Is it cultural appropriation if I give my white, American baby a Japanese name?

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Admission Stamp When I was pregnant with my first child, I had my heart set on a specific Japanese name (Sakura) for my child. Her father dismissed the idea because the baby wasn’t Japanese, and we ended up naming our daughter Evelynn.

He and I split, and I’m married to a wonderful man who fully supports this Japanese name as we await a baby of our own.

Here’s the thing: we’re two white Americans of European descent, and thanks to my ex I still have this sickening feeling in the back of my head about using the name.

Have any of you used baby names that aren’t from your culture and ethnicity? How do you feel about it?


Comments on Is it cultural appropriation if I give my white, American baby a Japanese name?

  1. If you name your child Sakura and in the future you have occasion to introduce her to someone new who is Japanese, will you feel awkward or self conscious about it? And likewise what might it be like for her in school and later in life when she introduces herself to people? Maybe she’ll love the name, maybe she’ll find it to be an annoyance to have explain to everyone who will inevitably ask about it. As someone pointed out already names are quite powerful. I fully believe they help shape who we become and how people view us initially. I just had a son and spent my entire pregnancy agonizing over a name because I did not want anything that was overly common or trendy, but was concerned about the life long implications of any name we would eventually settle on. You may give your child a name, but they have to live with it.

    I love the idea of Sakura as a name, but wouldn’t be able to use it as a first name. Despite all that though, I don’t think I’d have a problem using it as a middle name.

  2. I have read through most of these comments and while they all make valid points I tend to disagree with most. It is not necessarily that I am apathetic towards culture however I think that naming a child should go well beyond that. Naming a child is something that sticks with you forever. Your child will live with the name forever and so will you. I truly believe that the naming of a child should come down to what you want, what your partner wants and whether or not you feel the name fits your child. Honestly when I hear a name I don’t attribute it to race or culture I attribute it to what the parents are trying to say with the meaning.

    My sons name is biblical and a name of Hebrew descent. His father his Hispanic and I am Irish. I did not take into count where the name came from when it was chosen, I took into count it’s special meaning to us.

    • I think this is a difference of opinion, and maybe, a difference in closeness to culture. I was raised Irish, but I was raised very much in the immigrant Celtic community – people who still speak Gaelie as their first language and are deeply rooted to the homeland. Meanings of names, for us, are deeply entrenched to our history. If you name your son Kenneth, you’d better be ready to tell him about Kenneth MacAlpin when he’s old enough. A boy named Bruce will know about the House of Bruce and his history. All the Michaels learn about Michael Collins (among others). Aidens all know about Aidan of Lindisfarne.

      I’m not saying this to say “hey, I’m more Irish than you.” Certainly not. But many people with your same ancestry do link our names to our culture and want to maintain that history. Your preference is your own, but its not universal.

      • This ignores the fact, though, that many of these names have a history outside of the Celtic community, now.

        My ancestors are Irish, and my husband’s are Scottish, but we don’t identify this way because we are Canadian. However, those naming traditions are part of our family heritage, and we honour that when we chose Celtic names. My father is named Kenneth, and that is my son’s middle name. I have no idea who Kenneth MacAlpin is.

        The issue with language and naming is that it’s fluid, and over time, something that begins as belonging to one culture or language becomes something else. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, and I don’t think it can be avoided.

        Surely, my ancestors who emigrated to Canada had a right to use their cultural names, and their descendants have a right to honour those family names, even if we no longer identify with that original culture.

        I don’t mean for my comments to be disrespectful to your opinions (we also had a difference of opinion elsewhere, which is why I want to be careful to say that I understand your point of view, and I don’t mean to say that you’re wrong and I’m right when I disagree with you – just that I have different ideas).

        • I never argued that people who have drifted from the culture should be prevented from using cultural names. However, what you’re discussing is a privleged position. Very often, those who hold tightest to their culture are those who experience marginalization or mistreatment (like many Celtic people today still struggle with, especially in certain places). Most of the most culturally aware people I know are people who were ostracized for their ethnicity or background (I mean overall, not just talking about my own community here). And this doesn’t really change my point that if you are going to go outside your own culture, you owe a degree of respect to the culture you’re taking from. Many Celts name their sons Kenneth because the name DOES represent a major stone in Celtic history, whether you personally are aware of it or not. And I don’t see an argument here that people outside the culture don’t have a duty to respect that.

