Heian period (平安時代, Heian jidai) is the last division of
classical Japanese history, running from 794 to 1185. The period is
named after the capital city of Heian-kyō, or modern Kyōto. It is
the period in Japanese history when Buddhism,
Taoism and other Chinese
influences were at their height. The
Heian period is also considered
the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art,
especially poetry and literature. Although the Imperial House of Japan
had power on the surface, the real power was in the hands of the
Fujiwara clan, a powerful aristocratic family who had intermarried
with the imperial family. Many emperors actually had mothers from the
Fujiwara family. Heian (平安) means "peace" in Japanese.
1.1 Fujiwara regency
1.2 Rise of the military class
2 Heian culture
2.1 Developments in Buddhism
5 Current depictions
8 External links
Heian period was preceded by the
Nara period and began in A.D. 794
after the movement of the capital of
Kyōto), by the 50th emperor, Emperor Kanmu. Kanmu first tried to
move the capital to Nagaoka-kyō, but a series of disasters befell the
city, prompting the emperor to relocate the capital a second time, to
Heian. A rebellion occurred in
China in the last years of the 9th
century, making the political situation unstable. The Japanese
missions to Tang
China was suspended and the influx of Chinese exports
halted, a fact which facilitated the growth of independently Japanese
culture called kokufu bunka (ja). Therefore, the Heian Period is
considered a high point in Japanese culture that later generations
have always admired. The period is also noted for the rise of the
samurai class, which would eventually take power and start the feudal
period of Japan.
Nominally, sovereignty lay in the emperor but in fact power was
wielded by the Fujiwara nobility. However, to protect their interests
in the provinces, the Fujiwara and other noble families required
guards, police and soldiers. The warrior class made steady political
gains throughout the Heian period. As early as A.D. 939, Taira no
Masakado threatened the authority of the central government, leading
an uprising in the eastern province of Hitachi, and almost
Fujiwara no Sumitomo
Fujiwara no Sumitomo rebelled in the west. Still, a
true military takeover of the Japanese government was centuries away,
when much of the strength of the government would lie within the
private armies of the shogunate.
The entry of the warrior class into court influence was a result of
the Hōgen Rebellion. At this time
Taira no Kiyomori
Taira no Kiyomori revived the
Fujiwara practices by placing his grandson on the throne to rule Japan
by regency. Their clan, the Taira, would not be overthrown until after
the Genpei War, which marked the start of the Kamakura shogunate. The
Kamakura period began in 1185 when
Minamoto no Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo seized power
from the emperors and established the shogunate in Kamakura.
Byōdō-in Phoenix Hall, built in the 11th century during the Heian
period of Japan
Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to
Heian-kyō (Kyōto), which
remained the imperial capital for the next 1,000 years, he did so not
only to strengthen imperial authority but also to improve his seat of
government geopolitically. Nara was abandoned after only 70 years in
part due to the ascendancy of
Dōkyō and the encroaching secular
power of the
Buddhist institutions there.
Kyōto had good river
access to the sea and could be reached by land routes from the eastern
provinces. The early
Heian period (784–967) continued Nara culture;
the Heian capital was patterned on the Chinese Tang capital at
Chang'an, as was Nara, but on a larger scale than Nara. Kanmu
endeavoured to improve the Tang-style administrative system which was
in use. Known as the ritsuryō, this system attempted to recreate
the Tang imperium in Japan, despite the "tremendous differences in the
levels of development between the two countries". Despite the
decline of the Taika–Taihō reforms, imperial government was
vigorous during the early Heian period. Kanmu's avoidance of drastic
reform decreased the intensity of political struggles, and he became
recognized as one of Japan's most forceful emperors.
Although Kanmu had abandoned universal conscription in 792, he still
waged major military offensives to subjugate the Emishi, possible
descendants of the displaced Jōmon, living in northern and eastern
Japan. After making temporary gains in 794, in 797, Kanmu appointed a
new commander, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, under the title Sei-i
Taishōgun ("Barbarian-subduing generalissimo"). By 801, the shōgun
had defeated the
Emishi and had extended the imperial domains to the
eastern end of Honshū. Imperial control over the provinces was
tenuous at best, however. In the ninth and tenth centuries, much
authority was lost to the great families, who disregarded the
Chinese-style land and tax systems imposed by the government in Kyoto.
