Japanese Fortifications and Defense Organization in World War 2


Time to take a look at some Japanese field fortifications and defense measures. Note that in this case I used mostly sources from US military intelligence in World War 2. Unlike the Atlantikwall video this video is about the small scale units, hence you will see an individual bunker and also layouts for company and platoon defenses. Note that every country had some distinctive features, but the general layout were to a certain degree quite similar, if we consider this statement from the in publication Japanese in Battle from August 1944:
“Examples of typical defence layouts, from platoon to battalion positions, are shown at Appendix ‘ A ‘. They show no remarkable difference in principle from our own layouts.” (General Headquarters, India – Military Intelligence Directorate: Japanese in Battle – Second Edition, August 1944, p. 5)

Attitude towards defense

The Japanese had quite a negative attitude towards defensive combat, similar to the German Army, thus both addressed defense usually only in limited amount, but nevertheless both proved quite capable and dangerous in defensive operations and improved their training and manuals throughout the war. (War Department: Handbook on the Japanese Military Forces, 15 September 1944, p. 99; Das Dogma der Beweglichkeit. Überlegungen zur Genese der deutschen Heerestaktik im Zeitalter der Weltkriege, in: Bruno Thoß, Erich Volkmann (Hrsg.), Erster Weltkrieg – Zweiter Weltkrieg. Ein Vergleich. Krieg –Kriegserlebnis – Kriegserfahrung in Deutschland. Paderborn u.a. 2002, S. 143-166)

In General, besides their attitude towards defensive Combat the Japanese were renowned for both their elaborate defensive fortifications and their tenacity in defense. One area they were clearly lacking though, was the use of mines. But let’s take a closer look at those issues.

No Amateurs – Well constructed Bunkers

The Japanese constructed their bunkers usually from logs and earth. The logs were interwoven and strongly attached to each other. To strengthen the roofs of bunkers against indirect fire, they used alternating layers of logs and earth. This provided excellent protection and usually gave full protection against mortar and light artillery fire. (War Department: Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 21, March 25, 1943, p. 17)
Furthermore, for the Buna area (southeastern New Guinea) it was stated that:
“in addition, the bunkers had been planned and built for just this purpose long before the campaign actually started, and the quick jungle growth, sprouting up over the earthworks, gave first-class natural camouflage.” (War Department: Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 21, March 25, 1943, p. 17)
[Buna-Gona Battle (1942/1943)]


The tenacity and fanatism of the Japanese troops in World War II is well known and Field Marshal Slim wrote about the individual Japanese soldier the following:
“He fought and marched till he died. If 500 Japanese were ordered to hold a position, we had to kill 495 before it was ours – and then the last five killed themselves.” (Slim, William: Defeat into Victory, p. 615)

After all the Japanese doctrine and training put a strong emphasis on morale factors and tenacity. (Drea, Edward J.: In Service of the Emperor, p. 64) An US Army engineer remarked about the campaign in Buna the following:
“It would be impossible to overstress the tenacity with which the Jap[ane]s[e] clung to their prepared positions. Grenades, and ordinary gun and mortar fire were completely ineffective. There were many instances (not isolated ones) where dugouts were grenaded inside, covered with gasoline and burned, and then sealed with dirt and sand,—only to yield, 2 or 3 days later, Jap[ane]s[e] who came out fighting.” (War Department: Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 21, March 25, 1943, p. 17)


Although, the Japanese employed various ruses like dummy snipers and simulating friendly fire by synchronizing their own artillery with the artillery of the attackers, but their capabilities in mine warfare was quite limited for most of the war..( War Department: Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 21, March 25, 1943, p. 18; War Department: Intelligence Bulletin Vol III, No. 4, December 1944, p. 13)
In 1944 according to the Intelligence Bulletins this changed:
“Instructions recently issued to some Japanese troops in the far Southwest Pacific areas attempt to establish definite uniformity and improvement in the employment of land mines.” (War Department: Intelligence Bulletin Vol III, No. 4, December 1944 , p. 13)

Yet, it is also noted that:
“In this respect, the instructions as a whole are very general. They tell “what” should be done, but neglect to tell “how” the minelaying should be carried out. It is possible that, like many such Japanese orders, the details and the operational technique are left to the discretion of subordinate commanders.” (War Department: Intelligence Bulletin Vol III, No. 4, December 1944, p. 15)

Now, general instructions usually require a highly trained force, yet in 1944 all of the Axis members had lost most of the their best trained units.

