World Cultures

A Japanese bride and groom hold their champagne glasses during a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony. Japanese weddings are elaborately staged and usually held in banquet halls or hotels.
Irrigated fields in front of a housing development near Kyoto. Only about 15 percent of Japan is level enough for agriculture.
Downtown Hiroshima and the memorial of the atomic bomb. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to unconditional surrender in World War II.
Women in costume at the Needle Festival in Tokyo.
A farmhouse in Hokkaido. Only a small portion of Japan's work force is employed in agriculture.
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Culture Name



Identification. The Japanese names, Nihon and Nippon, are alternative readings of written characters that mean "origin of the sun" ("Land of the Rising Sun").

European names for the country probably originated with Marco Polo, who most likely adopted a name for Japan used in a Chinese dialect.

The name "Yamato" is used by archaeologists and historians to distinguish Japanese artistic genres from their Chinese counterparts. When used as a contemporary term, Yamato has strong associations with the imperial system, and thus with conservative nationalist ideologies.

Contemporary Japan is considered a highly homogeneous society, but regional variation in social and cultural patterns has always been significant. Pride of place and identification with local cultural patterns remain strong. Japanese people often attribute personality traits to people from particular regions, and regional identity often is expressed through local culinary specialties and dialects.

Location and Geography. The Japanese archipelago consists of four major islands and over six-thousand minor ones, covering approximately 234,890 square miles (378,000 square kilometers), and has enormous climatic variation. The four major islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The southern island group of Okinawa (the Ryukyu Islands) is geographically, historically, and culturally distinct.

Japan faces the Pacific Ocean along the entire eastern and southern coastline. To the north and west are the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, and the East China Sea. The Korean peninsula is the closest point on the Asian mainland. Japanese life has always been oriented toward the ocean. The currents that converge offshore create fertile and varied fishing grounds.

The climate is shaped by Asian-Pacific monsoon cycles, which bring heavy rains from the Pacific during the summer and fall, followed by icy winds from North Asia during the winter that dump snow in the mountains.

There are approximately 1,500 volcanoes, and because the islands lie on major fault lines, earthquakes are common occurrences. Only about 15 percent of the land is level enough for agriculture, and so the population density in coastal plains and valleys is extremely high. Because of the steep mountains, there are almost no navigable inland waterways.

Demography. The population in 1999 was 127,000,000. The country is heavily urbanized, and urban areas have extremely high population densities. According to the 1995 census, 81 million people (65 percent) live in urban areas; that constitutes only 3 percent of the land area.

During the last 150 years of industrialization and economic development, the population has grown from around thirty million to its present size. This increase occurred as a result of a rapid demographic transition characterized by an enormous movement of people from rural to urban areas, dramatic decreases in infant mortality, increases in longevity, widespread reliance on birth control, and transformations of family composition from large, multigenerational extended households to small nuclear families.

Life expectancy is the highest in the world, and the birthrate has been declining dramatically. Because of these trends, the population is projected to peak early in the twenty-first century and then shrink.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official and predominant language is Japanese (Nihongo). After the



Meiji Restoration in 1868, the government attempted to create a strong centralized state. Linguistic unification was a step toward shaping the national identity. Through the national educational system and the military, a dominant national dialect replaced local and regional dialects. The resulting dialect, hyojungo ("the standard language"), was based on the linguistic patterns of Tokyo's samurai ("warrior") classes and has become the norm in the educational system, the mass media, government, and business.


Japanese is linguistically related to Korean, and both languages are thought to be members of the Ural-Altaic family. Despite similarity in syntax, vocabulary, and grammar, the contemporary languages are mutually unintelligible. Japanese also has close connections to various Oceanic (Malayo-Polynesian) languages, suggesting that in prehistoric times the archipelago may have been settled by populations from Oceania as well as from the Asian mainland.

Although Chinese and Japanese are fundamentally unrelated and differ in phonology, syntax, and grammar, Chinese has had enormous impact on the Japanese language and civilization. The Chinese system of writing was introduced along with Buddhism in the sixth century, and Chinese orthography was used to transform Japanese into a written language. Until the nineteenth century, stylized versions of written Chinese remained a hallmark of elite culture.

The introduction of Chinese characters 1,500 years ago established semantic and orthographic systems that make Japanese one of the most complicated languages in the world. The contemporary language relies on an enormous number of words and terms that are Sino-Japanese in origin as well as words derived from indigenous Japanese terminology. Most written characters can be read in contemporary Japanese with both a Sino-Japanese pronunciation and a Japanese reading.

In addition to the adaptation of Chinese characters to preexisting Japanese vocabulary, two phonetic systems of writing were developed after the ninth century. Those orthographies made it possible to write Chinese phonetically and to write spoken Japanese terms that had no equivalent Chinese characters. Literacy therefore became attainable for people not educated in the Chinese classics, and many masterpieces of classical Japanese literature, including the Tale of Genji, were written in those scripts.

The writing system romaji ("Roman characters") is used to transcribe Japanese into the Roman alphabet. Romaji is widely used on signs, in advertising, and in the mass media. An alternative system, adopted but not mandated by the government, is much less commonly used.

Although spoken and written forms of Japanese are largely standardized throughout the nation, there are several linguistically distinctive ethnic and regional dialects. The most distant dialects are those spoken in the Okinawan islands. Okinawan dialects are considered by many linguists to be distinct from Japanese. After the Kingdom of Ryukyu was annexed in 1879, the national government tried to replace the use of the Ryukyu language with standard Japanese, but the isolation of the islands, their lack of development before World War II, and the American occupation until 1970, enabled Okinawans to maintain the use of their dialects.

Other linguistic minorities include the Korean-Japanese and the Ainu. Most Korean-Japanese are bilingual or, especially among the younger generations, monolingual speakers of Japanese. There are only a handful of native speakers of Ainu.

Symbolism. National identity and unity are formally symbolized by a number of conventional icons and motifs, including the cherry blossom, the red and white national flag portraying the rising sun, and the chrysanthemum. These symbols have contested meanings because they are associated with the imperial family and World War II. The chrysanthemum, for example, serves as the crest of the imperial family, and cherry blossoms were invoked in wartime propaganda to represent the glory of kamikaze suicide pilots. Progressive political groups resist flying the national flag and singing the national anthem (Kimigayo) because of their wartime associations.

