“One day, when it will be possible to trace a history of Aikido in Italy, a chapter will undoubtedly be dedicated to Haru Onoda, a pioneer of Aikido in our country, since the days when the existence of this art was only known to a few lovers of martial arts and Japanese things” . With these prophetic words, Giovanni Granone, a column of Italian Aikido for over three decades, in 1973 described the importance of the role played by the young Onoda in Italy in her ten years of stay and work in our country
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
Uka Onoda (小野田宇花), better known in Italy as Haru, or On-chan, as her friends called her , was born in Tokyo in 1929, which makes her the same age as two important characters with whom she shared her Italian path, namely Hiroshi Tada and Danilo Chierchini. Daughter of a well-known industrialist . Her father was the director of an electronics factory that had received an award from the emperor for his inventions . Already at a young age, Onoda started following a path marked by the exploration of the arts, supported in her inclination by the economic status of her family.
Uka Onoda devoted herself to the study of sculpture at the Tokyo Academy of Arts (東京藝術大学, Tōkyō Geijutsu Daigaku) , obtaining her degree in 1952 and the specialization in 1955 .
Around the same time, she started practising Aikido at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo   , although the relative chronology is not available to date. Onoda practised at the Hombu Dojo for several years, as evidenced by his subsequent familiarity with the founder Morihei Ueshiba and his son Kisshomaru, with whom she stayed in touch once she left Japan. She is also seen featured in a photo taken in Iwama while practising under the gaze of the founder, confirming that she followed Morihei even outside the Hombu Dojo. Finally, that Aikido was not a mere youth hobby for her is testified above all by the passion she put into spreading it in Italy and by the profound impact that the discipline had on her vision of life and on her later artistic production.
As a further confirmation of the above, while training at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo Onoda was given the Shodan   , and her presence in the dojo was anything but anonymous, since she came to cover the role of O’Sensei’s personal secretary  .
Uka Onoda’s career in sculpting was marked by a very positive start already at home. In 1951, even before she graduated, her work was included in “Salon du Printemps”, an art exhibition organized by the Belgian Embassy in Tokyo, in which she received the second prize  . In 1953 she participated in the annual exhibition organized by Shin-Seisaku (新制作協会, “Association for a New Art”) in Tokyo . This organization was formed in 1936, at a time when the social climate in Japan was turning towards a heated national-militarism. The Shin-Seisaku instead gathered artists committed to free and pure artistic inspiration, in response to the contemporary official and pro-government art .
In 1955 Haru Onoda won a scholarship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome  and moved to Italy to complete her studies in sculpture . Her mentor was Pericle Fazzini  ; she also began to frequent Fazzini’s private workshop in Via Margutta . Pericle Fazzini is considered one of the greatest exponents of Italian sculpture in the 20th century and his notoriety is mainly due to his monumental works, such as the Monument to the Resistance in Ancona (1956) and The Resurrection (1972-1977), which dominates Vatican’s Sala Nervi .
Onoda’s artistic endeavours in Italy were quickly accompanied by considerable success and her professional relationship with Fazzini became very close, as evidenced by an autographed letter from 1982, in which the great sculptor describes his association with Uka: “Onoda Uka was the first Japanese student who attended my School of Sculpture when I moved from Florence to Rome to teach at the Academy. All this goes back many years. Onoda also helped with several of my sculptures working in my studio in Via Margutta. At the time she was so good that I had her invited to some Italian national exhibitions including Venice International Biennale. I had the opportunity to see her latest works and I must honestly say that she did not disappoint me at all. Indeed I noticed that her sculpture has grown enormously, so much so that it has become the absolute master of movement in the dynamic and harmonious sense of form (…)” . In fact, in 58-59, Onoda participated with her works in the Venice Biennale – Sections for Foreign Students Resident in Italy (1958), Avezzano Prize (1958 and 1959) and Exhibition of Figurative Art in Rome and Lazio (1959)  .
Besides being an artist, however, Uka Onoda was also a passionate aikidoka and once she moved to Rome she wanted to continue practising Aikido: what situation did she find when she arrived in Italy?
