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  • Conformity and Invention:Learning and Creative Practice in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Arts

This paper examines the relationship between learning and practice, rule and invention, in Japanese art. Drawing on Chinese precedent, learning through close observation of conventional models underpinned training in most arts and crafts in Japan. The practice of building individually inventive projects was usually developed only after the successful completion of long apprenticeships in studio settings. The pictorial engagements of Edo, today's Tokyo, form the principal focus for this examination of how individual pathways developed within the formal constraints of Tokugawa period (1603–1868) art-training arrangements. This paper adopts nineteenth-century popular prints as its primary resource material for the examination of ukiyo-e (floating world picture) learning practices; its analyses of selected examples reveals how studio consistencies could be maintained, while distinctive ukiyo-e pictorial projects could develop in quite inventive ways. It proposes that methodologies of play, or asobi, empowered artists to break with convention and seek new graphic solutions to changing pictorial problems. Its examination of the ways Torii School artists embraced the changing affordances of their media, or how asobi, creative connection making, and synthesis could provide fruitful methodologies for Katsushika Hokusai's (1760–1849) pictorial risk taking, provides insights into the creative processes of ukiyo-e. Building from these insights, this account proposes an underlying tension between conformity to rule, on the one hand, and pictorial invention, on the other, in the urbane works of the ukiyo "floating world" milieu that has implications also for appreciating relations between learning and invention for the arts in general.


This paper examines the relationship between learning and practice, rule and invention, in Japanese art. Drawing on Chinese precedent, learning through the close observation of conventional models for technical mastery or stylistic construction, underpinned training in almost all of the arts and crafts in Japan. The practice of building individually inventive projects was usually developed only after the successful completion of long apprenticeships in studio settings. The pictorial engagements of Edo, today's Tokyo, form the principal focus for this examination of how individually forged learning pathways developed within the formal constraints of Tokugawa period (1603–1868) art-training arrangements. This paper adopts nineteenth-century popular prints as its primary resource material for the examination of ukiyo-e (floating-world picture) learning practices; its analyses of selected examples reveal how studio consistencies could be maintained, while distinctive ukiyo-e characteristics of linearity, color, and pattern, theatricality or elegance could be manipulated in quite inventive ways. While acknowledging the necessary place of conventional rule in ukiyo-e practice, it proposes that methodologies of play, or asobi, empowered artists to break with convention and seek new graphic solutions to changing pictorial problems. Its examination of the ways Torii School artists worked through the changing conditions of affordance and constraint of their graphic media, or how asobi, creative connection-making, and synthesis could provide fruitful [End Page 1] methodologies for Katsushika Hokusai's (1760–1849) pictorial risk taking, provides insights into what Richard Wollheim proposed as the proper occupation of art criticism: the reconstruction of the creative process.1 From its examination of this method, this account proposes an underlying, and necessary, tension between conformity to rule, on the one hand, and pictorial invention, on the other, in the urbane works of the ukiyo "floating-world" milieu. Its argument for Edo pictorial practices suggests a broader explanation for a relation between learning and invention for the arts in general.

Learning from Example

Practice in most domains of the arts and crafts in Japan seems always to have been characterized by a distinctive tension between learning from example, on the one hand, and tendencies to creative invention, on the other. Artists were expected to conform: to work with established subjects and technical processes, to apply accepted conventions, to satisfy existing expectations. They were also expected to display originality: to bring a degree of novelty to the representation of conventional themes, to exploit the possibilities of their medium, to surprise the jaded palettes of audiences with refined appetites. A paradigmatic relation between conformity to rule and the novelty of invention is familiar to Western audiences also, in Sir Joshua Reynolds Royal Academy teaching and the injunctions framed in his Discourses between 1769 and 1778, for example. This similar relation in Occidental art can help explain the peculiar tenacity of a concept like the avant-garde, and it still finds a parallel in models for teaching and learning in art practice in art education curricula today.

In the domain of ukiyo-e, the "floating-world pictures" of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan, learning developed within the context of the artist studio, in which students were required to work from prescribed models. The fundamental principles or "laws" of drawing and painting were learned largely by copying compositional arrangements, pictorial themes, and even individual brush marks, from exemplary works. Most ukiyo-e artists learned to work, as had Japanese and Chinese artists for many generations before them, through their membership in particular artistic schools or dynastic lineages, in an apprenticeship service system known as detchi bōkō or totei bōkō.2 Such schools were usually known by the studio name of their earliest master—hence, Kaigetsudō, Torii, Katsukawa, or Utagawa. Entry could be by different processes—by birth, for example, or by marriage; through apprentice arrangements or business alliances (often brokered by publishers); or simply through a desire to learn the trade or some claim to stylistic allegiance. The structure of the school system resembled that of the ie, or household. The iemoto, the leading master, of each school determined who might become a member or who might be excluded. Rights of school [End Page 2] membership conferred by the iemoto could be withdrawn. When the stylistic character of Katsushika Hokusai's work veered too far away from the house style (ie no ho) of the Katsukawa School, his membership—and his right to sign his works as a member of that school—was rescinded.

School membership was important for ukiyo-e artists. It formed the locus for training in design, technique, and connoisseurship; it established professional relationships between artists and artisans like block cutters and printers and also with publishers (the "ukiyo-e quartet"); and it gave artists a place and a participating role within the broader "floating-world" communities. The term ukiyo, "floating world," described not so much a place in Edo as a distinctive urbane sensibility that informed habits of literary and artistic engagement and the pleasureable, sometimes poignant, worlds of the theaters, restaurants and teahouses, brothel quarters, or poetry clubs of the city. Ukiyo-e artists were much occupied with themes and sensibilities generated from within this milieu.

Both family relationships and a sense of vocation seem to have formed the foundation for membership of the early Torii School. The name Torii derives from their primary occupation as painters of the theater banners that were placed above the entrance to kabuki theaters. The earliest member may have been an Edo artist Torii Kiyotaka (n.d.). Better known is the history of the Osaka actor and theater billboard painter Torii Kiyomoto (1645–1702), who later came to work in Edo. His son, Torii Shōbei Kiyonobu I (1694–1729), is recognized as the first formal head of the Torii School. Torii Kiyomasu (c. 1690s–1720s) was his contemporary.

