Kanji (漢字) are the Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese logographic writing system along with hiragana (平仮名), katakana (片仮名), and the Arabic numerals. The Japanese term kanji (漢字) literally means "Han characters." Originally the Japanese language did not have a writing system of its own. Chinese characters first arrived in Japan written on articles imported from China. By the sixth century Chinese documents written in Japan tended to exhibit elements from the Japanese language, suggesting the wide acceptance of Chinese characters in Japan. Over time, a writing system called man'yōgana (used in the ancient poetry anthology Man'yōshū) evolved, using a limited set of Chinese characters to represent their sound, rather than for their meaning. Man'yōgana gave rise to the two other alphabets used to write Japanese; written in cursive style it became hiragana, and students in monasteries simplified man'yōgana to the single constituent elements that make up katakana.
Kanji includes new characters created in Japan, and modifications of original Chinese characters. After World War II the Japanese government introduced a simplified form for many characters, called shinjitai ("new character style") in the "Tōyō Kanji Character Form List." The traditional form is called kyūjitai ("old character style"). The Jinmeiyō kanji (人名用漢字) is an official list of 2,928 characters in common use in Japan; it consists of 1,945 characters taught in schools, plus an additional 983 kanji found in people's names. The number of possible characters is disputed; the largest dictionary of kanji, "Daikanwa Jiten," contains about 50,000 characters, most of which are never used. In publishing, unfamiliar kanji are usually accompanied by a phonetic subscript called furigana. Because of the way kanji have been adopted into Japanese, a single kanji may be used to write one or more different words, and can have one or more different "readings." Deciding which reading is meant will depend on context, intended meaning, use in compounds, and even location in the sentence; some common kanji have ten or more possible readings. These readings are normally categorized as either on'yomi or on (Chinese reading) or kun'yomi or kun (Japanese reading).
Chinese characters first came to Japan from China written on objects, paintings, and scrolls. Early instances of kanji include a gold seal discovered in 1748, which was identified as the one sent to Japan by the emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty in 57 C.E. It is not clear when Japanese people started to write Classical Chinese by themselves. The first documents were probably written by Chinese immigrants. For example, the diplomatic correspondence from King Bu of Wa to Emperor Shun of the Song Dynasty in 478 has been praised for its skillful use of allusion. Later, groups of people called fuhito were organized under the monarch to read and write Classical Chinese. From the sixth century onwards, Chinese documents written in Japan tended to exhibit elements from the Japanese language, suggesting the wide acceptance of Chinese characters in Japan.
The earliest texts were written in the Chinese language and would have been read as such. Over time, however, a system known as kanbun (漢文) emerged, essentially using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to read the characters in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar. At that time the Japanese language itself had no written form. A writing system called man'yōgana (used in the ancient poetry anthology Man'yōshū) evolved, using a limited set of Chinese characters to represent their sound, rather than for their meaning.
Man'yōgana written in cursive style became hiragana, a writing system that was accessible to women who had not studied Chinese. Major works of Heian era literature were written by women in hiragana. Katakana emerged via a parallel path, as students I monasteries simplified man'yōgana to single constituent elements that could aid them in reading scriptural texts. Thus the two other writing systems, hiragana and katakana, referred to collectively as kana, are actually descended from kanji.
In modern Japanese, kanji are used to write parts of the language such as nouns, adjective stems, and verb stems, while hiragana are used to write inflected verb and adjective endings (okurigana), particles, native Japanese words, and words where the kanji is too difficult to read or remember. Katakana is used for representing onomatopoeia and non-Japanese loanwords.
While kanji are essentially Chinese hanzi used to write Japanese, there are now significant differences between kanji and hanzi, including the use of characters created in Japan, characters that have been given different meanings in Japanese, and post World War II simplifications of the kanji.
Kokuji (国字; "national characters") are characters peculiar to Japan. Kokuji are also known as wasei kanji (和製漢字; "Chinese characters made in Japan"). There are hundreds of kokuji (see the kokuji list). Many are rarely used, but a number have become important additions to the written Japanese language. These include:
- 峠 (とうげ (tōge) mountain pass)
- 榊 (さかき(sakaki) sakaki tree, genus Camellia)
- 畑 (はたけ(hatake) field of crops)
- 辻 (つじ(tsuji) crossroads, street)
- 働 (どう(dō) hatara(ku) work)
Some of them like "働" have been introduced to China.
