In 1980s Japan, mizuko spirit attacks, or hauntings by the spirits of aborted fetuses, were on the rise among middle school and high school girls. Listen to one Japanese teen’s testimonial: “You probably won’t believe it, but mizuko spirit attacks are really frightful. Last summer, I got knocked up. I went to the hospital for an abortion, but about a week later, I started hearing the crying voice of a baby in the middle of the night, coming from inside me. Soon after that, a red blob came out of me, and when I looked at it closely, it looked like a baby. I was so scared! So last Sunday I went to a temple in Kamakura and offered incense before a statue of Mizuko Jizō. That’s what happened to me. Be careful, everybody!” This exact scenario DID happen to many young women in Japan in the 1980s. There was a sudden uptick in mizuko spirit attacks among young women and a media blitz about this phenomenon. But what are mizuko attacks exactly? And which came first? The media blitz or the hauntings? How were young women supposed to get rid of them? And what did this all mean? Find out in today’s episode about the history of mizuko spirit attacks.
Transcript for Mizuko: The History behind Vengeful Aborted Fetus Hauntings in 1980s Japan:
Marissa: Imagine you’re a teenage girl living in Japan in 1982. You probably have cute, feathered bangs framing your face. You’re probably wearing a floral skirt, with hose and heels, and a boxy, ivory sport coat shaped with broad shoulder pads. You come home after school with some girlfriends where you sit around reading magazines. You pick up your favorite magazine, Josei Jishin (Women’s Own) and when you open to the middle page, expecting to see a spread on the latest heart throb or an advertisement for a new cosmetics line, your heart skips a beat.
Elizabeth: Instead, you see horrific, bloody images: a nurse up to her elbows in blood hemorrhaging from between a young woman’s legs; grotesque fetal remains on display; a tiny silk coffin housing the remains of an aborted fetus; a screaming teenage girl, just like you, grabbing fistfuls of her hair, trying to shake the haunting images of her aborted fetus from her mind. You read the characters alongside the bloody scene. They say, “That’s right—it was a bolt from the blue. All of a sudden, lying under the covers, I couldn’t move, like I was being sat on by a ghost. I was so scared, and when I opened my eyes, a baby had floated up out of the darkness. I could hear it crying, ‘Ogyaa, ogyaa…’ When I got up the next morning, my sheets were soaked with sweat. All I could think was that the child I had aborted a little while ago had somehow wandered into my dreams. So, after that, every night I’ve been praying, ‘My baby, I’m so sorry.’”
Marissa: The article goes on to explain that mizuko spirit attacks, or hauntings by the spirits of aborted fetuses, are on the rise among middle school and high school girls. You read another testimonial: “You probably won’t believe it, but mizuko spirit attacks are really frightful. Last summer, I got knocked up. I went to the hospital for an abortion, but about a week later, I started hearing the crying voice of a baby in the middle of the night, coming from inside me. Soon after that, a red blob came out of me, and when I looked at it closely, it looked like a baby. I was so scared! So last Sunday I went to a temple in Kamakura and offered incense before a statue of Mizuko Jizō. That’s what happened to me. Be careful, everybody!”
Elizabeth: Maybe you, or one of your girlfriends has gotten an abortion. What if this happened to one of you? What if it already WAS happening? What if your F on a math test last week was due to the angry spirit of your aborted fetus? What if that’s why your grandma died? Or why your girlfriend got into a car accident? Or what about that nightmare you had last week… was that your aborted fetus coming back to haunt you? At this point you’d do just about anything to placate that mizuko and ensure that you were free from its vengeful wrath.
Marissa: *End scene!*
This exact scenario, or something like it, DID happen to many young women in Japan in the 1980s. There was a sudden uptick in mizuko spirit attacks among young women and a media blitz about this phenomenon. But what are mizuko attacks exactly? And which came first? The media blitz or the hauntings? How were young women supposed to get rid of them? And what did this all mean? Find out in today’s episode about the history of mizuko spirit attacks.
And I’m Elizabeth
Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig
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It’s a cold case like no other. In 1888, five women were brutally murdered in a London slum– attacks so violent the killer earned himself a nickname: Jack the Ripper. But everything you think you know about Jack and those women is wrong.