Starting from 1947, the multifaceted and mysterious Salvatore Mergè, esotericist, orientalist, painter and diplomat, had occasionally given private lessons of the art of Ueshiba, then completely unknown, to a select few in the city of Rome . Mergé was the first Westerner to be accepted as a sotodeshi at the then Kobukan Dojo of Morihei Ueshiba in Ushigome, during his stay in Tokyo as a cultural attaché at the Italian Embassy (1937-1943). In all likelihood, Mergé was also the first to teach Aikido outside Japan .
Mergè, however, was never a martial artist in the contemporary sense of the word, and least of all he was or presented himself as a Budo teacher. He was mainly interested in Aikido as a means to enrich and complete his personal and initiatory development as an esotericist . Although he loved to tell stories about Aikido and Ueshiba in public, he did not look for students, on the contrary, he turned away those who often approached him in order to learn the art .
Considering the common interests, upon her arrival in Italy Onoda had come into contact with Mergè, who was then a professor of Japanese at the ISMEO (Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East) . From that point on, Prof. Mergè began to point potential Aikido students to Onoda , as reported by Stefano Serpieri – Serpieri, who studied Japanese with Mergè at ISMEO, later would become a leading instructor in the Italian Aikikai: “One day, all of us who attended the class of Japanese language were invited to the Japanese Embassy for a conference on the culture of that country. On that occasion, Prof. Mergè introduced me to a Japanese girl who resided in Italy to study art, or rather sculpture, at Pericle Fazzini’s workshop. Introducing her to me he said that the girl was also studying Aikido, and presented me to her as a Japanese language student very interested in this martial art.
The girl was named Haru Onoda. I didn’t miss the opportunity and managed to engage Miss Onoda, then Aikido shodan, to teach me some rudiments of that art. We went to train at a dojo located near Via Veneto, guests of Judo teacher Ken Otani, who trained the Italian National Judo team in that dojo. Unfortunately, I could only have a few lessons on this new martial art, Aikido, because Miss Onoda was always very busy studying sculpture. The few times we met, I also took the opportunity to ask about her relationship with Ueshiba sensei, of whom she told me to have been the secretary. Once she told me that Ueshiba sensei – who knew that when she went to the dojo she had to cross an unguarded level crossing – had recommended her not to take that path because it was dangerous and to use a different route. However, Onoda, despite having reassured the sensei, went the same way nonetheless, as it was shorter. As soon as he arrived at the dojo the next time, O’Sensei scolded her because she had disobeyed him: she wondered how her sensei had managed to guess that she went the way he advised against” .
Serpieri’s story seems to confirm, among other things, that Onoda was well known and appreciated by Morihei Ueshiba, which is also clear from a passage included in his famous 1957 interview. At one point, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, referring to the very recent international developments of Aikido, says verbatim: “Also, there is a lady named Onoda Haru who went to Rome to study sculpting. She has been coming to the dojo since the time she was a student at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. I just recently received a letter from her where she says she happened to meet an Italian who practices Aikido, and he treated her very well” [Mergé? or perhaps Serpieri himself?] ”.
A few sources in Italian language report another interesting story that would fully illustrate the relationship between Morihei and Onoda and show their familiarity and affection. In 1961 Ueshiba made his first postwar trip abroad; he went to Hawaii, where he delivered this famous speech: “I have come to Hawaii in order to build a “silver bridge.” Until now, I have remained in Japan, building a “golden bridge” to unite Japan, but henceforward, I wish to build a bridge to bring the different countries of the world together through the harmony and love contained in aikido. I think that aiki, offspring of the martial arts, can unite the people of the world in harmony, in the true spirit of budo, enveloping the world in unchanging love.” . It came to be that Morihei never went on any other overseas trips, although it would seem that he would have very much wanted to go to Italy. It is said that he would even scare his collaborators by telling them that he wanted to leave to visit Haru Onoda, who at that time was living in Rome    . It must be said that – at the moment – I could not find any confirmation of the above in international sources.
