 2014; Yagi, personal communication, 2013-2014).

Miyako, Amami, Yonaguni, Yaeyama, Kunigami, and Uchinaaguchi are categorized as distinct Ryukyuan languages, each having multiple dialects (Anderson, 2009; Fija, Brenzinger & Heinrich, 2009). Uchinaaguchi, spoken on Okinawa’s main island, has the greatest number of speakers (Shimoji and Pellard, 2010). Despite official UNESCO recognition in 2009 (Mosely, 2010; Fija, Brenzinger & Heinrich, 2009), if no immediate efforts are made to revitalize Ryukyuan languages, they will become extinct within the next few generations (Dubinsky & Davies, 2013; Ishihara, 2014; Oyakawa, 2008).

Given the limited number of fluent Uchinaaguchi speakers (Anderson, 2009; Ishihara, 2014) and the enthusiastic world-wide interest in Okinawan martial arts, an exploration of the use of Uchinaaguchi in teaching Okinawan karate and kobudo is both timely and necessary for two main reasons:

     (1) To preserve the Uchinaaguchi language and Okinawan martial arts knowledge. Okinawan martial arts is a unique art form that includes a highly specialized Uchinaaguchi lexicon originally developed within an Okinawan social and cultural context. As this vocabulary represents not only a fully-nuanced description of the martial arts themselves, but is also connected to Okinawan lifeways, philosophies, geography and history, it must be gathered before it is lost.

     (2) To promote the reclamation and use of Uchinaaguchi within the Okinawan martial arts as part of an overall language maintenance strategy. Okinawan martial arts classes in Okinawa and abroad provide a highly appropriate and well-populated domain in which to use Uchinaaguchi.

International dojo may wish to use Uchinaaguchi in hopes of gaining deeper cultural and technical insight into their practise, and provide Okinawan teachers with eager learners of both martial arts and their native language.

Using Etienne Wenger’s (1998, 2006) social learning theory and communities of practice concept, this article takes an action research approach to consider Okinawan martial arts practice as a possible domain for Uchinaaguchi language reclamation. Uchinaaguchi matters- not only because of its deep personal significance for Okinawans, but also because of its value to those connected to Okinawa through their dedicated practice of Okinawan martial arts. For these reasons, this article seeks to promote Uchinaaguchi language reclamation within the Okinawan martial arts community in Okinawa and abroad. However, reintegrating Uchinaaguchi into Okinawan martial arts practice requires time and effort. The reader cannot blindly accept the argument that Uchinaaguchi should be used in Okinawan martial arts practice before hearing sufficient proof. Therefore, beyond a typical argumentative essay, this research article uses original primary data to support the following claims from a martial arts practitioner perspective:

1) that Uchinaaguchi contains specialized martial arts terminology that is important to the practice of Okinawan martial arts

2) that the Okinawan and international members of the martial arts community wish to learn Uchinaaguchi and want to use it in Okinawan martial arts practice

3) that using Uchinaaguchi is beneficial to Okinawan martial arts practice



The research used in this article was primarily generated from the doctoral thesis Uchinaaguchi Language Reclamation in the Martial Arts Community in Okinawa and Abroad (May, 2015), written from 2012-2015 at the University of the Ryukyus. Methods of data collection included interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Forty-two people participated in 57 structured or semi-structured group or individual interviews. Twenty-six of the interviewees were Okinawan, but there were also interviewees from the United Kingdom (7), Israel (1), the United States (2), New Zealand (1), Canada (2), and India (3) who were visiting or had visited Okinawa for martial arts training purposes. Most of the Okinawan informants were high-level martial arts practitioners, but five were fluent Uchinaaguchi-speaking non-martial artists. Most interviewees participated more than once, and in some cases, as many as six times. Two rounds of a mixed, longitudinal survey were collected in English and Japanese in paper and online formats. 146 foreign and 51 Japanese responses were collected for round one, and 42 foreign responses and 6 Japanese responses were collected for round two. Both the interviews and surveys collected interviewee background information, assessed support for using Uchinaaguchi in martial arts practice, and tested and/or documented specialized martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi vocabulary, sentences, and stories for use in the Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Handbook (May, in-progress). Participant observation was conducted primarily in Okinawa by the author from 2011-2015 as a student or observer in weekly karate and kobudo practices, performances, and martial arts community special events in Naha, Nishihara, Ozato, and Koza. A further six dojo site visits were conducted in the United Kingdom. Other Uchinaaguchi-related interactions observed with or between friends and others in Okinawa and abroad were recorded in oral or written field notes and also used in the analysis.