          (Just to say – he was the first king of scotland who recovered St. Columba’s relics). So it’s an especially big name among Scottish people.

          • “And this doesn’t really change my point that if you are going to go outside your own culture, you owe a degree of respect to the culture you’re taking from.”

            I agree with this.

          • Celtic people suffer from marginalization?

            Forgive me as someone who’s Welsh and lives in England (and if anywhere doesn’t like ‘Celtic’ people it’s England), the most I have experienced of marginalization, is when England are playing Football or Rugby. Or possibly when people from the rest of the world interchangeably use ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ without realizing the difference. So where precisely are ‘Celtic’ people being marginalized?

    • My interpretation of tokenizing is more that is has to do with a desire to deflect accusations of racism, without having to directly address/acknowledge/confront racist behavior. Based on my interpretation of the original poster’s words, it seemed like she had a strong attachment to the name itself, and not much of an agenda with regards to its cultural connotations. I would really appreciate hearing how you (or others) think it moves beyond cultural appropriation into the range of tokenism (honest question here–not trying to be confrontational).

  3. I have a fairly ordinary name but because my mother decided to spell it differently I ended up having to spell it for everyone, all the time. Sometimes I was so proud of my name because it was different but just as often I was annoyed with it. My driver’s license had to be corrected twice.

    OP consider where you’re probably be living. Will you be surrounded by supportive slightly offbeat folks? Will you be able to explain the origin of your child’s name at every turn? Are you ok with the answers you plan to give? Are you ready to give your baby a name she’ll spend a good chunk of her life explaining to other people?

    Mind you, this is all less of a thing than it was when I was a kid but it’s still something to think about.

    How have your relatives reacted to the name? Supported, so-so, or hostile?

  4. Hmm…interesting question! I am somewhat sensitive to this one, because I speak Japanese. If you are worried about people thinking your child is strange because her name is Japanese and she is obviously of European descent, I wouldn’t worry about that at all. Most of this kids in my class call me Yuki(because of the whole speaking Japanese thing), and people do not even give me a second look. さくら makes a little more sense if you speak Japanese, but even if you don’t, there is nothing wrong with naming your daughter that. Also, it’s a very popular name, so I think there will not be any pronunciation issues. On the other hand, if you are worried about cultural sensitivity, there are no Japanese rules that say you can’t name you child さくら. She will not be shunned by Japanese people or anything. The only problem I can think of is that assuming you like in America, people will probably associate her with the Naruto character for her entire life, which might get irritating. But other than that, なん なまえ だいじょうぶ ね. そして, あかちゃん おめでとう ね!

  5. Sakura is a lovely name. I would advise caution when naming a second child the name you had picked out for your first. My mother had picked out the name Melissa for a daughter. When I was born, and placed in NICU, I was given a different name. My younger sister was named Melissa. This has caused so many hurt feelings on both sides over the years that neither of us uses the name; my sister had her first name legally changed. Please think about how that might affect any sibling relationship, should you ever share the story with your children.

  6. I haven’t seen anyone mention this so I would like to suggest you take a look through

    My take-away is what, specifically, about “Sakura” appeals to you? Is it purely phonetic appreciation? Does Japanese culture represent something specific to you? (Have you ever seen SNL’s “America J-Pop Fun Time Now”?)

    I remember thinking about my name a lot, and what it meant about me and who I was. What would you daughter think “Sakura” says about her?

  7. I think this is a valid question. I live in Hawaii, where I’ve met white people with Hawaiian names, Filipino people with Chinese names, Korean people with “christian” names, etc. I’m sure there are people who see this as cultural appropriation (esp. full caucasian with Hawaiian names)And, yes, names have very strong meaning to some people. And, yes, we all have our own rules for how and why we chose them. I’ll be honest, I chose my sons name because it sounded pretty and I thought it would age well. His middle names carry the history, and that’s how my husband and I chose to name him.
    I think you should name your child whatever you damn well please, and, frankly, no one’s opinion should hold more weight than yours and your partners’.

    • Totally this — my very white child (who is around 20% Hawaiian) has a Hawaiian middle name & our last name is Hawaiian since it’s on my husband’s side. Our kid doesn’t look very Hawaiian, but he does carry Hawaiian in him, and more than that it was important to us to include that part of his heritage in his name.

