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The Arakawa River

In #rivered, Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on June 26, 2014 at 5:53 am

荒川
Arakawa (raging river)

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

Welcome to my 3rd installment of my 8 part series on the Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō[i]. My second article, which was about the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, literally tore me a new hole. It broke me. I thought rivers would be an easy topic, but they’re not. Researching this article broke my brain again. And my apologies for publishing so late. I had to step away and come back with a fresh perspective.

That said, every article I write enhances my view of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum more and more. I’m only 3 rivers deep into this series and I feel like I’m slowly starting to wrap my head around things. I probably shouldn’t have started with the 3 most incestuously confusing rivers in Kantō. But there’s no looking back, is there? Yes, I’m an idiot. (But this shouldn’t be news to any of you, my dear readers)

Just like “Sumida” became 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, there is an 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River and an 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward[ii]. I touched on this briefly in my article on the Sumida River. And I promise to talk about this later. There are going to be a few big surprises as we go on, but before that let’s do the etymology.

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By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and  derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.

By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.

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The Name of both the River and the Ward are the Same.

So let’s look at the kanji first so we know we have a base point from which to start.


ara

wild, rough, rude; devastating


kawa

river

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Unlike most etymologies we’ve encountered at JapanThis!, there actually seems to be some sort of consensus about this river’s name. I’ve looked all over and I can’t find an alternate or older way of writing the name of the river. The name of the river seems to have been written 荒川 Arakawa since the Heian Period.

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Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.  Remember this name, we're coming back to Senju in a bit.

Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.
Remember this name, we’re coming back to Senju in a bit.

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Etymology of the River

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荒ぶる川
araburu kawa

unruly, wild, malevolent river

荒れる川
arareru kawa

stormy, short-tempered river

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This river was part of the Tone River watershed. As mentioned in my previous article, the Tone had a reputation for being uncontrollable and wild. Not only did the river periodically flood, these floods often changed the course of the river. As such, the Arakawa was a dangerous and scary river. There’s a pretty strong case to be made that the kanji are literal in this case.

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Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.  Some of the reference points I've added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.

Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.
Some of the reference points I’ve added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.

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Why do we say Arakawa River and Arakawa Ward and not Ara River and Ara Ward?

You just asked the $100k question, son! If you didn’t care about why Sumida Ward and Sumida River use different kanji, if you can’t read or speak Japanese, or you fucking hate grammar with every fiber of your body, you might want to skip to the next section. If you’re a Japanese grammar nerd, then stick around because you might dig this.

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OK, so one of these is not like the other one. Sesame Street style, see if you can spot the difference.

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Japanese

Romanization English

隅田川

Sumidagawa the Sumida River

利根川

Tonegawa the Tone River

富士山

Fuji-san Mt. Fuji

江戸町

Edo Machi the city of Edo

荒川

Arakawa the Arakawa River

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Can you spot the difference?

.Except for Arakawa, all of those examples follow this pattern:

Japanese Romanization

河川名

river name + river suffix

山名

mountain name + mountain suffix

町名

city name + city suffix

荒川

prefix + suffix (ie; inseparable)

So the typical pattern is “name + river/mountain/lake suffix.” However, ara by itself is not a word. Ara by itself is not a name. In fact, in this case, it’s a prefix. Therefore ara can’t be spilt from kawa and kawa can’t be split from ara. (This leads some people to say that “Arakawa” was originally a nickname or just a normal word in itself meaning “a raging river” – indeed there are Arakawa rivers all over the country).

Furthermore, the convention for signposts and naming will split the words from river/lake/mountain. So Tonegawa can easily be split into Tone and kawa – which is then rendered into English as “the Tone River.” If we split ara from kawa we get a non-word (a freestanding prefix) plus the word for river[iii]. I can’t think of an equivalent name in English, but imagine trying to convince someone that Opportunity should be split into two separate words Op and Portunity. It’s just weird, man.

But keep in mind, as Japanese has no spacing between words and this is just a convention (not a law) for romanization of Japanese words, there are occasional exceptions[iv]. Also, the Japan River Society, while having no real ability to affect laws, has strong opinions on the matter (Japanese only).

Totally random fact, but I've been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.

Totally random fact, but I’ve been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.

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Etymology of the Ward

☆ Short Answer:
Name of the ward is derived from the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River. The ward was officially created in 1932 and named after the river.

☆ Long Answer:
You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?
OK, this is pretty complicated, especially because I haven’t described the course of the river or its history yet. So you’re going to get some spoilers. But that’s fine because this is history and there aren’t really spoilers – just shit you don’t know yet.

The name of the ward comes from the Arakawa River flowing through the northeastern part of Arakawa Ward. But – surprise! – the river flowing through the northeastern part of the Arakawa Ward, is called the Sumida River.

