25 January, 2022


Shotaro Noda’s Visit To Colombo From Japan In 1890

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Japan undoubtedly is a country that Sri Lanka could always learn from; learn critically and constructively. Japan has a special favour for Sri Lanka for several reasons and it is not clear whether Sri Lanka has always reciprocated this goodwill in equal measure in its diplomatic and international relations. A particular reason for this goodwill in political sphere is JR Jayewardene’s speech at the San Francisco Conference (1945) where he strongly urged that Japan should not be punished unreasonably. Both countries are predominantly Buddhist, and it is also believed that Hinduism also influenced Japan to an extent in its Shinto religion or at least there are parallel beliefs and rituals between the two.

As a modern nation since late 19th century, Japan perhaps gave more importance to Sri Lankan or then Ceylon as a maritime nation with strategic importance particularly in sea lanes. This is something that the visiting Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, has emphasized addressing the business community in Colombo yesterday. Some areas that he has emphasised are: maritime law enforcement, search and rescue operations, disaster risk reduction and environment protection in the context of increased trade and commerce in the region and beyond.

Japan PMJapan has gone through various phases that any country could emulate or not emulate depending on the merits or demerits of those phases. There cannot be any doubt that Sri Lanka or any country should not mimic the military valour or adventure that Japan indulged in during 1930 and early 1940s which led to the disastrous results by the end of the World War II. By the same token, Sri Lanka should not putrefy under a ruthless ‘Shogunate’ like in various periods of the Tokugawa reign before 1868.

In contrast, the modernization efforts under the Meiji reforms (1868-1912) and the economic and social resurgence since 1950s are clear examples that Sri Lanka could learn lessons from. In these reform efforts, Japan carried deliberate study, research, borrowing and adaptation from various countries particularly in the West. It is in this move towards and travel to the West that Japan came across Ceylon and its people in modern times as many of the travellers had to stopover in Galle or later Colombo.

What I relate here is a visit to Colombo by Shotaro Noda, a reputed journalist, in 1890, taken the information from an original source of Jiji Shinpo, a popular Japanese newspaper, which was translated by Dr Michael Penn[i] for his studies and who was kind enough to make available the relevant sections on Ceylon for my use. A previous article on a similar topic was published in the Asian Tribune in March 2006 and the present is an adaptation of that initial article.

Background to the Visit

Noda was travelling to Turkey or more precisely to ‘Constantinople,’ by the name Japan or the world commonly knew Istanbul at that time. He was in a mission in relation to the tragedy of Ertugrul, a Turkish ship that sunk in the Japanese waters in September 1890. When the Japanese navy rescued 73 survivors from the sinking ship and the surrounding sea, most of them were being naval officers, the Emperor ordered to send them back to Turkey with full military honors in two Japanese warships, Hiei and Kongo. Noda was traveling in Hiei, reporting back to his newspaper Jiji Shinpo, all the news on his way to Constantinople. Ceylon and Colombo became major focus of his reporting when he landed in the Island for several emotional reasons that he explained later in his narrative. A major reason was his interest in knowing the status of Buddhism in the country.

Shotaro Noda

Shotaro Noda

So far known contacts between Japan and Ceylon or Sri Lanka during the period have been recorded in “The Distant Neighbours: Fifty Years of Japan Sri Lanka Relations” edited by WD Lakshman, which reports the ‘stop-over of a Japanese diplomat, Tadasu Hayashi, on his way back from London, somewhere in early 1880s, which eventually led to the arrival of two Buddhist monks Shaku Konen in 1886 and Shaku Soen in 1887 and many more religious contacts including the visit of Colonel Olcott and Anagakrika Dharmapala to Japan in 1889.’

Noda’s Chronicle indubitably indicates the possibility of many more Japanese visits to the Island, at least on their way to and from Europe during this important period of Japanese history when Japan reached out to the outside world, particularly to the West in a globalizing mood. In the early 1880s, Galle was the main stop over place for merchant ships; therefore early Japanese visitors, including perhaps Tadasu Hayashi, saw Galle and its surroundings. But “Colombo soon replaced Galle as the country’s chief port and became a major refueling and supply center for merchant ships on the East-West route.” I am quoting from a navigation chronicle, and the British used to call Colombo the ‘Clapham junction of the World,’ where so many ocean routes converged.

