Suzuki, M. J. 2000.  Child-Rearing and Educational Practices in the United States and Japan: Comparative Perspectives.
Hyogo Kyoiku Daigaku Kenkyu Kiyo [Hyogo University of Teacher Education Journal], Vol 20 (Ser.1), pp.177-186.

Child-Rearing and Educational Practices in the United States and Japan: Comparative Perspectives

Masatoshi Jimmy Suzuki
Center for School Education Research
Hyogo University of Teacher Edcuatioin
2007-109 Yamakuni, Yashiro-cho, Kato-gun, Hyogo 673-1421 JAPAN


On either side of the Pacific Ocean, two countries are struggling to find proper ways to educate their children. In the United States, teachers are trying to involve students together in cooperative learning, while Japanese teachers are striving for ways to individualize their educational processes. It seems that there are two opposite directions of reform that the two countries seek.

Comparing these aims set for educational reforms, one may notice that these goals represent things each country perceives itself to lack in actual educational practices. In turn, individualism in the United States and group-oriented instruction in Japan characterize education in each country. The key to transform current practices might be drawn from careful observations of educational practices in early childhood programs.

At this point, the hypothesis is that American teachers place more emphasis on individualism, while Japanese teachers place more emphasis on group-consciousness. Emphasis on individualism comes from teachers' concern about the individual child's success in the American society, and emphasis on group-consciousness comes from their concern about children becoming successful team members in Japanese society. Subsequently, preschool teachers are thought to emphasize either individual competencies or interactions among peers. While teachers in both countries would probably regard these aspects as equally important, there are differences between American and Japanese teachers in the priority given to them. In the American context, the child's self-concept is the key idea, and main part of that self-concept is formed by children's sense of ability, skills of taking individual action, or assertiveness (Hess, Kashiwagi, Azuma, Price, & Dickson, 1980). In contrast, Japanese strive toward developing group-oriented consciousness among children. Some American researchers reported this tendency (for example, Hendry, 1986; Lewis, 1984, 1988; Peak, 1991; Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989).

In both countries, teachers are not the products of their own educational theories; rather, their beliefs and strategies of teaching are often affected by the social and cultural context of the country they reside in. The students of schools in both countries also actualize the value systems in the society, as the product of culture-bound child-rearing practices by parents.

To review child-rearing and educational practices in the United States and Japan, this paper will focus on three aspects: 1) historical and religious background of child rearing, 2) mothers' perceptions and attitudes toward appropriate child rearing and optimal child development, 3) teachers' perspectives about school-based socialization of young children, and 4) models of formation of self.

Historical and Religious Background of Child Rearing

American child-rearing practices have roots in certain sects of Christianity. Sunley (1955) reviewed early American literature to learn how children were raised during the mid-nineteenth century. He attributes reasoning for infant depravity and infant conversion to the doctrines of Protestant-Calvinist sects. Following such tradition, "complete obedience and submission were thus requisite if the child was to be kept from sin and evil (p.159)." While contemporary American teachers and mothers value independence of children (Shigaki, 1983; Hess, et. al., 1986), this seems to go in a completely different direction. There seems to be a paradox in regards to what is expected of American children. A comparative study of maternal teaching strategies by researchers of the United States and Japan reveals the structure of the maternal expectations (Hess, Kashiwagi, Azuma, Price, & Dickson, 1980). They concluded that mothers in Japan expect early mastery of the skills of: self-control, compliance with adult authority, and social courtesy to adults, while mothers in the United States desire early acquisition of skills of: individual action, standing up for one's own rights, and other forms of verbal assertion. Despite the fact that Japanese mothers expect children to have competency in dealing with adult authority, they are more likely to use methods such as creating a climate of expectations, or fostering close emotional ties and a sense of responsibility to the family. On the other hand, American mothers tend to use contingent rewards and direct instruction, emphasizing their adult authority in a direct sense.

