Ultimate Guide to Finding a Good Japanese Book

By Chu Thi Anh  | May 6 2021

In your first days living in Japan, you must have been impressed with the reading culture of this country. It is very typical to see many people, regardless of their ages, reading books on public transportation or the streets. Especially in Tokyo, you can easily find a bookstore anywhere on your go. Although it is more usual to find magazines and newspapers in convenience stores, sometimes, they also display newly released Japanese books there. If you are a bookworm, Japan, no doubt, is heaven for you. 

Japanese people have been encouraged to read since their early days, and it gradually became the national signature. Together with the impressive academic development, Japanese people are always up-to-date and release books that provide several in-depth discussions about specific topics. I am always surprised at how fast Japanese researchers catch up to global changes and publish their booklets. No matter what you are thrilled to learn, as long as you know where to search for, there will be some fantastic books for your reference.

However, to immerse yourself in the diversity of Japanese books, you should acquire a certain level of Japanese for yourself. Although there are some bookstores that sell English books, they are still hard to find and sometimes quite expensive. But, don’t worry! With this article, I will introduce some options to light up your first steps into Japanese books. 

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    What are the best books to learn Japanese for beginners?

    As a new Japanese learner, you might find it a little bit overwhelming because there are too many Japanese textbooks, reference books, etc. and you do not know which one is the most suitable for your level. In this part, I will introduce you to some good ones that can help you get over your first state of learning Japanese.

    What are the most common textbooks for Japanese beginners? (Minna no Nihongo, Genki,..) 

    Choosing textbooks is very important as it helps constitute your foundation in any new language. There are several Japanese textbooks written in different structures for beginners. Here are two textbooks that I think are the best choices for you. 

    Minna no Nihongo 

    This textbook is very popular in many schools and also great for self-learners. Although it is entirely in Japanese, it comes along with an English translation. Minna no Nihongo for beginners has two books with 25 units each. It is very in-depth as it covers all essential grammars to make beginners get familiar with Japanese gradually. I also used these textbooks when I started my Japanese learning. It can be said that if you finish 50 units of Minna no Nihongo for beginners, you will be nearly to pass JLPT N4. 

    Minna no Nihongo, as its name suggests, means Japanese for everyone. That may be why there are many engaging illustrations in the book to help learners figure things out better. Besides textbooks and their translation, you can use their workbooks to practice what you have learned. Or, it also has the Kanji books, reading books or essay introduction as well. However, I recommend you should only take the primary textbooks and their translation. If you order on Amazon, one textbook will cost you about 2700 yen, and a translation is about 1800 yen.  

    Genki

    Genki is another perfect choice for you. It has an easy-to-follow structure with targeted vocabulary and concise grammar explanations for each lesson. You can reinforce what you have learned through many of its provided exercises, audio CDs and workbooks.

    One thing you should keep in mind is that Genki was designed mainly for classrooms. If you are a self-learner, you need to be careful with most of the terminology and dialogue from this textbook. And, it is pretty expensive, costing nearly 4000 yen on Amazon.    

    If you are looking for more recommendations on the best available Japanese textbooks, you can find many helpful suggestions in this article: The Best Japanese Textbooks.

    What textbooks are being used at Japan Switch? 

    At Japan Switch, we are thrilled to be able to offer affordable lessons to help learners take their first important step in learning Japanese. Because our focus is to raise conversation skills for beginners, our textbook is also chosen in the same way. It is a textbook written by our partner, Coto, named Nihongo Fun & Easy. This textbook is structured in conversation style, aiming to help any Japanese learner speak like a native. You can learn all the useful grammar rules and understand real life situations to apply them in tandem. There are a lot of exercises to practice with your classmates after you learn. 

    With this textbook, Japan Switch wishes to bring the most interesting lessons and practical way of learning Japanese to you. After each lesson, I am sure that you can level up your Japanese speaking skills step by step and apply it right outside the classroom. You can buy it for only 2090 yen and also find a link to download the textbook audio for free by visiting Japan Switch’s Textbooks For Conversation page

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    What are some interesting Japanese books that beginners can read?