Stereotypical images that are deployed in foreign representations of Japan, such as Mount Fuji, geisha, and samurai, are not regarded by Japanese people as symbols of contemporary identity.

Contemporary Japanese culture emphasizes symbolic expressions of local or regional identity. For example, local identity and pride are commonly expressed through "famous local products." Almost every village, town, and city is famous for something, often a locally distinctive folk craft, a local culinary specialty, or a traditional song or performing art.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The peoples of the Jomon period (8000 B.C.E. –300 B.C.E. ) were Neolithic hunting-and-gathering bands. During the Yayoi period (ca. 300 B.C.E. – ca. 300 C.E. ) extensive cultural contact with and migration from the Asian mainland occurred, and a society arose that was based on irrigated rice cultivation. The basic genetic stock of the population and the fundamental patterns of the language were established during that period.

Japan came to the attention of China in the fourth century. During the Yamato period (300 C.E. –552 C.E. ), small chieftainships coalesced into a rudimentary state-level society. The mythologies of the indigenous Japanese religion, Shinto, date from that period; they intertwine accounts of the divine origins of the islands with chronicles of struggles among gods whose descendants eventually came to be regarded as the imperial family, which claims an unbroken line of descent since this period.

In 552, emissaries from the Korean kingdom of Paekche established contact with the Yamato rulers. They introduced Buddhism and thus brought Japan into systematic contact with Chinese civilization. Almost every aspect of Japanese life—agricultural technology, written language, philosophy, architecture, poetry, medicine, and law—was transformed. The Yamato state adopted the conventions of the Chinese imperial court and tried to model society along the lines of Chinese civilization.

In the late eighth century, a new capital was established at what is now Kyoto, and during the Heian period (794–1185) Japanese classical civilization blossomed. Kyoto became the aristocratic center of a refined culture that was influenced by contact with China but developed independent and sophisticated aesthetic, literary, and artistic styles. The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel, epitomizes the culture of the Heian period.

By the end of the Heian period, economic, social, and military power had shifted to provincial landholders and warriors. From the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185–1333) the imperial court appointed a Shogun: a supreme military commander who acted in the name of the imperial court but was in fact the supreme political authority. Several successive hereditary dynasties occupied this position until 1868. Central control was in the hands of the Shogun's court, while regional lords governed individual provincial domains and commanded the personal loyalty of warrior retainers (samurai). The Kamakura period and the following periods were characterized by a warrior culture, including the development of Japanese forms of austere Zen Buddhism, martial arts, and the philosophic code of warrior life now called Bushido.

The medieval period ended in a century of civil war lasting from the late fifteenth to the late sixteenth century. Contacts with the West began in the mid-sixteenth century with the arrival of the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier. The introduction of Western weaponry hastened the consolidation of power among a few increasingly dominant warlords who unified the country and ended the civil war.

In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu decisively defeated most of the remaining opponents, and established a dynasty that lasted until 1868. For over 260 years, Japan experienced political stability, peace, and rising prosperity. Ieyasu established his capital in Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1868), which commanded the Kanto region and was distant from the imperial court in Kyoto. The Tokugawa regime ruled through a complicated network of alliances with approximately 250 regional lords, some closely allied to the Tokugawa and others in opposition but permanently subdued. Each fief retained its own castle town, and as a political strategy, some fiefs maintained a high degree of economic, social, and cultural autonomy.

During the Tokugawa period, culture and society became codified and somewhat uniform across the country. Patterns established during this period shaped, propelled, and constrained the country's modernization after 1868. By the 1630s, the Tokugawa regime had ruthlessly suppressed Christian communities and broken off most ties with European nations. It disarmed the peasantry and imposed rigid household registration requirements to keep the population spatially and socially immobile. Traffic along the great highways was scrutinized at heavily guarded checkpoints. Trade was controlled through feudal guilds, and detailed sumptuary regulations governed the lives of all social classes.

These social policies reflected the ideology of neo-Confucianism, which valued social stability and the social morality of ascribed status. Tokugawa social structure was organized around principles of hierarchy, centralized authority, and collective responsibility. Individuals were expected to subordinate themselves to the specific obligations of their ascribed social roles, and virtue consisted of perfecting one's ability to fit the requirements of one's role. In the upper reaches of society, the kinship system upheld neo-Confucian ideals of the family as a microcosm of the social order. Neo-Confucianism also established a rigid system of ranked social classes: warriors, peasants, artisans, and merchants. Status reflected ideals of social utility, not wealth. Beyond those four hereditary official classes, Tokugawa society included a tiny stratum of imperial nobility, a large clerical establishment, and a population of outcastes.

Throughout this period, regional castle towns and the major urban centers under the direct control of the Tokugawa authorities became increasingly integrated into a national economic, social, and cultural network. Urban economic power increased over the agrarian sectors. This undermined Tokugawa political power, which depended on the control of agricultural land and taxes.

In the cities, bourgeois culture flourished: kabuki drama, bunraku puppet theater, sumo wrestling, ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and geisha entertainers

Irrigated fields in front of a housing development near Kyoto. Only about 15 percent of Japan is level enough for agriculture.

were all creations of the urban culture. Japanese cities equaled or surpassed their European counterparts in infrastructure and public amenities, but Japanese urbanites lacked a political voice commensurate with their economic and cultural capital.


Tokugawa social patterns and institutions laid the foundations for modernization. The urban merchant classes stimulated the development of sophisticated national economic institutions and the beginning of industrial production. Literacy and computational ability were widespread among samurai, merchants, and the upper levels of the peasantry. The samurai became a hereditary class of bureaucrats whose qualifications for leadership depended on education. Society was characterized by discipline and regulation.

The Tokugawa dynasty surrendered its authority to the imperial court in 1868 after a long struggle. The political crisis included major internal economic problems and the unexpected confrontation with the Western powers precipitated by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and a squadron of American warships in 1853. Opponents of the Tokugawa demanded that it take a firm stand against foreign intrusions and then overthrew the regime. The result was a largely peaceful coup known as the Meiji Restoration, which marked the beginning of the nation's modernization.