In contrast, Japanese child-rearing philosophy has been more permissive since its origin in ancient Japanese folkways. In pre-modern Japanese folklore, children were thought to be close to the gods' world. An ancient Japanese saying, "nanatsu made ha kami no uchi [until seven years old, (children are) in the gods' domain]", reveals that the origin of this belief. Iijima (1991) laid out discussion on this theme in reviewing literature of Japanese folklore. According to Iijima (1991), with support of other pieces of literature in the field, the existence of children before seven (actually, before they turn six years old in the Western age counting system) is not regarded as of this side of the world, where living things reside, nor of the other side of the world; rather, children were thought to belong to subspace, or marginal space between the two worlds. Therefore, children were allowed to be free from any social restrictions. Formal initiations have been imposed after these years in the old Japanese folk society, taking the form of formal visit to local Shinto shrines, or being granted a membership of the children's group in the village.

Generosity in the attitude of Japanese parents toward children was also reported by Benedict (1947), coupled with the description of freedom given to the old. She compared how restriction and freedom were imposed during different periods of life in the United States and Japan. In Japan, "it is a great shallow U-curve with maximum freedom and indulgence allowed to babies and the old (p.254)." In the United States, "firm disciplines are directed toward the infant and these are gradually relaxed as the child grows in strength until a man runs his own life... The prime of life is with us the high point of freedom and initiative (p.254)." In contrast, Benedict (1947) pointed out that the prime of life among the Japanese is the time when they are restricted the most.

Yamaori (1982) also observes this U-curve in the Japanese life cycle. He speculated the symmetry of the images of children and the old in various Japanese myths. In these stories and metaphors, children and the old are treated as figures representing a whole life span, existence without gender difference, and personhood holding innocence. These two periods are both at the edge of life cycles; children are close to the creation of life, and the elderly are close to the closing of life. In the Japanese belief, which includes reincarnation as its crucial component, life cycles do not begin or end at one's birth or death, but continue beyond those points.

Combining these elements of life cycles in the Japanese belief system, the following model could be presented:

Suppose the sine curve represents one's life cycle. The plus side of the y-axis can be regarded as "kono yo", this side of the world, the realm of living things, and the minus side, as "ano yo", the other side of the world, and the realm for the dead and spiritual existence. Even though the distinction of Heaven and Hell had appeared in some Buddhist view of the spiritual world, more indigenous folk beliefs do not incorporate such a view. From this perspective, a dichotomy of adult versus child would lose its distinction, since every individual would be situated at some point in the reincarnation cycle.

To juxtapose the Western view of life cycle(s), the following model could be presented:

Images of God in monotheism such as Christianity often hold characteristics of perfection, almightiness, or completeness. Human beings are considered to be imperfect, powerless, or incomplete compared to God. This dichotomous image of God and the created human beings can be transferred to the dichotomous positions taken by adults and children or by teachers and students. Authorities of adults and teachers would be rationalized in this perfect-imperfect theorem.

The Hurried Mothers: In What Way?

Comparing two countries' child-rearing practices, mothers would be the most significant socialization agents among the family members. As parents, they all hope for their children's well-being; however, there are slight differences in mothers' expectations regarding their children's development between two countries. For instance, American mothers tend to expect infants to be more independent by putting them into separate beds, while Japanese mothers try to develop strong ties between them by sleeping with their children in the same bed (Caudill & Ploth, 1966). This kind of sleeping pattern, however, can be seen in many other cultures. In a cross-cultural study by Barry and Paxson, cited by Konner (1991), among 173 societies, 76 were reported as having mother and infant sharing a bed, while the United States has the middle-class cultural ideal that infants should sleep in a separate room. In the Japanese patterns of co-sleeping among family members, fathers are the ones who sleep in a separate room or bed, if there is not enough room for him (Caudill & Ploth, 1966). This implies that ties between children and mothers are stronger than ties between wives and husbands in the Japanese society.

Given these different co-sleeping patterns, it would be said that Japanese mothers do not regard independence of infants as an important aspect of their early developmental tasks. Doi (1962) delineated this structure using a Japanese word "amae", often translated as dependence or indulgence. In the Japanese context, "amae [dependence]" is not an undesirable trait of children; rather children should have right to be dependent on their close adults. Therefore, mothers are encouraged and expected to hold their infants as much as desired, so that those infants will have emotional security which is essential for their future social development (for discussion on this point, see Peak, 1991).

For American mothers, it may not be true that children should have such dependency. As stated before, Hess et al. (1986) reveals that American mothers expect their children to be independent at an earlier age, while Japanese mothers expect them to be emotionally mature. In this sense, American mothers and Japanese mothers are hurried in different aspects of children's social development. Such differences are witnessed in teachers' perspectives in later years of children's lives.