    Japanese has three two different types of the alphabet, and Kanji is uncountable. Memorizing all 46 letters from each of Hiragana and Katakana is a difficult task, while reading them fluently may take you more time. Or, you may get bored of practising Kanji by writing it again and again. In that case, reading can be another effective way to help you quickly get familiar with Japanese writing characters. Also, through reading, you may find out more about how Japanese people define their surroundings.

    5 interesting Japanese books that you should absolutely leave until you know some kanji

    Did you know that Japanese people really love seeking in-depth understanding about anything around them? The whole country is encouraged to learn, read, research and write. Therefore, there are countless great Japanese books released every single week. However, in order to read them, you will need a high level of Japanese. A fun fact is that even Japanese people still need to look up Kanji when reading books. 

    Below are 5 Japanese books I have read recently, and found them very interesting in understanding the ideology and culture of the Japanese. They are very advanced but believe me, really worth your time. Don’t forget to give them a bookmark so that you can come back to challenge them after having your Japanese levelled up.

    ホンモノの日本語 (Honmono no Nihongo)

    Honmono no Nihongo, written by 金田一春彦 (Kindaichi Haruhiko), in English it means “The real Japanese”. This is absolutely a great book that I would recommend to any Japanese learners 

    because It is written in a very simple, easy to understand style with examples taken from real life.  

    As its name suggests, this book will show you the real meaning of several Japanese phrases that you may encounter thousands of times when living in Japan. For instance, are you curious about why Japanese people keep saying Sumimasen a lot? Do you know why and in what situation it will be used? Actually, the Sumimasen phrases have countless meanings. Sometimes, it is used when you want to apologize for your mistakes, and sometimes it is the same as “Excuse me” in English, or even can be used to thank someone for their help. I was so confused about the reason why Japanese people usually say Sumimasen to me whenever I offer support to them. From this book, I got to know that, in the Japanese’s conception, whenever someone helps you, at the same time, that one has to sacrifice their benefit, which means your appearance bothers them. Therefore, you have to apologize for that. Sumimasen is a phrase that can express both two meanings of “thank you” and “sorry”.   

    Although I said that its writing style is quite simple, it still requires an upper-intermediate level to understand the grammar structures clearly. The vocabulary sometimes might be more difficult. However, it is still a fantastic book that will provide you with more knowledge about the Japanese’s mindset behind their simple daily phrases. Thus, you can improve your Japanese speaking and use what you learned, even the most basic sentences, in the proper contexts.   

    Also, the design of Honmono no Nihongo is very plain and handy that allows you to read on the go. The price is also low, with only 418 yen for Kindle use and 748 yen for a paperback if you purchase it on Amazon. 

    アート鑑賞、超入門 (Ato kansho, chou nyumon )

    Ato kansho, chou nyumon by 藤田 令伊 (Fujita Rei), is another highly recommended Japanese book for you, especially if you are an art lover. In English, this book means ‘Art appreciation, a super introduction’. Therefore, this book will provide you with a very easy-to-approach method to understand several works of art. Starting from the idea that people love going to the museums and galleries, but not all of them truly appreciate the beauty behind those artworks. The writer will help you figure them out from different viewpoints so that you can enjoy yourself more. As it is a super introduction, it is structured in a very friendly way to target every reader. Even if you are new to art or find art hard to feel, you can get full advantages from this book and might be in love with it right away. And, it is also a Japanese way of enjoying art for your reference too. 

    Although the writer has made it as simple as possible, reading this book in Japanese is still a challenge. However, it will leverage your Japanese and your knowledge to a new stage. A paperback version costs only 880 yen on Amazon, and I am sure it is worth reading. 

    日本人の美意識 (Nihonjin no Bishiki)

    Nihonjin no Bishiki or “Japanese Aesthetics” in English, written by an American-born Japanese, Donald Keene. The Japanese version of this book is a translation by 金関 寿夫 (Kaneseki Kazuo), and it has fully expressed the spirit that the author wanted to convey. For those who love Japanese culture and beauty, you should not miss this book. It is a collection of short essays where Donal Keene discussed about what is beauty in the Japanese’s conception throughout the time. By reading this book, you can gain a broad overview of Japan’s culture and understand more about traditional Japanese’s uniqueness. 