Stability came to Japan, but, even though succession was ensured for
the imperial family through heredity, power again concentrated in the
hands of one noble family, the Fujiwara which also helped Japan
A handscroll painting dated circa 1130, illustrating a scene from the
"Bamboo River" chapter of the Tale of Genji
Following Kanmu's death in 806 and a succession struggle among his
sons, two new offices were established in an effort to adjust the
Taika–Taihō administrative structure. Through the new Emperor's
Private Office, the emperor could issue administrative edicts more
directly and with more self-assurance than before. The new
Metropolitan Police Board replaced the largely ceremonial imperial
guard units. While these two offices strengthened the emperor's
position temporarily, soon they and other Chinese-style structures
were bypassed in the developing state. In 838 the end of the
imperial-sanctioned missions to Tang China, which had begun in 630,
marked the effective end of Chinese influence. Tang
China was in a
state of decline, and Chinese Buddhists were severely persecuted,
undermining Japanese respect for Chinese institutions.
Japan began to
Soga clan had taken control of the throne in the sixth century,
the Fujiwara by the ninth century had intermarried with the imperial
family, and one of their members was the first head of the Emperor's
Private Office. Another Fujiwara became regent, Sesshō for his
grandson, then a minor emperor, and yet another was appointed Kampaku.
Toward the end of the ninth century, several emperors tried, but
failed, to check the Fujiwara. For a time, however, during the reign
Emperor Daigo (897–930), the Fujiwara regency was suspended as he
Nevertheless, the Fujiwara were not demoted by Daigo but actually
became stronger during his reign. Central control of
continued to decline, and the Fujiwara, along with other great
families and religious foundations, acquired ever larger shōen and
greater wealth during the early tenth century. By the early Heian
period, the shōen had obtained legal status, and the large religious
establishments sought clear titles in perpetuity, waiver of taxes, and
immunity from government inspection of the shōen they held. Those
people who worked the land found it advantageous to transfer title to
shōen holders in return for a share of the harvest. People and lands
were increasingly beyond central control and taxation, a de facto
return to conditions before the Taika Reform.
Drawing of Fujiwara no Michinaga, by Kikuchi Yōsai
Lotus Sutra Prologue
Within decades of Daigo's death, the Fujiwara had absolute control
over the court. By the year 1000,
Fujiwara no Michinaga
Fujiwara no Michinaga was able to
enthrone and dethrone emperors at will. Little authority was left for
traditional institutions, and government affairs were handled through
the Fujiwara clan's private administration. The Fujiwara had become
what historian George B. Sansom has called "hereditary dictators".
Despite their usurpation of imperial authority, the Fujiwara presided
over a period of cultural and artistic flowering at the imperial court
and among the aristocracy. There was great interest in graceful poetry
and vernacular literature. Two types of phonetic Japanese script:
katakana, a simplified script that was developed by using parts of
Chinese characters, was abbreviated to hiragana, a cursive syllabary
with a distinct writing method that was uniquely Japanese. Hiragana
gave written expression to the spoken word and, with it, to the rise
in Japan's famous vernacular literature, much of it written by court
women who had not been trained in Chinese as had their male
counterparts. Three late tenth century and early eleventh century
women presented their views of life and romance at the Heian court in
Kagerō Nikki by "the mother of Fujiwara Michitsuna", The Pillow Book
Sei Shōnagon and The
Tale of Genji
Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Indigenous
art also flourished under the Fujiwara after centuries of imitating
Chinese forms. Vividly colored yamato-e, Japanese style paintings of
court life and stories about temples and shrines became common in the
mid-to-late Heian period, setting patterns for
Japanese art to this
As culture flourished, so did decentralization. Whereas the first
phase of shōen development in the early
Heian period had seen the
opening of new lands and the granting of the use of lands to
aristocrats and religious institutions, the second phase saw the
growth of patrimonial "house governments", as in the old clan system.
