Thursday, 31 January 2013

In Sitting I Believe (says Kuri)

100 Posts!!! Kuri is very proud of me (in my fantasy world in which the dogs care about my life beyond my necessity for food provision and scratching that awkward spot behind the ears).
This is my 100th post, so I thought I'd write one about Kuri. She doesn't get quite as many stories as Hayate, mainly because she just chills out and does as she is told while Hayate gets bones stuck in his teeth, escapes, has a chilling fear of swans, crippling separation anxiety, bites me and generally ruins my life. So here's one for Kuri.
Shiba inu are so angelic... when they are asleep.

Hayate is a difficult dog, but his intelligence is undeniable. He mastered a handful of tricks by the time he was three months old, and I had fantasies about showing him. It quickly became apparent that a first-time trainer like me was completely unequipped to deal with a smart dog like him though. If I have a suitably delicious treat in my hand he will perform perfectly choreographed routines… if not, he won’t bother getting off the couch. My praise and affection is no incentive for anything, apparently. I taught him to sit on either voice command or gesture two days after we brought him home; he still won’t sit unless he is sure there is something in it for him. Kuri, on the other hand, is not so bright (although not in a Hyperbole and a Half dog kind of way). She has her own skill set, but it was clear early on that I wasn’t going to be able to teacher her the kinds of things Hayate picked up in a flash. By the time she was six months old I was just happy that we’d mastered “sit” (with voice AND gesture) and that she had (mostly) stopped peeing in my bed. Learning to sit was a life changing moment for Kuri. She seemed to feel that she had unlocked the secret to making good things happen to her. It was like the connection between her bum and the ground caused cosmic rays to focus all the good of the universe in her direction. She would sit reflexively whenever she thought we wanted something of her or when she wanted something from us. It became almost religious. I laughed long and hard in recognition when I read this story about a Boston Terrier inventing religion:
I took a few kibbles of food and flicked them under the door out at Zig.
She completely lost her mind.
This was the greatest thing ever in the history of things to happen to this dog. She went bananas chasing the pieces of food as they skittered across our tile. I’d try to get them past her but she was the most motivated goalie in history. We laughed, had fun, and then we forgot about it.
Zig didn’t.
The next morning we saw her sitting on the floor, staring at the bottom of the laundry room door. My wife and I were both right next to her, so we had no idea who she thought was in there that might be sending out food. It didn’t matter, she still waited. No food came out, but that didn’t stop her. Quite the opposite.
She began staring at the bottom of every door in our house, sometimes even if the door was open. She could easily just peek around the door and see nobody was there, but she doesn’t. There is a simple explanation for how food comes out from under that door, but she doesn’t make the connections. Instead, she is sure our doors are magic and randomly spit out food.
Then it occurred to me what was going on – our dog had created her own religion.
Kuri believes unquestioningly in the power of her sitting. It has progressed to the point where she sits as a solution to completely inappropriate problems. She will sit in front of a door for half an hour waiting for us to come and open it while we obliviously watch TV in another room. Before I tidied up the netting from our “green curtain” she managed to get herself completely tangled up in it… and promptly sat waiting to be rescued. We’re used to her playing quietly anyway, so it was probably close to half an hour before we found her and cut her lose. Nevertheless, when we did eventually rescue her she no doubt felt that her sitting had caused us to come. 
I knew you'd come for me if only I sat long enough!

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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Adoption in Japan Part 2: Attitudes to Adoption


In Part One I explained why there are orphanages full of children but very few are available for adoption. In this post I want to talk about factors that discourage parents from adopting even those children who are available. Although I’ve researched this topic, if you notice any mistakes or misinformation please do let me know. I am by no means an expert. I am also very aware of the dangers of the kinds of generalisations I’m making here. It’s impossible to write this sort of article without saying things like “Japanese society treats…” or “in Japan it is seen as…”. Of course Japan, no less than any other country, is comprised of diverse individuals. Many of them I am sure would disagree with the various opinions and prejudices I describe, and I hope that in reading this you can remember that generalisations are not universally applicable.