Following the deaths of Kiyonobu and Kiyomasu, their names were adopted by their pupils. Torii (Hanzaburō) Kiyomasu II (1706–63) became the second head of the school. The son of Kiyomasu II, Torii Kiyomitsu (1735–85), became the third head of the school. In 1785, he was succeeded, briefly, by his biological son Kiyohide (active mid-1770s), who was replaced in 1787, at the request of the theater owners, by his adopted son Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) as the fourth official head of the school. The final head of the school was Kiyomitsu II's grandson Shonosuke (1786–1868), who assumed the name Kiyomine on entering the school and later succeeded Kiyomitsu II as its master.

The leadership of a school could, thus, be inherited by direct descent or through marriage. It might alternatively be received through election by one's peers within the school, or it might be awarded as the consequence of a particularly strong contractual relation with a publisher or theater manager. In each instance, when a new leader emerged, he might assume the artist name (gwamyō) of his predecessor. This was not necessarily the case, however; Kiyonaga retained his own name, for example, but all members of his school did adopt the school name (geisai) of Torii. In addition to its key figures, the Torii School attracted numerous lesser students. The pupils [End Page 3] of Kiyonobu I, for example, included, besides Kiyonobu II (1706–63) and Kiyomasu II, Kiyotada (fl. c. 1720–50), Kiyoshige (fl. c. 1720s–1760s) and Kiyotomo (fl. c. 1720s–1740s). In each instance, on entering the school, the student was able to embrace the "Kiyo" part of his master's name into his own gwamyō. These artists worked closely together, often collaborating on illustration projects or print series. The work of one artist member of the school was often so difficult to distinguish from that of others that attributions are regularly confused.

Artist schools conditioned the ways artists worked in several ways. The leading figure, or master artist, of any school maintained considerable control over practice within the school. He chose which students would enter the studio in the first place, and since many were very young, sometimes still children, he assumed a paternal role. Watanabe Kyōsai (1831–89), for example, was only six years old when he entered the studio of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) and still only nine when he transferred to the Kanō School studio of Kanō Tōhaku Norinobu (1818–51). This was an unusually short period of training—apprenticeships usually lasted seven to eight years. The studio master also negotiated contracts with publishers and then decided which students might work on each project. He often worked collaboratively with his pupils, even when they had attained independent status—Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858) is known to have collaborated with Shigenobu (Hiroshige II, 1826–69) in his later serial projects, for example. Alternatively, the studio master could devise collaborations between his students. In some instances, in their very earliest endeavors, these student-artists remained anonymous.

The artist school also guided artists' entry into the art world. A master not only decided when a young artist would make his debut but usually carefully managed the process. Toyoharu Kunichika's (1835–1900) official introduction to the public, for example, was organized by his teacher Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865). Kunisada's own debut had been arranged by his master Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1835). Membership of a school was usually a condition of entry into the art world. It empowered an artist in two ways: it gave him the status of a trained artist, important for establishing his credibility; and it established the network of professional relationships through which he could survive in the commercially competitive world of the arts.

Working under the auspices of these schools, artists were required to conform closely to house styles, applying conventional devices in ways consistent with those of their master. The ukiyo-e artist school, like those of the Kanō or Tosa Schools, trained its students using highly prescriptive copyist methods. Drawing on Chinese precedent, instructional texts like Kano yasunobu's (1615–85) Gadō yōketsu (Secret Keys to the Way of Painting, 1680) had long promoted gei, "acquired technique,"3 and learning (gaku) over innate [End Page 4] talent (shitsu)4 as the principal measure of secure practice and good taste or judgment in the visual arts:

Kanō training consisted primarily of a rigid course in mastering copy-books by earlier Kanō masters and learning the prescribed techniques of colouring and so on. "Learned painting skills" (gakuga) were championed over "natural painting skills" (shitsuga) as a more trustworthy base for perpetuating the school's monopoly on official commissions.5

young artists, thus, learned by example. They emulated their masters; this was not just a matter of idiomatic sympathy: they were required to do so. Master artists carefully prescribed every aspect of their activity, often in their personal, as well as their professional, lives. They dictated precisely what subjects their students would represent and for what context or purpose—book illustration, handbill, serial or single-sheet print, and so forth. They supervised characteristics of color and pattern, and they facilitated the learning in Japanese literature, history, and connoisseurship that was required to inform the representation of narrative subjects. A copyist learning model and the requirement that students should repeat tasks until fully conversant with them were not unique to ukiyo-e. They were fundamental learning procedures for other arts in Japan, in calligraphy, for example, and were also, indeed, accepted practice for training artists in Europe. As the Edo painter Tani Bunchō (1763–1840) put it, "First, copy the old masters to learn their techniques, then study nature. Go back to the old masters and discern the differences. Now, paint your own landscapes using the 'image idea' of the masters."6 Copying from approved examples necessarily preceded the practices of drawing from nature (shasei). What was important here was the prescription only of models that were fully consistent with the particular conventional practice of each individual school. The senior members of artist schools employed a range of copyist devices to facilitate this process. In the first instance, young artists were required to copy from existing works, funpon reference compositions, reproducing them very closely. The legacy of this practice in artist training was the maintenance of conventional methods well into the mature professional careers of each artist. Most print designers, for example, included repetitions of earlier themes and models as part of their staple repertoire.