(In fact, the form of the old clan system had remained largely intact
within the great old centralized government.) New institutions were
now needed in the face of social, economic, and political changes. The
Taihō Code lapsed, its institutions relegated to ceremonial
functions. Family administrations now became public institutions. As
the most powerful family, the Fujiwara governed
Japan and determined
the general affairs of state, such as succession to the throne. Family
and state affairs were thoroughly intermixed, a pattern followed among
other families, monasteries, and even the imperial family. Land
management became the primary occupation of the aristocracy, not so
much because direct control by the imperial family or central
government had declined but more from strong family solidarity and a
lack of a sense of
Japan as a single nation.
Rise of the military class
Under the early courts, when military conscription had been centrally
controlled, military affairs had been taken out of the hands of the
provincial aristocracy. But as the system broke down after 792, local
power holders again became the primary source of military strength.
The re-establishment of an efficient military system was made
gradually through a process of trial-and-error. At that time the
imperial court did not possess an army but rather relied on an
organization of professional warriors composed mainly of oryoshi,
which were appointed to an individual province and tsuibushi, which
were appointed over imperial circuits or for specific tasks. This gave
rise to the Japanese military class. Nonetheless final authority
rested with the imperial court.
Shōen holders had access to manpower and, as they obtained improved
military technology (such as new training methods, more powerful bows,
armor, horses, and superior swords) and faced worsening local
conditions in the ninth century, military service became part of
shōen life. Not only the shōen but also civil and religious
institutions formed private guard units to protect themselves.
Gradually, the provincial upper class was transformed into a new
military elite based on the ideals of the bushi ("warrior") or samurai
("one who serves").
Bushi interests were diverse, cutting across old power structures to
form new associations in the tenth century. Mutual interests, family
connections, and kinship were consolidated in military groups that
became part of family administration. In time, large regional military
families formed around members of the court aristocracy who had become
prominent provincial figures. These military families gained prestige
from connections to the imperial court and court-granted military
titles and access to manpower. The Fujiwara family, Taira clan, and
Minamoto clan were among the most prominent families supported by the
new military class.
A decline in food production, the growth of the population, and
competition for resources among the great families all led to the
gradual decline of Fujiwara power and gave rise to military
disturbances in the mid-tenth and eleventh centuries. Members of the
Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto families—all of whom had descended
from the imperial family—attacked one another, claimed control over
vast tracts of conquered land, set up rival regimes, and generally
upset the peace.
The Fujiwara controlled the throne until the reign of Emperor
Go-Sanjō (1068–1073), the first emperor not born of a Fujiwara
mother since the ninth century. Go-Sanjo, determined to restore
imperial control through strong personal rule, implemented reforms to
curb Fujiwara influence. He also established an office to compile and
validate estate records with the aim of reasserting central control.
Many shōen were not properly certified, and large landholders, like
the Fujiwara, felt threatened with the loss of their lands. Go-Sanjo
also established the In-no-chō (ja) (院庁 "Office of the
Cloistered Emperor"), which was held by a succession of emperors who
abdicated to devote themselves to behind-the-scenes governance, or
The In-no-chō filled the void left by the decline of Fujiwara power.
Rather than being banished, the Fujiwara were mostly retained in their
old positions of civil dictator and minister of the center while being
bypassed in decision making. In time, many of the Fujiwara were
replaced, mostly by members of the rising Minamoto clan. While the
Fujiwara fell into disputes among themselves and formed northern and
southern factions, the insei system allowed the paternal line of the
imperial family to gain influence over the throne. The period from
1086 to 1156 was the age of supremacy of the In-no-chō and of the
rise of the military class throughout the country. Military might
rather than civil authority dominated the government.
Painting of the
Battle of Dan-no-ura
Battle of Dan-no-ura on April 25, 1185, Genpei War
A struggle for succession in the mid-twelfth century gave the Fujiwara
an opportunity to regain their former power. Fujiwara no Yorinaga
sided with the retired emperor in a violent battle in 1156 against the
heir apparent, who was supported by the Taira and Minamoto (Hōgen
Rebellion). In the end, the Fujiwara were destroyed, the old system of
government supplanted, and the insei system left powerless as bushi
took control of court affairs, marking a turning point in Japanese
history. In 1159, the Taira and Minamoto clashed (Heiji Rebellion),
and a twenty-year period of Taira ascendancy began.
