Akie Abe, Japan's first lady, visits a legal hemp farm in western Japan, 2015. Image: Akie Abe, Facebook.
In 2015, something strange happened in Japan – something which made the country, for a moment, think differently about its past. Akie Abe, the wife of the Prime Minister, was photographed standing in a field of very large cannabis plants. This was not an accident. She was arguing for the revival of a cannabis culture that had prevailed in Japan for at least 2000 years – until it was stamped out by foreigners, in living memory.
Japan today has some of the harshest drug laws of any advanced democracy. If you are found in possession of cannabis in Japan for personal use you could receive a maximum prison sentence of five years, and if you are caught growing it, you can be sent to prison for up to seven years. Each year, the laws are enforced against 2000 people, who are brutally publicly shamed before, during and after their prison sentence. For example, when the actress Saya Takagi was caught with cannabis, all reruns of the dramas she appeared on – like the popular detective series Aibo - were scrubbed from the TV schedules. She had written the theme song for another TV show: it was immediately ditched. Or to give another example, when a rugby player for Japan’s national team was caught with the drug, he was banned from ever playing again, and the electronics giant Toshiba suspended all sponsorship of his regional team. To be associated with cannabis in Japan is to be destroyed.
So at first glance, Akie Abe’s call to restore Japan’s earlier culture – even saying she had considered growing hemp herself – seemed baffling to many Japanese people. What was she talking about? “Most Japanese people see cannabis as a subculture of Japan but they’re wrong. For thousands of years, cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture,” Japan’s leading expert on cannabis, Takayasu Junichi, told the Asia Pacific Journal in an interview.
The cannabis plant grew freely all over Japan, and was deliberately cultivated, for millennia. Junichi’s Taima Hakubutsukan, The Cannabis Museum, has documented the best evidence. There are prehistoric cave paintings in Japan which clearly depict cannabis plants, and cannabis seeds have been found dating back to at least 300BC. The Asia Pacific Journal reporter, Jon Mitchell, explained: “The museum is packed with testimony to Japan’s proud cannabis heritage. There are 17th century woodblock prints of women spinning fibers and photos of farmers cutting plants. In one corner sits a working loom where Takayasu demonstrates the art of weaving. He points to a bail of cannabis cloth - warm in winter, cool in summer, it’s perfectly suited to Japan’s extreme climate.”
Hemp – which is made from the cannabis plant – was central to Japanese life. It was used to make clothes and ropes, and was at the heart of to sacred ceremonies. Jon Mitchell explains further: “Cannabis was revered for its cleansing abilities, so Shinto priests used to wave bundles of leaves to exorcise evil spirits. Likewise, to signify their purity, brides wore veils made from cannabis on their wedding days. Today, the nation’s most sacred shrine - Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture - continues to have five annual ceremonies called taima dedicated to the nation’s sun goddess. However, many modern visitors fail to connect the names of these rituals with the drug so demonised by their politicians and police.” Kids used to be told that only the best children grew up to resemble cannabis plants, because they were tall and strong.
So how did cannabis go from being revered to demonised in such a short period of time? In the wake of the Second World War, when Japan was defeated and occupied, the US imposed its own attitudes towards drugs on the country; just as they had wanted to ever since the founder of America’s drug war, Harry Anslinger, launched his crusade. In 1948, Japan’s Cannabis Control Act was passed, and the country’s 25,000 cannabis farms were closed in a broad swoop. There had been no internal Japanese domestic pressure to introduce this war on drugs. There was no great fear of cannabis – it’s not even clear it was smoked much, or at all. But the US was imposing the drug war everywhere, and the countries it was occupying were easiest to bend to its will.
This ban – now imposed for several generations – has stirred a belief in Japan that there must be something evil about cannabis. A claim that began as an American import has now become a deeply-held cultural belief, and the result is that even the most innocuous forms of cannabis use are severely punished.
For example, a 58-year-old terminal liver cancer patient called Masamitsu Yamamoto was hauled before the Japanese courts in 2016. He was in extraordinary physical pain, and he had appealed to the medical authorities to allow him to use cannabis to control his pain, as many other patients in other countries are doing perfectly legally with prescriptions from their doctors. They refused. So he began to grow some himself solely for his personal use. When he used it he felt a great deal of relief. But he was arrested. “I’ve tried everything else that modern medicine offers,” he told the court. After he was arrested, his health plummeted, and he died before the end of his trial. He had asked the court, since he was only growing the drug for himself, who was this legal process designed to protect?