Example: Beach Defenses Talisay-Tanke

Now, let’s see what the US engineers noted about a late war Japanese beach defense. In March 1945 US troops landed on the Talisay beach, where the Japanese had established an elaborate defensive system, but since the beach was undefended the site was mostly intact and could be examined by US troops. (HQ Eight Army – Engineer Section: Intelligence Bulletin No. 3, May 1945, p. 2-19) Since the conclusions of the report are rather short and cover mines, fortifications and ditches of a late war Japanese beach defense, I will quote directly from the report:

“1. Japanese employment of bombs and shells as improvised AT and AP mines was excellent. Their effectiveness was limited only by poor concealment, failure to arm some shells, and failure to cover them with fire. The75 mm shells used would have been particularly effective against personnel if they had been properly concealed.“
[AT – Anti-Tank; AP – Anti-Personnel]
(HQ Eight Army – Engineer Section: Intelligence Bulletin No. 3, May 1945, p. 18)

“2. The AT ditches were adequate to stop our medium tank. The log and rail barriers probably would not have stopped medium tanks or bulldozers completely, but would have provided sufficient delay to prevent armor over-running a position covered by adequate AT and small arms fire, and made the tanks good targets for AT weapons. “
(HQ Eight Army – Engineer Section: Intelligence Bulletin No. 3, May 1945, p. 18)

“3. Most of the firing positions and shelters afforded protection only against small arms fire, blast, shell and bomb fragments, and light mortar fire. None of the emplacements furnished protection from direct hits of 100 pound bombs or naval shell fire. Considered as light emplacements, the works demonstrated excellent improvisation and effective utilization of locally available materials by the Japanese.”
(HQ Eight Army – Engineer Section: Intelligence Bulletin No. 3, May 1945, p. 18)

Defensive Positions

Now, in this part, we will take a closer look at defensive positions. Once the command is given to occupy a position and setup defensive preparation the development was usually prioritized the following way: 1) Establishing the important points in the main line of the resistance, 2) Determining and development of the fields of fire and observation posts, 3) Setting up obstacles for the main line of resistance and 4) the development of communication trenches and personnel shelters. (War Department: Handbook on the Japanese Military Forces, 15 September 1944, p. 101-103) Let’s take a closer look at the development of a company position.

To give you some time-frame for orientation it is noted that:
„The division usually has from about 3 hours to a half day to complete its organization of the ground. Three hours is considered the minimum required to organize a rudimentary system of trenches and obstacles along the main line of resistance. The timework unit in engineering calculations is the 12-man squad which is considered capable of digging about
25 yards [23 metres] of standing fire trench in a little over 3 hours.” (War Department: Handbook on the Japanese Military Forces, 15 September 1944, p. 101)

Typical Company Position

Now, here you can see a company position after about 2 hours of work. Each of the areas is for one platoon, the firing trenches are for individual squads. The heavy machine gun is deployed along the support position. It is directed in a diagonal line, the same as neighboring units thus the cover is interlocked. After another 4 hours, the firing trenches of the squads should be connected forming a single line.(War Department: Handbook on the Japanese Military Forces, 15 September 1944, p. 102, Figure 86; & p. 100 (HMG))

The position after a week of construction, whereas a week is 56 hours of work. The caption of the illustration reads as follows:
“Squad positions will be enlarged [to] standing trenches. The communication trenches will be deep enough for crawling, and the shelters will be of light construction accommodating 6 men. Only the machine gun shelters will be built to resist 150-mm howitzer fire. The wire entanglements beyond the front-lines will be 8 meters in depth.” (War Department: Handbook on the Japanese Military Forces, 15 September 1944, p. 102, Figure 87)

Now, the same position after about 4 weeks of construction time, would be improved considerably. There would be another layer of wire in the front. And also some basic wiring on the flanks. Additionally, the trenches would be connected in a sophisticated system with adjacent units too. The individual shelters would be covered with roofs. Furthermore, although I am not completely certain, since there is no legend on the original figure, there would be tunnels or covered trenches connecting to the rear area. Looks a bit different than those 3 ovals from the start. (War Department: Handbook on the Japanese Military Forces, 15 September 1944, p. 103, Figure 88; see also Japanese in Battle)