In fact, copyist methods had long precedent in both Japanese and Chinese art. The re-presentation of existing themes and images, often age-old classics, sometimes with only the subtlest modification, had long been an accepted practice in literary forms like kyōka "crazy verse," for example, and in the ukiyo-e form of mitate:

In premodern Japan (for that matter in the Orient in general, including China and Korea), artistic creation consisted of adding a cautious amount of personal expression to sample works chosen from revered [End Page 5] paintings of the classical past. New works of art were much like honkadori in poetry, which relied on allusive references to classical Japanese poems. In accordance with the Analects of Confucius ("I am a transmitter, not a creator"), it was considered to be a virtue to cultivate and propagate the seeds sown by the great masters and ancient sages. In contrast, the attempts by minor personalities of later generations to recultivate self-expression were despised as heretical behaviour.7

Utagawa school apprentice-students were required to conform closely to prescribed school examples reproduced in block-printed volumes like Utagawa Toyokuni's Yakusha nigao hayageiko (Quick Instruction in the Drawing of Actor Likenesses, 1817). Toyokuni's album draws together a huge collection of quite realistic representations of key actors of that season. Some pages represent the face of a particular actor, set in a range of expressive equivalents to those the actor would be required to adopt for different key points, and in differing roles,8 in that season's plays. Other pages gather together a range of models for facial makeup, hair styles, dramatic gestures, and so forth. Nigao likenesses ensured that each apprentice represented actors in precisely the way their master wished, and they ensured that, where several apprentices collaborated in a single illustration or in a serial project, their various representations of each actor stayed consistent with one another. Nigao was a device that allowed the master artist to retain pictorial control of production within his studio (on which his own reputation rested); coincidentally, it helped to teach the Utagawa School artists to draw reasonably accurate likenesses of actors of their day.

Some instructional texts, like Watanabe Kyōsai's Kyōsai gadan (Kyōsai's Discourses on Painting), also provided students with theoretical paradigms and practical instruction for drawing and painting, as well as examples for copying.9 These volumes often affected the significance of highly select or private knowledge. The reference to secrecy in the title of Kano Yasunobu's instructional manual Gadō yōketsu was an allusion to the notion of hiden, or "secret transmission."10 The assumption of secrecy, or more properly for ukiyo-e studios "exclusivity," acknowledged the school-specific nature or "ownership" of particular models of practice, technique, or learning. By the nineteenth century, however, access to these kinds of art knowledge had become much more open. A quite different kind of edehon, or manual for copying, one intended for both students and amateur artists, is to be found in the fifteen volumes of Katsushika Hokusai's Hokusai manga sketchbooks. The manga were almost entirely pictorial. Hokusai also published more overtly didactic edehon like Hokusai gashiki (Hokusai Pictorial Methods, 1819) and Hokusai soga (Hokusai Rapid Pictures, c. 1820).11 These and Hokusai's many other edehon volumes included an encyclopedic variety of exemplary images, including exhaustive collations of stock figure types and poses, details from natural history subjects, and curiosities like exotic [End Page 6] animals or European industrial manufactured goods. They also included extensive passages of instructional text, technical recipes for pigment combinations, or diagrams for the movement of wind and water; and, most importantly for his followers, geometric constructions of the underlying skeletal arrangements for composing images of animals and human figures in movement or for the formal arrangements of linear perspective spatial projections.

Such copybooks proliferated throughout the nineteenth century. A typical example might be published in three or four small volumes. Each volume might contain instructional text and explanatory diagrams and present the viewer with a sequence of increasingly complex studies, together with fully resolved compositions. While the earliest edehon focused on demonstrating compositional or drawing modes in the broadest sense, and often lacked subtle or complex color schemes, later examples, like Watanabe Seitei's (1851–1918) Seitei kachō gafu (Seitei's Drawing Book of Flowers and Birds, 1890) were characterized by finely observed detail, subtly gestural linear qualities, and complex and delicately modulated surfaces of transparent color. Where Hokusai's models encouraged his copyists to be inventive, the carefully manipulated compositions of Seitei encouraged his imitators simply, but very carefully, to apply the technical skills necessary for making direct copies of the already resolved compositions.

The copyist practice of working to rule—learning and sustaining practice in the arts by observing set conventions—was maintained elsewhere in the arts. The Nō playwright Seami (1363–1443), for example, described in nine stages the aesthetic principles of Nō theater. Similarly, the court painter Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–91) laid down stringent guidelines for painters that detailed even where they should set their seals and signatures. In calligraphy, the seventeenth-century artist Ojio yūshō compiled a comprehensive set of guidelines both for beginners and for advanced students of the art. Similar "laws" for pictorial applications of descriptive calligraphic brushstrokes like the "nail-head line," "rat-tail line," or the graceful "orchid leaf line" were extolled for sumi-e monochrome-ink painters.12 Guidelines for garden design were established in the twelfth-century text Sakutei-ki (Records of Garden Making).

The earliest sets of rules observed by Japanese painters were Chinese. The principal foundation was located in the "six points to consider when judging a painting" (Pinyin huìhuà liùfă) of the sixth-century Chinese painter and critic Xie He (Wade-Giles, Hsieh Ho). Xie He's six injunctions—more correctly, fa, or "techniques"—were:

  1. 1. Rhythmic Vitality and Spiritual Rhythm expressed in the movement of life

  2. 2. The art of rendering the bones of anatomical structure by means of the brush [End Page 7]

  3. 3. The drawing of forms which answer to natural forms

  4. 4. Appropriate distribution of colours

  5. 5. Composition and subordination, or grouping according to the hierarchy of things

  6. 6. The transmission of classic models13

Xie He's sixth injunction confirms a copyist model, not just for teaching students but as desirable practice for accomplished artists.

Learning and Invention in the Torii Studio

The application of these modes of teaching and learning, and the concomitant generation of something of a house style, is clearly evident in the works of the Torii School masters. They concentrated on the representation of kabuki theater actors. Their works are characterized by dynamic structural relations, composed of asymmetrical arrangements of planes of color and pattern and emphasized by sweeping, violently opposed curving lines. The works of the early Torii masters are all grand gesture and high visual impact; this stylistic mannerism appears to have been developed quite specifically to meet the requirements of high visual impact and dramatic punch of the works the Torii painters completed in their primary vocation, as painters of banners and posters for the entrances to kabuki theaters.