Akie Abe’s attempts to alert her country to a forgotten history where this would have been unthinkable were greeted with a kind of baffled amusement – until she became bogged down in scandals of her own, and the conversation ceased. Now, whenever there is a very small increase of cannabis use nationally, the response of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun is typical: “Our incipient cannabis pollution must be contained at all costs,” it declared, demanding an even tougher crackdown.
Meanwhile, Japan has, for a long time, been concentrating more heavily on a different drug – one where the country’s pattern of use is highly unusual.
Japan is unique in the world when it comes to its taste in drugs. Stimulants – overwhelmingly methamphetamine – make up 80 percent of all drug use. This makes Japan a real outlier. Not only is it the only country where methamphetamine use trumps cannabis – it trumps it by a country mile. Some drugs which are popular in other parts of the world are virtually unheard of in Japan. For example, in the mid-1980s, heroin-based arrests increased by 25 percent – from 29 people to 36. Cocaine, similarly, has gained very little market share.
The most obvious question is: why? “In a society of workaholics, of course it’s going to be meth,” I was told by Jake Adelstein, one of the leading experts on drugs and crime in Japan, and the author of the book Tokyo Vice. Stimulants make it possible to work longer and harder. In a country where there is even a word for “death from overwork” – a concept that doesn’t even exist in Europe or the United States – they have an obvious appeal.
“Because Japanese working hours are so long and you have to be able to function to hold onto your job,” Adelstein explains, “Japanese people are very concerned about holding onto their jobs. Especially the 67 percent of the population that has what are called permanent jobs. You can’t take pot or you can’t take heroin or you can’t take something else that won’t let you function, because then you lose your job. Plus, if you’re working basically every day from nine in the morning to ten at night, when is there a chance to take drugs? You’ve got the weekends and that’s it. These long working hours make it hard to develop a drug habit, unless you’re a band member or an actor or an actress.”
Japan almost certainly has higher drug use and significantly higher overdose deaths than the government claims publicly
Indeed, stimulants are so deeply Japanese that methamphetamine was invented in Tokyo. The chemist Nagayoshi Nagai first synthesised it from ephedrine in 1893. Stimulants seem to fit with the demands of Japan’s culture and they are almost certainly more popular than the official statistics suggest. The official figures claim 1.5 percent of Japanese people have used illegal drugs, contrasting with 42 percent in the US. But, as one expert who asked not to be named explained to me, these figures are compiled in ways that make them quite unreliable. Every year, the government gathers these statistics by approaching 6000 households and asking them to fill in a questionnaire. They don’t have to write their names on it, but they do have to hand them over to a government official. In a country where – as I’ll discuss later – even doctors call the police to inform them if their patients are suspected of using drugs, it is very likely that this method leads to figures that hugely underestimate the proportion of Japanese people using drugs.
Even more importantly, the official statistics are wrong on one of the most important facts in this debate. The same official told me that overdose deaths are grossly underestimated in the official statistics. He explained: “People usually don't say that they died of overdose. So, when people die of heart failure, what's that? What causes a heart failure?” If it was drug-induced, nobody would know. Jake Adelstein explained to me: “The number of drug overdose [deaths] in Japan of course is incredibly underdiagnosed, for two reasons. One is that only ten percent of suspicious cases have an autopsy, and if it looks like suicide, [the figure drops to] four percent.” Why? “Because there aren’t enough certified medical examiners that do it, and also because the police would really hate to see their homicide clearance rate climb down. If you start doing autopsies on all suspicious deaths, not just the ten percent of them that are classified as suspicious, then you have to solve it, right? Right now, the clearance rate for homicides is very high but if you start [doing autopsies for] every single suspicious death, your clearance rates are going to sink and people are going to say the police aren’t doing their job well.”
The second reason, he said, is “that there is no benefit for any government office in documenting the problem. There’s no upside to it. It’s like Japan’s child abuse problem. For years, Japan said there’s no child abuse in the country. They didn’t take stats. Then there were so many sensational cases, they started taking stats. Guess what? There’s lots of child abuse in Japan. So if you start looking at drug overdose cases in Japan, then you’re going to have to admit that there’s a drug problem.”