1) Uchinaaguchi contains specialized martial arts terminology that is important to the practice of Okinawan martial arts

As Uchinaaguchi is an endangered language, every effort should be made to use it whenever possible, as soon as possible. However, since Uchinaaguchi is not yet taught in schools, other domains or communities must be considered for the potential opportunities they offer to learn and use this language. There are several compelling reasons for teaching Okinawan martial arts in Uchinaaguchi, specific to the martial arts themselves. Since Uchinaaguchi is the language of the culture in which Okinawan martial arts were originally developed, and since language and culture are intertwined (Sapir, 1921), not only are the nuances of Uchinaaguchi most suited to describing Okinawan martial arts (Tamayose, personal communication) but also some terms that are specific to these arts exist only in this language.

For example, some technique names and descriptors, such as atifa (transfer of energy from a strike into a target in the form of a damaging shockwave), shishee (using the power generated by the body, breath, and mind working together to block or strike), muchi (whip-like softness), and muchimi (sticky or heavy hands) reference concepts that are both embedded in Okinawan culture and necessary to the correct practice of Okinawan martial arts. Linda Marchant, a karate instructor from the United Kingdom who used Uchinaaguchi in her practice commented:

         [U]sing stickiness you can talk about quite a few things in English, but you use the word muchimi and it just sums it up…people remember that rather than having to keep describing different things, so I think it’s a really useful, I guess condensed, version of descriptors. And things like for seniors to talk about chirichiri no chanchan, just getting an image of words, it’s like precising your understanding. It’s almost like a mneumonic. You’re trying to find your own springiness in your body. (personal communication, March 20, 2014)

As the above quote suggests, while it is true that Uchinaaguchi concepts may be explained in Japanese and the other languages of overseas practitioners, such explanations typically consist of longer phrases or multiple sentences, and are neither as concise nor as accurate as a single word in Uchinaaguchi. Furthermore, because the martial arts community is an international community of practice, with the vast majority living outside Japan with little or no Japanese ability, communication errors can frequently occur during cross-linguistic encounters and may frustrate instructors’ ability to transmit their knowledge to their students, thereby impeding students’ progress. On the other hand, if the entire community were to adopt Uchinaaguchi martial arts terms as part of their standard lexicon, it would likely lead to improvements in communication which would facilitate good practice. In , since it is Okinawan instructors, most of whom originally learned martial arts in Uchinaaguchi (Higaonna, personal comunication, 2014; Kinjo, personal communication, 2013-2014), who set the standards for the world, the choice to reintroduce the use of Uchinaaguchi terms in Okinawan martial arts practice becomes doubly appropriate.

As martial arts in general are often practised as a means of self improvement (Brown & Leledaki, 2010; Columbus & Rice, 1998), instructors of these art forms may stress the development of good character with the use of proverbs (Govreen, personal communication, 2013; Higaonna, personal communications, 2014). Uchinaaguchi proverbs, such as “ichariba, choodee” (once we meet, we are brothers and sisters) and “tuu nu iibee, intakiya aran” (the ten fingers each have a different length and width, but help each other) illuminate Okinawan ways of thinking about the world and reinforce the ideals practised in Okinawan martial arts, which are ultimately derived from those of larger Okinawan society. Uchinaaguchi, like Okinawan karate and kobudo, is an expression of Okinawan identity (Juster, 2011). It is certainly possible to access the meaning of these proverbs through another language, but when in Okinawa or in contact with Okinawans, as foreign martial artists often are, familiarity with these proverbs in Uchinaaguchi facilitates communication, reinforces existing understanding, and opens the door to further knowledge (Canadian martial arts instructor, personal communication, 2013). Far from being an empty platitude, the importance of “Ichariba, choodee”, is so concrete in Okinawan life that it, like other select proverbs, is very often quoted and is even inscribed on a stone monument in Yonabaru (Hokama, personal communication, February 13, 2013).