On Bad Women, historian Hallie Rubenhold uncovers the real lives of Jack’s victims – revealing discrimination that put them in Jack’s path– misogyny women still face today. The show challenges established theories about the murders… causing many supposed Ripper experts to see red.
Listen to Bad Women wherever you get your podcasts.
Marissa: Mizuko, which literally translates to “water child,” is a Japanese word that refers to aborted, miscarried, or stillborn fetuses. The term has no scriptural foundation in Buddhist or Shinto texts and its origins are shrouded in obscurity. Linguists suspect the term originated in northeastern Japan where it was customary to place the remains of aborted fetuses in straw sacks and float them away into the sea to dispose of them. It’s not entirely clear when Japanese women began to fear attacks by the spirits of their vengeful aborted fetuses (more on that in a minute) but it is clear that beginning in the late 1970s, women began requesting and paying for a new religious rite called mizuko kuyō (water child memorial) that Buddhist and Shinto priests had never heard of before.
Elizabeth: The Japanese tabloid media was certainly preoccupied with mizuko beginning around 1980. Gorey spreads featuring monstrous fetuses sat alongside narratives about tatari (hauntings) perpetrated by vengeful aborted fetuses against their would-be mothers. It is perhaps telling that, on the same page, a woman could also find advertisements for temples that performed mizuko kuyō, along with addresses, phone numbers, and prices for sponsoring the memorial that could end her hauntings. Fees ran from the equivalent to U.S.$20 for prayers for one mizuko to U.S.$1,500 for an elaborate service and stone statuary. One Osaka temple advertised its discount for three mizuko or more.
Marissa: The robust mizuko kuyō business in 1980s Japan might have had you thinking that this was a time-honored custom. But the earliest record of a mizuko kuyō being performed dates to 1971 and most religious authorities in Japan date their own participation in the ceremony to 1979 or later. So where did this come from? Some scholars of spiritualism in Japan believe that the 20th century revival of mizuko kuyō may be a contemporary refashioning of folk beliefs surrounding muenbotoke.
Muenbotoke are needy spirits of the dead who wander endlessly for food and comfort; often these spirits lack a connection with their living family, so their deaths were not commemorated in the usual way. Often times muenbotoke suffered unnatural deaths, dying when they were young or suddenly when they were in a state of anger, jealousy or resentment. They are unsettled spirits whose deaths were problematic.
Elizabeth: Since the fifteenth century, Japanese Buddhists have acknowledged that not all deaths are good deaths and that not all the dead have family who commemorate them properly. Muenbotoke were inevitable. To address this inevitability, Japanese Buddhist sects developed a rite called segaki-e (feeding the hungry ghosts) which resembled an exorcism. Segaki-e, a ceremony meant to address potentially dangerous spirits, sits in opposition to the Buddhist ceremony of Obon which the Japanese use to honor the spirits of their benevolent ancestors. So this idea of needy or angry spirits has a history. Japanese Buddhists of all sorts have taken or left these ideas to varying degrees. The belief in muenbotoke served to reinforce the belief in angry spirits more generally and the practice of honoring dead ancestors.
Marissa: The folklore surrounding supernatural beings (yōkai) became a cultural obsession during the 18th century. Edo society delighted in inventing, naming, and mythologizing new yōkai as a form of entertainment. Japanese illustrators created encyclopedic tomes dedicating one page to each yōkai and writing accompanying captions and stories. Kagawa Masanobu has argued that this century experienced a yōkai revolution. In this environment that privileged the supernatural, Edo-era Buddhists developed intricate rites dealing with death and ancestor worship.
Elizabeth: One of the yōkai that most haunted Edo society was the ubume (UBoomEh), the ghost of a woman who had died in childbirth. Buddhist tradition held that dying in childbirth had a terrible karmic impact. According to the Blood-bowl Sutra (composed in China c. 1200 CE), such sad souls were sent to the “Pool of Blood Hell” and prevented from achieving Buddhahood. The horrors of eternity as an ubume (UBoomEh) have been captured in the encyclopedia yōkai depictions favored by Edo artists. Ubume (UBoomEh) are typically haggard women with flowing black hair, wrapped in blood-stained sheets, bent over the corpse of their dead infant in despair and always, they wander in the pouring rain. Some depictions (those that combine Chinese and Japanese folkloric traditions) show the ubume as bird-like.