He concluded: “A very Japanese way of not dealing with the problem is – don’t take the data that would show that it exists.”
So Japan almost certainly has higher drug use and significantly higher overdose deaths than the government claims publicly. But even if the lower estimates for use are right, there are two million drug users living in terror of being shamed or jailed. And we know from the rest of the world that drug prohibition makes drugs deadlier. Drug dealers sell an adulterated product, filled with dangerous substances, and with an uncertain quantity of the drug itself, making it much easier to overdose: imagine if, when you drank alcohol, you didn’t know if it was 1 percent or 40 percent proof.
But it is important to stress: even if the real figures turned out to be ten times the official estimates, Japan would still have a relatively low level of drug use and drug deaths compared to many countries. Why is that? To understand the answer, I had to dive again into Japan’s past and to a myth that has shaped the country’s thinking about drugs for generations now.
There is a story that Japan has told itself about a key moment in its history for more than 70 years now. It underpins Japanese drug policy, and helps to drive its domestic drug war.
It goes like this. During the Second World War, Japan was flooded with stimulant drugs that had been used by the foreign armies fighting in the country. As Kiyoshi Wada, of the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry at Kodaira, puts it, these drugs “were used mainly by military personnel from the United States, Great Britain and Germany.” They made soldiers better able to focus, and able to cope on limited sleep. But, he continues, “after World War II ended, however, stock of methamphetamines were released from pharmaceutical companies and the military into the market.” Suddenly, anyone could buy them from the pharmacy. But these drugs were so powerful and so addictive that many people became hijacked by the ferocious chemical hooks hidden away in the pills they were swallowing. More and more people became addicted. The situation spiralled down from 1945 until the 50s, until it reached the point where there were more than 550,000 addicts, committing a series of heinous crimes in their drug psychosis, including child-murder. Finally, these drugs had to be banned, and then – at last – the problem largely went away.
This is the story that lies in the background of the Japanese drug debate, about why stimulants – the most popular illegal drug – are banned, and why they must remain so. If this story is true, it is perfectly logical to ban drugs, and to wage the tough war that Japan is embarked on. I kept hearing this story again and again as I dug into Japanese drug policy.
But there are some problems with this story. To begin to see them, it’s worth thinking about a moment in the history of my country, Britain. In the 18th century, at an early stage in the country’s industrialisation, huge numbers of people were driven out of the countryside – where their families had lived for centuries – into disgusting urban slums in cities like London and Manchester. They lost everything that had given their lives meaning – their communities, their jobs, their way of life. Crammed into tiny crowded homes and forced to adjust to working in factories, something unexpected happened. There was an outbreak of mass alcoholism. People began to drink enormous amounts of gin. There was public disorder as people were collapsing in public drunk. Some people began to drink themselves to death. It was known as the “Gin Craze”. There’s a famous painting, by Richard Hogarth, of a baby crawling off a high ledge while its mother sits stupefied, glugging gin.
At the time, what people said in Britain was that people had been destroyed by an unprecedentedly evil and addictive drug called gin. If only we could get rid of gin, they reasoned, these problems would go away.
But now, when we look back on this period, we see that it can’t be gin that caused the problem. Anyone in Britain today who is over the age of 18 can buy gin, and while of course there is a small number of alcoholics, there is no mass alcoholism, and babies are not crawling off ledges while their mothers are collapsed on the street.
So what really happened? When you are trying to explain an addiction outbreak, it turns out that supply-based explanations don’t work. Every society always has some powerful intoxicant to hand that it could use compulsively if its people felt the need. These outbreaks don’t occur simply when a new drug becomes available. But while explanations based on supply don’t work, explanations based on collective pain do work. In Britain during the Gin Craze, there was a large pool of people in terrible distress, for very good reasons: they had been humiliated and broken and had yet to find a tolerable new way to live. The addiction epidemic wasn’t caused by the availability of the drug, as it had been available before, and it would be available after. It was explained by the fact that a large number of the country’s people found it intolerable to be present in their lives, and sought out powerful anaesthetics. (This is one of the lessons of Bruce Alexander’s research on Rat Park, applied on a broader canvass. I explained this experiment – and its implications for all of us – in this TED talk.