Taira no Kiyomori
Taira no Kiyomori emerged as the real power in
Japan following the
Minamoto's destruction, and he would remain in command for the next 20
years. He gave his daughter Tokuko in marriage to the young emperor
Takakura, who died at only 19, leaving their infant son
succeed to the throne. Kiyomori filled no less than 50 government
posts with his relatives, rebuilt the Inland Sea, and encouraged trade
with Sung China. He also took aggressive actions to safeguard his
power when necessary, including the removal and exile of 45 court
officials and the razing of two troublesome temples, Todai-ji and
The Taira were seduced by court life and ignored problems in the
provinces, where the Minamoto Clan were rebuilding
their strength. In 1183, two years after Kiyomori's death, Yoritomo
Minamoto dispatched his brothers Yoshitsune and Noriyori to attack
Kyoto. The Taira were routed and forced to flee, and the Empress
Dowager tried to drown herself and the 7-year old Emperor (he
perished, but his mother survived). Takakura's other son succeeded as
With Yoritomo firmly established, the bakufu system that governed
Japan for the next seven centuries was in place. He appointed military
governors, or daimyōs, to rule over the provinces, and stewards, or
jito to supervise public and private estates. Yoritomo then turned his
attention to the elimination of the powerful Fujiwara family, which
sheltered his rebellious brother Yoshitsune. Three years later, he was
appointed shōgun in Kyoto. One year before his death in 1199,
Yoritomo expelled the teenaged emperor
Go-Toba from the throne. Two of
Go-Toba's sons succeeded him, but they would also be removed by
Yoritomo's successors to the shogunate.
Developments in Buddhism
Danjogaran of Mount Kōya. The place is a center of the sacred ground
Bodhisattva Fugen Enmei, 12th-century painting on silk, late Heian
Standing Komoku Ten (Virupakusa)
Buddhism began to spread throughout
Japan during the Heian period,
primarily through two major esoteric sects,
Tendai and Shingon. Tendai
China and is based on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most
important sutras of
Saichō was key to its
transmission to Japan.
Shingon is the Japanese transmission of the
Chinese Chen Yen school. Shingon, brought to
Japan by the monk Kūkai,
emphasizes Esoteric Buddhism. Both
Saichō aimed to connect
state and religion and establish support from the aristocracy,
leading to the notion of 'aristocratic Buddhism'. An important
Tendai doctrine was the suggestion that enlightenment was
accessible to "every creature".
Saichō also sought independent
Tendai monks. A close relationship developed
Tendai monastery complex on
Mount Hiei and the imperial
court in its new capital at the foot of the mountain. As a result,
Tendai emphasized great reverence for the emperor and the nation.
Kanmu himself was a notable patron of the otherworldly
which rose to great power over the ensuing centuries.
impressed the emperors who succeeded Kanmu, and also generations of
Japanese, not only with his holiness but also with his poetry,
calligraphy, painting, and sculpture. Shingon, through its use of
"rich symbols, rituals and mandalas" held a wide-ranging appeal.
Although written Chinese (Kanbun) remained the official language of
Heian period imperial court, the introduction and wide use of kana
saw a boom in Japanese literature. Despite the establishment of
several new literary genres such as the novel and narrative monogatari
(物語) and essays, literacy was only common among the court and
Poetry, in particular, was a staple of court life. Nobles and
ladies-in-waiting were expected to be well versed in the art of
writing poetry as a mark of their status. Every occasion could call
for the writing of a verse, from the birth of a child to the
coronation of an emperor, or even a pretty scene of nature. A
well-written poem or haiku could easily make or break one's
reputation, and often was a key part of social interaction. Almost
as important was the choice of calligraphy, or handwriting, used. The
Japanese of this period believed handwriting could reflect the
condition of a person's soul: therefore, poor or hasty writing could
be considered a sign of poor breeding. Whether the script was Chinese
or Japanese, good writing and artistic skill was paramount to social
reputation when it came to poetry.