A “Platoon” Defense Position in Burma

Now, let’s take a closer look at a platoon position from Burma. As a quick reminder a company usually consists of three platoons, so basically we take a look at a unit one level deeper.
As you can see it has a circular pattern. In the rear area there is a larger shelter with sleeping accommodation. The circular endings of the trenches are foxholes, whereas each has a one-man-dugout nearby, which had an earth and timber cover. Furthermore, there was a MG position that was well covered too. The report notes that the dugouts near each foxhole and three-bay machine gun position were the two interesting features. So, let’s take a look at the MG position.
(War Department: Intelligence Bulletin Vol III, No. 4, December 1944, p. 15)
(General Headquarters, India – Military Intelligence Directorate: Japanese in Battle – Second Edition, August 1944, p. 24)

MG Position

So, this is a Japanese Three-Bay Light Machine gun position in Burma from the side. As you can see the roof is constructed with several logs and reinforced with earth. The machine gun would be placed here. Now, why was it called “three-bay”, well let’s look at it from the front. As you can clearly see, the supporting logs divided the firing slit into three areas. And by the way, this is a type 96 Japanese light machine gun and not a British Bren, they look similar, but there is a clear difference between those two, which might not be so obvious.
Problem with the Numbers
Now, let’s go back to the Platoon position, because there is one problem I have encountered, which I couldn’t find a proper answer too. Basically, the numbers don’t add up.

The shown position is according to the description for a platoon. But the problem is that a rifle platoon of an infantry company of an “A” or “B” type division had 3 LMGs and furthermore 62 or 54 men. Now, there is only one position for an LMG, but also the area is quite small for 54 let alone 62 men. Although, the number of foxholes and LMGs would match almost exactly the layout of a rifle section. But I doubt such an error would occur, especially since this layout was reprinted in two different military intelligence publications.
Hence, I must assume that the platoon was far below full strength, but still I am confused that this isn’t noted in the report. But of course there is always the chance that I missed something or made an error. If anyone knows more, please let me know in the comments.


To summarize, although the Japanese had a serious distaste for defensive combat, their ingenuity and improvisation skills allowed them to construct various kinds of excellent field fortifications and defensive systems. Although their ability to lay sophisticated mine fields was limited for most of the war, the Japanese Army took actions to counter this problem and probably would have reached similar capabilities as other forces.

Now, a little public service announcement. I originally wanted to do something about naval tactics in the non-world war era, but since I got a bit sick and thus my mind could only operate at limited capacity, I switched to this easier topic, after all, I am mostly a land-rat from the modern era. So stay tuned, I plan to cover nearly every era of military history, major battle and much much more. Since I get quite a lot of repeating question about what topics I will cover, you might want to check out the frequently asked questions on my homepage.


TM-E-30-480 – War Department: Handbook on the Japanese Military Forces, 15 September 1944

War Department: Intelligence Bulletin Vol II, No. 7, March 1944

War Department: Intelligence Bulletin Vol II, No. 8, April 1944

War Department: Intelligence Bulletin Vol III, No. 4, December 1944

HQ Eight Army – Engineer Section: Intelligence Bulletin No. 3, May 1945

General Headquarters, India – Military Intelligence Directorate: Japanese in Battle – Second Edition, August 1944

War Department: Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 21, March 25, 1943

Field Manual 5-15, Field Fortifications, August 1968

Drea, Edward J.: In Service of the Emperor

Why the Imperial Japanese Air Forces Failed in World War 2


The Second World War to a large degree was determined by the disparity of the economic capacities and manpower between the Axis and the Allies. Yet, solely looking at production numbers and men can lead to a deterministic or even fatalistic interpretation that prevents us from looking at other factors that also played a vital role in the defeat of the Axis Forces.
This video is based on the article: The Imperial Japanese Air Forces by Osamu Tagaya. (See Description)

High Level Organization

The Japanese leadership was well aware of its limited capabilities in both resources and industrial capacity. Yet, it failed to unify the two branches of the Japanese Armed Forces, notably the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy to focus on one strategy in the years leading to the war. The Army for a large part saw as their main enemy in Russia and later the Soviet Union, while the Navy determined the United States of America as their principal foe. Both branches couldn’t agree and since they were not subordinates of the Japanese Government, there was no unifying power to force them into cooperation. This lead to two different strategies that were competing with each other for resources, manpower and equipment. This also lead to parallel development of similar aircraft types, like bombers and prevented the creation of uniform standards. (Tagaya: p. 178-180) Such inefficiencies and waste of resources are problematic in general, but in combination with limited industrial capacity and resources such effects weigh several magnitudes higher than for industrial giants, like the United States.