The Meiji regime reconnected imperial rule with civil political authority and military power. Under the nominal leadership of Emperor Meiji, the imperial government was run by the young samurai who had defeated the Tokugawa dynasty. They were fiercely nationalistic and attempted to bring Japanese society into parity with European and North American powers. Society was thoroughly transformed as the leaders created a strong centralized state centered on the imperial line, built a modern military, avoided European colonization, began imperialist expansion into other parts of East Asia, and launched industrialization and economic development.

Although they had come to power under the slogan "Revere the Emperor; Expel the Barbarians," the Meiji leaders built a strong state and society along the lines of an industrial European country. Meiji leaders balanced Western powers again each other to avoid domination by any single patron. The government sent delegations to study legal institutions, commerce and industry, science and technology, military affairs, architecture, arts, and medicine in Europe and North America. Foreign experts were hired, and young Japanese were sent to study at Western universities. The new slogan was "Eastern values; Western science."

Meiji leaders also emphasized the imperial family as the foundation of the state and strengthened institutions and ideologies, including Shinto religious beliefs, that supported the imperial family. From the late nineteenth century until 1945, an official cult (State Shinto) dominated the national ideology. The Meiji grafted the trappings of contemporary Western monarchies onto the sacred imperial institution, creating a court nobility that resembled European aristocracies. Samurai ranks were abolished in 1872. The centrality of the state was strengthened by a new national educational system, and a growing military.

Treaties signed by the Tokugawa regime had created zones where Western citizens lived independently of Japanese laws. These "treaty ports" were important sources of Western influence, and many schools, hospitals, and other institutions created by foreign missionaries became prominent. The system of extraterritoriality, however, was considered degrading, and the government tried to transform social life and culture in ways that would command the respect of the Western powers.

Japan rapidly built a Western-style navy and army and attempted to expand its influence in East Asia. It annexed the Ryukyu islands, took control of Formosa (Taiwan) after its success in the Sino-Japanese War, and was granted equal status with the Western powers in dealings with China. Extraterritoriality ended in 1899, and victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905)—resulted in the possession of several islands north of Hokkaido and Russia's extensive interests in Manchuria. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. By the 1920s, Japan considered itself a world military power.

This military might was made possible by industrialization after the 1870s. The state built industries such as shipyards, iron smelters, and spinning mills and sold them to well-connected entrepreneurs. Domestic companies became consumers of Western technology and applied it to the production of goods that could be sold cheaply on the world market. Industrial zones grew enormously, and there was steady migration from the countryside to the newly industrializing centers. Industrialization was accompanied by the development of a national railway system and modern communications.

In addition to state-sponsored innovations such as uniform national education and the creation of a single national dialect, popular interest in Western life increased throughout the Meiji period, starting at elite levels and eventually extending to almost all social groups, especially in the largest cities. Not all social changes were modeled on the West, however. The goal of the state was to promote nationalist ideologies centered on imperial institutions and the Shinto religion and to preserve a strong consciousness of national identity. Many aspects of tradition and history were codified. From Shinto to sumo, from the celebration of political loyalty and social conformity to the organization of kinship patterns, almost all aspects of life were suffused with consciousness of the national identity.

Nation building and industrialization were complete by the early twentieth century. During the Taisho period (1912–1926), the political and intellectual climate became more liberal, shaped by the large new middle classes that formed in major urban areas. Mass media and popular culture developed in parallel to the Jazz Age in the West. Political democracy was encouraged; and leftist groups agitated for political freedom and workers' rights.

With the beginning of the Showa period in 1926 (when Hirohito, the Emperor Showa, succeeded to the throne), society shifted increasingly toward the right. The military assumed a larger role in politics, and conservative forces made international "respect," military expansion, and the sanctity of imperial institutions the cornerstones of public life. Throughout the 1930s, military and colonial adventures in Manchuria and elsewhere in China led to open war, and society became increasingly militarized. The war in China grew more intense, and international condemnation of Japanese atrocities poisoned relations with the Western nations. Japan joined with Italy and Germany in the Axis because its military planners saw the United States and its interests in Asia as inimical.

Diplomatic relations with the Western powers grew worse, and on 7 December 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Japan almost simultaneously attacked all the major territories claimed by Western colonial powers, including American possessions such as Hawaii and the Philippines. The stated goal was to create a "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" in which Western imperialism would be banished.

In the first year and a half of the Pacific War, Japanese forces were on the offensive, but by 1944, Allied forces were recapturing the Western Pacific. Allied naval victories destroyed Japan's fleets and shipping, and bombing raids began in 1944. They destroyed most of the domestic infrastructure and took an enormous toll on civilians. Anticipating that an invasion of Japan would be a bloodbath, American military planners proceeded with the development of the atomic bomb. American military

A Japanese bride and groom hold their champagne glasses during a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony. Japanese weddings are elaborately staged and usually held in banquet halls or hotels.

scientists developed the atomic bomb in secrecy, and it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the Allies called for Japan's unconditional surrender. On 15 August 1945, the Emperor announced that his government had capitulated.


From 1945 until 1952, Japan was occupied by Allied troops under the command of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. The early postwar years were a time of massive rebuilding. Millions of people were homeless, and millions more were repatriated from the former colonies. The economy was shattered, and mass starvation was a threat. Disillusionment with the cultural and social frameworks of prewar and wartime life was widespread.

The Occupation launched social and cultural reforms, including a democratic constitution and political system, universal adult suffrage, the emperor's renunciation of divinity and separation of religion from state control, agricultural land reform, the dismantling of major economic and industrial combines, the expansion of education, language reform, and expanded civil liberties.

By the mid-1950s, the initial reconstruction of society and economy had largely been accomplished, and the government had built a conservative consensus that the national priorities were economic growth and social stability, which would be achieved through the close cooperation of business and a government directed by bureaucratic elites. After the late 1950s, this "developmental state" created the social, economic, and political contexts in which ordinary people could experience middle-class urban lifestyles.