Sei Shōnagon mentions in her
Pillow Book that when a certain courtier tried to ask her advice about
how to write a poem to the empress Sadako, she had to politely rebuke
him because his writing was so poor.
The lyrics of the modern Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, were
written in the Heian period, as was The
Tale of Genji
Tale of Genji by Murasaki
Shikibu, one of the first novels ever written. Murasaki Shikibu's
contemporary and rival Sei Shōnagon's revealing observations and
musings as an attendant in the Empress' court were recorded
The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book in the 990s, which revealed the
quotidian capital lifestyle. The
Heian period produced a flowering
of poetry including works of Ariwara no Narihira, Ono no Komachi,
Izumi Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu,
Saigyō and Fujiwara no Teika. The
famous Japanese poem known as the
Iroha (いろは), of uncertain
authorship, was also written during the Heian period.
During the Heian period, beauty was widely considered an important
part of what made one a "good" person. In cosmetic terms, aristocratic
men and women powdered their faces and blackened their teeth, the
latter termed ohaguro. The male courtly ideal included a faint
moustache and thin goatee, while women's mouths were painted small and
red, and their eyebrows were plucked or shaved and redrawn higher on
the forehead (hikimayu).
Women cultivated shiny, black flowing hair and a courtly woman's
formal dress included a complex "twelve-layered robe" called
jūnihitoe, though the actual number of layers varied. Costumes were
determined by office and season, with a women's robes in particular
following a system of color combinations representing flowers, plants,
and animals specific to a season or month, (see the Japanese
entries irome and kasane-no-irome).
While on one hand the
Heian period was an unusually long period of
peace, it can also be argued that the period weakened Japan
economically and led to poverty for all but a tiny few of its
inhabitants. The control of rice fields provided a key source of
income for families such as the Fujiwara and were a fundamental base
for their power. The aristocratic beneficiaries of Heian culture,
the Ryōmin (良民 "Good People") numbered about five thousand in a
land of perhaps five million. One reason the samurai were able to take
power was that the ruling nobility proved incompetent at managing
Japan and its provinces. By the year 1000 the government no longer
knew how to issue currency and money was gradually disappearing.
Instead of a fully realised system of money circulation, rice was the
primary unit of exchange. The lack of a solid medium of economic
exchange is implicitly illustrated in novels of the time. For
instance, messengers were rewarded with useful objects, e.g., an old
silk kimono, rather than paid a fee.
The Fujiwara rulers failed to maintain adequate police forces, which
left robbers free to prey on travelers. This is implicitly illustrated
in novels by the terror that night travel inspired in the main
characters. The shōen system enabled the accumulation of wealth by an
aristocratic elite; the economic surplus can be linked to the cultural
developments of the
Heian period and the "pursuit of arts". The
Buddhist temples in
Heian-kyō and Nara also made use of the
shōen. The establishment of branches rurally and integration of
some Shinto shrines within these temple networks reflects a greater
Emperor Kanmu moves the capital to
Emperor Kanmu moves the capital to
Saichō (Dengyo Daishi) introduces the Tendai
806: The monk
Kūkai (Kōbō-Daishi) introduces the
Kūkai founds the monastery of Mount Kōya, in the northeast
portion of modern-day Wakayama Prefecture
Emperor Seiwa begins the rule of the Fujiwara clan
Sugawara no Michizane
Sugawara no Michizane halted the imperial embassies to China
Sei Shōnagon writes the
Pillow Book essays
Murasaki Shikibu writes The
Tale of Genji
Tale of Genji novel
1050: Rise of the military class (samurai)
Byōdō-in temple (near Kyōto) is built by Fujiwara no
Emperor Go-Sanjō overthrows the Fujiwara clan
Emperor Shirakawa abdicates and becomes a
Buddhist monk, the
first of the "cloistered emperors" (insei)
Taira no Kiyomori
Taira no Kiyomori defeats the
Minamoto clan and seizes power,
thereby ending the "insei" era
1180 (June): The capital is moved to
1180 (November): The capital is moved back to
1185: Taira is defeated (Genpei War) and
Minamoto no Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo with the
support (backing) of the Hōjō clan seizes power, becoming the first
shōgun of Japan, while the emperor (or "mikado") becomes a figurehead
The iconography of the
Heian period is widely known in Japan, and
depicted in various media, from traditional festivals to anime. In the
manga and TV series Hikaru no Go, the protagonist
Hikaru Shindo is
visited by a ghost of a go genius from the
Heian period and its
leading clan, Fujiwara no Sai.