Marissa: The text accompanying such illustrations reveal their nocturnal activities: “Ubume can devour the spirits of people. They were frequently seen in Jingzhou. They turn into flying birds when wearing feathered garments and into women when not. Thus, they have two breasts. They favor grabbing the children of others and raising them by themselves. Parents who have a child at home should not dry the child’s clothes outside during the night. The bird flies at night and will mark the clothes with blood. Thereafter, the child will be immediately attacked by diseases like epilepsy or infantile malnutrition. These are diseases without reason. The birds appear only as female, never male. They fly and hurt people during the night in the seventh and eighth lunar calendar months.”
Elizabeth: The text continues: “The birds are similar in appearance to seagulls, and sound like seagulls as well. They can change shape into a woman bringing forth a child. In this form, whenever they meet a passerby, they plea for them to carry the child for them. If the passerby flees in fear, the ubume (UBoomEh) will become angry and inflict on the passerby a strong cold and high fever leading to death. If the passerby is brave and strong and promises to carry the child, there will be no harm. When the passerby nears his home, he may feel the weight of the child on his back lighten before it disappears completely.”
Marissa: Medieval Buddhist monks performed special rites for women who had died in childbirth. Records suggest that they were concerned with three things: (1) the woman might give birth in the grave and come back to haunt her relatives as an ubume, (2) the woman’s posthumous resentments over her traumatic death might result in her reappearance as a muenbotoke, and (3) being careful to ensure that the woman achieved Buddhahood (salvation).
The custom of mi-futatsu (separating the two) was often performed as a preventative measure. The abdomen of the woman was opened, and the fetus removed. Then both bodies were buried together in one grave. Folk traditions were regional but at least some Japanese believed this would prevent the woman from returning as an ubume and cursing their household. In some regions in early modern Japan, Buddhist monks favored a symbolic version of the mi-futatsu ritual such as kirigami (cut paper inscribed with mystical spells). Another practice required that Buddhist monks kick the corpse as it was given the tonsure and the names of ten Buddhas were whispered into its left ear. This custom was believed to ritually separate the fetus from the womb.
Elizabeth: In remote areas, the custom of nagare kanjō (flowing funeral) was developed to prevent a dead pregnant woman from becoming an ubume (UBoomEh). This one is much less disturbing. Four posts are erected either over the grave or near running water. Then a square of cloth with scripture written on it is stretched between them. Family members, neighbors, and passers-by ladle water onto the cloth until the ink is washed out.
The surgical method, mi-futatsu, was routinely practiced in some places in Japan up until the turn of the 20th century. After 1900, reports of this ritual are rare but there are some examples from as late as 1950. This suggests that even though the ideas were not pervasive, the fear of ubume persisted until at least 1950. It’s important for us to note that there was no notion that the fetus would, itself, become an angry spirit. Helen Hardacre, a scholar of Japanese religion, says that the focus for the mother was attaining Buddhahood but the best hopes for the fetus revolved around a quick rebirth. Despite the prevalence of ubume (UBoomEh) folklore, there was still no mention of mizuko.
Marissa: Still, angry spirits were a part of everyday life for many people in Japan. Religious scholars argue that vengeful spirits of the dead were used by ordinary Japanese to cope with unexplained suffering. A significant minority of Japanese Buddhists came to attribute their own misfortunes and suffering to angry ancestral spirits. This gave them a reason WHY they were suffering but it also gave them a solution: they must exorcise these spirits through an apologetic ritual that would reconcile them to their angry ancestors. Thus, exorcising angry spirits could restore equilibrium to their lives and give the sufferer a cathartic release of some sort.
Elizabeth: This coping mechanism was amplified by Buddhist religious figures. During the Edo Period, the danka system was established to provide for the financial survival of Buddhist temples. The system established temple membership requirements for every Japanese and framed the Buddhist temple as the one-stop-shop for all ritual needs, especially those related to ancestor worship. Because most Japanese tended to live in the same place for generations, they and their ancestors shared membership to the same temple, further reinforcing their feeling of belonging. Rituals venerating their parishioners’ ancestors became the lifeblood of Japanese Buddhist temples.