Army Shortcomings – The Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF)

Let’s take a look at the shortcomings of the Japanese Army Air Force. Since the Japanese Army Air Force was mostly developed for tactical support of a land war against Soviet Union, it lacked capabilities for naval navigation and long-range capabilities, something that was crucial for their use in South East Asia and especially the islands of the Pacific. As a result the Navy had to fly long-range bombing missions in the Philippines for the Army. (Tagaya: p. 179-180)

One major problem was that the Japanese Army lacked strong advocates for air power in its ranks. This was due to the fact that the Japanese had a very limited amount of army officers with air combat experience. Although the Japanese were among the first to use combat aircraft in World War 1, it was a short a limited engagement in 1914. These experiences were too limited to convince enough officers of the importance air power. The army initiated two times the creation of an independent air force as a third branch, like Germany and the United Kingdom with the Royal Air Force. Yet, the Navy disagreed, because they feared that similar to the British RAF that the Fleet Air Arm would only play a marginal role in an independent branch. (Tagaya: p. 180-185)
The main roles for the Army Air Force lay in recon and air combat, whereas bombing missions received only limited attention. This is reflected in the slow build-up of its bomber squadrons in the 1920ies.(Tagaya: p. 182)

For a short time the Army like the Navy saw the United States as their main opponent, during that period the development of a large four engine bomber was started. Furthermore, there were projects to use aircraft catapults on land-bases in order to circumvent the problem of building long air strips after an invasion of the Philippines. Yet, once the Army focused again on Russia and Asia, these projects were discontinued in the early 1930ies. Due to annexation of Manchuria by the Japanese an extended land border to the Soviet Union changed the strategic situation. Furthermore, the development of the TB-3 bomber by the Soviets put the Japanese home islands into the range of the Soviet Air Force. (Tagaya: p. 182-185)
Around the mid 1930ies the Army started a major expansion of its air arm and in 1937 declared the destruction of the enemy’s air force as the primary mission. Yet, in the conflicts in China and with the Soviet Union the Army Air Force mainly contributed on a tactical level. Furthermore, in 1940 the emphasis on destruction of the enemy air force was weakened and the offensive power remained mostly on a tactical level. (Tagaya: p. 185)

The main problem with Japanese Army aviation lay in a lack of initiative and a conservative senior leadership that was mostly reacting to international developments instead of formulating its own doctrines. This lead to a shortage of officers with proper experience during the rapid expansion. (Tagaya: p. 186)
“This often resulted in poor leadership and unimaginative staff work, giving rise to operations that where questionable in their effectiveness and all too predictable and conventional in nature.” -Osamu Tagaya:The Imperial Japanese Air Forces, p. 186 (link in the description)

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN)

IJN Achievements

Now, before we take a look at the shortcoming of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which were quite different to those of the Army. Let’s take a look at their initial achievements first.
The Navy unlike the Army had strong advocates for air power in its ranks. This is due to the fact the modern Navies usually have a more open attitude towards technology and innovation. After all an infantry division consists mostly of men, whereas a battleships consists mostly of steel with a lot of technological components and a handful men.
The Imperial Japanese Navy was a pioneer in naval aviation. It built the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier the HIJMS Hōshō in 1922. Furthermore, it introduced the first operational deployment of an all-metal monoplane carrier-fighter plane in 1937. And in 1940 it was able to perform the mass deployment of torpedo and dive-bombers in coordination with fighters launched from several aircraft carries, something no navy at that time was able to do. Right before Pearl Harbor, the IJN had more aircraft carriers than any other Navy and had the world’s leading naval air arm.