 Adoption Law

Japan has a long history of adoption… of adults. This is a very practical way, within a patriarchal system, to ensure smooth inheritance. If one doesn’t have a son to inherit the family name and business, one can adopt a suitable successor. This may be an extended family member, a gifted apprentice or trusted employee, or, if one has a daughter, a son-in-law. Think how different world history could have been if Henry the Eighth had had adoption as an option? These “inheritance” adoptions are not limited to the business world or bygone days. An old classmate of mine told me about the difficulties in her family when her younger brother refused to be adopted by their grand-parents. To explain the situation let me back track for a moment to introduce the family register, centre piece of every modern family law problem in Japan (see this post on custody disputes). Each family has a family register, kept at their local city office. Think of it a bit like the old family bible: each birth, marriage and death is recorded. One child, usually but not necessarily the oldest son, will inherit and continue the parents’ register. The other children may join another family’s register through marriage or adoption, or they may start their own register. A poignant moment in the TV drama 14 Year Old Mother (14才の母) shows the titular character realising that she cannot register her baby’s birth in her father’s register: she has to start her own “family”, with her as the head and only other member in order to register her child. As an unwed mother she is both symbolically and legally alone. In the case of my friend’s family, her maternal grandparents had only one daughter and no extended family with a superfluity of sons. That daughter married a man who was not able to take over her family (I assume he was already inheriting his parents’ register), moving into his register, and leaving her parents’ register empty of heirs. She had three children, two sons and a daughter (my classmate). The elder son was inheriting his father’s register, so the maternal grandparents wanted to adopt the younger son. This would mean him changing his name and entering their register. He refused however, not wanting the responsibility (there may have been a plot of land attached to the family name that they expected him to live on and farm, and he would have been expected to care for them (or more likely to have his wife care for them) while living together in their family home in their old age). The grandparents were upset and there was a lot of fighting going on, but my classmate noted glumly that through it all neither family expressed any thoughts of investing her as their heir. 

In what I think is a genius MacGyvering, inheritance adoption is used as a kind of de facto same-sex marriage arrangement by gay Japanese couples. Since the purpose is to clarify inheritance, there is no age restriction, meaning that one partner simply adopts the other as his or her successor. This means that their relationship has legal status; they are registered as a single household, and inheritance/compensation/other money issues are covered. These inheritance adoptions do not sever the relationship between adoptee and birth parents or entail any duty of care from adoptive parent to adoptee.  

Adoption in the sense of taking a non-biological child and making them legally and emotionally indistinguishable from a biological child is an entirely new concept in Japan. Legislation to create the legal framework for this sort of adoption was only finalised in 1989. The entire concept remains unfamiliar, particularly in the case of interracial adoptions. Back in 2005 I was showing my family photos to some older ladies I was having lunch with. They were confused about how my Caucasian sister and brother-in-law had been able to have two Asian daughters. I tried to explain adoption with the help of a dictionary, but didn’t get very far. Then one of the ladies said that she understood, and began explaining it to the others in Japanese. “It’s like my cats!” she said. “Momo is a pure breed I bought from a pet shop, and Tama is a stray I started feeding then eventually took in. Her nieces are like Tama-chan.” I repeated this story to the social worker who is handling our adoption incidentally, and she couldn’t help laughing; apparently when she had tried to explain her job to her grandmother the older lady had initially thought that her job involved finding homes for cats.

The family register raises its ugly head again in the issue of biological parents’ willingness to release their child for adoption. A child who is raised in an orphanage appears normally on the register (in most cases). A child who is given up for adoption will still be listed in the register, but with the adoption noted. For a young woman, having an adopted child listed in her register could cause any number of problems, including employment and marriage discrimination. There will be negative consequences not only for her but for her entire extended family. If she were to have an abortion, her register would remain unaffected. Some obstetricians have run a black market in matching infertile couples with patients experiencing unplanned pregnancies and illegally registering the birth of the latter’s child to the former’s register. Some private adoption agencies legally facilitate adoptions of newborns who are never listed in the birth mother’s register, but this means that the full costs of the mother’s medical care throughout pregnancy and birth must be paid up front. Although Japan has national health insurance, the costs of healthy pregnancy and a normal vaginal birth are not covered and have to be paid at the time of treatment. After a birth is registered in the family register the government pays a “baby bonus” to the mother that reimburses these costs. In a “normal” situation this means that the pregnancy and birth are in practice free, but if the birth is not registered the bonus isn’t paid, laying a large financial burden on the biological mother. Most agencies require the adoptive parents to pay this amount in addition to other fees and charges, meaning that even above-board, not-for-profit agencies charge very high fees.