  8. In my opinion, the whole concept of “cultural appropriation” is kind of muddy. The way I take it is, why not celebrate other cultures in whatever way you choose: naming your daughter with a foreign name, honoring Dia De Los Muertos, etc. I play the ukulele, and many people consider that appropriation of Hawaiian culture, but I do it because I love it and think the ukulele is a beautiful instrument. From my point of view, “cultural appropriation” only takes on an ugly meaning when it is done in a trashy, hateful, or mocking way.

    • I understand where you are coming from but the definition of cultural appropriation doesn’t originate with the ‘taker’ but with the culture being appropriated from. Otherwise, that still makes it about the appropriator and not the culture.

      There definitely is a great amount of cultural assimilation in our country (versus cultural appropriation) and it is a fine line. It really depends so much on context and situation; however, assimilation is usually at the behest of the ‘smaller’ or more marginalized culture.

      I really do suggest taking a look at

  9. Don’t ask the internet a question about cultural appropriation! Seriously, i wouldn’t ask the internet, this is one of those things where the internet is likely to have really different answers from the world, especially regarding the whole ultra-liberal bullying thing.

    I have a half-japanese friend named Sakura and it seems like an awesome name- that said, its not a terrible idea to run the concept by some japanese people and see what they think of it, if you can find any- who aren’t on the internet. The internet is the worst place to ask certain kinds of questions.

  10. The initial big question aside; the one thing I do love is that if Laura hadn’t posted this question and just sent in a picture to Monday Montage of lovely white, American Sakura, I don’t think many people here would even blink. If I thought anything of it, I’d assume that her parents had a connection to Japan and liked the name…and then I’d move on to cooing over how cute she is.
    Because that’s how Offbeat Families rolls.

  11. Something I haven’t seen in here is the idea of sibling name styles. If your older child is Evelynn, you often see names like Sophia or Abigail for a younger sister, not Sakura. A style mismatch might not matter to you/your partner/your daughters at all, but may be worth considering, especially in the case of a blended family. I wonder if it might feel at all awkward for the older child to know that the “dream name” was considered for her, but ultimately given to her younger sibling?

  12. It’s a fascinating topic!

    Personally, I think it depends on the situation as to whether it’s appropriation or not. If the name had great significance in Japanese culture and the parents had no ties to Japan, then it might well be a different matter. Given the specific name Sakura, I see no problem with it. It may well be somewhat approrpiative, depending on the reasons for wanting the name, but in this circumstance I see no issue given how common the name is.

    It would be different again if it were a common name from a highly marginalised culture. Where I live, for example, the local indigenous people have what I consider a beautiful language. Unfortunately it’s an “extinct” language, in that there is no longer anybody who speaks it as a first language. There’s a wonderful group of elders, other community members and linguists who are attempting to revive the language. In one way, I would LOVE to give a child of mine a name from this language. Even though I’m not part of the cultural group, the language is tied to the land where I grew up. I’ve done some significant study of the language, and it has real meaning to me. However, I couldn’t in good conscience do it – even if the elders okayed it. In this case, these people have so little of their ancestral culture available to them that the language is incredibly important. Even though it means more to me than just “sounding pretty”, it wouldn’t seem right.

    Edit: Just thought I’d add, my partner’s name is definitely a case of cultural appropriation in my view. It’s an Indigenous word that his parents read in a newspaper and loved. More than 20 years later, whilst I was studying linguistics, I did some research into it. Turns out that the pronunciation, origin AND meaning that they’d told him it had were all wrong. It comes from a place more than 2000km from where they thought it did, the initial sound and the emphasis are both different, and it’s the name of a language group – not just an endearing term like they thought.

  13. As a very Caucasian-looking hapa (Japanese/White) woman with a Japanese first name, I would advise picking a name that is more cross-cultural and palatable to the general American public than Sakura. I find it difficult getting asked “what are you?”, “where are you from?” roughly every other week, depending on what part of the country I’m in. I wind up using my American-sounding middle name (Jesssica) in a lot of situations because it’s easier to pronounce/spell and you don’t have to provide a full background story of why your race and name origin don’t appear to match. If you have your heart set on a Japanese name there are a lot of lovely options that might sound a bit more ‘normal’ to the American ear and are more racially ambiguous (Hana, Naomi, Reina, Emi, Mika, etc.).