Furthermore, there were some other aspects were the IJN achieved leading roles. In terms of aircraft the Zero outmatched all it counterparts and sometimes even land-based aircraft. Furthermore, the IJN possessed a strong land-based naval bomber force the so called “rikko” units, which were initially developed to counter the limits on the number of carriers due to Naval Treaties. These units sank the Royal Navy’s battleships the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse early on in the War. Also the attack on Pearl Harbor and the following half year the IJN basically marked the start of domination of aircraft carriers in naval warfare. (Tagaya: p. 186-187)

IJN Shortcomings

Yet, despite all these achievements in naval aviation, it is quite surprising that the IJN didn’t drop the battleship as a core weapon prior or after these initial successes of carriers. Its fleet organization still focused on the battleship and didn’t create a complete carrier task force organization, unlike the US Navy later in the War. Although, the enormous amounts of resources put into building the Yamato and Musashi super-battleships are to a certain degree understandable, because before the war in the pacific, it was not clear how important carriers would be, but the reluctance to change the naval organization was major flaw. This is also reflected by the presence of Japanese Battleship fleet at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. (Tagaya: p. 187-189)
One major flaw of the IJN was its focus to primarily target enemy warships and often ignore the enemy supply ships. Like after the defeat of the Allied cruisers at the battle of the Savo Island, where the transport ships were left unharmed. This was not just one incident, the IJN submarine doctrine focused on destroying enemy warships as did the Japanese air men. To some degree this maybe hindsight bias, but misjudging the strategic value of merchant ships and supplies, probably stemmed from the focus on a classical decisive battle thinking.
In defense of the Japanese, we need to take into account that even the Western Allies that focused on strategic warfare early on didn’t focus on the German supplies in their bombing campaigns, it took them until May 1944 to focus at fuel production, which severely limited the mobility and combat effectiveness of all German forces. (Deutsche Reich & 2. WK: Band 7; S. 483-485) In the Pacific with its long supply lines between the islands, the strategic value of attacks against merchant shipping was about as crucial as fuel for Germany. Because, without supplies and fuel ground, naval and air forces are extremely limited in their effectiveness. (Tagaya: p. 188-189)

Japanese Capabilities

Let’s take a look at Japanese capabilities. As mentioned before the focus of the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy was on supporting battles. This narrow view lead to a neglect of logistics and other crucial elements. Similar to the German Luftwaffe there was a certain neglect for all elements that didn’t surround actual combat, yet to a far greater extent. After all, the Luftwaffe possessed one of the leading air transport arms in the beginning of the war quite contrary to the Japanese that lacked transport aircraft. For instance the Japanese lacked pilots for ferrying aircraft to the front lines and their capabilities to construct airfields was limited. Furthermore, there was a severe lack of warning and communication equipment like radar and effective radios sets for fighters. (Tagaya: p. 189; Corum: p. ) Unlike the German Air Force in Western Europe, the Japanese couldn’t rely on an existing infrastructure in the Pacific, thus these shortcomings reduced the combat effectiveness and readiness of their units. As a result naval bombers were used several times to drop supplies, because there were no transport aircraft available. This was in stark contrast to the Allies that airlifted an infantry division from Australia to New Guinea. Furthermore, the Japanese periodically used combat pilot to ferry planes due to lack of ferry pilots.
The lack of mechanized engineering equipment to create and improve existing airfields also had severe long term effects. It not only resulted in a huge delay and back-breaking labor on the Japanese side, additionally, the resulting installations were often very limited in size. As a result Japanese airfields were usually congested with planes that were parked closely to each other on several occasions this lead to severe losses when those air fields were attacked. (Tagaya: p. 189-190)

Often these attacks occurred without any warning, due the Japanese lack of radar equipment. Although the Japanese were once among the leaders in radar technology, they fell behind by not investing and employing the technology for military purposes.