This general stylistic character was founded initially on the development of a set of characteristic conventions—simple, bright color schemes, vertically stacked compositional structures, dynamic figure arrangements, and richly varied linear qualities. In his representation of subjects like The Actors Yamanaka Hiekurō and Ichikawa Danjurō II, for example, Torii Kiyonobu I established the fundamental conventions of the school: a preference for the single-sheet actor print (earlier kabuki prints had often focused on the representation of characters rather than actors); a theatrical, highly gestural style; bright hand-coloring within a narrow palette; and vigorous linear variation. Kiyonobu's thick, wriggly, and bold line is distinguished by the application of two linear devices: hyōtan-ashi, or "gourd legs," and mimizu-gaki, or "earthworm lines." Each composition is printed simply, from a single woodblock, describing contours, tonal shapes, and minimal textural detail in black on the ivory colored paper. The major shapes of bodies and clothing were subsequently colored, quickly and coarsely, using a simple lead-based orange (tan, for which this type of print was known as tan-e), ochre, and sometimes a greenish cupric pigment. The figures and limbs are crushed tightly together to construct tightly cohesive, if often confusing, compositions. Gestures are overstated and exaggerated, and the dynamic opposition of limbs and torsos creates something of a graphic equivalent to the aragoto "rough business" melodrama of the kabuki stage. The distinctive linear dynamic applied in the color prints is even more clearly evident [End Page 8] in Kiyonobu's black-on-white book illustrations, like those illustrating the kabuki drama Sankai Nagoya, as it was presented on the stage in 1697.

On the face of things, these characteristics are closely replicated in the works of Kiyonobu's contemporary, but subordinate, school associate Torii Kiyomasu I. In his representation of a kabuki scene of Ichikawa Danjurō as a Fan Seller, for example, Kiyomasu directly reproduces the figural poses and compositional structures of his master. Like Kiyonobu, he employs a vertical stacking principle in his composition and applies simple, bright colors by hand. In this way, the subordinate artist sustains something of the flavor of his master's stylistic idiom. A close examination reveals subtle differences in Kiyomasu's work, however. His greater calligraphic virtuosity is evident in a finer, sharper linear quality in his works. While maintaining the theatricality and highly stylized facial expressions, poses, and gestures of Kiyonobu, Kiyomasu describes them with a lighter hand. He also applies his color with more precision and in more finely variegated shapes and opens his compositions out just a little to separate the figures and to emphasize the differing attitude of each role. The result is a much-tempered representation of aragoto energy, the accomodation of more pictorial information including objects and attributes that embellish the work's narrative facility, and more clearly differentiated representations of actors, poses, and roles.

Both artists were working within the same conventional frameworks. This was largely a matter of contractual obligation. Both were working in the service of the Edo kabuki theater; their works were designed to promote current performances within the highly competitive climate of the theater world. Their vertically stacked constructions allowed for the arrangement of two or three separate, if closely arranged, actors in role. The striking diagonal dispositions through the figural arrangements reproduced something of the aragoto melodrama of the conventional frozen mie poses of the stage. The simplified flat planes of color reflected the distinctive color contrasts of costume on the stage. The application of this set of conventions has required each artist to conform to a house style, but, working within these frameworks, each is able to develop a subtly differentiated vision that reflects his individual temperamental disposition. In Kiyonobu's case, this reflects a highly charged, dynamic appreciation of the power of the theatrical experience; in Kiyomasu's, it is more refined and more closely attuned to the individual performance of each actor.

The conventional frameworks developed by Kiyomitsu and adapted in subtle ways by Kiyomasu established a recognizable Torii School ie no ho "house style." This manner of working formed a reliable medium for the passage of knowledge from master artists to pupils or associates. Its rules were followed faithfully by all of their minor school members. At the same time, subtle changes were introduced by successive artists as they mastered approved techniques, built individual reputations for quality design, [End Page 9] and achieved higher status within the studio hierarchy. Several aspects of the Torii house style are, thus, sustained in the work of Kiyonobu's leading pupil Kiyonobu II. In compositions like The Actors Nakamura Sukegorō as Asō no Matsuwaka and Ōtani Hirogi II as Mibu no Korazu, designed during the early 1750s, Kiyonobu II maintained the Torii commitment to theatrical illustration and retained the stacked structure, shallow pictorial space, and dynamic linear configurations of his predecessors. Like those of his master, Kiyonobu II's settings are spare, but they are also more explicitly three-dimensional, constructed from the contrasting diagonal arrangements of planes that suggest continuities of spatial projections beyond the edges of the small, narrow hosoban format. Kiyonobu II's prints are different in other ways. In one sense, his individuated development is built in response to new affordances of the woodblock print medium: while his color range is still narrow, it is printed rather than painted and dominated by a pink-green contrast rather than the yellow-orange of his predecessors. The simpler complementary contrast of red and green, together with the precise alignment of block printing, and the crisply defined edges of each area of color, allows for the development of more intricately interwoven rhythms in the hems, folds, patterns, and emblems (mon) in the costumes. His compositions are more closely constructed, the figures less theatrically expressive, than his Torii predecessors, and the tightly interlocking relation of figures is less consistent with the dramatic conventions of kabuki theater.

With the third head of the school, Torii Kiyomitsu, the differences seem to far outweigh the similarities with his predecessors. Kiyomitsu did maintain the Torii School's traditional business of designing theater entrance banners and actor prints, embracing also playbills, posters, and illustration. On the other hand, Kiyomitsu's works were even more innovative than those of Kiyonobu II. The figures in compositions like The Actors Segawa Kikunojō II as Keisai Katsugari and Ichimura Uzaemon IX as Nagoya Sanza, for example, are far less demonstrative than earlier Torii works. They are precisely positioned and more reserved and impassive, and each figure is separate and self-contained in a manner consistent with theatrical convention, where each character occupied his own space on the stage. Kiyomitsu's color range is broader than those used by the earlier artists, and his patterns more finely nuanced and delicate. Indeed, Kiyomitsu has celebrated the creative potentials of the nishiki-e "brocade picture" polychrome print, defining contours with the finest of black lines and filling every shape with a different, and finely articulated, pattern and color combination. The surface complexities in the figures are complemented by the linear diversity of the field of characters, mon "logos" identifying the actors, and the title, signatures, seals, and publisher's mark that decorate the otherwise empty background field surrounding the actors. Most obviously of all, the vertically stacked compositions of alternating diagonals and tightly rhythmical repeated curves [End Page 10] are replaced by horizontal placements of figures across the picture plane, in which figural movement is generated through vertical arrangements of long, delicately sweeping arabesques.