Marissa: The temples, therefore, had an interest in encouraging ancestor worship and any religious rites that were connected to it. During the Edo period, Buddhist temples established penalties for those who failed to sponsor the rituals that venerated their ancestors. Religious figures, therefore, encouraged the idea that one’s angry ancestral spirits would retaliate if they weren’t worshipped properly. If one failed to “feed the hungry ghosts,” The resultant bad karma would translate into poverty, illness, and misfortune. Such circumstances may account for the persistence of angry ancestral spirits in folk belief even though they had little scriptural foundation.
Elizabeth: OK so this might explain how many Japanese people might have been receptive to the idea of angry spirits haunting their lives but where in the world does abortion come into this? Good question! To answer that, we’ll need to give you a quick and dirty history of abortion in Japan.
Marissa: Historians agree that there are two enduring cultural constructions of abortion in Japan: (1) tolerance of abortion when performed because of economic hardship; (2) stigmatization of abortion when the pregnancy occurred as part of an illicit relationship (usually a relationship between an authoritative male figure and his exploitation of a maidservant.)
Elizabeth: During the Edo period (1603–1867), abortion was officially denounced by the Shogunate and the Han (feudal domains). However, famine and poverty were so problematic among the peasantry that abortion and infanticide, which were practiced regularly, went unpunished. What’s more is that Japanese religious institutions declined to stigmatize reproductive practice in the same way that early modern Christian institutions did in Europe and the Americas. Japan’s primary religions: Shinto, Buddhism, and Shugendo, were silent about the ethics of contraception, abortion, and infanticide.
Marissa: Abortion was performed medicinally by physicians and midwives, using abortifacients. Among the poor, it was used strategically as a means of family planning. Abortion was regarded as inevitable among the peasantry since there were few (if any) reliable methods of contraception. Infanticide was regarded in much the same way. Midwives were accustomed to asphyxiating newborns that were unwanted due to economic hardship. Records indicate a dramatic moment after the birth when a midwife would ask the head of the household (usually the mother-in-law or husband, hardly ever the mother) whether the newborn was to be kept or “sent back.” There is no evidence to suggest that infanticide was equated with homicide or that abortion elicited overtures to fetal personhood in the Edo period. There was, however, extensive ritualization of pregnancy and childbirth, especially for first pregnancies.
Elizabeth: During the Edo period, the Bodhisattvas Jizō and Kannon took on the role of guardian to dead children, including aborted fetuses though they were not mentioned often. This happened through the composition and consumption of miracle tales. An entire genre of miracle tale, called Sainokawara (The Riverbed of Judgment) flourished during the Edo period. Dead children were believed to live together near a stony riverbed in the underworld where they piled up stones, crafting makeshift pagodas to honor their parents. As the tales go, every day they were chased away by devils who maliciously knocked down their stone pagodas. While this certainly sounds like a horrific afterlife, the tales were most often used to instill the ideal of filial piety in children. The dead children do not resent their parents or haunt their parents, rather, they honor their parents and spend their days building pagodas devoted to them.
Marissa: Abortion itself was not ritualized because it was so incredibly common. Japanese physicians practiced abortion since at least the mid-15th century and it was practiced openly without any euphemism or subterfuge. This changed slightly in 1667 when abortion clinics were mandated to take down their signs advertising their businesses. But they continued to practice as normal. Fetal remains were discarded as trash, often into the Edo River. Visitors commented that the river stank of death as a result of all the medical refuse. Abortionists were only punished when one of their patients died, such as the case of one abortionist in 1680 Edo. And even then, the punishment was relatively lenient. This particular abortionist was required only to give up his practice and faced no criminal sentence.
Elizabeth: In 1868 the Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed, bringing the Edo period to a close. The Meiji Restoration that same year ushered in entirely different ideas about pregnancy and abortion and its place in Japan. The Meiji launched a program of modernization and industrialization. One aspect of this program was enhanced state control over reproduction. In 1873, the state criminalized abortion. Punishment for abortion was now similar to that for homicide. The new law was rarely enforced, however, until the 20th century. Starting around 1900, several hundred abortionists were prosecuted each year and abortion was stigmatized as a result.