The characteristics of postwar urban middle-class life included small nuclear families in which mothers focused on their children's education and from which fathers were largely absent because of their occupational obligations. The typical white-collar urban family was secure in the knowledge that lifetime employment was the norm.

In the 1960s and 1970s, success in the domestic economy began to be felt around the world as consumer products from Japan began to dominate overseas markets. Economic growth was politically unassailable, but the costs in terms of pollution, declines in the agricultural sector, and massive urban growth without adequate infrastructure were enormous. Grassroots movements developed to combat problems spawned by the developmental ethos; those movements were limited in their effectiveness.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Japan experienced unprecedented prosperity. Riding massive trade surpluses and producing top-quality products, the economy was regarded as a model for other industrial and postindustrial societies. That economic strength allowed investment in overseas assets. The affluence of ordinary consumers manifested itself in a growing market for luxury items, conspicuous consumption, and very short product cycles. Although work schedules permitted little leisure time, travel became a desired commodity. High levels of disposable income, however, masked the astronomical cost of real estate and the growing division in urban society between the wealthy and the poor.

Political leaders have rarely acknowledged Japan's role as a conqueror of neighboring countries, and the nation has not expressed explicit regret. National self-identity after the war focused instead on the pursuit of peace, and many Japanese stress their own country's losses. Because of the intensity of pacifism in contemporary society, opposition to the military runs very strong, and the article in the constitution that prohibits military involvement is of great symbolic importance.

The Showa Emperor died in 1989, succeeded by his son, who became the Emperor Heisei. His coronation and the elaborate Shinto rites that accompanied it were reminders of prewar rituals that evoked unwelcome memories of nationalism. The Heisei period (1989 to the present) began with great hopes that it would usher in the "Japanese century," but the era of prosperity sputtered to a halt. The Heisei period has thus far been a time of unremitting economic stagnation. Simultaneously, the political system has been shaken by the breakup of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 1993 and by widespread corruption scandals. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is a general sense that the postwar model of a stable, prosperous, and well-governed society has run its course.

National Identity. Throughout the Meiji period, the national government attempted to create institutions that would unify the Japanese people as citizens of a new nation-state and erase local identities and regional loyalties. The establishment of a national educational system and a national conscript army, the growth of an efficient transportation system, and the development of mass media significantly hastened the homogenization of regional differences, as did industrialization, urban development, and economic and social change. Today, variations in most aspects of daily life are more likely to reflect urban, suburban, and rural differences than regionalism.

Alternating currents of isolation from and embrace of foreign cultures form a central strand in contemporary conceptions of the national identity. Ideas about Japanese culture frequently weigh the relative contributions of indigenous inspiration and adaptations of foreign practices in forming the national culture.

Ethnic Relations. Several distinct minority populations together total less than 5 percent of the population. The minority populations whose identities have regional dimensions include Korean-Japanese, who are spread across the country but are most prominent in Osaka and other parts of the Kansai region; Okinawans, mainly in Okinawa but also with a sizable community in and around Osaka: Ainu, most of whom live in Hokkaido; and the so-called outcaste population, who are found primarily in the Kansai region. There is a small population of Chinese-Japanese, mainly from Taiwan.

The rivalry between the Kanto region (Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures) and the Kansai region (centered on Osaka and Kyoto) is the most prominent expression of regionalism. The two regions are economic and political as well as social and cultural competitors. Tokyo is the national capital and the center of political, economic, and cultural life; Osaka is also a major economic center, and Kyoto was the imperial capital for a thousand years. In describing the opposition between the two regions, people point to different personalities, orientations toward tradition, openness to social change, and ways of expressing emotions. The two regions have markedly different dialects, and linguistic differences are sometimes taken as evidence of cultural sophistication, level of education, politeness, personality, and other social traits.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Japan today is a highly urbanized society. Cities have a long history, beginning with the first imperial capitals, such as Nara and Kyoto. Those cities were patterned after the Chinese T'ang dynasty capital of Ch'ang-an and reflected the architectural principles of the Chinese imperial court, with walls and gates enclosing a checkerboard grid of streets organized around the institutions of imperial power and centered on an imperial compound.

During the civil wars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the characteristic urban place was the castle town, a fortified city that served as headquarters for the provincial warlord. Castle towns

Rows of apartment houses in Osaka. Approximately 65 percent of Japan's population lives in cities.

remained the key regional administrative and economic centers throughout the Tokugawa period. They were spatially segregated along class lines, and their spatial layout and social organization put priority on the defensive needs and domestic convenience of the lord and his retinue.


After the Meiji restoration, many castle towns declined as migration to new centers of industrial and economic opportunity led to a reconfiguration of the urban network. In several "treaty ports," enclaves of Western and Asian traders formed thriving cosmopolitan communities. Industrialization centered on established cities such as Tokyo and Osaka but also on towns and cities that flourished around mining, shipbuilding, and textiles. The corridor along the Pacific seaboard between Tokyo and Osaka gradually emerged as the central axis of the industrial complex.

Almost all the cities were heavily damaged by bombing during World War II. They were rebuilt quickly after the war, and a massive urban migration occurred throughout the 1950s and 1960s as a result of large-scale industrialization and economic development. By the 1960s, urban sprawl had created enormous megalopolises. Roughly a quarter of the population lives in the greater Tokyo region, and less than 10 percent of the people live in rural areas. During the 1950s and 1960s, the concentration of heavy industrial facilities in densely populated areas caused environmental pollution on an unprecedented scale. Quality of life issues, including population density, environmental pollution, and the quality of the housing stock, continue to be problems.

The earliest forms of architecture are reflected in the austere simplicity of some Shinto shrines. This style is thought to reflect prehistoric influences from Oceania and Austronesia. Its features include floors raised off the ground and steeply pitched roofs with deep overhanging eaves.

In the sixth century, Chinese architectural styles were adopted, particularly for Buddhist temples and imperial structures. The construction style of such buildings proved to be resistant to earthquakes.

During the aristocratic Heian period, a distinctively Japanese architectural style began to develop. Its features include the use of thick straw mats on floors, the use of sliding and folding screens to partition larger spaces, and the use of verandas and covered walkways to link rooms. Many elements of this architectural style were adapted to more ordinary living circumstances, and by the Tokugawa period, samurai and wealthy merchant homes included many of these elements.