The fourth titular head of the Torii School, Torii Kiyonaga, did sustain school tradition in the production of some kabuki-e, but essentially the focus of his attention shifted radically to a new genre: representations of beautiful women, or bijin-ga. Informed by precedent Torii School knowledge as developed through Kiyomitsu's projects especially, facilitated by the virtuoso technical services of block cutters and printers available by the end of the eighteenth century, and motivated by temperamental dispositions quite different from those of any of his predecessors, Kiyonaga developed Torii School engagements into entirely new directions in his bijin-ga designs. These works are characterized by delicacy and refinement suggested through elegant vertically traced curving lines and are emphasized in the graceful elongation of the figure, in overlapping, gently rhythmic, multifigured compositions. Kiyonaga has complemented his conventional learning with shasei "copying from life" to inform the description of a broad range of poses and activities in his subjects and to place them in convincing landscape settings, in which deeper spatial projections replace the markedly shallow space arrangements of the earlier artists. Kiyonaga's works are so markedly different from those of the originators of the Torii School that it seems impossible to draw any direct relation between them. Where his predecessors had explored, each in his own way, variations on themes of theatricality, Kiyonaga was to adopt an entirely new dimension into the Torii repertoire: the stylish and sensual provocation of iki sensibility.14 Iki, a suggestion of stylish chic, of subtle suggestions of intimacy tempered by detached nonchalance of manner, offered later eighteenth-century Edo artists and their audiences a medium for the representation of female elegance that could reflect idealized "floating world" constructs of engagements between the sexes.

In other words, in the context of a convention-bound practice, carefully regulated departures from rule and an increasing degree of original invention informed the development of a scaffolded process of change that played out through a century of Torii School engagements. There are significant implications in this relation. On the one hand, rules were necessary. They guaranteed that young artists could learn to work competently. They ensured the maintenance of a house style, between contemporaries and adjacent generations at least, and this ensured marketplace consistency. Most importantly for developing artists during each phase of this process, audiences and publishers could reliably expect the products of each artist to be consistent with earlier works.

On the other hand, a certain amount of novelty, of invention, from each individual artist ensured audiences would remain interested. For artists, [End Page 11] changing directions in their own artistic pathways might occur as the logical response to technical developments—in multiblock polychrome printing, for example—or to changes in the types of conceptual or pictorial problems with which they might be preoccupied. The conventions established through training and school membership became the preconditions for the free play of artistic invention: to engage freely and inventively within their domain, artists needed first to be absolutely comfortable with the pictorial conventions, conditions of medium, or methodological constraints of their enterprise.

Learning, Inventing, and Asobi

Often, artists continued their association with their parent school throughout their careers; though adopting the "family" name, Andō Hiroshige retained both social and professional associations with fellow students and subsequent masters, collaborating with several of them in the design of serial print publications. Somewhat atypically, Katsushika Hokusai was to shift restlessly from one school to another throughout the first half of his career.15 In each of the learning relationships he entered, he closely followed the conventional models established by the school master. At the age of nineteen, after several years training as a woodblock cutter, Hokusai was admitted to the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–93). By 1779, he had achieved sufficiently well to make his formal debut in the school with the name Katsukawa Shunrō. As a practicing member of the Katsukawa School, Hokusai was required to work in a manner closely modeled on that of his master. Shunshō specialized in actor prints and particularly in the single-sheet, single-figure, full-length portrait. Multi-figure compositions were contrived by joining together two or more of these single-figure prints. His figures were characterized by long, sweeping curves that ran the full length of each figure and by the distinctive placement of feet, firmly akimbo, or tightly together, the heel of one foot tucked tightly into the arch of the other. Through most of the fifteen years he worked within the school, Hokusai's works closely resembled those of his master. During the 1780s, however, his work increasingly tended toward the more sensuous idioms of Torii Kiyonaga and the pictorial conventions of the Kanō School. By 1794, his works had become so inconsistent with the Katsukawa house style that he was expelled from the school and forbidden to use the name.

During the years following his departure from the Katsukawa School, Hokusai studied, through formally contracted arrangements or informally, in a broad range of other artist schools. In each case, during the years of his association, Hokusai's works were closely consistent with the conventional modes of each school. Through his associations with teachers of the Kanō and Tosa Schools, for example, he learned something of the conventional [End Page 12] devices of Yamato-e, the domestic school of Japanese painting. Yamato-e compositions were traditionally characterized by high viewpoints, areas of busy detail separated by restful areas of empty space or mist, and bright and variegated color. Two key conventions were the fukinuki-yatai, "roof-blown-away," representation of buildings in isometric projection, roofs removed to allow the viewer to see into their interiors, and the broad bands of kumogata cloud-like zones, often in gold leaf, that separated areas of intense detail. Throughout this period, Hokusai redeployed these conventions in his own paintings and print designs.

Hokusai's next shift of focus was toward the decorative refinement and technical innovation of the Rinpa School. Building on conventional practice established by Tawaraya Sōtatsū (active 1600–30s) and ogata Kōrin (1658–1716), the Rinpa artists (so-called after Kōrin), focused their attention on the representation of subjects from the natural world. Working between 1795 and 1798, and signing works under the gwamyō Sōri,16 he adopted their characteristically rhythmic compositions with highly stylized, dancing linear combinations and adventurous experimental applications of pigment in the wet-on-wet manner. In painted works especially, Hokusai closely imitated the experimental style of his mentors.

Hokusai's next shift in attention was to the works of European landscape artists. He was able to study their work through engravings imported through the Dutch trading port at Nagasaki. These works crystallized Hokusai's focus on the landscape, introduced him to conventional practices for linear and aerial perspective spatial constructions, and familiarized him with the device of chiaroscuro. He employs all of these devices in his own early forays into landscape in the European style, closely imitating in his woodblock print medium the finely engraved linear configurations with which the Europeans described tonal values, and, in some examples, even arranging the written components in Western horizontal linear fashion.

Chinese painting models had long been available and admired in Japan. Chinese-style painting (kara-e) had preceded the development of the "national" or domestic Japanese style of Yamato-e, and Chinese paintings and artists continued to circulate through Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). Chinese landscape painting was characterized by vertically stacked arrangements, in which it was accepted that objects positioned higher in the composition were more distant than those in the lower part. They were characterized also by a generally monochrome palette, subtlety of tonal shift, and a highly prescribed lexicon of linear variations. Again, Hokusai's works in the Chinese style conform closely to these conventional constructions and also draw on the complex lexicons of calligraphic brushstrokes of Chinese painting traditions.