In addition to kokuji, there are kanji that have been given meanings in Japanese different from their original Chinese meanings. These kanji are not considered kokuji but are instead called kokkun (国訓) and include characters such as:
- 沖 oki (offing, offshore; Ch. chōng rinse)
- 椿 tsubaki (Camellia japonica; Ch. chūn Ailanthus)
Old Characters and New Characters
The same kanji character can sometimes be written in two different ways, 旧字体 (Kyūjitai; "old character style") (舊字體 in Kyūjitai) and 新字体 (Shinjitai; "new character style"). The following are some examples of Kyūjitai followed by the corresponding Shinjitai:
- 國 国 kuni, koku (country)
- 號 号 gō (number)
- 變 変 hen, ka(waru) (change)
Kyūjitai were used before the end of World War II, and are mostly, if not completely, the same as the Traditional Chinese characters. After the war, the government introduced the simplified Shinjitai in the "Tōyō Kanji Character Form List" (Tōyō Kanji Jitai Hyō, 当用漢字字体表). Some of the new characters are similar to simplified characters used in the People's Republic of China. Also, like the simplification process in China, some of the shinjitai were once abbreviated forms (略字, Ryakuji) used in handwriting, but in contrast with the "proper" unsimplified characters (正字 seiji) were only acceptable in colloquial contexts. There are also handwritten simplifications today that are significantly simpler than their standard forms (which were either untouched or received only minor simplification in the postwar reforms), but despite their wide usage and popularity, they, like their prewar counterparts, are not considered orthographically correct and are only used in handwriting.
Many Chinese characters are not used in Japanese at all. Theoretically, however, any Chinese character can also be a Japanese character—the Daikanwa Jiten, one of the largest dictionaries of kanji ever compiled, has about 50,000 entries, even though most of the entries have never been used in Japanese.
Because of the way kanji have been adopted into Japanese, a single kanji may be used to write one or more different words (or, in most cases, morphemes). From the point of view of the reader, kanji are said to have one or more different "readings." Deciding which reading is meant will depend on context, intended meaning, use in compounds, and even location in the sentence. Some common kanji have ten or more possible readings. These readings are normally categorized as either on'yomi (or on) or kun'yomi (or kun).
On'yomi (Chinese reading)
The on'yomi (音読み), the Sino-Japanese reading, is a Japanese approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of the character at the time it was introduced. Some kanji were introduced from different parts of China at different times, and so have multiple on'yomi, and often multiple meanings. Kanji invented in Japan would not normally be expected to have on'yomi, but there are exceptions, such as the character 働 'to work', which has the kun'yomi hataraku and the on'yomi dō, and 腺 'gland', which has only the on'yomi sen.
Generally, on'yomi are classified into four types:
- Go-on (呉音; Wu sound) readings, from the pronunciation of the Wu region (in the vicinity of modern Shanghai), during the fifth and sixth centuries.
- Kan-on (漢音; Han sound) readings, from the pronunciation during the Tang Dynasty in the seventh to ninth centuries, primarily from the standard speech of the capital, Chang'an.
- Tō-on (唐音；Tang sound) readings, from the pronunciations of later dynasties, such as the Song and Ming, covers all readings adopted from the Heian period to the Edo period
- Kan'yō-on (慣用音) readings, which are mistaken or changed readings of the kanji that have become accepted into the language.
Examples (rare readings in parentheses)
The most common form of readings is the kan-on one. The go-on readings are especially common in Buddhist terminology such as gokuraku 極楽 "paradise." The tō-on readings occur in some words such as isu "chair" or futon.