Indulging Teachers and Intolerant Teachers

Just as mothers' beliefs and, teachers' attitudes toward children's social behaviors in one country differ from those of the other. Japanese teachers, as described in works by Tobin, Wu, and Davidson (1986, 1989), tend to have more tolerance of their children's misbehavior or their noise level. Many of the first impressions of Japanese schools by Americans include the enormous noise level throughout the building (Tobin et al., 1989; Lewis, 1984, 1988; Peak, 1991). This phenomenon would be unthinkable if one held the stereotypical view of Japanese schools with regimented, obedient children. However, this is truly natural for Japanese, and thought to be desirable for children. One teacher's comment represents such a perspective of Japanese:

"Aren't children in America wild and noisy? The purpose of preschool is to give children a place to be children. To be a child is to be wild and noisy. Children growing up in Japan these days miss a chance to get to be real children. I think preschools should give them a chance." (Tobin, Wu, and Davidson, 1987, p. 66)

On Japanese teachers' mind, a good childhood features such unlimited freedom. Hendry (1986) summarized the characteristics of Japanese preschool education, which emphasize children's social development. According to his study, both teachers and parents in Japan regard preschools as an essential part of the development of the "social person", which is the result of children's overcoming their selfishness. In Japan, a good child, whose main attribute is compliance, is said to be a product of the parents' love and attention.

In turn, the emphasis on quietness in American preschools and kindergartens would appear to be too rigid for some Japanese teachers. Some Japanese kindergarten teachers who visited American classrooms indicated that teachers seemed to be intolerant to some behavior of children. On the other hand, the practices of Japanese teachers who emphasize group activity may be criticized as intolerant to individual differences.

What do teachers expect?

Shigaki (1983) investigated how teachers in Japan reflect their cultural values in young children. Her study had been done in a number of kindergartens and day nurseries (10 and 14 respectively, total of 24). The reply of Japanese teachers to Shigakifs question of what kind of child they were trying to raise, was "a ningen-rashii kodomo -- a human-like child" (Shigaki, 1983, p.15). She also listed clusters of values of Japanese kindergarten teachers as follows:

1. Fostering harmonious human relationships:

sympathetic-empathetic [omoiyari]

gentle [yasashii], kind [shinsetsu]

socially conscious [shakaisei]

cooperative-harmonious [kyochosei]

2. Qualities of effective training

patience, perseverance [nintai]

concentration [shuchuryoku]

3. Creativity

creativity [sozosei]

4. Thinking processes

inquisitiveness, studiousness [tankyu]

power of thinking [shikoryoku]

(Adapted from Shigaki, 1983, p.16)

Many items concerning children's social development reflect traditional Japanese values. "Shakaisei [social consciousness]" covers other items such as "omoiyari [empathy]", "kyochosei [cooperative-harmoniousness]", "shinsetsu [kindness]", and "yasashisa [gentleness]". While "nintai [patience, perseverance]" is connected to qualities of effective training, it is also one of the essential elements for children working cooperatively with others.

Shigaki (1983) also noted that at the time of this study, "sozosei [creativity]" had been emphasized, but teachers did not have a clear plan to implement the idea. There were some influences from practices other than theirs, such as the American education. Even thought Shigaki (1983) listed some values which American early childhood educators emphasized, such as honesty, self-confidence, and independence, a more detailed study should be done in order to delineate the American value systems permeated in the field of education.

White and LeVine (1986) collected Japanese terms which describe "ii ko [good child]". The following are those terms grouped by the author.

"sunao" [compliant, obedient, cooperative]

"otonashii" [mild, gentle]

"oriko" [obedient, smart]

"akarui" [bright eyed]

"genki" [active, spirited, energetic]

"hakihaki" [brisk, prompt, clear]

"gambaru" [to persist]

"gaman suru" [to endure hardship]

"hansei suru" [to reflect on one's weaknesses]

There are some difficulties of translating languages between two different cultural contexts. For instance, as White and Le Vine (1986) discuss, the word "sunao" is often translated as obedience, while its implication is for more positives than in its English translation. "Sunao" literally means pure ("su") and straight ("nao"), and does not mean that one obeys against his/her will. As in the Japanese belief in childrenfs inherent good nature, cooperation should come naturally from their own hearts.