In general the Japanese efforts and capabilities surrounding communication and coordination were limited. There was a lack of effective shortwave radios, thus Japanese fighter pilots basically communicated with visual signals. This prevented to a large degree that they could fully exploit their initial advantages in training and equipment. Furthermore, it also prevented the creation of a proper ground- or carrier-based-control capabilities like the British used during the Battle of Britain or the US Navy developed throughout the war. (Tagaya: p. 189-191)

Japanese Priorities and their Consequences

Let’s take a look at the Japanese Priorities and their consequences. The Japanese focus on battle and combat units was the determining factor throughout the war and the lack of unified strategy between the Navy and Army showed a lack of foresight and strategic perspective. The missing unified strategy prevented a proper and effective allocation of Japans limited resources before and during the war. In contrast even though the United States enjoyed an abundance of industrial capacity and manpower, it still committed to the Grand Strategy of “Germany First” with the British. (Tagaya: p. 191-192)

The Japanese aircraft industry lagged behind in terms of powerful engines, this problem was circumvented by using no armor plates and self-sealing fuel tanks in their early models. Due their experiences fighting the Chinese although they assumed that these measures were sufficient. Unlike the Germans that improved their aircraft after their experiences in the Spanish Civil war.
Thus, during the Guadalcanal campaign Japanese losses increased and their highly-trained airmen thinned out quickly. The lack of proper training programs were similar to the Germans and since the Western Allies put a strong emphasis on training early, this soon lead to a situation where the average Japanese pilot was less trained than the average Allied pilot. (Tagaya: p. 191-193)
“In the end, the initial margin of superior training and experience exhibitied by its airmen proved insufficient to prevent serious attrition.” (Tagaya: p. 193)

Japanese Aircraft Industry

Let’s take a look at the Japanese Aircraft industry. Japan before and shortly after the First World War was dependent on Western technology and imported aircraft and equipment at that time. During the 1930ies they reached self-sufficiency in engine and air-frame design, but their development cycles were still quite long. Furthermore, in aircraft components and subsystems, like radios Japan was still very dependent on Western imports. The duration of the development cycles was a problem. Yet, this could have been dealt with by ordering follow-up types early enough, but the Japanese didn’t issued specifications for follow-up designs early enough. Prior to April 1942 there was serious effort invested to create a successor for the Zero fighter plane. If these measures would have been taken in 1940, then the Japanese could have had an aircraft to counter the Corsair or Hellcat when they arrived, but they still had to fight them with their modified version of the Zero. Furthermore, the initial successor of the Zero the A7M “Reppu” failed and wasn’t abandoned soon enough thus delaying the N1K1-J “Shiden”, which entered combat in October 1944 and its improved version the “Shiden-Kai” (also known by older war thunder players as the UFO) was ready in March 1945. Hence, even though the development cycles of the Japanese were not as fast as that of the United States, this problem could have been averted by ordering a replacement at an early stage. (Tagaya: p. 193-195) As a result the end of the war, the Japanese only fielded a handful of types that introduced during the war, whereas the United States replaced a large amount of its pre-war models.

Result of Training and Industry Policies

As a result, in June 1944 the Japanese faced highly trained US pilots with new superior planes in their slightly upgraded planes flown by poorly-trained pilots. This resulted in an ineffective air force, which had almost no other option but to resort to Kamikaze attacks due to insufficient training and equipment. Note that we are talking about average pilots here, because those win the war not a small number of extraordinary aces. (Tagaya: p. 192-193)


To conclude, similar to Germany, Japan wasn’t ready for a war long-war on a global scale in terms of its industrial capabilities. But only looking at the industrial side of a country when it comes to analyzing a war can be misleading, because one might miss important areas of improvement. One way to avoid this is, to take a look at engagements, when the economic power of the winning factions wasn’t yet the determining factor. For the War in the Pacific these were the Guadalcanal campaign and the Battle of Midway. In both cases the Japanese committed various errors and the United States proved to be a skillful enemy even without superior numbers. Thus, the turning point of the war in the Pacific was before the United States could bring its full numerical advantage to the table. Something that was clearly different from the war in Europe. (Tagaya: p. 196-197) Finally, the Japanese reluctance to move away from their strong focus on combat at the cost of logistics and support, played an important role in the reversal after their initial successes. (Tagaya: p. 196-197)


The video a summary of the article listed in the sources.


Books & Articles

  • Tagaya, Osamu: The Imperial Japanese Air Forces, In: Higham & Harris: Why Air Forces Fail
  • Corum, James S.: Defeat of the Luftwaffe, 1935-1945, In: Higham & Harris: Why Air Forces Fail
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