Hokusai's mature works, those in which his own inventive powers complemented and synthesized diverse elements from the conventional modes [End Page 13] of the schools with which he had associated earlier, did not begin to appear until he was in his mature years. The most successful ones, the "archetypal" Hokusai compositions of Fugaku sanjū-rokkei, the Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (1826–33); Fugaku hyakkei, the Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji (1834, 1835, and 1840s); or Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki, the Hundred Poems by the Hundred Poets, Explained by the Nurse, begun in 1835, were the products of his sixties and seventies.

The Fugaku sanjū-rokkei series comprises both the thirty-six compositions promised by its title, each viewing the distinctive symmetrical side of the mountain, together with a further ten images of the less regular profile of its other side. Though it appears to feature a coastal setting, the view toward Fuji in Kōshū Kajikazawa (Figure 1) is, in fact, from a vantage point north of the mountain near the rural town of Kajikazawa-chō, in Kai Province. Kai Province is located inland in central Honshū, in the area known today as yamanashi Prefecture. The town itself has today become part of the small center of Fujikawa, whose civic promotional matter still capitalizes on its clear view across to the mountain. Kōshū was an abbreviated form of the name of the province. The two men fishing with cormorants from a precarious rocky outcrop over surging waves would, in fact, have usually been overlooking a small tributary stream.

Figure 1. Katsushika Hokusai, Kōshū Kajikazawa (Kajikazawa in Kai Province) from the series Fugaku sanjū-rokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji), c. 1830–32. Woodblock color oban print. This author's collection, New Zealand.
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Figure 1.

Katsushika Hokusai, Kōshū Kajikazawa (Kajikazawa in Kai Province) from the series Fugaku sanjū-rokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji), c. 1830–32. Woodblock color oban print. This author's collection, New Zealand.

Where Hokusai's Torii School predecessors had progressively developed pictorial changes through gradual processes of the adaptation and [End Page 14] modification of earlier pictorial models, Hokusai's own inventive method builds through a more comprehensively conceived inventive procedure. Each unique view of the Fugaku sanjū-rokkei series has been created by amalgamating selected aspects from a diverse range of conventional sources. In each composition, these different devices are melded toegther so seamlessly as to create a unique hybrid pictorial view. The inventive facility evident in each image would have delighted his viewers repeatedly as the publication of the series progressed.

For the composition of Kōshū Kajikazawa, Hokusai finds resource in his early Katsukawa School roots for the bending form of the central standing figure. The Katsukawa model provided a convincingly three-dimensional construct, one whose tensional arrangement of legs pushing up and backward to the hips and arching torso straining backward against the taut lines provides a convincingly lifelike moment of energy at the heart of the foreground scene. Hokusai draws also on earlier Yamato-e tradition both in the inclusion of this genre content and in the arrangement of highly stylized horizontal strands of kumogata clouds across and behind the crest of the mountain. The formality of the kumogata layers is complemented by the inclusion of devices of his Sōri period Rinpa School learning in the decorative stylized patterns of foaming waves and arrangement of gently rhythmic striated curves above them.

Hokusai's knowledge of European perspective constructions, more explicitly evident in his applications of linear perspective in some of the other views, is implicit here in the application of a dramatic contrast of scale between the large figures and rock in the foreground and the smaller form of the mountain in the distance. The juxtaposition of intense color and detail in the foreground with the cool tonality of the distant mountain draws also on European precedents for aerial perspective. Most obvious to his own viewers, however, was Hokusai's adoption of the Chinese-sourced pictorial conventions that had been embraced in Japan by earlier generations of sumi-e ink painters and, during Hokusai's own time, in the subtly modulated calligraphic marked surfaces of the Japanese nanga "Southern painting" Chinese-style literati painters. Hokusai's arrangement adopts the suspended viewpoint and asymmetrical "corner-directed" organization of shinsai "formal-style" compositions of early sumi-e painters like Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506). Like the Japanese monochrome painters Hokusai has also embraced other Chinese landscape conventions. The berorin "Berlin blue" pigment dominating the composition, both in the subtly printed layers of mist and, unusually, in the keyblock linear detail reproduces the effects of transparent black-ink modulations and atmospheric allusions of the early painters.17 These, in turn, are developed through the characteristically Chinese-style hazy layers of water and mist that lie across the composition. The whole construction, of the foreground zone at the lower part of the image, upward through the layer of water, then layers of mist, up to the [End Page 15] mountain and cloud layers above, follows the Chinese convention of layered or vertically stacked spatial arrangements, in which zones in the lower part of the composition were understood to be nearest the viewer and those in the upper zones most distant.

In building connections between the conventional devices of different schools and between school-learned practices and his landscape/genre subject compositions and then synthesizing these diverse graphic conventions into a new kind of pictorial invention in this way, Hokusai was engaging in a kind of artistic play, or asobi. This notion of asobi had been a consistent theme in visual arts practice in Japan. Artists had long engaged in playful explorations of pictorial possibilities, drawing together precedent devices and ways of working and adapting or redeveloping them into new and innovative combinations.18 Hokusai brought a particularly playful and risk-taking attitude to pictorial invention, taking chances, entering new territories, generating new and often unexpected pictorial outcomes. Working in serial projects, as in the Fugaku sanjū-rokkei and Fugaku hyakkei Fuji series, offered a procedural medium for sustaining extended practices in pictorial play around a central recurring theme. For the Fugaku sanjū-rokkei series, it embraced also a light-hearted kind of visual play, one that would have delighted his contemporary viewers. In Kōshū Kajikazawa, they would have discovered the symmetrical profile of the mountain depicted not only explicitly in the upper part of the composition but again more implicitly, suggested in the construction of an echo of its curves in a broken contour, rising from the lower left corner of the composition up through the edge of the rock and the standing figure, then falling back down to the right along the fishing lines. This amusing device recurs, in some way, in almost every one of the compositions of this series.