Marissa: The state’s attempts to wrest control of reproduction from the private sphere resulted in the deritualization and medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth. Some scholars believe this caused a cultural vacuum surrounding pregnancy and childbirth where there had once been rich spiritual practices. In Meiji Japan, hospital births became universal by 1945. Pregnancy and childbirth were handled by highly credentialed and professionalized midwives. While this environment made pregnancy and childbirth medical events rather than spiritual events, women in search of effective contraception did find advocates in the new cohort of professional midwives. A birth control movement akin to those in Europe and America took hold in Japan as a result of the state’s crackdowns.
Elizabeth: Japan’s devastating defeat in WWII changed its outlook on reproductive politics entirely. Immediately following the war, Japan faced widespread food shortages and a sudden increase in population due to the repatriation of military personnel and colonial populations to the home islands. In 1946, 10 million Japanese were at risk of starvation and between 1945 and 1950, the population increased by 11 million. As a result of these circumstances, the new Ministry of Health and Wellness launched a program of population control.
Marissa: The program’s feature legislation was the 1948 Eugenics Protection Law. The law legalized abortion and promoted the practice as a crucial aspect of population control and public health. In 1949 an additional economic hardship clause was added, allowing for women to seek abortions for financial reasons. As a result, and I cannot stress this enough, abortion becomes an experience that many Japanese women shared.
Elizabeth: The state’s manufacturing and dissemination of condoms and pessaries could not keep apace with demand so abortion became the primary method of birth control. Through the 1950s, abortion became so common that almost all women had experienced it or was very close to someone who experienced it at one time or another. In 1955, Japanese providers performed 1.7 million abortions. For every 100 live births in 1955, there were nearly 70 abortions performed. These numbers varied slightly over the next decade but were still as high as 60 abortions for every 100 live births in 1966. For women born in 1930s Japan, then, abortions were nearly as common as live births. The annual number of abortions have continued to decrease since this period though it’s worth noting that since 1980 or so, abortions have been on the rise among Japanese teenagers.
Marissa: There had been, and still was not, any conception of fetal personhood in Japanese discourse about abortion until the 1960s when a religious group created a fetocentric political action group. Seichō no Ie was a right wing “New Thought” Japanese religion that opposed the economic hardship clause of the Eugenics Protection Law. The group organized a political action committee that challenged the economic hardship clause several times in court. This group grew its membership to 3.5 million by 1980.
Elizabeth: The group lobbied for an end to the economic hardship clause on fetocentric grounds, similar to the Right to Life movement in the USA. For example, the following is an excerpt from a speech delivered to the group’s annual meeting:
Marissa: “I believe that you know that in this world there are fetuses who are aborted and sent from darkness to darkness. I want to consider the Eugenics Protection Law. In a word, this law is a law to promote abortion. Because induced abortion is legally established, fetuses which should have been born as loveable babies are ripped out upon the surgical benches of hospitals with tools, cut up and bloodied, and thrown away just like trash. What a tragedy…”
Elizabeth: Another tactic employed by Seichō no Ie , one that is important to the story of this episode, revolved around mizuko. The group promoted the idea that mizuko would come back to haunt their “parents,” targeting their would-be siblings. Seichō no Ie attributed all kinds of juvenile issues to mizuko, ranging from bedwetting to delinquency. The founder’s wife, Taniguchi Teruko, wrote an advice column for the group’s women’s magazine Shirohata, and her advice to mothers often revolved around mizuko. One mother of four who had an abortion seven years earlier wrote into the magazine seeking advice for her son’s bedwetting and strange white figures he saw in his room at night. This is part of Taniguchi Teruko’s response:
Marissa: “You must apologize from the bottom of your heart to the child you aborted seven years ago. It was wanting to be born into this world, and the gods were wanting to cause it to be born– this is a precious life that you have killed. You have done a terribly wrong thing. Repent deeply and enshrining the soul with proper respect, as soon as possible. The tears and sadness of your murdered child have appeared as bed-wetting in the child you bore next. The child is crying out to its parents. It appears to your six-year-old dressed in white. Have mercy on this pitiful child and comfort it with a warm heart. There can be no doubt that what your son saw dressed like a spirit in white was the fetus you killed seven years ago… you should read the [Seichō no Ie- published] book on ancestor worship, and as it teaches, give your aborted child a name.”