Also, without a thorough explanation of the context, it may be difficult to understand connections between or among these characteristics. How can "sunao [compliant, obedient]" be coherent with other characteristics such as "genki [active, energetic]"? The Japanese society highly values empathy in human relationships that sometimes require non-verbal consensus between two communicators. In that kind of situation, one is expected to guess what the other has in his/her mind. Unlike the American view of good communication, which emphasize directly expressing one's own feelings, the Japanese think that a good listener would have good communication skills (Tobin et al., 1989). In other words, there is a basic difference between what is considered good social skills in the two countries.

There is a possibility of differences in the Zeitgeist inside the same country. Peak (1991) asked 16 mothers at a preschool in Japan about the goals their children should accomplish during their preschool years.

1. Learning to how to get along with others

"to become close to other children [tomodachi to nakayoku suru]"

"to develop good interpersonal relations [taijin kankei]"

"kindness [yasashisa]" or "empathy[omoiyari]"

"cooperation [kyochosei]"

"to learn the rules of group life"

"to learn to behave the way everyone else does [mina to onaji koto o suru]"

2. Learning to control egoistic or regressive behavior

"to learn that one can't always have one's own way[jibun no omou bakari niha naranai]"

"not to push for one's selfish desires [wagamama o tosanai]"

"endurance in the face of difficulty [gaman, nintai]"

"the differences between acceptable and unacceptable behavior [yatte ii, yate wa ikenai koto no kubetsu]"

"to take responsibility for one's own tasks [jibun no koto ha jibun de suru]"

"to listen to others' opinions before stating one's own [aite no kimochi o kiite kara iu]"

3. Developing a cheerful and robust personality

"good health, vigor, and cheerfulness [genki]"

"liveliness [kappatsu, akarui]"

"freedom and ease [oraka, nobi-nobi]"

Even though some traits are the similar to the ones other researchers reported (c.f. White and Le Vine, 1986), some of them did not appear in the list, such as "sunao [obedient]". The transformation of the Japanese value systems should be considered when the research is done on this aspect.

Group-Orientedness and Individual-Orientedness

In the preceding section, the characteristics Japanese teachers expect children to attain as results of socialization in schools were outlined. In this section, the characteristics of Japanese schools, including kindergartens and day nurseries, will be described in comparison to their American counterparts, particularly in orientation toward individuals and groups.

Some studies describe how Japanese preschools and elementary schools inculcate group-orientedness into children. Shigaki (1983) observed that preschools utilize uniforms or name tags shared by children in the same school to foster their group identification. In addition, she noted that school-wide activities or whole-class instructions were prevalent in most Japanese preschools. Tobin et al. (1989) also described that Japanese children receive not just uniforms but group identity, using words such as "Komatsudani Hoikuen no Midori-Gumi no Yoko(Yoko of the Green Class of Komatsudani Day-care Center) or Senzan Yochien no Tampopo-gumi no Chiseko (Chiseko of the Dandelion Class of Senzan Nursery School)" (p.41). Lewis (1986, 1991) illustrated the importance of experiencing group life for Japanese children by describing how children enter the preschools and become accustomed to peer interaction in the school setting where rules and regulations are not the same as at home.

Tobin et al. (1987) reported that Japanese teachers believed that a larger class size is more appropriate for children in order to develop a sense of group membership and effective peer interaction strategies. The class size described in this study is no larger than the Japanese norm, but is much larger than the usual size by American standards. Japanese teachers regard such a small number of children per teacher as jeopardizing effective interaction among their peers.

Tsuneyoshi (1989, 1992) summarized practices in elementary schools in the United States and Japan, focusing on the formation of social behavior patterns. She contrasted components of the Japanese schools and those of the American schools:

Components of the Japanese Model

General Theme: collective autonomy based on "spontaneous" cooperation with teacher guidance

1. Pupils and teachers are placed in close physical proximity with each other for long periods of time, necessitating frequent interaction among its members (most prominently, interaction among the classroom members); high level of classroom self- containment; institutionalization of frequent gatherings with collective goals, tasks, and reward structures both on a school level (e.g. school clubs, meetings) and classroom level (e.g. classroom meetings)

2. Non-academic activities are treated as part of education, expanding opportunities for cooperative activities

3. Use of extensive goals to coordinate collective behavior in very precise situations; goals are articulated and reinforced verbally and visually; children are guided to establish the goals which will guide their behavior.