Similarly, the names of many karate and kobudo kata are derived from historical Okinawan people, and places which still exist today. The kata name “Hamafija nu tunfa” refers to a weapons kata developed on Hamahiga Island, which, according to legend, is the birthplace of Okinawan civilization. “Chatan Yara nu sai” refers to another weapons kata developed by an Okinawan named Yara from Chatan, who studied martial arts and language in China for many years. On his return to Okinawa, Yara is said to have used only an oar to defend an Okinawan woman from an armed samurai. After this incident he was recruited to teach martial arts to the local population. Although these kata names are already used by kobudo practitioners around the world, without their connection to Okinawa as a physical place, cultural context, and historical timeline, these names are words without meaning.


2) The Okinawan and international members of the martial arts community wish to learn Uchinaaguchi and want to use it in Okinawan martial arts practice

         [I]f [we] use Okinawan dialect in karate, Americans and Australians like On-san will remember all kinds of things…you know, [Uchinaaguchi] is gradually getting lost, it’s really too bad, so as much as possible I’m thinking of a way to use Okinawan expressions, from now I think it’s time to start going on it. (24:59- 25:50, Kinjo, February 7, 2013, as quoted in May, 2014, p. 34).

Kinjo Takashi Sensei’s statement expresses the high level of support from both Okinawan martial artists and other Uchinaaguchi speakers for learning and using Uchinaaguchi in martial arts practice (May, 2014; 2015). Like many Uchinaaguchi speakers, Kinjo Sensei is concerned about language loss and sees the utility of teaching Uchinaaguchi expressions to his foreign martial arts students. Another key informant, who was also an Okinawan martial arts instructor, independently conceived of a similar project, stemming from his wish to preserve Uchinaaguchi and his lifelong interest in Okinawan martial arts (Kakinohana, personal communication, February 3, 2013). Other pro-Uchinaaguchi Okinawan informants came from many walks of life, representing NPOs dedicated to the preservation of Uchinaaguchi (Tamashiro, personal communications, 2014), traditional Okinawan music backgrounds (Kyouko, personal communication, March 27, 2014), and even national government (Kudaka, personal communication, February 20, 2013). A similar interest in Uchinaaguchi was reflected in round one survey results from foreign and Japanese martial artists summarized below in Figure 1.


    Figure 1: Foreign and Japanese Martial Artists Desire to Learn and Use Uchinaaguchi

Like their Okinawan counterparts, foreign Okinawan martial arts practitioners also expressed a strong desire to learn Uchinaaguchi and use it in martial arts practice. However, Japanese martial arts practitioners, most of whom were from Okinawa, expressed a stronger desire to actually learn Uchinaaguchi. In addition, many members of the international community immediately understood the utility of Uchinaaguchi as a means to improve their martial arts technique while deepening their knowledge of Okinawan culture as shown below in Figure 2.


    Figure 2: Uchinaaguchi Learning Interest Related to Okinawan Martial Arts and Okinawan Culture

Interestingly, while learning about Okinawan culture motivated both Japanese and foreign martial artists about equally to learn Uchinaaguchi, significantly fewer Japanese martial artists reported martial arts learning as a reason to learn Uchinaaguchi. Instead, this group reported cultural interest (85.71%), followed by “because I am/ my family is Okinawan” (66.67%), followed by martial arts, as their primary motivations for learning Uchinaaguchi, reflecting a primarily non-martial arts based language learning motivation. This difference in motivation may explain the higher level of Uchinaaguchi learning interest among Japanese martial artists in Figure 1.