Societal Acceptance of Eugenics

I wrote in a post about an orphanage Christmas party I organised that a co-worker commented that the kids would “just end up in jail anyway” because they had “bad blood”. Her view is definitely not a fringe or minority one. Ideas of pure and impure blood and of personalities based on blood types are commonplace and largely unquestioned. There is a pervasive belief that everything from your taste in food to the language you speak is biologically pre-determined. Even teachers will unabashedly say things like “Japanese ears have a different internal structure that can’t distinguish between R and L” or “Japanese language uses a different part of the brain from other languages”. These casual assumptions may not seem serious enough to warrant my use of the term eugenics, so let me also point out that laws providing for compulsory sterilisation of women with disabilities were not abolished until mid-1996.

During the orientation meeting for a private adoption agency we attended last summer the main focus was on the organisation’s policy of not allowing applicants to refuse a child. They explained that this included the following commonly objectionable reasons: Biological parents with a criminal record or mental illness, a child born of rape, the child’s race or the presence of a disability. Apparently many applicants baulk at the idea of a child with parents who have a criminal record… we couldn’t even understand why that was included. What possible difference could it make?! To Japanese couples, apparently it makes a big difference. During the Q and A section one couple who had adopted their daughter through the agency told us that race had been their biggest stumbling block. “A disability we could cope with” they told us, “but what if the child were black?! I mean, we don’t mind, but think about the bullying…” According to materials we were given, after this orientation more than half of applicants decide not to continue every year.

An anecdote in “Adoption in Japan” by Peter Hayes and Toshie Habu illustrates what prospective parents want in an adopted child. The authors write about the overwhelming response an adoption agency received to their search for parents for a three-year-old girl whose parents had died in a car accident. She represented the ideal "orphan" to prospective parents: the cute and developmentally standard child of a normal family affected by tragic circumstances.

In some Japanese cases, as in  many other countries, parents fear that that will not bond with or love an adopted child. Last time Abe Shinzo was prime minister his wife spoke publicly about their infertility but also commented that she felt incapable to raising an adopted child, and consequently they had decided to remain childless.


Fragmentation of Services

Adoption of children who are wards of the state is conducted via the child welfare office of each regional center. Private orphanages may pursue adoptions privately, particularly Catholic orphanages in coordination with the local Catholic congregation. A number of private adoption agencies exist to match birth parents with couples looking to adopt infants. Some obstetricians and maternity hospitals run private or ad hoc programs. There seems to be no national guidance or oversight. This quote from an article by highlights the lack of consistency:
A woman whose daughter had died was allowed by child welfare to go to a local orphanage and pick out a girl who looked like her daughter and take her home. Mr. Yamanta inherited this case from his predecessor. When he visited the home to see how the little six-year-old was doing, the mother said in front of the girl, “My daughter was not stupid like she is.” When Yamanta told his superior about this, the response was that the girl needed to learn to endure suffering. Of course, Mr. Yamanta ignored his supervisor and immediately moved the girl out of the situation. He was later rebuked severely. Impressed by an American missionary and a doctors’ association that was helping newborns get adopted, Mr. Yamanta wondered why the government couldn’t do the same thing. This would keep some children from ever entering the system. So, he started doing something revolutionary. He started asking pregnant women who came seeking help if they would be interested in adoption rather than putting their baby in an orphanage. Mr. Yamanta and his co-workers developed a system of finding and qualifying parents and arranging adoptions. One of their tenets was and is that if a baby turns out to be disabled, the adoptive parents must continue to raise him/her. Instead of sitting in their offices, he and his staff would go to the hospital when a baby was born. They would take the new parents there and make sure they were taught how to care for the newborn. Then, they let the birth mother put her baby in the arms of loving parents. You would think that this amazing new process would have caught on like wild fire all over Japan, but instead, Mr. Yamanta and his staff were opposed at every turn.
Post-adoption services are similarly confusing and fragmented. Some private agencies keep track of adoptive parents, but their staff do not necessarily have any training appropriate to the special challenges faced by adoptive families. As this sad case of a foster mother murdering the little girl in her care shows, the government sector doesn’t do a great job of following up on placements either. In countries like Australia and America there is a plethora of support services, specialist councillors, respite care, play groups, email lists and publications. In Japan it is still apparently common for couples to move house around the time of an adoption in order to hide it, and to keep adoption a secret both from their neighbours and from the child. This makes it very difficult for those families to seek help or to network with other adoptive families. There is an increasing trend in private agencies insisting that this not happen. They use the English word “telling” to express “openness about the fact of adoption”. Some adoptive parents blog about their experiences and attend orientation sessions for prospective adopters, which helps to normalise adoption and break down the wall of silence. When I began telling co-workers that we were trying to adopt most couldn’t understand what I meant or why we would do such a thing, but two were enthusiastic and told me about friends or extended family members with adopted children. My feeling is that a generational shift in attitudes may be slowly taking place.