4. Stress on learning the "proper" procedure for efficient collaboration

5. Institutionalization of small groups which are non-temporary; use of small groups in cooperative tasks

6. Clear roles, goals, and routinization of activities

7. The teacher assumes the role of the monitor (indirect control) by placing children in charge of organizing their peers and encouraging mutual support and surveillance (reward and sanction) among children using peer pressure; the teacher instructs both academic and non-academic activities

(Tsuneyoshi, 1989, p.163)

Components of the American Model

General Theme: Individualized academic assistance under direct teacher supervision

1. Lower levels of self-containment and preference to individualized activities with competitive goal and reward structure

2. Concentration on academic activities

3. Goals for behavior unrelated to the instruction of the formal curriculum are general guiding principles; goals are a reflection of teacher/school authority

4. Focus on the act itself and outcome rather than procedure (e.g. focus on eating in itself rather than how to eat)

5. Use of small groups are generally limited to academic activities; group arrangements are temporary; chores are allotted to individual children, not groups

6. Less regimentation of activities

7. The teacher assumes direct control; there is greater division of labor among school staff, and the classroom teacher specializes in teaching the subjects

(Tsuneyoshi, 1989, p.164)

These components of the school curriculum, including its hidden curriculum, correspond with those of preschools in both countries. Japanese children receive strong messages of the need for group effort, group goals, and a stable group membership. On the other hand, American schools encourage students to be more competitive, rewarding individual effort to achieve by their performance. In these different circumstances and atmosphere, one's perception of self could be formed in different directions. .

The Formation of Self-Concept: A Comparative View

From the viewpoint of psychoanalysis, Roland(1988) compared forms of self in India and Japan. His theory summarized the different patterns of self; the familial self, individualized self, and the expanding self. He specifically observed how family and other group lives play important roles in forming their perceptions of self in both India and Japan.

The self in the Japanese context seems to emphasize the group-self (or the we-self, using the Roland's term). In the Western societies, particularly in the American society, the individual self coupled with one's own rights and interest is juxtaposed with the group or society as a dichotomy. Such a collective self-concept would not be as readily accepted as in Japanese society. The high context cultures such as Japanese society see no dilemma or discontinuity between individual interest and the society to which that person belongs. This is also true for the concept of self-esteem. For Japanese people, it is the group that gives joy and grief to the individual.

Below is a proposal of the American and Japanese models of the formation of self:

In the American model, the core of self is affirmed in the early stages of life. Practices of child-rearing since early American history suggested corrections (or conversions) of children at their beginning of their lives. Letting babies sleep by themselves in separate beds accelerates their realization of independence from their mothers. In professional writings on early childhood education, importance of formation of self-concept is often referred to. These efforts by adults imply the theory that children should form a firm sense of self as the core of their perception of the world. Thereafter, children are allowed to expand their horizons elsewhere; thus they would be granted more freedom and choice as Benedict (1947) described. The extent of one's ability and the pursuits of one's own will are not limited by external agencies such as the state or a society. Directions and degrees of one's action vary for each individual. Thus, the shape of the boundary also has many variations depending on the person.

In contrast, the Japanese model has a clearer limit, particularly at the final stage. One's self is defined by external agencies, such as a society at large, a family, or sometimes a company s/he works for. The outer boundary represents such expectations: for example, a whole-rounded personality, and compliance to the surrounding world. The area toward the center represents their youth. At that time, children are granted free and non-threatening atmosphere, and later as they approach closer to the boundary, more restraints are put upon them (c.f. Benedict, 1947). Even though directions and degrees of one's own action may vary, they are also regarded and measured from the point of expectations, namely the boundary.

Other aspects which influence the formation of self is summarized into Table 1:



Table 1

Context of the culture Low-context High-context
Direction Extroverted  Introverted
Goals of life No Clear limitation: 

Reaching as soon as possible

Goal = infinite (God)

Clear limitation:

Process is more valued

Process = infinite

(reincarnation cycles)

Context of the culture is discussed by Bennett (1990), summarizing Edward Hall's theories concerning the dimensions of culture. The low-context culture holds the following characteristics: reasoning incorporates linear logic; role behavior expectations are less clear; fragile interpersonal bonds are due to geographic mobility; and individuals are first, groups come second. The high-context culture holds characteristics such as: reasoning incorporates comprehensive logic; conformity to role expectation; stronger personal bonds, with bending of individual interests for the sake of relationships; and members of the group are first and foremost (Bennett, 1990, p.55).