In Chinese, most characters are associated with a single Chinese syllable. However, some homographs called 多音字 (duōyīnzì) such as 行 (háng or xíng) (Japanese: kō, gyō) have more than one reading in Chinese representing different meanings, which is reflected in the carryover to Japanese as well. Additional tonality aside, most Chinese syllables (especially in Middle Chinese, in which final stop consonants were more prevalent than in most modern dialects) did not fit the largely-CV (consonant-vowel) phonotactics of classical Japanese. Thus most on'yomi are composed of two moras (syllables or beats), the second of which is either a lengthening of the vowel in the first mora (this being i in the case of e and u in the case of o, due to linguistic drift in the centuries since), or one of the syllables ku, ki, tsu, chi, or syllabic n, chosen for their approximation to the final consonants of Middle Chinese. In fact, palatalized consonants before vowels other than i, as well as syllabic n, were probably added to Japanese to better simulate Chinese; none of these features occur in words of native Japanese origin.
On'yomi primarily occur in multi-kanji compound words (熟語 jukugo), many of which are the result of the adoption (along with the kanji themselves) of Chinese words for concepts that either didn't exist in Japanese or could not be articulated as elegantly using native words. This borrowing process is often compared to the English borrowings from Latin and Norman French, since Chinese-borrowed terms are often more specialized, or considered to sound more erudite or formal, than their native counterparts. The major exception to this rule is surnames, in which the native kun'yomi reading is usually used (see below).
Kun'yomi (Japanese reading)
The kun'yomi (訓読み), Japanese reading, or native reading, is a reading based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word, or yamatokotoba, that closely approximated the meaning of the Chinese character when it was introduced. As with on'yomi, there can be multiple kun readings for the same kanji, and some kanji have no kun'yomi at all.
For instance, the kanji for east, 東, has the on reading tō. However, Japanese already had two words for "east": higashi and azuma. Thus the kanji character 東 had the latter pronunciations added as kun'yomi. However, the kanji 寸, denoting a Chinese unit of measurement (slightly over an inch), had no native Japanese equivalent; thus it only has an on'yomi, sun.
Kun'yomi are characterized by the strict (C)V syllable structure of yamatokotoba. Most noun or adjective kun'yomi are two to three syllables long, while verb kun'yomi are more often one or two syllables in length (not counting trailing hiragana called okurigana, although those are usually considered part of the reading).
In a number of cases, multiple kanji were assigned to cover a single Japanese word. Typically when this occurs, the different kanji refer to specific shades of meaning. For instance, the word なおす, naosu, when written 治す, means "to heal an illness or sickness." When written 直す it means "to fix or correct something" (such as a bicycle). Sometimes the differences are very clear; other times they are quite subtle. Sometimes there are differences of opinion among reference works—one dictionary may say the kanji are equivalent, while another dictionary may draw distinctions of use. Because of this confusion, Japanese people may have trouble knowing which kanji to use. One workaround is simply to write the word in hiragana, a method frequently employed with more complex cases such as もと moto, which has at least five different kanji, 元, 基, 本, 下, 素, three of which have only very subtle differences.
There are many kanji compounds that use a mixture of on'yomi and kun'yomi, known as jūbako (重箱) or yutō (湯桶) words. The words jūbako and yutō themselves are autological examples: the first character of jūbako is read using on'yomi, the second kun'yomi, while it is the other way around with yutō. Other examples include 金色 kin'iro "golden" (on-kun) and 合気道 aikidō "the martial art Aikido" (kun-on-on).
Some kanji also have lesser-known readings called nanori, which are mostly used for people's names (often given names), and are generally closely related to the kun'yomi. Place names sometimes also use nanori (or, occasionally, unique readings not found elsewhere).
Gikun (義訓) or Jukujikun (熟字訓) are readings of kanji combinations that have no direct correspondence to the characters' individual on'yomi or kun'yomi. For example, 今朝 ("this morning") is read neither as *ima'asa, the kun'yomi of the characters, nor *konchō, the on'yomi of the characters. Instead it is read as kesa—a native Japanese word with two syllables (which may be seen as a single morpheme, or as a fusion of kono, "this," and asa, "morning").
Many ateji (kanji used only for their phonetic value) have meanings derived from their usage: for example, the now-archaic 亜細亜 ajia was formerly used to write "Asia" in kanji; the character 亜 now means Asia in such compounds as 東亜 tōa, "East Asia." From the written 亜米利加 amerika, the second character was taken, resulting in the semi-formal coinage 米国 beikoku, (lit. "rice country") but meaning "America."