Since World War II, housing has been built along Western lines. Many homes still have traditional elements, but the majority of living space is equipped with generically modern furnishings. Contemporary apartments and condominiums are even less likely than single-family dwellings to have Japanese-style rooms.

Contemporary cultural attitudes toward and uses of space rely on clear distinctions between public and private spaces defined along the dimensions of sight, sound, touch, and smell. In crowded public spaces, bodies are pressed together without comment, while in many private settings it would be unthinkable to touch a stranger.

Within private settings that are used and occupied by a group of people on an ongoing basis, clear spatial patterns reflect the internal hierarchies of social position within the group and between the group and others.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. An extremely varied diet makes use of culinary elements from around the world, including the cuisines of Korea, China, South and Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. However, notions of "traditional" Japanese cuisine are an important element of cultural identity.

The defining characteristics include ingredients, styles of preparation, and aesthetics. White rice is a staple component of virtually every meal; other typical ingredients include soy products and seafood that is served grilled or raw. Vegetables and seafood are often prepared as pickles. The cuisine does not rely on intense flavorings. Meals ideally contrast flavors and textures among different dishes and include many small dishes rather than a main course. The visual presentation of a meal is important.

During the premodern period, meat was proscribed under the tenets of Buddhism. Vegetarian cuisine prepared in Zen monasteries relied heavily on soy products, including miso soup and tofu.

Since the late nineteenth century, tastes have been influenced by foreign cuisines, many of which have been adapted and absorbed into the national diet. Since World War II, consumption of dairy products, beef, bread, and other Western foods has increased dramatically.

Eating habits have been reshaped by changes in domestic life. Families eat fewer meals together, and sophisticated kitchen appliances have transformed domestic cooking. Food manufactures have created vast numbers of prepared dishes.

Basic Economy. The cornerstone of the economy is high-quality, high-technology manufacturing, with a focus on exports.

Commercial Activities. The wholesale, retail, and service sectors have grown dramatically as domestic standards of living have risen. Despite economic problems in the 1990s, Japan continues to be a major financial market. Primary sectors such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry have declined enormously since World War II. In 1999, less than 5 percent of the labor force was employed in agriculture, compared to 21 percent in manufacturing, 23 percent in the wholesale and retail sectors, and 26 percent in service industries.

Major Industries. Keiretsu —groups of companies that are closely linked through overlapping stock ownership, preferential supply relationships, coordination of economic activities, and extensive subcontracting relationships—play a central role in the economy. The flagships of such groups are heavy industrial firms, banks, and general trading companies, and the largest keiretsu control dozens of firms in sectors that range from mining to mass media.

Since World War II, business and government have maintained extremely close ties. Government agencies set both broad economic policies and measures targeted at specific sectors, and business generally cooperates with government planning. The business establishment has been a major backer of the Liberal Democratic Party, and its successors.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Japanese society has been portrayed as being essentially classless or as having a class structure in which very tiny elite groups and underclasses bracket an enormous number of middle-class people. However, there are significant social differences among rural and urban residents, including family composition, educational attainment, and labor force participation. Within the urban population, social differentiation exists between the white-collar, salaried "new middle class," blue-collar industrial workers, and the self-employed petty entrepreneurial classes of shopkeepers and artisans.

The neo-Confucian class system was abolished in the 1870s, but remnants of it continue to influence cultural attitudes toward social position, including the entitlement of elite groups to lead society and ideas about conformity to social expectations. Other legacies of premodern stratification include the continued existence of "outcaste" populations. This "untouchable" status results

A farmhouse in Hokkaido. Only a small portion of Japan's work force is employed in agriculture.

from stigmas associated with Shinto and Buddhist beliefs about purity and pollution. The status is hereditary, but the people so stigmatized are indistinguishable from other residents in terms of language, ethnic background, or physical appearance.


Other marginalized urban social categories include a large floating population of day laborers and migrant laborers, who have been joined by an increasing number of illegal and quasi-legal immigrants from China, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Symbols of Social Stratification. One of the most important determinants of social stratification is educational attainment. Japanese people refer to a "credential" society, and educational credentials have often been regarded as the most important criteria for employment and marriage, particularly among the urban middle classes.

Political Life

Government. Japan has been a constitutional monarchy since the Meiji constitution of 1890. In 1947, a new constitution was drafted by advisers to the Allied occupation forces and adopted by the parliament. This constitution guarantees equality of the sexes, extends suffrage to all adult citizens, underscores the emperor's postwar renunciation of claims to divine status, and assigns the emperor a symbolic role as head of state.

Japan's parliament, known as the Diet, consists of the House of Councilors and the House of Representatives. Upper House members are elected from national and local constituencies; Lower House member are elected from local constituencies. The political power of the Lower House is much greater than that of the Upper House; prime ministers are elected from the Lower House, and most cabinet positions are also filled from the membership of that chamber.

At the local level, each prefecture has an elected governor and an elected assembly. Prefectures have limited authority over taxation and legal codes and act primarily as agents of the national government. Cities, towns, and villages have elected chief executives and assemblies. Municipalities also have limited autonomous powers and are primarily providers of daily services. Education, police, and fire protection are organized around municipal units but are controlled or standardized at the national level.

Administratively, the country is divided into forty-seven prefectures that vary in terms of their political structures. There are forty-three ordinary prefectures, three metropolitan prefectures with special administrative powers, and one administrative region for the northernmost island. Lower levels of local government and administration include counties and municipalities that are classified by population size: cities, towns, and villages.

Leadership and Political Officials. Throughout most of the postwar period, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a conservative party with close ties to business and the national bureaucracy, dominated national politics. The LDP was in effect a coalition among leaders of semiautonomous factions, and its hallmark was intricate compromises and backroom deals. In 1993, the LDP split apart, and many of its factions have become independent political parties.

At the national level, government ministries wield enormous power. Since the late nineteenth century, the elite levels of the national bureaucracy have been accorded enormous respect. In many areas, ministries set policy and politicians ratify the opinions of the bureaucrats. The prestige and respect accorded to government ministries have plunged since the 1980s in response to the economic downturn and widely publicized incidents of corruption and incompetence.