Hokusai himself acknowledged the relation between a lengthy period of apprenticeship and a late, mature independence, as well as his mastery of the means to synthesize diverse conventional practices in the service of convincing representation, in the declaration he made to celebrate his fifth formal name change, on his seventy-fifth birthday in 1834:19

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will seem as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false. Told by Gakyō Rōjin Manji20 [End Page 16]

Hokusai's announcement was an elaborated reworking of a passage from the Analects of Confucius:

At fifteen I had set my heart on learning; by thirty I had found my footing; at forty I was free of perplexities; by fifty I understood the will of heaven; by sixty I learned to give ear to others; by seventy I could follow my heart's desires without overstepping the line.21

Both statements encapsulate the same central tension, between learning, understanding, getting it "right" according to conventional expectations, on the one hand, and applying a freedom of invention, following one's "heart's desires" while still observing formal precedent, on the other.

Theorizing Conformity and Invention

This commentary provokes a significant question for the role of rule in the creative process. Rules can only usefully be applied to broad spectrums of experience—to groups of the same, or similar, things or situations-in-common. As the Torii genealogy demonstrates, rules develop from, and can be devised to regulate reliably within, the frameworks of known situations, to be used meaningfully to organize or articulate the familiar. Yet each artist produces objects that have not existed before: how can sets of rules be devised to explain or regulate things that do not yet exist? For "floating-world" artists, however, a knowledge of rule, a confident ability to employ the conventions of their enterprise, provided the foundation of knowledge and skill upon which their own individual inventions could be built. The relation between rule and free invention may seem paradoxical or uneasy, but it is a necessary one: for ukiyo-e artists, as for artists in most other domains in the Japanese arts, rules constituted a necessary precondition for creative freedom.

The law-bound practices of ukiyo-e artists, thus, built on well-established systems of rule. These drew on, and were sustained through, common usage by often large numbers of artists through successive generations, and they were readily accepted by their audiences as orthodox practice. These "rules" or conventional procedures and techniques drew on foundations of "normal ideas" of common understandings of what pictorial arts were, and the devices and processes through which they could work. Rules could be relied on for solving structural, technical, narrative, allusive, representational, or aesthetic problems; but they also provided the body of knowledge, the technical stock, and cognitive springboard from which creative leaps could be taken. For Edo artists, as for their predecessors of earlier eras, rule-based procedures formed a necessary precondition for individually articulated artistic invention. On the surface of things, close conformity to rule may seem quite incompatible with the "law-breaking" practices of the free play [End Page 17] of pictorial invention. Immanuel Kant was clear on both the necessity of rule in art and on a necessary relation between rule and free invention:

For every art presupposes rules which are laid down as the foundation which first enables a product, if it is to be called one of art, to be presented as possible. The concept of fine art, however, does not permit of the judgement upon the beauty of its product being derived from any rule that has a concept for its determining ground, and that depends, consequently, on a concept of the way in which the product is possible. Consequently fine art cannot of its own self excogitate the rule according to what it is to effectuate its product. But since, for all that, a product can never be called art unless there is a preceding rule, it follows that nature in the individual (and by virtue of the harmony of his faculties) must give the rule to art, i.e. Fine art is only possible as a product of genius.22

Learning the accepted conventions or rules of a studio system that ensured ukiyo-e artists both of their continued school membership and acceptance by its patrons was, thus, also a necessary condition for the artistic freedoms that informed their own individually inventive projects. Artists had to practice skills and exercises repeatedly to become so completely adept with the pictorial devices, technical processes, or methodological procedures of their studios that they could apply them unconsciously, before they could adapt them, build on them, or reapply them freely in new and inventive combinations. Mastery and conformity to rule empowered artists to move beyond the constraints of their own learning to develop their own freely inventive practice:

Hence it is only conformity to law without a law, and a subjective harmonizing of the imagination and the understanding without an objective one—which latter would mean that the representation was referred to a definite concept of the object—that can consist with the free conformity to law of the understanding (which has also been called finality apart from an end) and with the specific character of a judgement of taste.23

Thus, the Torii masters were each able to work at one and the same time within and outside of the framework of rules that characterized their school's distinctive ie no ho. For each artist, the Torii School rule system is evident in the dynamic compositional principles of asymmetrically opposed planes and a strongly rhythmic idiom, yet each reinterpreted this framework in subtly—or sometimes, toward the end of the lineage, strikingly—different ways. Working to rule laid the foundation upon which the individual invention of each Torii artist could be built. Hokusai, on the other hand, could shift through a succession of apparently quite incompatible traditions, but later meld them all together in quite new pictorial entities in his own [End Page 18] works. The experiences of these "floating-world" artists are complemented by a much broader principle for learning and practicing in the arts. No matter how similar the conditions under which different artists may find themselves working, no matter how closely related the artistic problems they are confronted with, purposeful activity in the arts encourages diversity rather than conformity. For any given artistic problem, there can be not one but many valid outcomes. This is not to say that just any outcome will do, but that some different ones will solve the problem in different but still satisfactory, ways. There is a reason for this: in each instance, or different project, artists are working toward unknown outcomes.


For artists working in Tokugawa period Edo, whether they were ukiyo-e designers of popular visual media or members of the older Kano School catering to aristocratic patrons, a secure mastery of conventional techniques and procedures underpinned professional practice and commercial survival. Almost invariably, these artists acquired this knowledge through extended experiences of copyist training, usually in indentured relationships with formally established studios. For almost all—even the apparently independent amateur nanga literatii painters—that same knowledge of conventional practice also informed the development of their own individual creative projects as each attained his artistic maturity. For the Torii School artists, creative diversity played out through an extended, scaffolded process of generational change, as each successive master gained a position through which he could develop with some independence. Their developmental and inventive procedure was one of assimilation, adaptation, modification, and extension. For artists like Hokusai, the process was quite different, one of assimilation of diverse knowledge, redeployment, synthesis, and invention that took Edo landscape painting in particular into entirely new directions. For all of these artists, however, knowledge, or rule, was the prerequisite condition for change and invention. This functional relation underpinned artistic practice in Japan and reflects principles informing learning and independent practice in the arts in general.