Because one-on-one “Master and Apprentice” programs are an important and successful approach to language revitalization (Canadian First Peoples’ Heritage, Language & Culture Council, undated; First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council, 2010; Grenoble & Whaley, 2006), Question 37 in Round Two of the survey specifically investigated interest in an Uchinaaguchi Master-and-Apprentice program. As summarized in Figure 3 below, 60% of martial artists, most of whom were non-Japanese, indicated their interest in learning Uchinaaguchi with a martial arts instructor while doing martial arts and other activities. Despite this group’s interest in martial arts, more martial artists preferred learning Uchinaaguchi in non-martial arts environments from non-martial artist Uchinaaguchi speakers than in martial arts-only environments with martial arts teachers. Again, the results suggest the close alignment between Okinawan martial arts practice and interest in Uchinaaguchi learning are intertwined with a broader interest in Okinawan culture.

Q37. The Master and Apprentice program is a type of one-on-one language immersion. Students spend 10-20 hours per week with a native speaker and learn the language while doing other activities. Would you be interested in learning Uchinaaguchi in this way?


    Figure 3: Martial Artists’ Interest in the Master and Apprentice Program for Learning Uchinaaguchi

Also in Round Two of the survey, Question 20 asked participants to indicate how they thought Uchinaaguchi should be promoted, as well as which Okinawan martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi learning materials would interest them. Results are summarized in Figure 4 below:

Q20 How do you think the Okinawan language should be promoted?


    Figure 4: Martial Artists’ Recommendations for Uchinaaguchi Promotion in Okinawan Martial Arts

Survey responses indicated that the majority of survey respondents were strongly interested in the promotion of martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi use and language learning materials. In particular, nearly 90% of the largely international martial artist respondents believed that martial arts teachers should use more Uchinaaguchi in Okinawa. Interest in Uchinaaguchi language materials was also high, with more than 85% supporting the idea of a martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi website, and more than 80% expressing a desire for other martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi materials. Nearly 80% indicated that martial arts students should learn more Uchinaaguchi. Although the sample size for Round Two was small (n = 48), the results were especially significant because approximately 66% of Round Two respondents had been teaching martial arts for over 10 years, and were thus likely able to teach Uchinaaguchi to their students, especially if martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi learning materials were available. Although it may have been a polite oversight, no martial artists selected “The promotion of Uchinaaguchi is not important to me”.


3) Using Uchinaaguchi is beneficial to Okinawan martial arts practice

Before using the Uchinaaguchi materials created for this project (the Uchinaaguchi wordsheets collected in the Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Handbook), participants indicated a strong belief that learning about the Okinawan language had several benefits, as illustrated in Figure 5 below:


    Figure 5: Martial Artists’ Perceived Benefits of Using Uchinaaguchi

All participants rated these items highly; however, among Japanese participants, most of whom were from Okinawa, ratings for Uchinaaguchi benefits within or outside of martial arts practice were virtually identical. Among foreign martial artists, the more marked perception of Uchinaaguchi knowledge as having benefits specifically related to martial arts practice might result from

foreign martial artists being less likely to use Uchinaaguchi outside of a training environment. To gain a more detailed understanding of martial artists’ perceived benefits of learning Uchinaaguchi, Round Two of the survey, completed after using Uchinaaguchi in Okinawan martial arts practice, included Question 19 regarding specific benefits. Results for 32 participants are summarized below in Figure 6:
Q19 Did you benefit from learning and using Okinawan words in your practice? Please select all that apply.


    Figure 6: Reported Benefits of Using Uchinaaguchi in Okinawan Martial Arts Practice

Close to 90% of participants, by far the largest group, reported that they had learned more about Okinawan culture from using Uchinaaguchi in their practice. Consistent with other survey data, approximately 64% indicated that using Uchinaaguchi “added something” to their martial arts practice, and 60% claimed that learning Uchinaaguchi improved their understanding of Okinawan martial arts. About 56% of martial arts practitioners also reported that their martial arts instructors or other Okinawans were happy when they spoke Uchinaaguchi, while about 48% reported that learning Uchinaaguchi was fun. A further 36% reported that Uchinaaguchi knowledge helped them communicate with their instructors.