Evaluations of individual boundaries are done in opposite directions: in an extroverted direction in the United States, and in an introverted direction in Japan. The Japanese society sees the limitation of life goals of individuals, while the American society sees the unlimited possibility of individual accomplishment. Since goals are set in the Japanese context, more emphasis is placed on how one reaches his/her goals. In the American context, there is no set expectation for individuals to reach his/her goals, so one is encouraged to proceed as quickly as possible. The concept of infinity (represented by the image of God) is defined as perfection in the United States, while it is defined as repeating processes in Japan, represented by the reincarnation cycles of life, allowing a person to put more effort into a task.

These models are tentative ones, and therefore should be improved by gathering more evidence and information. At any rate, these form a foundation for comparative studies on childhood education in the United States and Japan.


As reviewed in this paper, there are some striking differences between American and Japanese child-rearing and educational practices. In summary, the American practices seem to focus on development of individualism, and those of Japan seem to emphasize the development of group consciousness and strong interpersonal bonds. Such differences would come from societal and cultural expectations, which may be rooted in their historical and religious backgrounds. Without an understanding of these aspects, it may be difficult to detect the reasons why these two countries follow different paths.

Researchers of child-rearing and educational practices would benefit from comparative perspectives, particularly the studies of Japanese schools by American researchers that demonstrated the advantages of being outsiders of the target culture. On the other hand, few studies have been done looking at American educational practices through the eyes of an outsider. Anthropological perspectives should be implemented to studies not only of non-Western cultures, but of those of Western cultures as well.

The Japanese educational system recently received the benefit of being observed by people with other perspectives. For example, problems concerning "kikokushijo [returning children from abroad]" had been reported in various Japanese schools since the 1970's (Tokyo Gakugei). Discrimination against such students arose because Japanese children who had been carefully socialized both explicitly and implicitly felt that returning children from abroad who look the same as they did act like untrained, foreign children was unacceptable. Tolerance of different opinions and behavior was never in the agenda of Japanese socialization. In the Japanese style of socialization, as reviewed in preceding sections, much of the institutional effort is dedicated to the early stages of a child's school experience. This results in tremendous difficulty for children who are entering the Japanese educational system at any point after preschool and the lower primary grades. It is nothing but unfortunate for those returning children; however, ironically, they contribute to the Japanese society by acting as a mirror, reflecting the current system.

White (1987) claims that the Japanese kind of social norms, called "Japanese common sense," is most evident in the subject area, moral education, which is a component of the Japanese national curriculum. Even though moral education has not been implemented as a subject area in Japanese preschools, such common sense itself is the main purpose of early childhood education. As Peak (1991) described, preschools in Japan have the important responsibility of preparing children for their forthcoming group lives in the society outside of their warm, nurturing homes.

While the Japanese socialization process has been outlined, the American socialization process should be equally recapitulated. However, a few points should be considered for conducting such research. One is to avoid ethnocentrism as much as possible. The word ethnocentrism could often be substituted by Euro-centrism, as claimed by some studies based on Western individualistic assumptions (Roland, 1988). For example, differences in formation of the self may not be able to explain conditions of quality of one's life, or motivation toward a better life without considering cultural contexts posed before the individual. At the same time, researchers of non-Western cultures should be aware of their frame of reference (this kind of discussion can be seen extensively in literature on ethnographic research).

Another point is that one should have a broad perspective regarding the structure of culture. For example, classic works of Kohn (1959, 1977) reveal that conformity and individualism in parenting are traced to class differences. Even though a part of his study was done in two different countries, Italy and the United States, the same relationship was found between parenting style and class difference. Since culture and society are both dynamic phenomena, one should be aware of the change in societies, such as in the economy, or in the political climate. Common features across cultures should also be addressed. A discussion about the context of culture described by Bennett (1990) would be feasible in comparative studies.

Most importantly, these cross-cultural studies in education would be beneficial not only to both cultures compared, but also to all other societies that value education as an important asset of their own people.


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