Elizabeth: Suffering five defeats in court, Seichō no Ie was ultimately unsuccessful in politics, and in swaying public opinion enough to overturn the economic hardship clause. Their cause was hindered by several corruption scandals and the unwillingness of other religious groups to join their fight against abortion. Their ideas about fetal personhood, or more accurately, fetal spirithood, picked up on earlier traditions surrounding ancestral spirits and flourished in the 1970s/80s occult boom.
Marissa: As we discussed earlier, since the Edo period, folk anxieties about vengeful spirits have played an active role in some Japanese people’s lives while sitting in the backs of the minds of others. But it wasn’t until the occult boom of the late 1970s/early 1980s that these intermittent, erratic folk beliefs began to play a role in the lives of mainstream Japanese. Entrepreneurial religions took to the media to promote a new post-abortion religious rite, mizuko kuyō, which promised to pacify one’s angry fetus ghosts. This craze was particularly persistent because it touched the lives of 1980s Japanese teens- who were seeking abortions in higher numbers than ever before- as well as middle-aged women. Women born in the 1930s – who had used abortion as their primary form of birth control in the 1950s- were entering menopause by the late 1970s/early 1980s. At the time that they’d had their abortions, childbirth and abortion had been so medicalized, deritualized, and quotidian that they never had the opportunity to commemorate or memorialize their reproductive experiences.
Elizabeth: While entire families are involved in the mizuko kuyo, there is a special emphasis on the spiritual and emotional needs of the mother. Listen to this narration of the mizuko kuyo performed for the Matsuyama family for example (taken from the book Narratives of Sorrow and Dignity by Bardwell Smith):
Marissa: “Matsuyama no ie…mizuko rei…Facing the altar, the Pure Land Buddhist priest intoned the family name as he conducted a memorial service requested by the Matsuyama family for the spirit of a mizuko aborted ten years earlier. Behind the priest, also facing the altar, sat the family of three—Noriko, her husband Masao, and their four-year-old daughter Masako. Noriko could feel the cool tatami on her feet and knees as she listened intently to the chanted words of the service. The hollow, steady rhythm of the mokugyō (fish-shaped wooden drum) struck by the priest framed her attention upon what was taking place. A thin trail of incense smoke rising from the burner upon the altar helped to focus her mind on the sutras being chanted on her behalf and for the mizuko fixed in her memory.”
Elizabeth: So you can see that there does seem to be something therapeutic about the ceremony for women who have experienced abortion. Even if the fear of mizuko attacks and monstrous fetuses is manufactured and overblown. There still is some spiritual touchstone here that is important to acknowledge.
Marissa: I feel the need to point out that neither the tabloid media nor the religious entrepreneurs who used them were anti-abortion like Seichō no Ie. They merely sensationalized the idea of wrathful fetuses to promote the tabloid sales and religious rites that earned them their living. If you think about it, their livelihood came to depend on continued abortions. They did not, and do not, support the criminalization of abortion in Japan. Still, the damaging psychological impact of mizuko attack discourse is measurable to some degree.
Elizabeth: The Sociological Research Group on Contemporary Religions conducted several questionnaires revolving around abortion and mizuko kuyo in 1999. They found that:
“Of those believing that tatari will result if kuyō is not performed, 90 percent attribute the cause to abortion, while only 19 percent would attribute it to miscarriage. In responses to the effect of having a kuyō performed, one can observe that this practice has many connotations and that its impact is not simply the alleviation (or “atonement”) of guilt. Whatever “definitions” of these terms apply, respondents were asked to locate their experiences of tatari within the following circumstances: affects me physically; illness or injury in the family; unhappiness, misfortune, calamity; appears in my dreams; inability to have children; unusual circumstances; children doing poorly in school; domestic disharmony; and assorted others. While each was cited frequently, the first three were particularly prominent when viewed together with personal comments expressed at the end of the questionnaire.”
Marissa: I don’t want to overstate the therapeutic nature of mizuko kuyo because it seems like that therapeutic purpose relies on culturally constructed shame and guilt over abortion that is relatively new to Japanese society and is, frankly, undeserved.
Narratives of Sorrow and Dignity: Japanese Women, Pregnancy Loss, and Modern Rituals of Grieving By Bardwell L. Smith
Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan by Helen Hardacre
Imagining the Spirits of Deceased Pregnant Women by Manami Yasui
Burial Custom in Japan J. C. Hartland &E. S. Hartland Pages 276-277 | Published online: 06 Feb 2012