Military Activity. The constitution of 1947 renounced the use of military force and forbids the state from maintaining armed forces. However, Japan maintains a "self-defense force" with substantial personnel and weaponry, supported by a growing budget.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

There is a long-standing ethos of support for education, public safety, and public health, which have been government priorities since the nineteenth century. However, many aspects of social welfare continue to be the responsibility of families, communities, and other social groups. Traditionally, villages were organized around mutual assistance, and cultural norms still encourage social groups to take care of the needs of their individual members. Care for the elderly was traditionally a family responsibility, but it has become an enormous public issue because of Japan's rapidly aging population and the decline in multi-generational households.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Japanese religious traditions have not emphasized charity or philanthropy. Since the nineteenth century, however, Japanese Christians have been leaders in social reform movements, and many educational, medical, and other institutions have been sponsored by Christian groups. The growth of social movements has been limited because of deferential attitudes toward the state's role in public affairs. Throughout the twentieth century, the government harnessed or supervised the activities of many nominally independent social groups and organizations. During the 1960s and 1970s, citizen movements that confronted the government became common, particularly in response to environmental issues. Since the early 1990s, there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers and range of activities of nonprofit organizations, stimulated in part by skepticism over the efficiency of government, the failure of government agencies to respond to major public issues and emergencies, and the desire to create institutions that will give more autonomy to citizens in shaping social policy.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Because of Shinto beliefs about ritual purity and pollution, women were excluded from many aspects of ritual life. Women were not permitted to enter certain sacred spaces, and in some communities were forbidden to board fishing vessels or enter mines or tunnels. Most of these prohibitions have vanished, but in some ritual contexts they continue. For example, women are still excluded from sumo wrestling rings.

Neo-Confucianism defined all social roles in terms of hierarchical relationships; including the domination of husband over wife and of father over children. In the late nineteenth century, when new legal codes institutionalized family norms, the control of husband over wife was codified. In virtually all legal, political, and social contexts outside the home, women were subordinate to the male household head.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Authority and autonomy for women traditionally were confined to domestic matters. A male household head represented the family to the outside world and controlled its public affairs; within the home, his wife might exercise great control in managing the day-to-day life of the family. Changes in family structure since the end of World War II have eroded the patriarchal domination of households.

The constitution of 1947 made equality of the sexes an established principle, and the legal framework of the traditional family structure has been dismantled. However, the practical impact of legal changes on women's status has been gradual. Despite

Downtown Hiroshima and the memorial of the atomic bomb. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to unconditional surrender in World War II.

new employment laws, equality in education, and employment, career advancement remains an ideal, and "glass ceilings," gender gaps in salaries, and different educational and employment tracks remain common.


Women's social participation also reflects various gendered divides. The Japanese language includes sharply divergent styles of speech for men and women. Women often are expected to use a more polite and formal style of speech that implies deference and observance of the established hierarchy.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Marriage is generally based on mutual attraction between individuals; this is known as a "love marriage" in contrast to the traditional "arranged marriage" in which a go-between negotiated a match in a process that might give parental opinions more weight than those of the prospective bride and groom. Some vestiges of arranged marriage continue and many couples rely on matchmakers to find mates. Background checks on a prospective spouse and his or her family are routine.

Weddings are almost always held in hotels or wedding halls, with a lavish banquet for several dozen guests. The ceremonies blend elements from Shinto marriage rituals and stylized adaptations of Christian weddings. Weddings are elaborately staged, and the bride and groom typically go through several changes of costume.

Domestic Unit. Most families, especially in urban areas, are nuclear, consisting of the parents and their children. Slightly extended families, such as an elderly parent living with a married couple and their children, are not uncommon, but in general extended kin groups no longer play a major role in people's daily lives.

Inheritance. The primary imperative of the family as a social institution was to survive across the generations. The household head's role ideally was to be steward for a family's intergenerational fortunes, honoring the memories of ancestors who had established the family's position and ensuring that family assets, traditions, and social standing would be passed on intact to an unbroken line of future heirs.

In traditional agrarian life, land was almost never divided, because to do so might imperil the next generation's ability to survive. So in most cases, inheritance was by a single child, usually the eldest son. In the case of an extremely prosperous family, they might be able to establish other children in newly independent family lines, which would remain forever subservient to the original line.

Various kinds of fictive kinship modeled on patterns of adoption and relationships between family banches have been used to sustain other kinds of social relationships. Patron-client relationships sometimes are referred to as parent-child ties, and may involve elaborate formal rituals of bonding. Traditional artistic life is structured around master-apprentice relationships that involve adoption and the establishment of lineages.

Kin Groups. The kinship system before World War II was based on upper-class family patterns established during the late Tokugawa period. In the late nineteenth century, the Meiji government put in place legal norms and standards that defined an ideal family structure. It established clear rules about membership, inheritance patterns, and the authority of the household head over assets and

Women in costume at the Needle Festival in Tokyo.

marriages. This legal structure was radically altered after World War II, by reducing patriarchal authority, increasing the legal rights of women, and requiring that estates be shared among children and widows.


Patterns of traditional kinship still shape the social conventions of family life. The traditional family system was organized around a multigenerational household with a single central authority: the male household head. Inheritance of a family's estate and succession to a family's occupation, social position, and obligations devolved to a single child. In most regions, this involved inheritance and succession by the oldest son. All other children were expected to leave the natal household and become members of another family system through marriage or adoption. In terms of social participation, the household was considered as a single unit rather than the sum of its members.


Infant Care. Infants and young children are doted on, and child rearing is a considered a very important responsibility for women in their twenties and thirties. Many women give birth to their first child after little more than a year of marriage, and married couples without children are uncommon.

Child Rearing and Education. Child rearing involves a high degree of physical and emotional interaction between mother and child; fathers are less involved. Traditionally, sons were favored over daughters, and the oldest son was raised quite differently from the other sons. Particularly close bonds between oldest sons and their mothers were not uncommon. In modern urban nuclear families, close psychological ties between mothers and children are extremely common.