Click here for Part Three: How to Adopt and Experiences with Adoption in Japan
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Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Human Tape Recorder


Picture from "No, my nose does not need plastic surgery"
If you read any ALT forums or blogs you will be familiar with the idea of the human tape recorder. The Japanese teacher is compelled to bring the ALT to class but has no desire to use them/doesn’t know how to use them/can't communicate in English and so simply has them repeat words from the text book and nothing else. Some ALTs spend their entire time in Japan playing this soul-destroying role. I have been incredibly lucky to work with amazing teachers at both my junior high schools (and at my elementary and kindergarten classes are usually ALT led, with the Japanese teacher playing the assisting role). In my first two and a half years I had never suffered the cassette player treatment. That changed when one of my teachers had a health scare and had to retire suddenly. Her substitute, who is now a full-time teacher, fulfils all of the negative stereotypes about Japanese teachers of English. She does not know how to use me. I became a cassette player. It’s a mind bogglingly dull and stupid, and after those students spent two years with me as their main English teacher at elementary and then six months with a talented JTE with whom I had an excellent team teaching relationship in junior high, seeing me standing at the back of the classroom doing nothing contributed to what has become a complete breakdown of any kind of classroom discipline. Still, I decided to do what small tasks I had with all my heart. When it came time to “repeat after ALT”, I gave each word my all, trying to pronounce each word so evocatively that even without translation the kids could guess its meaning. It’s easy with adjectives like “soft”, but impossible with basic nouns like “pen”. I found it quite meditative. We rarely think about words alone, but English words are truly beautiful (no matter how hideous our grammar is). Try it now. Say “exquisite” aloud. Say it in the most exquisite way you can. Try to express every shade of meaning it has with your voice. Exquisite. Isn’t that lovely?

It seems that I went too far. After I finished my “model reading” and the JTE began to say the words the students rebelled. “You sound nothing like a native speaker” they yelled. “Your pronunciation is SHIT. Why are you even an English teacher?” She stopped having me pronounce words. She was still compelled to take me to class, but she began using the CD that comes with the text book. I lost even the small role of human tape player, and became a human classroom decoration. It didn’t help the situation with the students. The first thing they said was “why are you using the CD player when she’s right there? You’re embarrassed to be beside a real English speaker, that’s why.” 

Kids are smart.

This is a very old comedy sketch from Shimura Ken, but unfortunately I don't think much has changed in English education in Japan. The sketch is still as biting today as it was in the 1980s.