The Japanese mission to Turkey, Noda as a central character, had another historical importance. This was the first known humanitarian mission that Japan had undertaken after she came out of her ‘political hibernation’ for over two and a half centuries, but now reaching out to the outside world with considerable ambition as well as generosity during the Meiji Ishin, to mean Meiji Restoration, since 1868.

The newspaper Jiji Shinpo, with the help of several other organizations and commercial companies, in fact collected 4,248,976 yen through public campaigning to be donated to the victims of the Ertugrul tragedy, both the survivors and the families of the disappeared. Noda was in fact taking a bank draft in his hands for this purpose in French francs (18,907 francs) to be handed over to the right authorities in Turkey. The amount was quite a sum those days, or even today. This was also the first known foreign donation of Japan collected through the public.

Arriving in Colombo

The night they were approaching Ceylon, 15 November 1890, was turbulent. “The area around Ceylon is noted for its particularly intense thunderstorms and, indeed there were terrible roars of thunder, brilliant flashes of lightening, and a pelting rain,” he wrote. Noda and others seemed to have enjoyed the monsoon weather of November when they were approaching Ceylon.

Everyone went up onto the deck totally naked and in the darkness of the night we couldn’t even see each other. In the cool rain of nature we bathed with the beating sound of rain all around us. I too occupied a corner and was cleansed from head to toe by the pure waters of the heavens. All dirt and grime of faraway Japan was washed into the Indian Ocean. On the evening, the fish swimming in the sea beneath the ship must have been surprised to suddenly catch the scent of Japan!” he exclaimed.

Noda arrived in Colombo Port on 16 November 1890 at 8.30 am. “Soon after we arrived” he reported “a small boat appeared carrying four Japanese. These were Captain Shogo Iguchi, an Army artillery officer, a certain Mr. Hori, a Bachelor of Science; and two Bachelors of Medicine, Aisaburo Suzuki and Masano Koike.” What have they been doing in Colombo? Noda says, “These men have come from Europe and are on their way to Japan. While traveling aboard the German mail ship Saxon, which is now in this port, they were pleasantly surprised to see two ships flying the Japanese flag and came out to confirm their discovery.”

About Colombo, Noda reported the following. “In Colombo there is Buddhism and Islam and Christianity. There are various races among Colombo’s population about 110,000 people.” He didn’t see much of a difference among the locals though, and simply said “all of them are blacks.” “Upon arriving here” he added, “I went together with the six Turkish officers from the Hiei and Kongo to visit the Turkish Consulate in Colombo. Since the Consul himself had just died only two or three days earlier, the mood inside the building was rather gloomy.” Then he gave a description of some local Muslims with his impressions attached.

“Soon after, Muslims began to arrive in all directions and they gathered there. These Muslims mixed with the Turkish officers and asked them about what had happened to the Ertugrul. They offered their sympathies and cried bitterly for some time.” It is quite possible in my view that it was a Friday, and the Muslims came after the prayer at the Mosque on Friday afternoon. Otherwise, ‘so many people flocking in all directions at the same time,’ as Noda related cannot happen on a normal day.

Noda’s description gives the impression that the Muslim community in Colombo at that time was sizable; and they were an important community. He also gives a brief description of what was given to them to eat at the Consulate, noting that the Consul had been an Arab and not a Turk. “We were then shown to seats in the dining room where a great Arabian style feast was prepared. All kinds of delicacies were offered but I didn’t care for any of them.” What he ate were local fruits after all.

“Finally, some fruit was brought in including sugared coconut and pineapple dipped in a kind of sweet alcohol. I don’t know their names, but about twenty different kinds of fruit were offered in succession. Among these there was nothing that I didn’t like and I eventually became rather tipsy.” 

Noda had also visited Kollupitiya, to Arabi Pasha’s residence, but doesn’t give any description, except the mentioning.

About Ceylon

About Ceylon in general, his description was much more elaborate and focused more on the commercial side. “The land size of Ceylon is 25,742 square miles. Despite this great size,” he reported that “the cultivated part of the island doesn’t exceed twenty percent.” Noda had been in Colombo for only three and a half days, and it is amazing how he mastered the minute details within that short period, with correct names of people and places. But his description of the ‘natives’ were not very elegant. He used the Japanese word Domin, which gives the meaning of ‘lazy natives.’ He said the following about these Domins.