Various festivals feature Heian dress – most notably Hinamatsuri
(doll festival), where the dolls wear Heian dress, but also numerous
other festivals, such as
Aoi Matsuri in
Kyoto (May) and Saiō Matsuri
Meiwa, Mie (June), both of which feature the jūnihitoe 12-layer
dress. Traditional horseback archery (yabusame) festivals, which date
from the beginning of the
Kamakura period (immediately following the
Heian period) feature similar dress.
The two-volume historical novel saga White as Bone, Red as Blood: The
Fox Sorceress (2009), and White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Storm
God (2011) depict in detail the pivotal years 1160–1185 in
Japan, as seen through the eyes of protagonist Seiko Fujiwara. Both
books were written by Cerridwen Fallingstar.
The game Total War: Shogun 2 has the Rise of the
pack as a downloadable campaign. It allows the player to make their
own version of the
Genpei War which happened during the Heian period.
The player is able to choose one of the most powerful families of
Japan at the time, the Taira, Minamoto or Fujiwara; each family
fielding two branches for a total of six playable clans. The expansion
pack features a different set of land units, ships and buildings and
is also playable in the multiplayer modes.
Kyoto is a Japanese video game set in 10th–11th century
Japan. It is a point-and-click adventure game depicting Heian-kyō,
including the religious beliefs, folklore and ghost tales of the time.
It was praised by film critic Roger Ebert.
Constructs such as ibid., loc. cit. and idem are discouraged by
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^ "Heian period". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-04-24.
^ a b F. W. Seal, Heian Period Court and Clan
^ Shively and McCullough 1999.
^ Hurst 2007 p. 32
^ Takei, Jiro; Keane, Marc P. SAKUTEIKI. Boston: Tuttle Publishing.
p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8048-3294-6.
^ Hurst 2007 p. 34
^ Hurst 2007 p. 35
^ Meyer, Milton W., Japan: A Concise History, page 44.
^ Karl Friday, "Teeth and Claws, Provincial Warriors and the Heian
Court" Monumenta Nipponica (Summer 1988): 155–170.
^ Kitagawa 1966 p. 59
^ Weinstein 1999
^ Kitagawa 1966 p. 60
^ Kitagawa p. 61.
^ Kitagawa 1966 p. 65.
^ The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris, 180, 182
^ Ibid, 183–184
^ Morris (1964) p. xiv.
^ "Heian Period." We-pedia. We-pedia, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
^ a b Morris 1964 p.73.
^ Morris 1964 p.79.
^ a b Collins 1997 p.851.
^ Ponsonby-Fane, Richard. (1962). Sovereign and Subject, pp.
203–204; also known as Fujiwara jidai
^ Britannica Kokusai Dai-Hyakkajiten article "Fujiwara no Yorimichi".
^ Ponsonby-Fane, p. 204.
^ Fallingstar, Cerridwen. White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Fox
Sorceress. Cauldron Publications, 2009.
^ Fallingstar, Cerridwen. White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Storm God.
Cauldron Publications, 2011.
Collins, R., "An Asian Route to Capitalism: Religious Economy and the
Origins of Self-Transforming Growth in Japan", in American
Sociological Review, Vol. 62, No. 6 (1997)
Hurst III, G. C, "The Heian Period" in W. M. Tsutsui, (ed.), A
Companion to Japanese History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Kitagawa, J., Religion in Japanese History (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1966)
Morris, I., The World of the Shining Prince; Court Life in Ancient
Japan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964)
Shively, D. H. and McCullough W. H., "Introduction" in D. H. Shively
and W. H. McCullough, (eds.),The Cambridge History of Modern Japan;
Volume 2, Heian Japan, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Weinstein, S., "Aristocratic Buddhism" in D. H. Shively and W. H.
McCullough, (eds.),The Cambridge History of Modern Japan; Volume 2,
Heian Japan, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
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