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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Lucky Dip Bags 福袋

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If you are after a bargain in Japan, you can’t go amiss during the first week of January. Almost every retailer puts together lucky dip bags of various values, and they go on sale for massively less than the retail value of the contents (one of my friends this year paid about $100 for a bag of clothes worth $700). Even if you end up with some unwanted items, the excitement of opening your mystery bag is a pleasure in itself. The classic lucky dip bag is a mystery, with just a price and a theme ($10 comfort bag, $20 enjoy cooking bag etc). This year most bags I saw for sale were taking a half-way approach, listing the kinds of things inside but not specifics (1 dress, 1 jacket, two t-shirts with patterns, a knitted cardigan). Other stores let you see exactly what is inside, even offering their lucky dips in clear plastic bags. I saw one or two stores that had given up on the whole “lucky dip” aspect and were selling “bags” into which customers could then put any three items from the sale bins. No fun at all.
Ugh, look at all the plastic >.<
I ended up with a couple of bits of clothing I will definitely never wear, but another fun thing about lucky bag season is meeting up with friends to swap around the bits we don’t want. I’m sure someone will want this…
Ugliest shirt in the world
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Sunday, 20 January 2013

百人一首 Competitive Poetry

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百人一首 literally means 100 people, 1 neck o.0
Continuing with my recent theme of “things that are cool in January in Japan”: poetry memorisation contests!!! 百人一首 is a card matching game that dates back to the medieval. Players sit in a circle around a set of cards that feature one hundred different poems. The caller begins reciting the poem, and players race to identify and take the card that features the second half of that poem. Students get very competitive, slamming their hands down on cards sometimes after hearing just the first word. Although it originated as a game, the educational benefit of having students enthusiastically memorising great works of poetry is obvious. You can buy beautifully illustrated sets of cards with calligraphy by famous artists, but we bought a set from the 100 yen store. It cost 500 yen. Go figure.

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Saturday, 19 January 2013

Coming of Age Day


From Wikimedia Commons:
The second Monday of January is a public holiday in Japan to mark “coming of age day” (成人の日). Legal adulthood is twenty in Japan, and on this day all of the year’s twenty year olds gather for ceremonies at places like city halls and other celebrations. Young people who have moved away for university or work return to their home town, and it’s a bit like a giant reunion party. My old Japanese flat mate flew all the way from Tasmania to Kyushu, a long and expensive trip, for her coming of age ceremony. There is a particularly beautiful style of kimono worn by girls for the occasion. Boys have traditionally worn black suits, but obviously this is a major rip off in the dress-ups department so recently a lot more boys have begun wearing hakama. In my town this usually means a rather yankii (bogun) aesthetic dominates.
Others use the occasion to dress up in less… traditional… costumes

Including the fake tattoo, she must have spent hours getting ready
Yes, 20 is the legal drinking age.
When I was a uni student I remember waxing lyrical to my Japanese teacher about how wonderful it was to hold a nationwide celebration to mark the rite of passage into adulthood. She told me that some cities were cutting back on celebrations because of young people disrupting the events: knocking over tables, throwing garbage at the speakers and so on. I asked her what they were protesting about (the logical question for someone who grew up in an activist family) and she rather bemusedly replied “nothing… they just want to destroy.” At the time I assumed she was just missing the political message, but having since spent a lot more time with the “indolent youth” I’ve had to concede that her assessment was probably accurate. That unfortunate trend aside, I still get the warm and fuzzies every year on 成人の日. Although life stages can’t be measured in arbitrary numbers, I still think that acknowledging and celebrating arbitrary numbers is an important social task for communities that Australia does not do well. We don’t have a strong tradition of christenings, bar mitzvahs or any major milestones that don’t involve alcohol. I love the idea of each city throwing a party to welcome a new class of adults into the community and telling them how valued they are.
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Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Simply Living

Welcome to the Simply Living Blog Carnival cohosted by Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children, Laura at Authentic Parenting, Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy, and Joella at Fine and Fair. Continue your reading read on at the bottom of this post by clicking the links to the other participants' posts.
Because of the time difference, some links may be invalid for up to 24 hours. If that happens, please check again later.