“Without great labor they can collect coconuts and bananas to eat. If someone engages in farming, they can collect two harvests a year. Where the climate never changes, it is not so difficult to earn a livelihood. Consequently, most of the natives’ just watch the world go by and spend themselves in wasteful pleasures.”

It is on the above premise that he suggested that the Japanese should migrate to Ceylon and secure its natural wealth! He in fact reported, whether it is factually correct or not, that “on this account, several years ago the British government suggested that Japanese might immigrate to this place.” Then he reported the following to his readers back home.

“If some Japanese have this intention now, they could probably receive a considerable amount of protection in this endeavor. Considering the low price of renting land here, brave and heroic Japanese who might come to this fertile territory would probably gain a profit that would compare quite favorably to that of Hawaii.” The reason for the mentioning of Hawaii was that it was one place that heavy Japanese migration took place during this time for both labor and enterprise.

It doesn’t appear, however, that Noda was suggesting labor migration to Ceylon. What he was proposing was a kind of colonization or land settlement for farming, plantation or other enterprise. Certain remarks in his Chronicle appear that he was suggesting something with the approval of the British when he said the following.

“If the conditions of pawned land are investigated and migration is possible, and if the protection of the government is forthcoming, and if perhaps even a Ceylon Colonization Company is established, upon the consent of the British government, how about coming to Ceylon and securing its natural wealth?” he asked (with my emphasis).

Replacing British?

But there were several other remarks that indicate, he in fact was hinting at replacing the British. He argued:

“This is particularly the case because the natives of this place are sick of domination by the Christian English. Indeed, they must long for that Special Empire of the East, Buddhist Japan. They want Japanese to visit here. The reputation of Japanese is better here than in Singapore, and so everything would be easier.” The above highlighted two sentences are important.

Noda wrote four short letters from Colombo. The above was written perhaps after discussions with some enlightened Domins, or on the information that he received from the seven Japanese Buddhist monks who were studying in Colombo at that time. Nevertheless, he was intelligent enough to remark: “Of course, there are many impractical theories in the world like this of mine. Tow or thee days in Ceylon are not sufficient to make a serious investigation, so I leave it to the authorities to decide whether or not my ideas are really sound.”

Noda also paid a visit to the Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda and met Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thero and I will relate that part of the story separately later.

[i] I wish to thank Dr. Michael Penn for his generosity and assistance.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    First I like to thank Aussie Lucky for this timely reminder that Japan has been our special mate since 1951.besides Shotaro’s visit.

    Shinzo Abe spent two days of his valuable time looking at the progress our Country has made since Nanthikadal.

    Our inhabitant population , the great majority of them will be ever grateful to the Japanese envoy Mr Akashi for saving them from JRJ’s nephew Ranil selling them to Prabakaran for a mere 5 Billion not even real but promised Dollars.

    What a contrast between the Uncle and the Nephew?.

    JRJ is the only world leader who supported the Japanese people who were Nuked while in retreat after losing the War.

    The Nuclear attack not on one, but both the major cities at that time, killed over 200,000 innocent mums dads grand fathers, grand mothers , pets and all.

    And made hundreds of thousands more mutated, with severe physical disabilities., which some still carry after 60 years.

    No genocide, no HR violations there, although the Nuking was totally to test the potency of their weapons and to assess the damage it can do on humans.

    With the blessings from Kelani Vihara , hope Mr Abe gets another term, until the Mono Rail is completed.

    Lucky should think of writing a piece on current visits while having an Aussie Sushi in a fake Yakitori in a Paramatta Shopping Mall Food Court.

    • 5

      “Lucky should think of writing a piece on current visits while having an Aussie Sushi in a fake Yakitori in a Paramatta Shopping Mall Food Court. “”

      K.A Sumanasekera,

      Fools because they have to say something, wise men speak and fools decide.
      Fools are without number, thus corrupt island power.