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The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. The red one is the original. The big blue one is the new one.
Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

Say What?!

From 1924-1930 a project was undertaken to create a man-made river to drain excess water from the Arakawa River and dump it into the 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River which would then expediently flushes it all out to sea. This feat of civil engineering is sometimes credited with keeping Tōkyō relatively flood-free since 1916 (fingers crossed!)[v].

This construction of this man-made canal meant the Arakawa was split into 2 discrete waterways:

 The so-called 荒川放水路 Arakawa Hōsuiro Arakawa Drainage Canal began at 岩淵水門 Iwabuchi Suimon Iwabuchi Floodgate in 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward and then meandered through 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward, 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward, 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, 江戸川区 Edogawa-ku Edogawa Ward, and 江東区 Kōtō-ku Kōtō Ward.

 The other waterway, the Arakawa went from the Iwabuchi Floodgate in Kita Ward to create the borders of Adachi Ward and Arakawa Ward, then marked the borders of Arakawa Ward and Sumida Ward, then to mark the borders of Sumida Ward and 台東区Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, then Sumida Ward and 中央区 Chūō-ku Chūō Ward, then to mark the borders of Chūō Ward and Kōtō Ward where it dumped out into Tōkyō Bay.

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

In 1965, the Arakawa Drainage Canal was formally designated as the official path of the Arakawa River. This meant the stretch of the Arakawa from Iwabuchi Floodgate to Tōkyō Bay was designated as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, which you can read about here. That stretch of river had had the unofficial nickname of Sumida River since the Edo Period and since it delineated many borders of Sumida Ward, the changing the name seemed obvious.

But because of this new, formal re-designation of the Arakawa’s “main path,” it meant that the border of the 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward was no longer the Arakawa River, it was the Sumida River.

Yes, that’s right, folks. The Arakawa River does not flow through (or even touch) Arakawa Ward – at least not officially[vi].

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon "Red Floodgate." It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon “Red Floodgate.” It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

Arakawa Ward’s Dark Secrets

Prior to and during the Edo Period the area was made of rural, agricultural communities in 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District (this was never part of Edo). The area was only associated with peasant farmers until 1651, the first year of 4th shōgun Tokugawa Ietsuna’s rule. In this year, the shōgunate built 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground in the village of Minami Senjū. Around this time, the area of Minami Senjū came to have a heavy association with the 穢多 eta outcastes (literally “abundances of filth”)[vii] in the Edo Period. These were people at the bottom of the social class structure who did “unclean work” such as execution, clean up and disposal of dead bodies, leather work, butchery, etc. Minami Senjū’s reputation as a village of “unclean” people and a place of death and torture has tarnished the area for centuries[viii]. Also, it didn’t help that it was one of the most mismanaged execution grounds of the shōgunate.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Present day Arakawa Ward is also home to 浄閑寺 Jōkan-ji Jōkan Temple, often called 投込寺 Nagekomi-dera the “dumping temple.” I mentioned this briefly in my article on Yoshiwara, but this was where most licensed prostitutes were interred. The name seems to imply that dead prostitutes were just impiously dumped at the temple gates at all hours of the day throughout the Edo Period, but this is probably not the case. In 1855, there was a major earthquake which burned down much of Yoshiwara[ix]. As a result, the corpses of the girls were wrapped in sheets – or whatever facilitated easy transport – and they were dumped in a massive heap in front of the temple. At any rate, the sight of the pile of bodies of young girls (mostly 12-20 years old) made an impact on the local people and the nickname stuck. At any rate, thinking of girls sold off by their families to be sexual slaves and then dumped at a crappy temple in the countryside because no one else would take them is pretty fucking depressing.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren't just Edo Period 'tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.  It's estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren’t just Edo Period ‘tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.
It’s estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.

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In 1868, 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture was established and this area the Toshima District was included in the newly created Tōkyō. In 1932, the area called Arakawa Ward was formally incorporated into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City[x]. Even by the 1930’s, the area’s image hadn’t improved.

The reason for this is that with the Meiji Coup came industrialization. The industrial revolution in Europe and the US was a filthy and polluted affair. Japan was no different. In Meiji Japan, many factories were built along the Arakawa River (present day Sumida River). This area was chosen for a number of reasons. First, the river allowed for the transport of raw material into the factories and distribution of finished products. Garbage and waste of the factory could be dumped into the river. Factories were dirty and produced unnatural smells and smoke and waste, so it was better to put these outside of the city center. As a result, other businesses and factories associated with “unclean” work were relocated to the area along the present day Sumida River. Of course, the people working these jobs were none other than the recently “liberated” and “integrated” 部落民 burakumin, the new polite word for the outcastes and their descendants. Burakumin villages lined the Arakawa river system. And what about good ol’ Minami Senjū? (Nowhere near the Arakawa River, by the way.) Well, the execution ground was shut down early on by the Meiji Government, but the area still bore a massive stigma. Its inhabitants continued doing “unclean” work that was forbidden in the city center, ie; leatherwork, slaughtering animals, butchery, and disposing of corpses.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?  Yup. These people.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?
Yup. These people.