Now that things are moving more quickly on the adoption front, it is time for us to start saving in earnest. The move, the Mr’s driving course, the car and scooter used up all of our savings and we need to get the adoption fees in the bank and ready to go.
That means simplifying and budgeting.
Budgeting I can do in my sleep but do not look forward to. I grew up in a welfare dependent family for most of my childhood, left home at 16 and lived below the poverty line until I got my MA scholarship and teaching work at the university. But, even living on $28 a day I managed to organise my finances well enough to make monthly donations to charity, so I have no fear that I can’t get the amount we need into the bank. It’s more that, despite the worthiness of the goal, I feel reluctant to let go of the comfortable lack of worry about money I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. It was such a nice change from the rest of my life to be able to afford body butter from The Body Shop whenever I wanted instead of making the one tub I got for Christmas last all year. One thing that is making me feel happier about the impending tightening of purse strings is this gorgeous Moomin household accounting book I got for Christmas.
Technically it was three Christmases ago, but stationary is for hoarding not using, right?
I love the little Moomin drawings for food, bills and other categories
Envelopes for receipts, stickers to mark pay day, rent day etc

I love stationary, I love Moomintroll, and it makes budgeting seem less like deprivation and more like… keeping a journal. Or maybe scrap-booking.

Simplifying, unlike budgeting, I am looking forward to. The past few years we had too much going on in our lives and our health and happiness paid the toll. It isn’t easy being a vegetarian in Japan, and when times are busy I fall back on huge bowls of white pasta in sauces from a jar- little nutritional value, a lot of sugar, no protein. Fewer commitments doesn’t just mean spending less, it means having more time to cook nourishing meals. I’m also looking forward to seeing how creatively I can cook to reduce our food budget. I got this recipe book a few years ago but haven’t had time to experiment with it.
The title is a pun. Yasu is a casual way of saying "cheap" and "uma" is a casual way of saying "delicious", hence "yasuma"
It has recipes for 30 yen a serve (about 32 Australian cents), and although it isn’t vegetarian specifically, a lot of the recipes are tofu and vegetable based.
Spicy tofu for a few cents a serve? Yes please!
A sheet of tofu skin as a pizza base? Genius!
Without a question though, the best thing about spending more time at home is reconnecting with the pleasures of playing with the dogs. Our relationship has been reduced to feed-walk-feed-walk-bed for the last few months, and I miss enjoying them. On my last day of Christmas holidays I unpacked one of the boxes we still haven’t got around to since our move (six months ago… we really have been that busy!). It was full of old towels, and the dogs very enthusiastically helped my unpack them. We had a good half an hour of fun just with the towels and the cardboard box, and I was able to enjoy it with them rather than pushing them out of the way because I was rushing to get on to the next task.

The force is strong with you young shiba

Feel the power of the Dark Side

Budgeting I hate to think about, but simplifying? I can’t wait!
Thank you for visiting the Simply Living Blog Carnival cohosted by Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children, Laura at Authentic Parenting, Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy, and Joella at Fine and Fair. Continue your reading by clicking the links of this month's posts on what simple living means to our participants. We hope you will join us next month, as we discuss new beginnings!

  • The Moments In Between - Amber from Heart Wanderings takes her yoga practice off the mat to focus on the ordinary moments which make mothering magical.
  • Simple living - what it looks like to me - Does simple living mean we have to be selfish? And what does selfish mean anyway? Mrs Green from Little Green Blog ponders in search of a more simple life...
  • A Simple Life is a Peaceful Life, For Me - Destany at They Are All of Me writes how simplicity is a very necessary part of her daily function and crucial for coping with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.
  • Getting Back to the Basics - Minimalism was the first step toward living simply for Momma Jorje. Now she's got big plans on getting back to the basics of living in order to live a simple, healthy, family-focused lifestyle.
  • Simplicity - What living simply means to sustainablemum and how it is woven into the fabric of daily life.
  • The Simple Life: A Work in Progress - Joella at Fine and Fair ponders her idealized vision of simple living and discusses the steps she's taking to get closer to it. 
  • Simple Living is Simply Living - At Living Peacefully with Children, Bart and Mandy hope to help their children focus on what is truly important by simply living.
  • Happiness, not Greatness - Lauren at Hobo Mama discovered that ambitions got in the way of simply being.
  • Shifting to Simplicity - At Authentic Parenting, Laura shares a couple of ways in which she tries to simplify her life.
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