When to Use Which Reading
Words for similar concepts, such as "east" (東), "north" (北) and "northeast" (北東), can have completely different pronunciations: the kun readings higashi and kita are used for the first two, while the on reading hokutō is used for the third.
The rule of thumb for determining the pronunciation of a particular kanji in a given context is that kanji occurring in compounds are generally read using on'yomi (Chinese reading). Such compounds are called jukugo (熟語) in Japanese. For example, 情報 jōhō "information," 学校 gakkō "school," and 新幹線 shinkansen "bullet train" all follow this pattern.
Kanji occurring in isolation—that is, written adjacent only to kana, not to other kanji—are typically read using their kun'yomi (Japanese reading). Together with their okurigana, if any, they generally function either as a noun or as an inflected adjective or verb: e.g. 月 tsuki "moon," 情け nasake "sympathy," 赤い akai "red" (adj), 新しい atarashii "new," 見る miru "(to) see."
This rule of thumb has many exceptions. Kun'yomi are quite capable of forming compound words, although they are not as numerous as those with on'yomi. Examples include 手紙 tegami "letter," 日傘 higasa "parasol," and the famous 神風 kamikaze "divine wind." Such compounds may also have okurigana, such as 空揚げ (also written 唐揚げ) karaage "fried food" and 折り紙 origami "artistic paper folding," although many of these can also be written with the okurigana omitted (e.g. 空揚 or 折紙).
On the other hand, some on'yomi characters can also be used as words in isolation: 愛 ai "love," 禅 Zen, 点 ten "mark, dot." Most of these cases involve kanji that have no kun'yomi, so there can be no confusion.
The situation with on'yomi is further complicated by the fact that many kanji have more than one on'yomi: for example, 先生 sensei "teacher" versus 一生 isshō "one's whole life."
There are also some words that can be read multiple ways, similar to English words such as "live" or "read"—in some cases having different meanings depending on how they are read. One example is 上手, which can be read in three different ways—jōzu (skilled), uwate (upper part), or kamite (upper part). In addition, 上手い has the reading umai (skilled).
Some famous place names, including those of Tokyo (東京 Tōkyō) and Japan itself (日本 Nihon or sometimes Nippon) are read with on'yomi; however, the majority of Japanese place names are read with kun'yomi (e.g. 大阪 Ōsaka, 青森 Aomori, 箱根 Hakone). Family names are also usually read with kun'yomi (e.g., 山田 Yamada, 田中 Tanaka, 鈴木 Suzuki). Personal names, although they are not typically considered jūbako/yutō, often contain mixtures of kun'yomi, on'yomi, and nanori, and are generally only readable with some experience (e.g., 大助 Daisuke [on-kun], 夏美 Natsumi [kun-on]).
Because of the ambiguities involved, kanji sometimes have their pronunciation for the given context spelled out in ruby characters known as furigana (small kana written above or to the right of the character) or kumimoji (small kana written in-line after the character). This is especially true in texts for children or foreign learners and manga (comics). It is also used in newspapers for rare or unusual readings and for characters not included in the officially recognized set of essential kanji (see below).
Total Number of Kanji Characters
The number of possible characters is disputed. The "Daikanwa Jiten" contains about 50,000 characters, and this was thought to be comprehensive, but more recent mainland Chinese dictionaries contain 80,000 or more characters, many consisting of obscure variants. Most of these are not in common use in either Japan or China.
Orthographic Reform and Lists of Kanji
In 1946, following World War II, the Japanese government instituted a series of orthographic reforms.
Some characters were given simplified glyphs, called 新字体 (shinjitai). The number of characters in circulation was reduced, and formal lists of characters to be learned during each grade of school were established. Many variant forms of characters and obscure alternatives for common characters were officially discouraged. This was done with the goal of facilitating learning for children and simplifying kanji use in literature and periodicals. These are simply guidelines, so many characters outside these standards are still widely known and commonly used.
Kyōiku, Jōyō and Jinmeiyō Kanji
The Kyōiku kanji 教育漢字 ("education kanji") are 1006 characters that Japanese children learn in elementary school. The number was 881 until 1981. The grade-level breakdown of the education kanji is known as the Gakunen-betsu kanji haitōhyō 学年別漢字配当表), or the gakushū kanji.