Thanks to Attilio Infranzi’s efforts, about the same time another hub of interest in Aikido formed around Salerno and Cava de’ Tirreni. Infranzi, a sport and budo pioneer in Italy, was among the first thirteen Italian judoka to receive the shodan in Judo in 1953 . With the arrival in France of Tadashi Abe, the first shihan sent by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo to Europe (1952), Infranzi had begun to take an interest in Aikido: through Jean Zin, ex-judoka who had started to follow Tadashi Abe, in June 1954 Infranzi managed to bring Abe to Salerno . Abe held an international summer seminar lasting 15 days at the Budo Club Salerno, then returning to direct it every summer until 1959 . From these activities originated the foundation of the European Federation of Aikibudo, of which Attilio Infranzi was the first President, after receiving the shodan from Tadashi Abe in Cava de’ Tirreni in 1958 .
Onoda, compatibly with her artistic commitments, had made every effort to present and spread Aikido in Italy, including some training and teaching trips. She also participated in the activities that took place in Cava around Infranzi, and we have proof that she attended the summer seminar directed by Tadashi Abe in Salerno in 1958, from which some precious images remain.
In 1961 Uka Onoda graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Meanwhile, under the inspired guidance of Pericle Fazzini, Onoda’s career in sculpture had taken off. The artist stood out with her highly original works based on Aikido in action, which showed a remarkable fusion of energy, movement and harmony. Onoda exhibited them in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Italy and abroad:
- 1961 – Italian National Student Exhibition sponsored by the Vatican. She receives the first prize, which is presented to her by Pope John XXIII
- 1962-64 – Tokyo International Figurative Exhibition
- 1963 – Personal exhibition in Rome
- 1964 – Personal exhibition in Zurich
- 1965 – Collective exhibition of Japanese artists in Europe
- 1965-68 – Itinerant exhibition “27 Artists from Italy” in universities and art galleries around the world
- 1967 – Personal Exhibition in Rome
- 1968 – Exhibition for Women in Rome. She wins the Ministry of Foreign Affairs award
- 1968 – Personal Exhibition in Turin
- 1968 – Receives first prize at the UNESCO International Competition
- 1969 – Receives first prize at the Gallery Attico International Competition
- 1969 – Invited to exhibit at the Italian-German Exchange Exhibition in Cologne 
Some art reviews on her work: “Haru Onoda does not capture individual scenes as the lens of a camera does, in frozen motion. In her statues, the human body is not only celebrated as the most beautiful expression of the physical world, but it has the effect of a wheel, constantly in motion, rolling out of itself” .
“In the art of Haru Onoda we certainly notice an incisive “space problem” but we would also like to point out that the movement that animates each of her works. A movement that allows her stylized subjects representing figures in the difficult and plastic art of Aikido, in acrobatic and dance evolutions” .
Also in this phase Uka Onoda established a collaborative relationship with one of her most famous compatriots, the painter Luca Hasegawa (1897-1967), at the time residing in Italy. Hasegawa, like Onoda a Tokyo Academy of Arts graduate (1921), had received from the Vatican the commission for a series of frescoes at the Church of the Holy Martyrs of Japan in Civitavecchia, which he had realised between ’51 and ’57, sharing meanwhile the life of the convent.
In one of the apse frescoes, Hasegawa paid homage to Santa Fermina, the patron saint of Civitavecchia: there remains a preparatory sketch of the work co-signed by Pericle Fazzini and his pupil Uka Onoda.
Returning to Aikido, the Rome-based training on the Kodokan Judo Club mat, to which Serpieri refers in the quotation above, was irregular and punctuated by numerous interruptions. Onoda, in fact, won a scholarship and moved to South America for an indefinite period , then, on her return, she continued to travel anyway following her professional commitments.
Meanwhile, on the Kodokan Judo Club mat, Onoda had met for the first time Judo national champion Danilo Chierchini, a student of the aforementioned Ken Otani. Chierchini, who had discovered Aikido thanks to a documentary on Morihei Ueshiba broadcasted at the time by the Italian National Channel, thus describes an Aikido demonstration given by Onoda at the Kodokan: “(…) I was impressed by a fascinating television documentary on Ueshiba sensei, I had also seen a slightly less… impressive performance by Miss Onoda” . At the time, Chierchini, who was in the middle of his Judo competitive career, did not join Serpieri in doing Aikido with Onoda.