    As the author lived and worked in Japan for many years, he would provide you with an objective point of view and you can also feel his love for this country through his writing tone. He had tried his best to convey the most easy-to-catch ways of enjoying the beauty of Japan. With a large number of descriptive words, this book is fairly tough even for those at the high level. However, with only 796 yen on Amazon, I am sure you would find yourself astonished at how wonderful it is. 

    日本人はなぜ日本のことを知らないのか (Nihonjin wa naze Nihon no koto o shiranai noka) 

    Nihonjin wa naze Nihon no koto o shiranai noka is a book by 竹田恒靖 (Tsuneyasu Takeda). The title means “Why Japanese people do not know about Japan?”. It is an excellent book for you to understand many points about the history of Japan, which, according to the author, even Japanese people do not know. This book will reveal many interesting facts related to the education system, history and even the people of Japan. For example, as the book claims, not many Japanese people know about the origins of their own country, or schools do not teach them that Japan was the oldest surviving nation in the world. 

    So, if you are a history lover, this book is right for you. You can take away the historical knowledge while learning more about how much Japanese people actually know about their nation from this book. It is relatively cheap, with 612 yen for a Kindle version and 792 yen for paperback on Amazon. The book is not that advanced but understanding its ideology still requires you to have a good command of the Japanese language.

    日本人の誇り (Nihonjin no Hokori) 

    Nihonjin no Hokori, or “Japanese pride” in English, is my last recommended books for you in this list, was written by the famous essayist, 藤原正彦 (Fujiwara Masahiko). Do you know about Japanese spirituality, which values the public over the individual and virtue over money? The author states that Japanese people are losing confidence and independence, which used to be their pride during history. In this modern-day, it becomes a national crisis. This book will provide you with a broad view of how the Japanese lost their dignity and a theory of how to regain it. You can understand more about the spirit of this country, its people and many more. 

    I must say that you will need an extremely advanced level of Japanese to read this book and understand the theory behind it. It is a hard book even for Japanese people as it requires them to think of themselves and Japan. But for foreigners, it is a great chance to understand the spirit of this nation and know how it might be driven in the future. You can purchase it at the cost of 660 yen for the Kindle version or an 858 yen paperback on Amazon.  

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    Easy comics 

    All the books that I mentioned above are for high-level Japanese learners. So how about beginners? Are there any books for entry-level? Yes, of course. Why don’t we start with something practical but fun and appealing? Manga. You must be very familiar with Doraemon, Detective Conan, Pikachu,...Those manga series are famous all over the world and became a memorable part of many children. Reading manga is also an engaging way to learn Japanese too. 

    Doraemon 

    Although it sounds obvious, I still want to remind you not to forget this popular series. If you read them when you were young and loved them, you should try reading them again in Japanese. This manga series is targeted at children, so they mainly use simple vocabulary and grammar. It is great that you can learn the sentence structures from dialogues among characters when reading and apply them to daily conversation to sound more like a native. Kanji written in the manga also come along with Furigana, so it is easier for you to look up new words. 

    Moreover, alongside the story series that we have known, in Japan, you can find the learning series called ドラえもんの学習シリーズ ( Doraemon no gakushū shirīzu). This series is also manga-based, with the original characters teaching each other about national language, mathematics, history, English, etc. I recommend you try its Kanji, grammar or even the old poem ones. They are structured in an easy-to-follow way with funny illustrations. 

    The manga series can be easily found in any bookstore and one might cost you around 800 yen if you purchase a new one. But you can find many of them in second-hand bookstores.  

    ちはやふる (Chihayafuru) 

    This manga series about school life is another highly recommended option for you. It will not help you improve your Japanese but introduce you to a unique culture of Japan. It is the traditional card game of Japan, named Karuta. Although Karuta was influenced by the Portuguese, Japanese people had developed it in a very unique way with several forms. The one introduced in the Chihayafuru series is Uta garuta(歌ガルタ), in which 100 Japanese poems are written on two sets of 100 cards. One set, called Yomifuda (読札), has the complete classical poem while the other set, Torifuda (取り札), printed only a few lines of the corresponding poem. One person will read the Yomifuda while players compete to see who can find the associated Torifuda faster. 