      Wise speak because they have something to say;


      [St.Peter’s Basilica Vatican City Built in 1760 by the Dutch,
      It is the earliest recorded church in Sri Lanka]

      St. Lucy may have led a very sad life, but her church in Colombo cannot but bring happiness, or at the very least peace, to anyone who steps into the compound.
      The cathedral’s dome was damaged in the 1942 Japanese bombing, for which proper repairs were begun just last Sunday. The company that was assigned the task in 1956 did not restore the original dome, Fr. Placidus said.
      Mothers Day Jan, 2006 “Today I need Rs. 35 million to renovate it,” explained Very Rev. Fr. M. W. Placidus De Silva, smiling.
      Around this time money was collected to build and expand the church.

    • 0

      JA K AA SUMANE aka paid commenter.

      Could you tell us, how much paid to Pirabahara Thamby by the Mahendra percy Jarapassa to hijack the presidential election, and sell the dignity of all the Srilankan to the lunatic killer.

  • 2

    Re: “the stop-over of a Japanese diplomat, Tadasu Hayashi… somewhere in early 1880s, which eventually led to the arrival of two Buddhist monks Shaku Konen in 1886 and Shaku Soen in 1887…”

    Hayashi was Japan’s Foreign Minister. He met Maha Mudaliyar Condrad Peter Dias Bandaranayaka in Ceylon in 1884, & “requested an opportunity to send some Japanese monks to study Theravada Buddhism” in Ceylon. Bandaranayaka introduced the Minister to his scholar nephew [Edmund Roland Gooneratne]. “This was the happy beginning of an enduring Buddhist connection with Japan.” Gooneratne initially sponsored two Japanese monks, namely Shaku Kozen from Yokohama and Shaku Soen from Kamakura. Kozen was introduced to the various temples in Galle, but finally studied at the Vidyodaya Pirivena under Sri Sumangala Thero…Shakun Kozen was ordained…as the first Theravada Japanese priest in 1892. “As a mark of respect to E.R. Gooneratne he assumed the name of Kozen Gooneratne.” Later, he sent five Japanese student monks to study at the Simbali Avasa, the family temple established by Gooneratne in the 1890s.”

    This and other information is in the book Atapattu Walawwa: Residence of the Gooneratne & Dias Abeyesinghe Families of Galle, Galle, 2012. There is more information about these two monks in the possesion of the editor of the book, Dr Janaka Goonetilleke.

    • 0

      Manel Fonseka,

      Thanks for your additional information. But on one point, Tadasu Hayashi was both a diplomat and a minister. He is called a career diplomat. It was in 1891 that he was appointed yet Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs.

      • 0

        I stand corrected, Dr Fernando. Thank you – Manel F

  • 3

    Shaku Soen and Shaku Kozen was sponsored by E R Gooneratne. They first protocol was at Atapattu Walawwa Galle in fact the site of the first connection between Japan and Sri Lanka. Both these priests were greeted by the Buddhists public of galle with Bakthi Geetha and Perahera. ( Shaku Soens Diaries of his stay in Ceylon) Hospitality was so appreciated by Shaku Soen who wore the Samaneras costume until he left Sri Lanka. In his book about Buddhism in South Asia shaku Soen confeses after his experience of colonialism in Ceylon that there was no place for buddhism in Asia and that Buddhism would flourish in the west. He is responsible for taking Zen Buddhism to America. He felt that Zen Buddhism was another step in the propagation of the religion. In America he is accepted as the instigator of Academic and Scientific analysis of the philosophy of Buddhism. Today Buddhist practice has been used in the treatment of mental disease, Self improvement etc.
    Kozen Gooneratne there on the other hand went with Anagarika Dharmapala To Buddha Gaya where he helped Anagarika Dharmapala to establish Buddha Gaya as a Buddhist Holy site.He actively took part in the Buddhist revival. He also established a thervada sect in Japan and sent six of his pupils to Gooneratne mudalindaramaya(Simbali Avasa) established by E R Gooneratne to study Buddhism.
    The emotional connections between Sri Lanka and Japan was started by these two priests much before J R Js speech. His speech would not have made any sense to the people of Sri Lanka if the emotional connections by these two priests between the countries had not been in place. People to people friendship has been highjacked by politics that analyses the relationship in terms of geo politics. Sad! Further Reading – Sri Lanka, Japan and American Buddhism By Janaka Goonetilleke Lanka web

    • 0

      Dr Janaka Goonetilleke,

      My intention is not to have a major controversy. In fact I was reluctant to respond first. But finally decided to raise two issues.