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To the surprise of most Tōkyōites, some traditionally burakumin areas in Tōkyō still exist. There seems to be some controversy as to whether these areas are populated by the descendants of actual burakumin. Privacy laws and anti-discrimination laws have wiped identifiable burakumin village names from maps and postal addresses. Even the infamous 山谷 San’ya area, whose name persists in the minds of locals, does not exist as a modern place name.  Many of these areas are still economically depressed. Many of these areas can be found in Arakawa and 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward and Taitō Ward. I’ve been in some of these areas and you can tell something is off (a lack of signs identifying the area and a “silence” on your GPS is one sign that you’re there).

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60's when people pined for traditional Japan. There's still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60’s when people pined for traditional Japan. There’s still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

If someone really wants to know precisely where an Edo Period burakumin village used to be located, it’s not hard to find that information. However, villages after the Edo Period are harder to pinpoint due to the sensitivity of the issue. And the reality of the situation is that in most parts of Japan, there isn’t any discrimination towards them. In fact, there’s almost no way of finding out who is a descendant of this class; it’s also not important to most people these days anyway. Also most of the old villages have just melted into the metropolis of Tōkyō since the 1960’s. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of doubt if the descendants of the burakumin populate these areas anymore. The only thing that is certain is that many of those traditional areas are still economically depressed.

Most Tōkyōites are generally repulsed by discrimination against the burakumin and may be shocked to hear the “they even exist anymore” (in many ways, this is an Ōsaka problem, not a Tōkyō problem). So don’t get the idea that there is rampant hatred and oppression of these people. There isn’t. It’s just part of the history of this area. Some of it from the Edo Period, most of it from the Meiji Period – but it’s part of a dark legacy that happens to be encapsulated within the confines of modern Arakawa Ward and has kept the ward less well off than some its counterparts in the Tōkyō Metropolis. Also, don’t think that things aren’t changing. There’s a lot of gentrification going on in Tōkyō’s shitamachi and blue collar districts. Families who want to live in a タワーマンション tawā manshon skyrise apartment but want to save money can find reasonably priced, spacious, modern apartments in the heart of a shitamachi neighborhood. That’s a combination of yamanote living in the heart of a traditional Shōwa Era neighborhood. It’s like having the best of both worlds and paying half the price for it.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn't give a shit about. They've re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and "low city" feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo's last dying gasps for air.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn’t give a shit about. They’ve re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and “low city” feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo’s last dying gasps for air.

But I Digress…

Back to the river. The Arakawa River originates on 甲武信ヶ岳 Kobushigadake Mount Kobushi which is in the Saitama Prefecture side of the border of Saitama, Nagano, and Yamanashi. That region is called Chichibu which is a reference to 秩父国 Chichibu no Kuni Chichibu Province which existed from the Taika Reforms until 1868[xi]. As mentioned before, at Iwabuchi Suimon, the river splits in two. The old river become the Sumida River, the more recent river path become the Arakawa. From there, the river merges with the Edo River and empties into Tōkyō Bay.

Let's go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It's a beautiful, clean source of water.

Let’s go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It’s a beautiful, clean source of water.

Taming Of the Raging River

At the beginning of the Edo Period the river followed the course that is now called the 元荒川 Moto-Arakawa Old Arakawa in Saitama. This river isn’t connected to the modern river today, but the Old Arakawa still flows from 行田 Gyōda to 越谷 Koshigaya where it merges with the 中川 Nakagawa. Today the river is essentially a drainage ditch. This stretch of what was once a might river lies with the boundaries of former 忍藩 Oshi Han Oshi Domain, a name that we’ve seen in the last two articles.

Again, as mentioned in previous articles, typhoons and torrential rains caused the Tone and Arakawa rivers to flood seasonally with disturbing regularity which would devastate Edo’s shitamachi areas. So, in the early 1600’s the shōgunate began massive river projects in order to protect the shōgun’s capital from flooding as well as the administrative centers along the Tonegawa Watershed. Major work on the river continued until the late 1960’s. The overall effect was that the Tone River ceased flowing south into Edo and was gradually diverted east toward Chiba over the centuries. This eventually created the two current river paths of the Sumida River and the (modern) Arakawa.