I kept thinking about this as I read about Japan’s addiction epidemic in the wake of World War Two. There has been an unchallenged consensus that the epidemic was caused by the supply of stimulants. But there has been very little discussion of why so many people wanted intoxicants that would blot out so much of their consciousness and their pain. But Japan had just been subjected to an extraordinary national trauma, one even greater than that suffered by the subjects of the Gin Craze. Japanese soldiers had been sent to kill and die, to witness and commit atrocities, and all for a failed cause. It was the only country in history to be subjected to not one nuclear attack but two. Its other cities had been burned in stunningly violent scenes of mass death. And the country was now under military occupation by the very people who had used weapons of mass destruction against them, making it clear the country would never be the same again.
The reasons why there would be a deep pool of distress and pain could hardly be clearer. I kept thinking, as I learned about this, of the key insights I had been taught about addiction. Addiction is not primarily caused by exposure to chemical hooks – Rat Park and everything that flowed from it taught us that. Addiction is caused by the individual’s inability to be present in their life, because their life is too painful a place to be. For many people, a devastated, defeated, broken, irradiated Japan was too painful a place to be. And so it makes sense that many people sought a way out of the pain by compulsively drugging themselves.
One Japanese drug policy expert, who asked not to be named, told me: “I do think it maybe has a lot of influence, because we lost the war. But we [don’t say that], maybe because we are Japanese and we don’t want to make that kind of assertion.”
It is tempting for many Japanese people to argue that while addiction may be different abroad, in Japan it is largely driven by the drugs themselves. But this has been researched. A major study of people with addiction problems in Japan, published in the Japanese Journal of Alcohol Studies and Drug Dependence, found that the lonelier a Japanese person is, and the less able they are to cope with life, the more likely they are to engage in addictive behaviours or drugs. And conversely, the more connected they become, the less likely they are to remain addicted. Similarly, there was a long-term follow-up study of adolescent glue-sniffers in Japan, conducted by Dr Hiroshi Suwaki at Kochi Medical School. Among the users, “early deprivation was prominent,” and if they became more connected, they were more likely to leave it behind.
The founder of Japan’s main drug treatment network, DARC, summarised the main lesson he derived from working with working with enormous numbers of addicted Japanese people to an interviewer when he told a newspaper: “Drugs are a sign of pain. The pain could come from anywhere — from stress or work or the loss of a loved one — and anyone can become addicted.”
Another clue that this is the case comes if we look at when Japan next had an outbreak of drug addiction in 1970, following the one that ended in the mid-1950s. As Kiyoshi Wada, of the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry at Kodaira, writes:“Japan experienced sustained economic development until 1970, when Japanese economic growth suddenly declined.” This fits entirely with a pain-based explanation of addiction and yet Wada seems unable to see it, continuing: “This economic deterioration was marked by organised gangs selling methamphetamines.” This implies that it was all about supply. But in reality, there was always some supply – what changed is that there was more pain, so there was more demand.
And when did the next epidemic after that happen? “The economy collapsed at the beginning of 1991,” Wada writes. Then he adds: “Soon, organised gangs took advantage of this situation and began selling cannabis and methamphetamines.” But what could they take advantage of? This only makes sense if you understand the answer is a swollen market – one that has been swollen by a big increase in distress. Distress is the primary driver of addiction.
This helps us to explain several things. The first is why, overall, Japan has relatively low levels of drug use and addiction. For all the other flaws of the society, Japan has a highly cohesive culture and an extensive welfare state, where relatively few citizens are abandoned, ignored, or written off. Japan has no ghettos – no equivalent to the places in the US, like West Baltimore, where there is a huge concentration of poverty and deprivation, providing pools of despair that are the perfect breeding ground for addiction. Japan’s low addiction rate is due to the fact that for most of its citizens, most of the time, the society looks more like Rat Park than the isolated cages the guarantee addiction.
Yet this also helps us to explain one of the most shocking facts about drug addiction in Japan today. The Japanese government’s own figures show that although addiction is relatively low, the vast majority of people who do develop addiction problems and then interact with the “system” – the state – stay addicted, and many get significantly worse. Why is this?