Their paths, however, crossed again a few years later, when in ’64 it was proposed to Chierchini – who in the meantime had opened his personal dojo, the S.S. Monopoly Judo – to host a young Aikido master, Motokage Kawamukai . Kawamukai, at the time eighteen, had just arrived in Rome from New York, where together with Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook had supported Yasuo Ohara in starting the New York Aikikai .
On February 18, 1964, Kawamukai started his Aikido course in Chierchini’s dojo, with a class attended by Carla Simoncini, Artemisia Maccari and Elvio Maccari, as well as Chierchini himself . The course took hold, attracting former Judo lovers, and soon both Haru Onoda – who had returned to Italy – and Stefano Serpieri joined. Contrary to what is claimed on numerous Italian websites, Onoda never directed training at the S.S. Monopoly, even if she was often on the mat to practice .
What was Onoda like on the tatami? Let’s pick Carla Simoncini‘s memory about it, as she was there in 1964: “One evening at the Monopoli dojo there was an unexpected surprise: Kawamukai sensei introduced us to a small Japanese lady who would take part in the class. There were no other explanations; we were few on the mat as the course had recently started and our knowledge was minimal. We, students, were inebriated by the way of teaching of the then 18-year-old Kawamukai and we followed him the best we could, especially since he was a decent, accessible and sociable individual. When the lesson began, I immediately noticed that Miss Onoda did not perform the movements in the way our sensei had just explained. Her movements were like the wind blowing gently and the contact was only light and never brought to a conclusion. Even when she fell, she did so in a particular way, curling upon herself. Miss Onoda’s attendance at the dojo was not constant; she hardly practised with men, so she often sought me out to train together. Kawamukai followed us closely and often corrected our mistakes, yet I never once saw him correct her. There didn’t seem to be much affinity between the two of them and Onoda probably would have liked the Aikido we practised to be more similar to hers, and maybe to participate in the teaching” .
Danilo Chierchini agrees on the fact that perhaps Onoda would have liked to take part in the teaching and this might have become a reason for some friction with Kawamukai, the consequence of which was that over time Onoda thinned out and then interrupted her visits to the dojo . This was much more likely due to her ever-growing engagements in the world of sculpture.
We previously mentioned the fact that during her stay in Italy Onoda was in correspondence with the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Although there is no documental proof of it apart from what Kisshomaru Ueshiba reported in the 1957 interview, it seems reasonable to assume that the exchanges continued and that Onoda kept Hombu informed of what was happening on the Italian Aikido scene, which as we are seeing at the time was in turmoil. Any information provided by Onoda, together with the recommendation of Hirokazu Kobayashi, who in the summer of 1964 had directed a lesson organized in Rome by Tommaso Betti-Berutto and Danilo Chierchini at the S.S. Monopoli Judo  , certainly paved the way for the arrival of Hiroshi Tada, when in the autumn of ’64 the Chierchini-Kawamukai duo officially requested the Aikikai Hombu Dojo to send an Aikikai shihan to Italy  . As Paolo Bottoni rightly says in one of his historical articles on the Italian Aikikai, having established the above “we should therefore not be too surprised that Tada sensei accepted to move to Italy on a leap of faith” .
Once Hiroshi Tada arrived in Rome, he settled in Chierchini’s dojo, assuming the direction of all teaching, and threw himself with tireless energy into the task of coagulating around himself all those initiatives that had arisen previously thanks to Mergé, Infranzi, Onoda, Chierchini and Serpieri. Tada won the bet and started the true diffusion of Aikido in Italy.
The relation between Onoda and Tada was of mutual respect, even if it is quite evident that the Aikido charisma of the shihan ended up obscuring that of the artist (similar to that of Kawamukai). Onoda also began to gradually devote more and more energy to sculpture than to practice. Having said that, she can still be seen portrayed in several group photos alongside Tada sensei, evidence of good personal relationships. One of these refers to the memorable sesshin zen held by Taisen Deshimaru in Rome’s Dojo Centrale in 1967, which probably constitutes the first sesshin that Deshimaru in Europe . Deshimaru Roshi had just arrived from Japan in Italy, from which soon after he would move to France; he had travelled by plane with Hiroshi Tada, directed that sesshin and then slept in Rome’s Dojo Centrale .
What was Uka Onoda’s vision of Aikido? What had she experienced with Morihei Ueshiba that had influenced her so profoundly, to the point of forever orienting her artistic career?