    On another note, I think that cultural appropriation is a very tricky subject, particularly for Japanese-Americans given the history of internment in WWII and subsequent pressure to “fit-in” and be “American” (and thus avoid Japanese names). As a descendant of internees, awareness of the potential danger of being “other” is something I still carry with me–I pause and think before checking off race boxes on government forms. I have had my parents’ partiotism questioned for giving me my name by veterans who witnessed the horrors of the Pacific theater. That being said, I think that broader integration of Japanese culture into the American mainstream is not a bad thing (and heck if there were a lot more white Sakuras running around my name would probably not be as much of an issue!). I would urge the original poster to consider that the person who will ultimately carry the burden of explanation and a need for extra cultural sensitivity will be her daughter.

    • Yes. In addition to other issues would be to consider your daughter constantly being asked if she’s Japanese including the always lovely “So, which half?” that some of my mixed-ethnicity friends have received. I am frequently asked about my background.

      Today, someone looked at me, pointed, and said, “Polish or Russian?” I’m neither nor is anyone in my family from anywhere remotely Central or Eastern European. This type of thing happens more often than I could write off as a few oddballs. It’s not that the backgrounds they guess are insulting in some way but just deciding this is something to ask a total stranger about always leaves me annoyed. While my parents didn’t choose my appearance like you can pick out a name, it’s worth considering.

  14. My son’s middle name is that of a Mayan-named town in Central America, a place my partner and I love, a place important to the evolution of our loves and lives together. When I meet people from the region surrounding the town, I usually tell them about it and they have so far been not just accepting but *delighted.* They want to know all about why a porcelain-pale Eastern European Jewish/Irish/Native-American/English American kid would have that name. They’re excited to find something of their place and culture up here in the Northern, pale hinterlands. (Demographically, the people I’ve talked with about it have been probably 75% women in their 30s/40s, maybe that has something to do with their reactions.)

    These issues can be so hard. Mainstream American culture *is* cultural appropriation. I come from a ridiculously privileged group of people: white-looking, secure middle-class, American, access to education and health care. But I’m not sure exactly when I and my people became the Oppressor class, or what I should do about the fact that some of my ancestors were responsible for attempting to kill off and subjugate the other bloodlines. I’m also aware that if I stripped out the cultural appropriation of I, my immediate culture/religion/pop culture/art environment, my antecedents, etc., there would be nothing left at all. My white Euro ancestors sure as heck didn’t invent writing. Should I not be typing this, seeing as how I’m not of Sumerian, Chinese, Zapotec, or Egyptian extraction?

    The fact that Nora, above, believes it’s fine for anybody to name their child Aiden shows how far things have come since the days when my great-greats were being raped, starved, having all their land stolen, and forced onto coffin ships headed for America. Naming a child of non-Irish descent Aiden would not have happened just one or two generations ago. It’s a sign that the Irish are accepted in our culture now. In that view, maybe it’s a good thing for people to appropriate words from each other’s heritages.

    But it might have sucked to be that first non-Irish boy in America to carry the name Aiden around!

  15. This is very interesting to me! My husband wanted to name a son Ashitaka, after a character in Princess Monoke. He loved what the character stood for and according to Wikipedia its meaning has to do with unity. I was completely against it, as I felt naming your child after an anime character was akin to getting a kanji tattoo you can’t read. I also felt it would be cultural appropriation. By the time we had our son, years later, my father had recently died and we named him after his Hebrew name: Levi, which coincidentally means to unite.

  16. I’ve actually done exactly that. Our baby was conceived shortly after we returned from three years in Japan, and I wanted to reflect this experience in her name. I did however put the Japanese name as her middle name. Later, she can decide for herself which name to use. My husband had issues about mispronunciation and misspellings of her name, or that she could be made fun of. But he was fine with using it as a middle name.

  17. I actually did exactly that. Our baby was conceived shortly after we returned from three years in Japan, and I wanted to reflect this experience in her name. I did however put the Japanese name as her middle name. Later, she can decide for herself which name to use. My husband had issues about mispronunciation and misspellings of her name, or that she could be made fun of. But he was fine with using it as a middle name.