Childhood socialization is guided by the widespread belief that a child is a passive and malleable being; innate talent or ability is less important than is its being properly shaped, particularly by maternal influences. These attitudes carry over into the early years of education. Differentiation of students by academic ability does not take place until the end of elementary school, and the emphasis in primary education is on social integration, self-discipline, and the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Responsibility for curriculum standards and textbook approval lies with the Ministry of Education, which must approve public and private educational institutions. There are two levels of pre-school: nursery school from about three years of age and kindergarten from about five years of age. Compulsory education begins at about age six with elementary school, which lasts for six years, followed by three years of middle school. Mandatory education ends with middle school, but most students go on to high school.

Entrance examinations are generally are required for admission to all levels of private schools and for public schools beyond elementary school. At better schools, these exams can be extremely competitive. In preparation for college entrance examinations, sometimes for high school, and occasionally even at lower levels, a student may leave school to devote an entire year to studying at an examination academy.

The examination system is a source of anxiety for children and their families (pushy mothers are dubbed "education mamas"). Bullying among students is a common problem. A related problem is the reintegration of students who have studied overseas.

Higher Education. Half of high school graduates receive an advanced education. There are 165 public and 460 private universities and four-year colleges and almost 600 two-year colleges. A college degree is a prerequisite for most middle-class occupations, and many companies formally restrict their recruiting to graduates of specific universities. This creates enormous pressure to enter top-ranked schools. High schools are evaluated in terms of their success in placing their graduates prestigious universities. For many students, college is seen as an opportunity to take a break from years of preparation for examinations, and college life often is regarded as a relaxing interlude before one starts a career.


Etiquette can be a full-time occupation, especially in the context of traditional artistic pursuits, such as the tea ceremony, where its principles are incorporated as elements of performance. Even in more prosaic circumstances, many points of etiquette are elaborately codified, including an extensive vocabulary and grammar for polite conversation; specific principles for the selection, presentation, and reciprocation of gifts; and standards for bowing and exchanging name cards. Many people find the intricacies of etiquette daunting, and books that offer advice on these situations are steady sellers. Etiquette hinges on principles of proportional reciprocity in social hierarchies based on determinations of relative status between superior and subordinate. These relative statuses may reflect an individual's age, gender, or social role or may reflect relationships among different social institutions.


Religious Beliefs. Shinto is the contemporary term for a system of gods and beliefs about the relationship between people, the natural environment, and the state. Shinto teaches that Japan is uniquely the land of the gods. The religion has no formal dogma or scripture. During much of Japanese history, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted and influenced each other. Shinto is closely linked to the imperial family and a nationalist ideology.

Buddhism was introduced into Japan from Korea and China during the sixth century A.D. It consists of two major branches, known as Teravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Teravada Buddhism, in general, is the branch practiced in South Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, and Mahayana is the branch that influenced Chinese, Korean, and Japanese civilizations. In essence, Teravada (a Sanskrit term meaning "the lesser or smaller vessel") teaches that salvation is available only to an elect few, those who strive to achieve enlightenment and practice good works that will enhance one's ability to transcend the snares of mortal existence. The Teravada tradition emphasizes monastic communities.

The light of dawn falls on a sign at the Tsukiji Fish Market during a tuna auction. Japanese did not become a written language until the sixth century, when Chinese orthography was introduced.

Mahayana (a Sanskrit term meaning "the greater (larger) vessel") teaches that the grace and mercy of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas (saints) lead them to intercede on behalf of the masses of humanities, and that through proper devotion anyone can hope for salvation while, during their lives on earth, remaining a part of the mundane world.


The sects of Buddhism popular in Japan have emphasized the accessibility of salvation and enlightenment of ordinary people. These include: esoteric Buddhism (e.g., the Shingon and Tendai sects) that teach mystical practices as a means of apprehending the sacred; the so–called " Pure Land Sects" that teach that prayer and devotion to Buddhist saints offer a means for salvation, through divine intercession; and Zen, which teaches that enlightenment can be obtained through meditation in which one attains an intuitive spiritual revelation or catharsis through intensive, introspective contemplation, negating the intellect (and the attachments, desires, and obsessions that human thought embodies) precisely through the effort to think through insoluble puzzles of life. The one major branch of Japanese Buddhism that does not have close connections to Chinese Buddhist traditions are the various sects of the Nichiren tradition which developed an intensely nationalistic ideology and a militant orientation to proselytizing that is uncharacteristic of other Japanese Buddhist sects.

Confucianism, Taoism, and shamanism have also influenced Japanese religion. Confucianism established ideal relations between ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and child, older brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. Although the cultural legacies of neo-Confucianism are still evident in social patterns of hierarchy and deference, neo-Confucianism did not survive beyond the nineteenth century in Japan. Taoism is a Chinese philosophical tradition that emphasizes the spiritual and mystical connection between human beings and nature. Shamanism involves mystical and ecstatic contact through mediums between the supernatural and the human world.

Since the sixteenth century, religious life has been influenced by Christianity. Frances Xavier visited the country in 1549 to initiate Catholic missionizing. By the early seventeenth century, there were an estimated three hundred thousand Catholics. The Tokugawa regime expelled the Catholic clergy in 1614 and tried to eliminate the Catholic community. However, communities of "hidden Christians" maintained their faith in isolation and secrecy. In 1870, the ban on Christianity was lifted. Although, only about 1 per cent of Japanese today consider themselves Christian, a number of intellectuals and political figures in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries adopted Christianity. Liberal American Protestantism influenced progressive reformers and established many private universities; Catholic universities and hospitals are equally prominent.

After World War II, many new religious sects were founded and existing sects expanded enormously. Today there are hundreds of religious sects, a dozen of which are prominent. The Soka Gakkai, an offshoot of Buddhism, has several million adherents and in the 1960s formed a conservative national political party. Buddhist and Shinto beliefs are central for most "New Religions," but many sects also incorporate eclectic elements from religions around the world.