Understanding the tensions between conformity to rule and pictorial invention, or between learning and independent practice, can inform more comprehensive appreciations of the arts of Japan. First, it enhances explanations for the processes of art historical developments couched within the terms of reference its artists had worked with. Consequently, knowing about patterns of school allegiance, learning, maturation, independence, and inventing in artistic practice in Tokugawa period Japan has practical relevance for clarifying questions of identification, attribution, authentication, and dating.24 Second, appreciating the ways consistent patterns of [End Page 19] conventional means and thematic continuities can explain how standards could be maintained over extended periods of time and in the projects of diverse artists and how this could safeguard the institutional arrangements, economic security, and market-place credibility of ie studios. Third, these understandings lend insights into contemporary expectations of visual art and the ways Edo's new art public engaged with images, the ways they made judgments of artistic quality, and why they favored the artists, pictorial themes, or stylistic tropes they did. Fourth, they help to explain the nature of floating-world taste and how the crystallization of a distinctive Japanese sensibility, Yamato gokoro (strictly, "Japanese heart"), could be sustained through engagements in the visual arts of Edo. Finally, understanding the subtleties of relations between learning, cognition, and invention provides a valuable insight into the apparently elusive phenomenon of creative invention itself, as it underpins practice, not just in Edo visual arts but in the whole range of creative practices from painting, ceramics, or chanoyu, to calligraphy, lacquerware, or gardens in Japanese and other East Asian settings. This insight informs appreciations of art engagements not from the remote Western viewpoints of the twenty-first century but as Edo's own audiences might have experienced them at that time.

David Raymond Bell

David Bell is associate professor at the University of otago, College of Education, in Dunedin, New Zealand. He teaches graduate and postgraduate programs in teacher education, specializing in the visual arts, art history, and education theory. He has also taught Japanese visual culture courses and published extensively on ukiyo-e (floating-world picture) subjects. His research interests embrace pedagogies for aesthetic learning, Japanese art history and aesthetics, and museums as sites for learning between cultures.


1. Wollheim argues the responsibility of "criticism" as "the process of coming to understand a work of art" and the "reconstruction of the creative process" itself as the means to the "critical retrieval" of such a phenomenon. Richard Wollheim, "Criticism as Retrieval," in Art and Its Objects, 2d ed. (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1980), 185–204.

2. Brenda Jordan, "Copying from Beginning to End? Student Life in the Kano School," in Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets: Talent and Training in Japanese Painting, ed. Brenda Jordan and Victoria Weston (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003), 42.

3. Morinaga Maki Isaka, Secrecy in Japanese Arts: "Secret Transmission" as a Mode of Knowledge (London: Palgrave McMillan, 2005), 3.

4. Karen Gerhart, "Talent, Training and Power: The Kano Painting Workshop in the Seventeenth Century," in Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets, 27.

5. Timothy Clark, Demon of Painting: The Art of Kawanabe Kyōsai (London: British Museum Press, 1993), 19.

6. Stephen Addiss, ed. Japanese Quest for a New Vision: The Impact of Visiting Chinese Painters, 1600–1900, Selections from the Hutchinson Collection at the Spencer Museum of Art (Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, 1986), 41.

7. Donald Jenkins, The Floating World Revisited (Portland, OR, and Honolulu: Portland Art Museum and the University of Hawai'i Press, 1993), 85.

8. Although leading actors were often associated with the roles of the most important characters of the kabuki theater repertoire, in most instances actors were required to perform several different roles throughout the extended, multiple-act period of a stage presentation.

9. Brenda Jordan, "Kawanabe Kyōsai's Theory and Pedagogy: The Preeminence of Shasei," in Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets, 86–115. [End Page 20]

10. Morinaga, Secrecy.

11. John Rosenfeld, "'All Creation Is the Teacher': Hokusai the Individualist in Two of His Painting Manuals," in Hokusai, ed. Gian Carlo Calza (London: Phaidon Press, 2003), 32.

12. Henry Bowie, On the Laws of Japanese Painting (New York: Dover, 1952), 63–66.

13. Laurence Binyon, The Flight of the Dragon: An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Art in China and Japan, Based on Original Sources (London: John Murray, 1911), 79–80. As Matthew Turner acknowledges ("Classical Chinese Landscape Painting and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature," The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 43, no. 1 [2009]: 106–21), a precise or definitive appreciation of each of these injunctions is subject to, and compromised by, difficulties in translation, their inherent suggestivity, or their resistance to exhaustive analysis. Binyon's transliterations convey something of a poetic flavor that seems in sympathy with the nostalgic poetics of Hokusai's own pictorial sensibility.

14. Kuki Shuzō, "Iki no kozo, the Structure of 'Iki,'" in Reflections on Japanese Taste: The Structure of "Iki," trans. John Clark (Sydney: Power Publications, 1997).

15. For a more comprehensive account of "How Hokusai Learned his Trade," see David Bell, Hokusai's Project: The Articulation of Pictorial Space (Folkestone, UK: Global Oriental, 2007), 21–69.

16. Roger Keyes, "The Dragon and the Goddess: Using Prints to Date, Identify and Illuminate Hokusai's Early Paintings," in Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-e Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Late Edo Japan, ed. John T. Carpenter (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005), 23.

17. "Key block" contours and linear details were usually printed in black. For the thirty-six "conventional" views of Fuji's symmetrical profile in this series, Hokusai adopted the bero blue pigment for the keyblock printing to complement its application in the bokashi tonal gradations of the landscape and atmospheric effects. For the "extra" and atypical views describing Fuji's asymmetrical profile, he employed black-ink keyblock printing.

18. David Bell and Richard Bullen, "Play," in Pleasure and Play in Edo Japan, ed. Richard Bullen (Christchurch, NZ: The Caxton Press, 2009), 33–38.

19. The seventy-fifth birthday following the contemporary Japanese convention of calculating one's age from nine months before the actual birth.

20. Henry Smith, Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), 7.

21. Confucius, The Analects of Confucius, trans. Burton Watson (New york: Columbia University Press, 2007), §II, 4.

22. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 78–79.

23. Ibid., 86.

24. Keyes, "Dragon and the Goddess," 17. [End Page 21]

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