The Jōyō kanji 常用漢字 are 1,945 characters consisting of all the kyōiku kanji, plus an additional 939 kanji taught in junior high and high school. In publishing, characters outside this category are often given furigana. The Jōyō kanji were introduced in 1981. They replaced an older list of 1850 characters known as the General-use kanji (tōyō kanji 当用漢字) introduced in 1946.
The Jinmeiyō kanji 人名用漢字 are 2,928 characters consisting of the Jōyō kanji, plus an additional 983 kanji found in people's names. Over the years, the Minister of Justice has on several occasions added to this list. Sometimes the phrase Jinmeiyō kanji refers to all 2928, and sometimes it only refers to the 983 that are only used for names.
Gaiji (外字), literally meaning "external characters," are kanji that are not represented in existing Japanese encoding systems. These include variant forms of common kanji that need to be represented alongside the more conventional glyph in reference works, and can include non-kanji symbols as well.
Gaiji can be either user-defined characters or system-specific characters. Both are a problem for information interchange, as the codepoint used to represent an external character will not be consistent from one computer or operating system to another.
Types of Kanji: by Category
A Chinese scholar Xu Shen (許慎), in the Shuōwén Jiězì (說文解字) ca. 100 C.E., classified Chinese characters into six categories (Japanese: 六書 rikusho). The traditional classification is still taught but is problematic and no longer the focus of modern lexicographic practice, as some categories are not clearly defined, nor are they mutually exclusive: the first four refer to structural composition, while the last two refer to usage.
These characters are sketches of the object they represent. For example, 目 is an eye, and 木 is a tree. The current forms of the characters are very different from the original, and it is now hard to see the origin in many of these characters. It is somewhat easier to see in seal script. This kind of character is often called a "pictograph" in English (Shōkei—象形 is also the Japanese word for Egyptian hieroglyphs). These make up a small fraction of modern characters.
Shiji-moji are called "logograms," "simple ideographs," "simple indicatives," and sometimes just "symbols" in English. They are usually graphically simple and represent an abstract concept such as a direction: e.g. 上 representing "up" or "above" and 下 representing "down" or "below." These make up a tiny fraction of modern characters.
Often called "compound indicatives," "associative compounds," "compound ideographs," or just "ideographs." These are usually a combination of pictographs that combine to present an overall meaning. An example is the kokuji 峠 (mountain pass) made from 山 (mountain), 上 (up) and 下 (down). Another is 休 (rest) from 人 (person) and 木 (tree). These make up a tiny fraction of modern characters.
These are called "phono-semantic," "semantic-phonetic," "semasio-phonetic" or "phonetic-ideographic" characters in English. They are by far the largest category, making up about 90% of characters. Typically they are made up of two components, one of which indicates the meaning or semantic context, and the other the pronunciation. (The pronunciation really relates to the original Chinese, and may now only be distantly detectable in the modern Japanese on'yomi of the kanji. The same is true of the semantic context, which may have changed over the centuries or in the transition from Chinese to Japanese. As a result, it is a common error in folk etymology to fail to recognize a phono-semantic compound, typically instead inventing a compound-indicative explanation.)
As examples of this, consider the kanji with the 言 shape: 語, 記, 訳, 説, etc. All are related to word/language/meaning. Similarly kanji with the 雨 (rain) shape (雲, 電, 雷, 雪, 霜, etc.) are almost invariably related to weather. Kanji with the 寺 (temple) shape on the right (詩, 持, 時, 侍, etc.) usually have an on'yomi of "shi" or "ji." Sometimes one can guess the meaning and/or reading simply from the components. However, exceptions do exist—for example, neither 需 nor 霊 have anything to do with weather (at least in their modern usage), and 待 has an on'yomi of "tai." That is, a component may play a semantic role in one compound, but a phonetic role in another.
This group have variously been called "derivative characters," or "mutually explanatory" or "mutually synonymous" characters; this is the most problematic of the six categories, as it is vaguely defined. It may refer to kanji where the meaning or application has become extended. For example, 楽 is used for 'music' and 'comfort, ease', with different pronunciations in Chinese reflected in the two different on'yomi, gaku 'music' and raku 'pleasure.'