Rituals and Holy Places. O-Shogatsu, the New Year's holiday is the major holiday season of the year and is a time for ritual reaffirmations of social obligations. O-Bon in mid-August marks the season when the spirits of the deceased return to their homes, and many people go to their hometowns to clean graves and celebrate memories of the departed. Infants often are taken to Shinto shrines thirty days after their birth, and the holiday Shichigosan in November is an occasion for children to be honored at shrines. Shinto includes beliefs about unlucky ages, and many shrines offer purification rituals to ward off ill fortune for people passing through those dangerous years. Community celebrations generally echo Shinto observances of the agricultural cycle. Local festivals vary, but most center on the celebration of the tutelary deity of a specific village, town, or neighborhood. Today local festivals are often expressions of community sentiment rather than religious events.

Medicine and Health Care

Medical practice includes sophisticated biomedical research facilities and advanced training of physicians. An extensive system of national health insurance provides access to high quality health care for almost all people through a combination of public hospitals and physicians in private practice.

East Asian medical traditions, including herbal therapy, acupuncture, and moxibustion, are widely practiced and incorporated into popular and professional medical conceptions of health and illness. Traditional East Asian medicine is based on holistic principles that view the human organism in terms of its integration with the social and physical environment. The goal of these treatments is to restore or enhance flows of ki (energy or spirit) within the body and between the human body and its environment. Foods, weather conditions, types of activity, human relations, and organs of the body are regarded as possessing varying qualities of in and yo , and if these qualities are out of balance, the flow of energy within the body is impaired. A healthy body must maintain a dynamic balance, and the goal of therapy is to preserve or restore that balance by introducing countervailing elements. Treatment ideally addresses all the aspects of a person's condition from diet and sleep to exercise, personal habits, and work.

Although traditional East Asian medicine is still widely practiced, since the late nineteenth century, the dominant form of medicine has been Western-oriented biomedicine.

Secular Celebrations

In the premodern calendar, a sequence of holidays occurred on numerologically auspicious days (such as 1 January, 3 March, 5 April); these remain popular holidays.

Other important traditional holiday seasons include O-ch gen and O-seib, in late June and late December, respectively, when one is expected to repay social obligations and exchange gifts with colleagues.

The following national holidays are observed: 1 January, New Year's Day; 15 January, Adult's Day; 11 February, National Foundation Day; 21 March, spring equinox; 29 April, Green Day; 3 May, Constitution Day; 5 May, Children's Day; 20 July, Ocean Day; 15 September, Respect for the Aged Day; 21 September, the autumnal equinox; 10 October, Sports Day; 3 November, Culture Day; 23 November, Labor Thanksgiving Day; 23 December, Emperor's Birthday.

The week between 29 April and 5 May is known as Golden Week because of the three successive national holidays. Many businesses close for the entire week, and vacation travel peaks during this period.

Several Western holidays, including Christmas and Valentine's Day, have become very popular secular holidays. Valentine's Day in particular has been adapted to conform to the Japanese gift-giving etiquette of reciprocity.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Support for and appreciation of artistic activities is widespread in terms of popular participation and governmental encouragement. From the high school level onward, there are public and private schools that emphasize training in the arts, and there are many arts colleges and academies in which students can prepare for careers as professional artists.

The Ministry of Education is responsible for most official support and patronage of the arts, including arts education in the schools and museums, libraries, and other institutions. The ministry generally takes a conservative stance that favors traditional arts and crafts and "high culture."

One interesting aspect of Japanese arts policy is the designation of "national treasures " by the Ministry. National treasures include great works of art—paintings, sculptures, or architectural masterpieces—but also include art forms and artists. Many folk crafts, for example, have been designated as "intangible cultural properties," and sometimes specific individual artists—a noted potter, or a weaver, or a sculptor—will be designated as a "living national treasure."

Many traditional artistic forms and aesthetic genre are regarded as distinctively Japanese: ukiyo-e woodblock prints, dramatic forms such as No and Kabuki , landscape gardening, architectural styles, poetic genre such as haiku (the 17-syllable verse form), Zen philosophy, flower arranging ( ikebana ), tea ceremony, and taiko drum music are simply a few examples.

Literature. The very flow of Japanese history is defined in artistic terms, for example in the iconic role of The Tale of Genji , often regarded as the world's first novel, as exemplar of the Heian period (eighth to twelfth centuries) and the sophisticated crystallization of Japanese art and civilization.

Popular culture includes manga (comic books) and anime (animation), both of which are extremely popular and have gained an international audience. New electronic media have diminished the popularity of books, magazines, and newspapers, but the publishing industry is still enormous and rates of readership remain high.

Performance Arts. Many of the traditional arts and crafts which attract the participation of hundreds of thousands of aficionados—such tea ceremony, traditional dance, flower arranging, and the like—are organized around a distinctive institutional pattern, known in Japanese as iemoto . Literally, the iemoto is the master or highest ranking teacher-practitioner of a particular art form and as such he or she heads a particular "school" of that art form. The position of iemoto, which is often hereditary, stands at the official head of hierchies of teachers and pupils in a hierarchical structure based on ranks of proficiency and teaching credentials certified by the iemoto organization. In this system, a pupil studies an art form with an accredited teacher and as he or she achieves greater proficiency, attains ranks that may eventually enable the student to take on lower-ranking pupils on his or her own. Even high-ranking teachers are still considered pupils of still higher ranking teachers, up to the iemoto at the apex, and some portion of each pupil's fees goes to support the teacher's teacher. Iemoto of the leading schools of flower arranging and tea ceremony routinely appear on lists of Japan's wealthiest individuals.

A large and diverse popular music industry is closely tied to television programs; popular stars ("idols") are constantly in the public view on broadcasts several times a day as singers, comedians, hosts, and advertising spokespeople and as subjects of articles in the tabloid press.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Scientific and technological research is a priority of both government and industry, and since the early twentieth century the Japanese have conducted sophisticated research. In some technological fields, particularly in commercial applications of technology, Japan has been a world leader. Scientific research is carried out through universities, government research institutes, and research and development (R&D) laboratories of private industry. High levels of investment in R&D were long regarded as a critical component of industrial success.

In the social sciences, economics and econometrics are the most widespread and highly developed fields. Psychology, political science, sociology, geography, and cultural anthropology are important academic fields, as is social history. The government has an elaborate statistical system that produces detailed data with a high level of reliability. Public opinion polling is carried out by government agencies, the mass media, trade organizations, and academic researchers.


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