With all the manipulation of the waterway and the levees and the space between the river and the communities lining the river, one might think the Japanese have tamed the Arakawa River. This may not be the case, though. Even though the last devastating flood was in 1916, officials in Tōkyō are worried that the metropolis still isn’t prepared enough if the Arakawa (or any other river, or even the bay itself flooded). The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana and Hurricane Sandy on New York as well as the tsunami in Tōhōku raised more than a few eyebrows in Tōkyō and there has been a renewed interest in buttressing anti-flooding measures in the interest of saving lives and safeguarding existing infrastructures. If you’re interested in reading more about this renewed interest in taming Tōkyō’s rivers, here’s article from 2008 that talks about some worst case scenarios and here’s another article from 2013 that describes the progress made and what still needs to be done to keep Tōkyō safe.

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[i] Wanna start from the beginning? You can catch up by reading my first post.
[ii] There are 荒川 all over the country. Wikipedia actually has a disambiguation page (Japanese only).
[iii] Yes, there is an adjective 荒い arai but an adjective doesn’t make a place name in Japanese, it has to be something connected to the word. For example, 新宿 New Post Town isn’t written as Shin Juku or even Shin-juku, but Shinjuku. The two elements are inseparable.
[iv] The opposite also happens when many Japanese romanize the end of a phrase like おいしそうだよ oishisō da yo as oishisō dayo because many people consider da yo to be a cluster (one word, if you will), though a prescriptive grammarian would insist that they be separated as da is a copula and yo is an emphatic particle. I tend to take the prescriptive approach when I Romanize Japanese because I’m a jerk like that.
[v] That’s because the impetus to build the Arakawa Drainage Canal was the last major flood in, you guessed it, 1916.
[vi] Just to remind you… Arakawa Ward was created in 1932, reaffirmed in 1945, and it became a 特別区 tokubetsu-ku Special Ward 1947. All of this happened while the Arakawa River marked the border of Sumida Ward and Arakawa Ward.
[vii] By the way, this term “eta” is highly offensive in modern day Japan. For most people, in particular those who know they are descendants of this class, the carries the weight of the worst racial slurs you can imagine. The term seems to be used quite freely outside of Japan when talking about this group of people prior to the Meiji Coup in 1868. But don’t use it in Japan. Instead, you should use “burakumin.”
[viii] Even if most people don’t know about this today.
[ix] Remember, Yoshiwara was surrounded by a moat and there were essentially only two ways in and out. As a result, the Yoshiwara was a death trap in the case of fires. The prostitutes were indentured servants and were forbidden to leave without special permission. Clients and tea house owners could leave, but for the working girls, crossing the threshold without permission could have meant torture or “accidental” death. Of course, staying within the confines of the pleasure quarters during a fire could have meant “torture” or accidental death as well. Catch-22. Whatcha gonna do?
[x] Longtime readers will be familiar with this. Tōkyō Prefecture contained a much larger area than Edo proper. One of those areas, an “expanded Edo” – if you will – was Tōkyō City. The prefecture and city were abolished in 1943 and the whole are became 東京都Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The former Tōkyō City roughly corresponds to the modern 23 Special Wards.
[xi] Chichibu’s major connection to Edo-Tōkyō is actually its contribution of a cadet family of the 平家 Heike the Taira clan. Learn more about this in my article on Why is Edo called Edo?

  1. Another amazing post. Otsukaresama! I’ll visit Tokyo this summer with a renewed deeper appreciation of all the places I visit…

    I wonder if a good comparison to this ara+kawa thing in English might be towns whose names contain “town.” So, whereas the “city” in New York City is more like the “machi” in Edo-machi, just being added onto the full name of the city (New York), you can say “the town of Newton,” but not “the town of New.”

    • Thanks for reading and the kind words!

      Your Newton example is apropos. I think that’s a really good analogy.

      This river series is sucking the life out of me. I may shelve it after I publish the next one. Depends on how difficult and mind numbingly boring the research for the final 3 is. lol

  2. Wow. These river articles are pretty awesome. I never really gave them much thought.

  3. […] which used to be the Arakawa River – got it? [If you really want to know more then check out Japan This! which is a great site for Japan History buffs and Kanji […]

  4. Thanks for the informative article. One question, where do the Arakawa and Edogawa merge? In the article you wrote the merge and flow into the bay. Thanks.

    • I wasn’t very clear in the article. What I was trying to describe is the confluence of the Arakawa and the old course of the Edogawa (旧江戸川) into the bay, which is at Kasai Rinkai Kōen.

      Interestingly, there is a little known merger, but it’s a bit roundabout. A small channel connects the Edogawa with the Nakagawa at the Edogawa River Office. Much farther downstream, the Nakagawa flows into the Arakawa near Shin-Koiwa.

      • That’s what I thought. I’ve ridden the two channels I think some years ago. I’ve been up and down the Arakawa many times and really enjoyed learning more about its history. Thanks for the information. I’m writing a travel article about Chichibu and your informative article helped me better understand the Arakawa, thanks. Great site by the way, I got easily sidetracked and enjoyed several articles.

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