These are called "phonetic loan characters." For example, 来 in ancient Chinese was originally a pictograph for 'wheat'. Its syllable was homophonous with the verb meaning 'to come' and the character is used for that verb as a result, without any embellishing "meaning" element attached.
The ideographic iteration mark (々) is used to indicate that the preceding kanji is to be repeated, functioning similarly to a ditto mark in English. It is pronounced as though the kanji were written twice in a row, for example 色々 (iroiro "various") and 時々 (tokidoki "sometimes"). This mark also appears in personal and place names, as in the Japanese name Sasaki (佐々木). This symbol is a simplified version of the kanji 仝 (variant of 同 dō "same").
Another frequently used symbol is ヶ (a small katakana "ke"), pronounced "ka" when used to indicate quantity (such as 六ヶ月, rokkagetsu "six months") or "ga" in place names like Kasumigaseki (霞ヶ関). This symbol is a simplified version of the kanji 箇.
Radical-and-Stroke Sorting (Alphabetization)
Kanji, whose thousands of symbols defy ordering by convention such as is used with the Roman Alphabet, uses radical-and-stroke sorting to order a list of Kanji words. In this system, common components of characters are identified; these are called radicals in Chinese and logographic systems derived from Chinese, such as Kanji.
Characters are then grouped by their primary radical, then ordered by number of pen strokes within radicals. When there is no obvious radical or more than one radical, convention governs which is used for collation. For example, the Chinese character for "mother" (媽) is sorted as a 13-stroke character under the three-stroke primary radical (女) meaning "woman."
The Japanese government provides the Kanji kentei (日本漢字能力検定試験 Nihon kanji nōryoku kentei shiken; "Test of Japanese Kanji Aptitude") which tests the ability to read and write kanji. The highest level of the Kanji kentei tests about 6000 kanji.
- Senzen no Ryakuji-tai (Simplified Kanji in pre-WWII era). Retrieved May 19, 2007. This page shows examples of these handwritten abbreviations, identical to their modern Shinjitai forms, from the pre World War II era.
- Examples of handwritten simplifications can be seen in Writers Manual, Section 39, Chapter 1, Makoto Hayashi, 1980. Retrieved May 19, 2007.
- For a table of all the kyōiku kanji (教育漢字) broken down by category see Jim Breen, Types of Kanji, from which the above description has been extracted. Retrieved May 19, 2007.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
The standard reference for the Japanese orthographic system—which, in its full, mixed form is referred to as kanji kana-majiri—is: Hadamitzky, Wolfgang, and M. Spahn. Japanese Kanji & Kana: A Complete Guide to the Japanese Writing System Boston, MA: Tuttle, 2012. ISBN 978-4805311165
- DeFrancis, John. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. ISBN 0824810686.
- Hadamitzky, Wolfgang, and Mark Spahn. Japanese Kanji & Kana, Revised Edition: A Guide to the Japanese Writing System. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2012. ISBN 978-4805311165.
- Hannas, William C. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. ISBN 082481892X.
- Kaiser, Stephen. "Introduction to the Japanese Writing System." In Kodansha's Compact Kanji Guide. Tokyo: Kondansha International, 1991. ISBN 4770015534.
- Mitamura, Joyce Yumi, and Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura. Let's Learn Kanji. Tokyo: Kondansha International, 1997. ISBN 4770020686.
- O'Neill, P. G. Essential Kanji: 2,000 Basic Japanese Characters Systematically Arranged For Learning And Reference. Weatherhill, 1987. ISBN 0834802228.
- Unger, J. Marshall. Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines. Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0195101669.
All links retrieved October 4, 2022.
- Basic information about Kanji. Japan Guide.
- Japanese Calligraphy Japanese dictionary .
- Change in Script Usage in Japanese: A Longitudinal Study of Japanese Government White Papers on Labor, discussion paper by Takako Tomoda in the Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, August 19, 2005.
- Kanji alive, an interactive tool for learning Kanji.
- Drill the kanji, Java flashcards (Asahi-net).
- Learn Japanese kanji, Learn to write Japanese Kanji from these online lessons.
- Kanji Clinic, a column appearing the third Tuesday of every other month in The Japan Times.
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