      First I think, your statement after referring to Shaku Soen and Shaku Kozen that “Their first protocol was at Atapattu Walawwa Galle in fact the site of the first connection between Japan and Sri Lanka” is little farfetched although I am aware that ER Gooneratne told Shaku Soen (Diary) at his ordain or arrival on 6 May 1887 that this is the beginning of “Japanese-Sri Lanka Buddhist solidarity.” I think ER Gooneratne was more modest and correct. If I become little provocative, do we really need to trace the Japan Sri Lanka relations to a Walawwa?

      Second I am not sure whether your statement that “He [Shaku Soen] also established a Theravada sect in Japan” is correct. What I know is that he considered ‘Hinayana Buddhism as a phase in Mahayana Buddhism.’ What he initiated in Japan to my information is a thorough study of Hinayana as a necessary step in Mahayana which he believed that Japan has neglected or lost. I am sure that you are well aware of his activities and speeches in America. If I may quote from his speech at the National Geographic Society, Washington DC, in April 1906, he was critical of Buddhism that prevailed in Ceylon.

      “The Buddhism now prevailing in Ceylon, Burma, and Siam may be considered to be betraying in a certain way a Hinayana tendency. The Buddhism of present Japan, on the other hand is more comprehensive, more religious, more humanistic, and more satisfying to the inmost needs of the religious consciousness.”

  • 4

    In 1942 a british Catalina flying boat – Squadron Leader Birchall piloting – saw the Japanese invasion fleet of aircraft carriers, battleships, and troop carriers steaming towards Ceylon and alerted Admiral Mountbatten’s headquarters in Peradeniya Gardens – RAF hurricanes and spitfires took off and destroyed many Jap Zeros forcing the fleet to turn back, having lost the element of surprise.
    The Catalina was shot down by the Japs and crew taken prisoner. Had the fleet reached the shore and landed the Jap Army, what happened in Burma and Singapore would have happened in Ceylon.
    Later Winston Churchill said that this was “the most dangerous moment of the war” – history would have been different.
    The post-war Japan ruled by Macarthur was forced to abandon territorial ambitions.
    Hence the ‘new’ Japan meddling in Sri Lanka.
    Akashi and Abe totally ignore the human rights violations which caused the UNHRC probe.

  • 3

    These far easterns opportunists have least concern or not known about human values, Human rights or ethical trade.
    I finger point towards dirty Chinese but neither Japanese nor South Koreans are exceptions.
    Partnership with rogue family regime of Sri Lanka is a good choice for these countries too!!!!

  • 4

    ‘Had the fleet reached the shore and landed the Jap Army, what happened in Burma and Singapore would have happened in Ceylon.’

    The Japanese occupation of Ceylon would have been disastrous. The people enslaved and made to help the Japanese loot the nation. (much like the Rajapakses some would say). The British occupation would have seemed benevolent by comparison. A fortunate escape that people do not appreciate.


  • 0

    World has change how is approach by that People of Globe …..look at East not that West. New sources and data have however emerged ,which could throw light on Japanese economic, financial, technological, social and cultural realities its development after Second World War.
    The Global largest economy remain in East Asia countries. Indeed Japan was until recently few years back, it was Second largest World Economy and Capital market. Japan is One of the leading Industrial nation of power house in World and first Developed capitalist country in Asia.

    History of Japan capitalism came into being ending of Tokugawa era (1603 to 1867); Modern Capitalism of Japan had been existence since 1868 Meiji Revolution or Restoration. In fact Japan Capitalism has taken different path and model of her development contrast with that European and English nations rise of Capitalism and Imperialism.

    Historical progress of Japanese Capitalism as it did by exploiting feudal remnants within the society ,that Japan capitalists class never performed the progressive role which capitalism should had been performed by —that an opening way by English and French Capitalisms had played in their era of revolution.

    Japan was more eye on importing modern science and technology, since beginning of Mejia era ,that every efforts expended to foster modern industries. The path of development was safe guard that her cultural values,customs and other factors and ancient civilization norms as well.