One participant who was not particularly interested in learning Uchinaaguchi mentioned, “I get the concept behind [the Uchinaaguchi wordsheets], not the correspondence of the words in English in Japanese. In other words I don’t get any thing out of the Japanese or English or Uchinaaguchi, but I do get something from the concept behind them”. However, this participant also noted, “Some of the concepts don’t exactly translate, so I have to think about them” (May, October 6, 2014). Thus, even for those not interested in learning Uchinaaguchi per se, knowledge of Uchinaaguchi martial arts terms proved valuable from a martial arts learning perspective.

Overall, as the wealth of martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi terms would suggest, significant numbers of Okinawan martial arts practitioners perceived that learning Uchinaaguchi did benefit their understanding of Okinawan culture and the practice of Okinawan martial arts. That a significant percentage of participants also identified communications-related benefits and enjoyment as positive results of learning Uchinaaguchi further strengthens support for the use of Uchinaaguchi in Okinawan martial arts training.



If specialized martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi terminology exists and the majority of the Okinawan martial arts community in Okinawa and abroad desires to use it, and if those who have learned Uchinaaguchi receive benefits from learning and using it in their practice, why aren’t more members of the martial arts community using Uchinaaguchi in Okinawan karate and kobudo?

As previously mentioned, Okinawan martial arts were originally taught in Uchinaaguchi, until several sociolinguistic and historical factors restricted the use of Uchinaaguchi in Okinawan schools and public life (Heinrich, 2012; Matsuno, 2004; Osumi, 2001). Some refer to the shift from Uchinaaguchi to Japanese as a highly successful “bottom up assimilation campaign” as Okinawans in search of better economic opportunities often lead the initiative to learn and use Japanese in place of Uchinaaguchi (Rabson, 1999, cited in Adams, 2006). However, in addition to loss of Uchinaaguchi fluency and loss of places or domains in which to speak Uchinaaguchi, another factor affecting current Uchinaaguchi use might be referred to as “low linguistic self-esteem.” Perhaps because Uchinaaguchi is not perceived to be nearly as important as Japanese (or even English), Okinawans consistently underestimate their own and others’ interest in learning their language. Figure 7 below compares Okinawans’ perceptions of Okinawan youth interest and foreign martial artists’ interest in learning Uchinaaguchi with the actual levels of Uchinaaguchi learning interest specified by these groups (in bold).


    Figure 7: A Comparison of Perceived and Actual Levels of Uchinaaguchi Learning Interest  

Though the interest of foreign martial artists in learning Uchinaaguchi was perceived to be quite high, it was still significantly underestimated. Most concerning is that perceived Uchinaaguchi learning interest Okinawan youth was quite low at only 5.1 out of 10. However, the Uchinaaguchi learning interest specified by actual Okinawan youth was high, at nearly 8 out of 10. This data shows that while both Okinawan youth and foreign martial artists have a strong interest in learning Uchinaaguchi, few Okinawans are aware of it. Consistent with the perceptions of other endangered language speakers (McCarty, Romero, and Zepeda, 2006), Uchinaaguchi speakers’ perceptions of low learning interest, particularly among Okinawan youth, make them much less likely to use or teach Uchinaaguchi with these groups. Since language transmission depends on young speakers, this has serious implications for the long-term health of Uchinaaguchi (Ishihara, 2014). Conversely, the research participants who were well aware of my interest in learning martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi, and with whom I practised martial arts on a regular basis and/or conducted three or more interviews, were much more likely to use Uchinaaguchi with me both within and outside of martial arts practice. Over the course of the research, some participants even asked my advice on where to take Uchinaaguchi classes because they wished to improve their Uchinaaguchi abilities. In short, if martial artists, whether from Okinawa or abroad, take even a martial arts-based interest in learning Uchinaaguchi, they may help ensure that Uchinaaguchi-based martial arts knowledge, at the very least, remains available for future generations.