A good idea of the above is offered to us by what Onoda herself declared to the Turin newspaper Stampa Sera in a short interview given on September 22, 1968: “I don’t do Aikido for defence, but for my health and to find a balance between spirit and body. One does not think of a target. Every move is as if it follows a rotational wave, the very movement of the cosmos, the orbit of an atomic particle. I am here, relaxed, inside a large space. Energy comes from afar, I go with it.
It is a way to purify myself, to stay focused, to drive my worries away. (…) Many believe they are strong because of the muscles in their arms, but they do not know that strength is here, in the center of gravity and the legs”. (…) “Not only matter is important, but also external space. The movement does not end with the body, it continues in the air. It is a throbbing, a vortex. Earlier, I conceived a closed and limited form, now not anymore. (…) I do Aikido thinking about sculpture, I sculpt thinking about Aikido”. 
Onoda, who on that occasion was in Turin to support her solo exhibition at the Viotti Gallery, as she had often done during her stay in Italy, had taken the opportunity to practice and had been a guest of Toshio Nemoto’s Aikido dojo in Via Filadelfia. That evening Claudio Pipitone, a pioneer of Aikido from Turin, was present and happened to take ukemi for Haru Onoda during a short demonstration. Claudio remembers that Onoda’s Aikido was very delicate, and that he – at the time a young and strong student in engineering – had done his best to follow her and harmonize with her particular way of moving. The demonstration was also attended by Japanese painter Horiki Katsutomi .
In 1969 Onoda decided to return to Japan, and from that moment all traces of her active participation in the world of Aikido are lost, even if Aiki remains one of her main sources of artistic inspiration.
She successfully continued her path in the world of sculpture until late in life, participating in numerous exhibitions and obtaining various personal recognitions of her talent:
- 1979-2004 – Exhibits every year at the “Hotoke no Zoukei Exhibition”
- 1982 – Personal exhibition at the Gallery Universe, Ginza, Tokyo
- 1997-1999 – Prime Minister’s Award of the Future Art Exhibition
- 2000 – Member of the Future Art Exhibition Jury (later withdrawn)
- 2000 – Bramante Prize at the Principato di Montefeltro Art Festival, Urbino, Italy
- 2001 – Lautrec Award at the Franco-Japanese Festival
- 2005 – Michelle Bukie Award at the Munich International Art Festival
- 2005 – Japan Elite Art Honor Award 
The best presentation of the viewpoint of the artist Onoda, now reaching maturity, is given by Onoda herself in an introductory article to her solo exhibition at the Galleria Universe in Tokyo (1982): “During my stay in Italy, I expressed the theme of combined movement through movement in Aikido: the use of the surrounding environment and the centrifugal force that expands in space. Back in Japan, a movement that lives thanks to an apparently small force was born spontaneously within my creations.
Sometimes it becomes a Tennin [天人, lit. “Heaven Person”] that rushes into the light of the Buddha’s limitless compassion, at other times it becomes an Indian dance performed with the intention of taking refuge in the divinity. Despite being a fairly distant theme, in my search for linked movement I have the impression of sculpting the vitality of white space in my watercolour drawings. My prayer is to purify my heart with every work I create” .
Her last visit to Italy dates back to the early eighties when On-chan returned to Rome and visited Dojo Centrale in a sort of trip down memory lane . Today Onoda is 91 years old; unfortunately, we have no news on where she is and what she has done in recent years, but we will update this writing as soon as we manage to get it.
Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
All rights are reserved
Thanks to Carlo Cocorullo for his help in researching in Japanese
 Granone Giovanni, Haru Onoda, Aikido II-1, Aikikai d’Italia, 1973
 (-), Onoda 宇 花 – Exhibition of sculpture and drawing, Galleria Namiki, 2010 http://awa.rgr.jp/wiki.cgi?page=No272%2F%A3%D7%A3%E5%A3%E2%C8%C7%2F09 Retrieved on 14/10/2020
 Mathys Frank, Motion Captured: Haru Onoda’s Sculpture, Olympic Review Vol. 257, March 1989
 Gagliano Ernesto, (…) Ha il Polso Proibito, Stampa Sera, 22-09-1968 http://www.endogenesi.it/files/Onoda.pdf Retrieved on 07/10/2020
 Serpieri Stefano, Come Iniziai l’Aikido, Aikido XXXII-1, Aikikai d’Italia, 2001 https://www.aikikai.it/index.php/aiki-media/riviste/product/62-aikido-xxxii Retrieved on 18/07/2020
 Pipitone Claudio, Diffusione dell’Aikido in Italia – Periodo precedente al 1964, Endogenesi, (-) https://www.endogenesi.it/primadel1964.html Retrieved on 10/10/2020
 (-), Exhibition Catalog “Thirty Artists from Italy at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago”, 1966 http://dev.renaissancesociety.org/media/files/ThirtyArtistsItaly.pdf Retrieved on 05/10/2020
 (-), 新制作協会, Wikipedia, (-) https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%96%B0%E5%88%B6%E4%BD%9C%E5%8D%94%E4%BC%9A Retrieved on 04/10/2020
 Chierchini Simone, The Great Old Man – Interview with Danilo Chierchini, Aikido Italia Network, 2012 https://atomic-temporary-18820446.wpcomstaging.com/2020/08/11/the-great-old-man-interview-with-danilo-chierchini/ Retrieved on 13/10/2020
 (-), L’Intervista a Morihei Ueshiba del 1957, Aikido Italia Network, 1957 https://atomic-temporary-18820446.wpcomstaging.com/2011/10/24/intervista-a-morihei-ueshiba-del-1957/ Retrieved on 08/10/2020
 (-), Pericle Fazzini, Wikipedia, (-) https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pericle_Fazzini Retrieved on 07/10/2020
 (-), Uka Onoda, Collection of Sculpture Photos, (-) http://awa.rgr.jp/img/No157onodauka/index.html Retrieved on 09/10/2020
 Chierchini Simone, Salvatore Mergé, The First Westerner Student of Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido Italia Network, 2020 https://atomic-temporary-18820446.wpcomstaging.com/2020/07/27/salvatore-merge-the-first-westerner-student-of-morihei-ueshiba/ Retrieved on 09/10/2020
 (-) The History of Aikido in Hawaii, Aikido Hawaii, (-) https://www.aikidohawaii.org/aikido_history.html Consultato il 12/10/2020
 Bottoni Paolo, Biografie: L’Aikikai d’Italia, Aikido XXXVI, Aikikai d’Italia, 2005
 (-), Biografia del Maestro Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido Ponte, (-) http://www.aikidoponte.it/ueshiba.html Retrieved on 12/10/2020
 Bottoni Paolo, Attilio Infranzi; un Maestro a cui Ogni Praticante di Aikido Deve Molto, Musubi, (-) https://www.musubi.it/it/artimarziali/aikido/maestri/11-infranzi.html Retrieved on 09/10/2020
 (-), Motokage Kawamukai, Quaderni d’Oriente VI N. 18, 1995 https://www.jiku.it/motokage-kawamukai-sensei/ Retrieved on 07/10/2020
 Chierchini Simone, The Initiator – Interview with Motokage Kawamukai, Aikido Italia Network, 2020 https://atomic-temporary-18820446.wpcomstaging.com/2020/10/19/the-initiator-interview-with-motokage-kawamukai/ Retrieved on 19/10/2020
 (-), Aikido a Cava de’ Tirreni, Kendokan Budo Cava, (-) https://sites.google.com/site/kendokancava/discipline/aikido/aikido-a-cava-de-tirreni Retrieved on 06/10/2020
 Prete T. Aurelio, Haru Onoda, Spirito del Giappone II-2, Aikikai d’Italia, 1972
 Chierchini Danilo, Come Cominciò, Aikido IX-1, Aikikai d’Italia, 1980 https://atomic-temporary-18820446.wpcomstaging.com/2011/03/21/come-comincio/ Retrieved on 13/10/2020
 Bottoni Paolo, Facebook post (20/05/2017) https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=10213232441673497&set=a.10213204561176502 Retrieved on 06/10/2020
 Private conversation with Claudio Pipitone (13/10/2020)
 Private conversation with Carla Simoncini (14/10/2020)
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