  18. I’m a bit of a name nerd, so I am finding the comments really interesting. My name is Kathleen (Anglicised Irish which was originally taken from a Greek name) Lisa (taken from the Greek ‘Elizabeth’ with was a translation of a Hebrew name) Hannah (Aramaic transliterated into Hebrew) and I’m an English/European mix.

    Names come, go and change with time. They are constantly being adopted and adapted by other cultures. Whether they come from literature, the bible, family or the internet, a name is going to have history. Sakura is a beautiful name, and comes from a beautiful culture. One day your daughter may enjoy researching that culture and the history of her name, which will be far more interesting than if her name was Jane (incidentally my MIL’s middle name, which she goes by as her parents were forced to name her Heather by their parents, though neither of them liked it).

    We named our daughter Aurora Eowyn, and we are neither Ancient Roman nor from Middle Earth. My husband does not even like LOTR (sacrilege, I KNOW), and we call her Rory for short, though she is not male and we are not Irish. Frankly, a name is what you make of it. If you love it, and that is why you use it, than it is right. I like mine, I love the name we gave our daughter and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Aren’t the “Rohirric” names actually Anglo-Saxon? Btw, your daughter has the coolest name ever, including the nickname Rory which makes me think of Rory Williams Pond.

      • Yep, you are so right on that!
        We named her Eowyn primarily for my father – Owen, and my husband loved it because my MILs family comes from Wales, so a part of my brain thinks of it as Welsh even though its not. I think I had a brain spasm when I put Middle Earth – thats sleep deprivation for you! Bad boo boo for a name nerd and Tolkien fan – Ha! Thanks for picking up on it. 🙂
        PS – I think my daughter has the coolest name ever too, and I’m not really sure how we are going to match it if we have a second! I do love the amount of nerdy references I managed to slip into her name though, ‘Aurora’ being the name of the ‘Aurora-class’ Ancient warship in Stargate Atlantis. My very ‘on-beat’ husband need never know!

  19. I think you should name your child whatever you like. I understand where some of the people are coming from when they say they ended up changing their names because of something like this, but that’s not something you can anticipate. And having an unusual name isn’t the only thing that makes people change their names. One of my friends changed from Ashley to Danielle. I think Sakura is beautiful and although it definitely originates in Japanese culture I don’t think of it as being exclusively Japanese. At my university we have a large grove of Sakura blossoms and they’re amazing. Every spring you can’t walk through them without tripping over students.

    People can get so judgy when it comes to other people’s children. Whenever I find myself thinking “why on earth would they name their child that?” I remind myself that quite frankly that is none of my business. I have a long list of unusual names I want and I don’t plan on being particularly nice to people that get snotty about it. They have meaning to me and that’s all that really matter.

  20. for what it’s worth, i’m not getting a lot of judginess out of comments here, Alana; i think the poster was less concerned about Sakura being “unusual” than it being from a different culture, some of whose members might feel ownership over the word, and if the poster is from an “oppressor” class/race, then she might feel some responsibility in that regard.

    i think it’s also hard for those of us who are considered oppressor class to think that we are basically not “allowed’ in educated, liberal enclaves to protect and hang onto our own backgrounds and language, but we need to tread carefully when it comes to appropriating the culture of others who might be considered oppressed.

    this thread has been interesting and enlightening to me partly because my brain just doesn;t have a construct of thinking of the Japanese as oppressed. some of this stuff is generational. in my milieu, Japan is considered enviable, contemporary, postmodern, high tech, amazing food, fantastic fashions. yet our grandparents and great-grandparents invented the atomic bomb and dropped it on the grandparents and great-grandparents of the people we think are so cool.

  21. The question for me is what are you going to say when people ask why you picked that name. Because people WILL ask that–it’s a relatively uncommon name in the US, and especially uncommon for people who are not of Asian descent.

    So when someone says, “That’s such a lovely name–how did you pick it?” what’s your answer going to be? If it’s “I read it in a book once and it sounded pretty” then yeah, that smacks of cultural appropriation to me–using an element of culture that’s not personally meaningful to you on anything but a shallow aesthetic level. If your answer is “It’s meaningful to me because x y and z” (spent ten years living in Japan? knew someone named Sakura you wanted to honor?) then I don’t think of that as problematic in the same way.