Goro Koto, a social worker who runs a hotline in Tokyo for people with addiction problems, explained to me that if you have an addiction in Japan, often your own family will call the police, and you will be taken away. If you go to your doctor for help, often your doctor will call the police, and you will be forced to provide a urine sample. If it tests positive for any banned drug, you will be taken into detention. If it’s your first time being “caught”, you’ll get a 3 to 4 year suspended sentence. If you’re caught again, you are sent to prison for that period. In prison, the only “treatment” you will get will be in front of prison guards, where you will have to offer up a performance that you are determined to stop using drugs, no matter how you really feel.
You will be shamed, stigmatised, and jailed, for having an addiction. A system like this only increases the pain and humiliation of people with addiction problems. This explains why so many of them continue to be addicted, or deteriorate further.
Legal and prescription drugs
There are other basic errors in the Japanese drug debate that I kept seeing, time and again. For example, when six students at an elite private college in Tokyo called Waseda University were found in possession on cannabis, university administrators sent an email to all students saying anyone “foolish enough” to try cannabis will “all too often end up physically and mentally ruined, perhaps leading lives of crime. There is no ‘innocent’ or ‘harmless’ way to take illegal drugs.”
Yet the reality is that innocent and harmless use of drugs is the norm, not the exception. Even the United Nations Office of Drug Control has admitted that 90 percent of currently illegal drug use is non-problematic – it doesn’t harm the user, and doesn’t cause addiction. (For the 10 percent who do become addicted, there are deeper problems driving the problem). In the Japanese debate, all drug use is regarded as akin to addiction, and all addiction is regarded as a moral failing.
Japanese people seem to know this when it comes to legal drugs like alcohol, but they ignore it when it comes to illegal drugs like cannabis or methamphetamine.
Indeed, the contrast with the debate about alcohol is striking. “Attitudes towards alcohol are incredibly lax here,” Jeffrey Kingston, the director of Temple University’s Japan Campus, told the GlobalPost. “Alcohol facilitates the frank exchange of opinions and views in a society where communication can be quite stilted.” He noted that public drunkenness is common and even hard alcohol can be bought from vending machines. Japan has an estimated 6.5 million alcoholics, but a university would rightly be regarded as crazy if it told its students “there is no ‘innocent’ or ‘harmless’ way to take alcohol.”
Jake Adelstein told me: “Because alcohol is also part of many Shinto ceremonies it is considered sacred. And also, there’s a saying in Japanese that sake is the medicine that cures ten thousand sicknesses. Alcoholism isn’t really looked at as an illness. Everybody drinks. So Alcoholics Anonymous has never really taken off here. The Japanese don’t consider binge drinking to be a problem. So between tobacco and cigarettes, between tobacco and alcohol, a lot of Japanese people would probably be considered drug addicts [in the US or Britain], but they’re legal drug addicts.”
You will be shamed, stigmatised, and jailed, for having an addiction.
Similarly, Dr Masanori Fukushima, writing in Nature, explained: “The Japanese are the world’s highest spenders on prescription drugs… In contrast with conditions in countries such as Britain, where doctors are not allowed to sell drugs, nearly all Japanese general practitioners and hospitals have their own pharmacies for outpatients… There is a tremendous financial incentive for doctors to prescribe drugs excessively and unnecessarily because they make a profit of every sale.” Potent psychiatric drugs which are very similar to the banned and stigmatised drugs can be bought easily by “clinic-shopping” in Japan until you find a doctor willing to profit from it. Yet this isn’t stigmatised, in the way that drugs just on the other arbitrary line of legality are.
To find a different way to think about the drug debate, I realised, Japanese people only need to take the view they currently have about alcohol, Ritalin, and antidepressants, and stretch it to cover a few more chemicals.
Everywhere that drugs are banned, there is one immediate effect: organised crime is handed a hugely profitable industry. One of the leading experts on how this plays out in Japan, Jake Adelstein, explained to me: “The meth trade is always controlled by the Yakuza. There was a time when you had large transactions done by the Yakuza involving ships from North Korea bringing huge amounts of meth into the country. But as the Yakuza have decentralised and numbers have grown, you have a lot more cases of basically independent operators finding their own person to supply them and bringing it in.” Now, most drug supply happens through groups which pay dues to the Yakuza but are not working through its central structures.