    It is also written in basic vocabulary and sentence structures, so it is easy to read. You can buy one volume or read on Kindle at the cost of around 500 yen on Amazon. Besides, this manga also has a bilingual version, but it is more expensive than 1200 yen each. By reading the manga, you will know how Japanese people play the Karuta game and also get to know more about Japanese poems. You can also buy a deck of Karuta cards as a souvenir in bookstores or some souvenir shops. They usually have several beautiful designs that cost lower than 600 yen.  

    If you want to know more suggestions for Manga to read as a beginner, you can check out this list of easy to read manga.

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    Children Books 

    A new language learner is the same as a child learning its native language. Taking a look at Japanese books and stories for children is a great idea too. You can also try reading Disney tales in Japanese as well. They are illustrated in numerous versions to make them more attractive and exciting for children. However, it is pretty expensive, so I suggest you think carefully before buying any children's book. If you plan to have children in Japan, it will be a beneficial investment. Otherwise, it is a little bit wasteful as once your Japanese levelled up, you might not need them again. Here are some for your references. 

    ぐりとぐら(Guri to Gura

    Guri to Gura is a famous Japanese children’s series that has been translated into many languages. This series is great for any entry-level reader to get familiar with long sentences and new vocabulary. Because they are written for children, the contexts are also straightforward and usual. One 28-page-volume costs about 990 yen on Amazon.  

    銀河鉄道の夜 (Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru) 

    This book is prevalent in Japan and might be a better choice for you as it is longer but cheaper. Although the sentence structures used in this book are simple, you will meet some uncommon vocabulary related to a mysterious and imaginary world. It can also help you get more familiar with Katakana because the names of the characters are foreign. It can easily be read on Kindle for 440 yen and purchased at the cost of 473 yen.     

    Folktales 

    When coming to children’s books, folktales should not be ignored. In Japanese, they are Mukashi Banashi (昔話). By reading Japanese folktales, you can get a great insight into Japanese culture and see how children are taught in Japan. Some recommendation for you are: 

    • Momotaro (桃太郎)
    • Kaguya Hime  (かぐや姫)
    • Tanabata  (七夕)
    • Tsuro no Ongaeshi  鶴の恩返し)
    • Kodomo to Yomu Nihon no Mukashi Banashi (子供と読む日本の昔話). This is a collection of twelve popular folktales. However, it costs nearly 6000 yen so you should consider it carefully before buying.
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    Bilingual Japanese book

    Reading bilingual books is another way that you can try to improve your Japanese and reading skills. To some extent, these books might help you get familiar with Japanese sentence structures, and you can compare how they are different from English. There are many bilingual books designed to teach Japanese children English, so you can take a look at them by visiting any bookstores on the streets. Usually, they are titled バイリンガル (bairingaru), which means bilingual. 

    日本人のこころ (Nihonjin no kokoro) - Heart &soul of the Japanese

    This is a great bilingual book that I believe is really worth your time reading. The vocabulary and sentence structures used in this book are relatively easy to understand, so it is a perfect starting point for you. Also, you can learn more about the spirit of Japanese people and their culture. The book also gives a grand comparison between Japan and the world so that you can see how unique Japan is. You can buy it for 1650 yen on Amazon, and you will see the knowledge it provides is really worth your money. 

    If you want to see more bilingual books, you can visit these 6 bilingual starter books.   

    Japanese Book - Graded Readers 

    To end this list, I would like to introduce you to this beautiful series of books. This series contains sets of books divided into different levels from beginners to advance. It is structured with several tales and guides related to daily life. You can learn many new things that may make your life in Japan easier. Besides, the vocabulary is introduced according to level, and Furigana goes along with Kanji. So, you can handle the first few books without having any trouble. 

    Another good side of this series is that each set of books comes with audio, so you can practice listening while reading. It is also helpful for shadowing techniques as well. You can get in on Amazon at the cost of 2530 yen for each set. 

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    What are 5 must-read Japanese books? (For book lovers)

    Now, are you a book lover, but your Japanese skills are not good enough to allow you to engage in Japanese books? No need to worry because there is always an English translation version. You can easily search for them on Amazon using their English titles. Here below are some suggestions for you. 