    • The answer could be, “Sakura is a beautiful word that means ‘cherry blossom’ in Japanese. We are not of Japanese descent but chose this name for our own reasons.”

      Back to Aiden. What would we say if I harassed a person of, say, Chinese extraction who named their child Aiden. “Why did you name your child after the Celtic sun-god? That’s MY god! Hands off!” ?

      • If you felt deep meaningful personal ties to the Celtic sun-god, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were very annoyed by the masses of people who name their children Aiden without any awareness of the history or culture attached to it.

        The difference is that many people of Japanese descent in the US have to struggle to maintain their culture. If you have a dozen zucchini vines in your front yard you probably wouldn’t mind if someone passing by takes one with them, and may in fact put up a sign saying “Free zucchini please take one!!!” But if you have one zucchini vine and are hoping to feed your family on it for the next month you’d probably be pretty grumpy if someone passing by grabbed a zucchini. It’s the same when very few elements of your day to day life are tied to your cultural history, you may feel more of a need to not share the pieces you have.

  22. I think it’s ok. People from many other cultures give their babies north American/European names and that applauded, yet as north Americans people don’t seem to like when we want to use other names. We live in a truly multicultural and global world now. Why not embrace that culture and be influenced by the cultures we find interesting. My husband and I LOVE some Spanish names but my sister said its ridiculous to use one for our baby. I don’t agree. Why not name the baby a beautiful name you love from any culture? I say go for it!

  23. Round and round we go…I just don’t see the harm of honoring a culture/idea you love by naming a child after it. Maybe you are the dominant culture pulling from a minority in your region, but opening the forum for new questions and ideas as opposed to perpetuating the homogenous standard is a good thing…Right? Challenging, loaded, and tricky, but potentially very, very worth it.

  24. As a Jew, it really bothers me that Cohen seems to have become a popular name for white Christian boys. It’s an important Jewish surname that means priest, and only certain Jews are allowed to carry the name. For Christians to just grab it bothers me immensely.
    I can’t speak to what Japanese people might feel about your use of Sakura, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many felt similarly to how I feel about Cohen. You’re the majority; stick to your own names and please leave ours alone.
    If you love the meaning of the name Sakura, why not use Cherry? If it’s the sound you like, what about Sara?

    • Jewish heritage is matrilineal, yes? So it would stand to reason that a large number of people with the surname ‘Cohen’ are – in fact – not Jewish, while those who actually are Jewish by lineage have other surnames. Then there is the very famous ‘Sacha Baron Cohen’, who is decidedly un-priestly. I’m genuinely curious how you feel about these things – is it ok because they are born into the name, or does that bother you as well?

      • Please be careful. You are responding sarcastically and telling her that you, Kathleen, get to out-logic her religion’s naming tradition. I don’t think that pointing out that a celebrity does not live up to his name-sake “frees” that name for cultural appropriation.

        • Whoa – no sarcasm intended at all. I’m genuinely interested on her perspective on this. My personal opinion is that cultural appropriation is an inevitable part of cultures meeting, however I find the posters position intriguing and would like to know more – if she doesn’t mind.

      • I’m curious what you consider “priestly” behavior? Particularly as kohanim (plural of cohen) didn’t fill the same role as the various Christian roles of priest back when it was a more full time job. For what its worth, I can say from personal experience that Mr. Baron-Cohen comports himself excellently when attending religious services.

        • My understanding of priest was based on the instructions laid out for Aaron and his sons. To over simplify it, separate and holy. Not my impression of Baron-Cohen at all, but then, only an impression based on an understanding. 🙂

    • Interesting–friends of ours named their son (now 5) Cohen after Leonard Cohen. They are neither Jewish nor Christian. I don’t know anyone else with that name and always liked it for its uncommon qualities & its phoenetic aesthetic. It never once occured to me (and I’m sure, to them) that anyone of Jewish descent would be offended by it.

      This is something to keep in mind–the connotations you have because of your particular background doesn’t necessarily mean a name was chosen disrespectfully or ignorantly. The intended meaning may be completely different and unrelated.

      • I totally pitched “Cohen” as a name for our son when I was pregnant for this same reason. LEONAAAAAAAAARD. 🙂

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