This happened because in 2005, a gangster called Tsukasa Shinobu took over the Yamaguchi-gumi – one of the key organs of the Yakuza – and changed direction. Adelstein explains: “At the time the Yamaguchi had forty thousand members, and a lot of the organised crime groups were basically under it, and he had a no tolerance drug policy. No selling, no buying, no using. So that made the risk of using drugs or selling drugs to the Yakuza much higher.” Shinobu believed that meth use causes violent psychosis – which is a very simplistic belief – and this would bring unwanted attention onto the Yakuza themselves. This means that while the supply of drugs hasn’t reduced – in fact, stimulant seizures by customs were up threefold in 2016 – they were pushed to other organised crime groups. “So instead of having large scale organisation like cartels you have little criminal organisations within a larger organisation that are running this on the side,” Adelstein continues. “And when they get caught the top organisation disavows them, they all get kicked out of the organisation, and there it ends.”
Except, of course, it doesn’t end in one sense. The drugs get through. Criminals gain wealth and power and the means of violence by controlling it.
Signs of change
Could it be any different in Japan? The fact that even drug reformers in Japan were reluctant to let me quote them publicly reveals how sensitive this subject is there.
One of them – who works in providing services for addicts – told me: “I believe the culture in my country is going to change in at least 10 years or 20 years because we need more and more immigrants. Otherwise, we cannot keep our economy going, [because of our falling] population. So we're going to have more diversity. It's already started.” He says some of these foreigners will find it hard to adjust to Japanese society and, in despair, some will use drugs. Others will create businesses selling drugs. And they will all come from cultures where illegal drug use is more normalised than in Japan today. This, he believes, will force the culture to change. “Then people will start to think about harm reduction or decriminalisation.”
There are already some minor signs of change. Up to now, almost all drug users caught by the police are given a single chance. They are given a suspended sentence, and if they are caught again, they are sent to prison for years. But the Japan Times reported in 2017 a very rare event. The Osaka District Court made an exception. A 22-year old man was caught twice with stimulants but a court decided not to jail him. They received testimony from Toshihiko Matsumoto, director of the Drug Dependence Research Department at the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry, who explained that jail would make this man worse. He told the Japan Times: “The idea that community-based therapy, rather than the application of penalties, should be given more weight is a worldwide trend based on various studies.”
The young man with an addiction problem had explained to the court that his addiction was a way of coping with deep psychological pain. “I had a hard time communicating with people. But I was able to talk with others when I used (drugs). I was able to be myself,” he told the Japan Times. “I hated being alone, and used drugs out of loneliness. It was tough living.”
The fact that a Japanese court could hear these arguments and be persuaded by them shows that there is space in the culture to hear these different ways of thinking.
And a small but growing group have been explaining to their fellow Japanese citizens the benefits of potential legalisation of some banned drugs. One of the most detailed analyses has been carried out by the analyst Funai Yukio, in his book Akuho! Taima Torishimariho no Shinjitsu (“Bad Law! The Truth Behind the Cannabis Control Act”). He calculates that legalising cannabis could raise Japan, in the long term, as much as 30 trillion Yen.
To achieve this change, powerful forces will have to be challenged in Japanese culture. But every Wednesday and Friday, Goro Koto – the social worker who runs a helpline for people with addiction problems in Tokyo – hears the consequences of continuing with the status quo. They tell him: “I just want to talk with somebody. I don't know anywhere else I can talk about these kind of issues… I'm just looking for somebody that I can talk about my feelings or thoughts about my cravings.”
All they want, they say, is help, to find a way of out of this distress. When is Japan going to stop sending the police for them, and start giving them support instead?
And when are we going to stop repeating the same mistakes?
This is an extract from the Japanese edition of Johann Hari’s New York Times best-selling book, Chasing The Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, published in 2015. To find out what a range of people – from Noam Chomsky to Elton John to Naomi Klein to Stephen Fry – say about the book, click here.
Corrections: This article was amended on 11 May, 2018. The original stated that cannabis possession carries a five-year mandatory prison sentence. In fact, the maximium sentence is five years and first-time offenders are often treated more leniently. The original also stated that the Japanese edition of Johann Hari’s book Chasing The Scream was published in 2015. It is in fact due for publication in 2018.
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