    The Tale of Genji 

    In Japanese, this book named 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatari), written by Murasaki Shikibu, a classic Japanese literature. It was accepted as the first novel in the world and is one of the greatest literary works of all time. As it was written centuries before, the language used was also ancient Japanese. Until now, scholars are still working hard to thoroughly analyze the integrity of the book as well as make the simplest explanation for the next generation. There are also many versions of Genji Monogatari translated into modern Japanese, but it is still a big challenge for even Japanese people. 

    The translator Arthur Waley had done a great job in bringing a very genuine feel for this classic, and after reading this book, you will get to know more about the Japanese culture at its very core. Also, through the main character of the tale, Prince Genji, you can feel the romance of Japanese ancient poetry, music and gain a better understanding of the old era and lifestyle. It costs 3300 yen on Amazon and is one of the great books that you should not miss. 

    Kokoro 

    Another must-read Japanese novel is こころ (Kokoro), which remained its title after translating into English by Meredith McKinney. It is maybe because the title, although literally means “heart” but contains more shades of meaning that can not be translated exactly, then decided to keep it as it is. Kokoro is one of the greatest works of the nationally best-loved Japanese author, Natsume Soseki. He had a very unique writing style and sometimes is too complex to understand, through which he ingeniously incorporated his ideology and philosophy. 

    With Kokoro, you will explore the friendship between a young man and an older man under different themes and see how the changing times affect the way they think and live in life. Reading the works of Natsume Soseki will require you to take a deep breath and question yourself as well as turn the pages over again many times so that you can fully understand it. It is quite a complex book, but after reading, I believe that you will understand why Natsume Soseki is the nation’s most popular and beloved writer. You can get the translated version on Amazon at the cost of 2716 yen.  

    The Setting Sun

    If you know about Osamu Dazai, you probably have heard of his highest peak novel named “No longer human”, or 人間失格 (Ningen Shikkaku). And if you like his works, you should not ignore another great novel: The Setting Sun or 斜陽 (Shayō).    

    The story is about a family in decline and crisis during the period of transition from traditional Japan to modern society. Throughout the story, you will see several social and philosophical problems of that period of time, with each character is a different ideology. From that point on, you can gain a better view of different Japanese mindsets and seek to analyze the symbolism that the author had built. This book costs more than 1600 yen with Kindle Amazon and 1774 yen for a paperback.    

    An Encouragement of Learning

    Translated by David A. Dilworth, An encouragement of learning or 学問のすすめ (Gakumon no susume) in Japanese, written by Fukuzawa Yukichi, is another excellent book that you definitely should check out. Fukuzawa Yukichi was one of the first Japanese advocates for the rapidly changing Japan during the Meiji period and was regarded as one of the founders of modern Japan. He wrote this book in the hope to encourage Japanese people to build up a self-determining society and then develop a great nation.

    Gakumon no susume has been translated into several languages and recommended to every generation due to its everlasting theories about learning. Maybe some of the arguments are no longer relatable in the modern-day, you will still find yourself agreeing with most of his thoughts and philosophy. The price of the English version is relatively high, its Kindle version costs nearly 5000yen, while the hardcover is more than 6500 yen on Amazon. 

    Essays in Idleness 

    Essays in Idleness or 徒然草(Tsurezuregusa) is a famous collection of essays by a Japanese monk, Yoshida Kenko. Many great translators have translated this book, but I recommend you the version of Donald Keene for the easiest to follow and understand. 

    The book contains diverse topics, from hermeneutics to life-and-death theory, academic conversation, and so on under the understanding of a person who actually had gone through several historical events and living habits of Japanese classes at the medieval time. You can also be fascinated by his aesthetic principle that everything has its own charm. The book is only about 1800 yen on Amazon and provides several great theories for enjoyment. 

    You can also check out these 25 best Japanese books of all time for more options.

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    Where can I buy a Japanese book affordably?