    In political term, state promotion of bureaucratic capitalism and emperor worship was energetically encourage by the ruling governance since even after second world war.., terms of Religion Shinto and Buddhist large denomination by Mahayna Buddhism had been influence and dominated between 1500 to 1600 years back.

    Well social character of Japanese society absolute obedience served to preserve the harmony of the family unite of that, which the head of house was the kingpin of family.

    Modern Japan has her roots goes back her ancient cultural factors even her largest corporations in services operation under such influences.

  • 1

    Dr Laksiri Fernando,
    You have got the wrong end of the stick. I never said that Soen started a Hinayana sect what I said was Kozen Gooneratne started a thervada sect in japan in Yokohama. Well with regards to Sri Lankan Japan relations E R Gooneratne was the first to sponsor a relationship with Japan and that is a fact. It is also a fact that Kozen Gooneratne Thero was involved in the Buddhist revival. I can understand if you do not wish to involve a walawwa.
    With regards the merits and demerits of the different sects it is one of perception. I respect your views and do not wish to comment on something I have not commented. I hope this clarifies the misunderstanding.

  • 1

    Dr Laksiri Fernando,
    Please clarify as to when the sri Lankan japan relationship started ?

    • 0

      Dr Janaka Goonetilleke,

      Thanks for your first clarification. I stand corrected in respect of the two persons. The reason for my probing into Soen’s critical views is to understand some of the ‘violent’ developments among Sangha both in Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma), on which you may or may not agree. I also have no reluctance to accept the role played by ER Gooneratne in promoting Japan-Sri Lanka relations.

      Well on your question posed to me on when the Japan Sri Lanka relations (at the people’s level) started (?) I keep an open mind for the moment. Our knowledge on the subject it appears daily evolving. It is possible that even Iwakura Mission which stopped over in Galle (August 1871) also may have something do with these contacts. You may have some information on that from the Sri Lankan end. I have seen some from the Japanese end. It is better to get the facts correct first as much as possible before making a final judgement. By the way I am not a historian at all. My interest on the subject started during my sabbatical in Japan in 2005/2006 almost by accident and also as a person interested in Buddhism, peace and Sri Lanka Japan relations.

  • 0

    Japan is concern her history of politics, economic, technology and religion that want objective assessment of the role play by Japanese capitalist class 1868 Mejia Era. No ne denied that Sri Lankan intelligentsia as special place and major role and task it has be undertaken by post-independent our society. But that has not been involved by Sri Lankan intelligentsia up to now.

    Until 2009 May pre-colonial economy and pretty community production of back ward Capitalist mode of system has undermine national development and growth. Regain unity and stability 2009 May by MR ruling party has bring new venture capital market by an introduce Japanese capital and technology give NEW BOOST TO PATH OF CAPITALIST DEVELOPMENT.

    Precisely by individualism of West-oriented intelligentsia that incapacity to realized simple facts.
    And is a features which unfavorable distinguishes this social stratum from the West base elites.

    The very reasons for the flabbiness and insecurity of elites of
    Sri Lankan that influence by west mindset and their customary mode of Westerns life, way of earning a live hood in western pattern in many respects unrepentant to learn and study Eastern origin and development in many aspects of its history of Japan.

    This is unsatisfactory trend of schools of thoughts and tragedy of way of existence of modern elites in Sri Lankan society, those who are in or out in our Island.

  • 0

    Thanks for your reply. I know Soens view of war but in the Sri Lankan context we need to understand the violent expulsion of Buddhism from India and its refuge in Sri Lanka. Defendants of the faith has always been the priests since the yellow robe is a diterant to violence as against the ordinary citizens. Case in example are Rathupaswala, Negambo etc where ordinary citizens are killed with no major consequence. Violence right through has been always about injustice, the priests are only conveying a message. The answer is the rule of Law and social justice.
    I do not wish to contradict you how ever the official connection with japan started with the arrival of the 2 priests. It was done in conjunction with the foreign ministry. Hyash was sec to Prince Arisongara the foreign minister, Prof Banyon from Tokyo University and I think a head priest by the name of Kozen. There were however visitors from Japan but they were never official visits.I think they arrived in 1870 and 1874 and visited Galle as far as I know. Any way it was a nice dialog we live to learn.

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