David Crystal, author of Language Death (2002), stresses the importance of having domains or specific places in which to use endangered languages. As the research above demonstrates, Okinawan martial arts practice provides a specific reason and highly appropriate domain in which to use Uchinaaguchi. In addition to several benefits that may be gained from using Uchinaaguchi in martial arts practices, tournaments, and seminars, Uchinaagcuhi language reclamation in this domain may bolster other Okinawan language revitalization efforts.

Though more research is needed in all areas related to Uchinaaguchi use in Okinawan martial arts, the next question may be, “What is the best way to learn Uchinaaguchi in a martial arts setting?” Participant observation and interviews indicate the following strategies may be helpful:

  1. Find out if your sensei speaks Uchinaaguchi. If yes, let him or her know you are interested in learning Uchinaaguchi and why, whether it’s to learn more about Okinawan martial arts techniques or Okinawan culture, and so on. Be respectful, but persistent. You may have to ask several times so that your instructor knows you are really interested.
  2. If you know some Uchinaaguchi words already, especially words related to martial arts techniques, ask your instructor specific questions about them, and otherwise try to use them in class. If you don’t know any Uchinaaguchi words, learning a few from Uchinagauchi speakers, the internet, or one of the Uchinaaguchi learning resources listed at the end of this article will provide a starting point.
  3. As much as possible, study Uchinaaguchi outside of class. You don’t need to be fluent, but understanding some basic vocabulary beyond martial arts-specific terms, for example words such as “slow” (and “fast” (heeku), will help you understand what your instructor is trying to tell you, especially if he or she is able (or willing) to teach mostly in Uchinaaguchi. By learning more Uchinaaguchi on your own, you can demonstrate your enthusiasm, and you may find your instructor is also more enthusiastic about teaching you.
  4. If you are teaching or wish to teach Uchinaaguchi in your martial arts class, try to introduce only one or two words or concepts at a time. These words can be demonstrated with movements you would like the students to learn and practice, so that the words and movements reinforce each other.

The more Uchinaaguchi is valued, used, and spoken now, the more it may be spoken in the future. Uchinaaguchi is the key to understanding Okinawan martial arts the way they were originally understood, but more importantly it is the source of connection between Okinawan culture and people, tying cultural arts such as karate and kobudo into all other aspects of Okinawan life and ensuring their continued transmission and development.  



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List of Uchinaaguchi and Okinawan Martial Arts Language Learning Resources

# May, S. (2015). The Uchinaaguchi Martial Arts Handbook. University of the Ryukyus(in progress)

**Contains the Uchinaaguchi wordsheets referred to in this article. Free download available from the Uchinaaguchi and Okinawan Martial Arts facebook page

# Okinawan Centre of Language Study. The Ryukyuan Language Database at the University of the Ryukyus.

# Shimabukuro, Z. (1983). 諺に見る沖縄の心/The Okinawan mind in proverbs. 南風原:沖縄高速

# Sakihara, M. (2006). Okinawa-English wordbook: A short lexicon of the Okinawan language with English definitions and Japanese cognates. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

# Uchinaaguchi and Okinawan Martial Arts Facebook Page:

 # Friendship. Let’s Speak Uchinaguchi. (A short-run English language Uchinaaguchi phrase and dialogue book available at Nishihara San-A bookstore and JA Bank)

沖縄語の入門―たのしいウチナーグチ (This is a link to a Japanese language Uchinaaguchi textbook “A Fun Gateway to Uchinaaguchi” )

沖縄口さびら―沖縄語を話しましょう (Another kink to a Japanese language Uchinaaguchi textbook “Let’s Speak Uchinaaguchi”)

Other Uchinaaguchi books and online resources are available. You are welcome to add your own recommendations in the comments section of the Uchinaaguchi and OkinawanMartial Arts facebook page.



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