    Recently, many famous Japanese books have been translated into other languages, including English. As long as you know where to find them, there are always great options for you to consider. One note for you is that purchasing Japanese books, particularly novels, is far cheaper than an English version. The price also depends on the design of the books, so if it is a small, handy one, it will be surprisingly low cost. Sometimes, you may find Japanese textbooks relatively expensive; indeed, textbooks are even expensive for Japanese students. Nevertheless, they are worth your investment. In this section, I will recommend some platforms where you can find the most wallet-friendly Japanese books.  

    Amazon & Kindle

    Throughout this article, you can see that I gave you many links to buy on Amazon, one of the biggest online platforms in Japan. The good thing is that because it is a foreign-based company, it has services in English. And if you have a Kindle associated with your Amazon account, you can get many good books for free or at low cost. Moreover, if you are a student, you can sign up for Student Prime on Amazon with a 6-month free trial and after that only 250 yen per month to receive free delivery service as well as accumulate points for further discount. It is a convenient and economical way to shop, isn’t it? You can easily search for any book on Amazon using its name in Japanese or English.  

    Second-hand Japanese book

    Another way to find low-cost books is to look for a second-hand one.  

    Book Off

    Book off is the largest second-hand bookstores in Japan, and it can be easily found on the go. All you need to do is to google it on Google Map and see if there is any near your place or not. Japanese people carefully take care of their books, so books you find in Book Off are not too different from a completely new one. The price, of course, is incredibly low, sometimes it is half that of the new one. 

    You can find a diversity of books from Book Off, from old comic books, textbooks to novels. However, unless you are lucky enough, it is hard to find an English book or the book you really want there. For example, I have never seen any Minna no Nihongo book at Book Off, even at its big spots. But I recommend you should buy Doraemon comics or try some children's books there as they are much cheaper.

    For more secondhand Bookstores, you can check out these 10 lesser-known ones in Tokyo. 

    Mercari

    Mercari Or メルカリ (Merukari), is a popular second-hand platform in Japan where you can buy what people sell and also sell what you no longer need at a reasonable price. As for Japanese books, especially textbooks, it is a great place to go. Usually, when someone is up to higher levels and no longer needs entry-level books, he/she tends to pass them over and gain little money through this platform. Hence, you can find several textbooks or even practise books there. All you need to do is contact the seller, and they will deliver the books to your address within 5 or 7 days. Payment methods are also diverse, but I recommend paying at convenience stores to protect your personal information instead of using a credit card. It is an online, accessible place, and we do not know who we are contacting, so it is always better to stay alert.

    From your senpai 

    Asking your senpai at school or your friends is another good way to do too. In addition to a reasonable price, you may take advantage of their notes inside the books as well. Your senpai might also give you some advice on which types of book to choose so that you will not waste your time and money meaninglessly. Or, your Japanese friends might lend you some of their good books or suggest you some good novels to read. Be careful to take good care of the book if you only borrow them for a short period of time.

    You can find some good tips on how to make more Japanese Friends on our BFF Ultimate Guide to Making Japanese Friends.

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    Find Japanese book free online 

    Actually, there are not many free online books. You can easily find introduction videos from beginner to hard on Youtube. But it is not the case for finding Japanese books. Nevertheless, you can check out some free short books on Tadoku. There are PDF files for you to download and audio to listen. Books there contain only basic words and sentence structures, so you can gradually learn on your own. They are divided from level 0 to 4, so you can choose one that is the most suitable for you. The website has both Japanese and English, so it is easier to follow.

    Or, you can download some easy-to-read essays at Nihongo Tokuhon. They are only at level 0, so the vocabulary and grammar used are very simple. The website KC Clip also provides many basic books with audio to practice your listening. Books there are more diverse in themes but a little bit harder. Anyway, those are great sources for you to learn and challenge.

    Conclusion

    So, do you find all those things intriguing and curious? With some fantastic Japanese books mentioned throughout this article, I hope you have taken some good notes for your references. It is a pity if you came to Japan but passed over the huge treasure of Japanese books, isn’t it?

    Although most great Japanese novels have been and will be translated into English and other languages, I believe that you can fully understand them only when you understand the beauty of the language. To make the most out of what you read, let us help you out with your Japanese learning journey by taking a look at our BFF Tokyo Series - Guides to Learning Japanese. 

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