Religions of Japan

BG: Torii of the Itsukushima Shrine;xNLx;

0200-01-01 00:00:00

Ise Shrine

The Ise Shrine is one of Japan's principal Shinto shrines and it is characterized by its Inner and Outer Shrines. The most important shrine, the inner shrine, is dedicated to Ameraratsu. During the Edo period, the okage mairi pilgrames to Ise were particularly popular, and it is believed that one in seven Japanese visited the shrine each year. Traditionally, both shrines are periodically destroyed and rebuilt at alternating locations, most likely for purification purposes, although the exact beginning and reason of this practice is unknown. Source: lecture 2/15/18,

0221-01-01 00:00:00

Wei Zhi

The Wei Zhi is one of the earliest written records of Japan, was written by a Chinese explorer. It describes the basic customs, society, and government of the japanese people, referred to as "wa," which translates to dwarfs. While religious practices are not specifically mentioned in the text, burial traditions unattributed customs are described in some detail (Kidder xi).

0300 BC-01-01 20:39:46


The Yayoi period of Japanese history is archaeologically defined and was named after neighborhood of Tokyo were artifacts of this period were found. During this period, rice cultivation and bronze were introduced into Japan. This improvement in technology sparked immigration into the country for the first (archaeologically recorded) time. Source: lecture 1/20/16

0300-01-01 18:52:06

Kofun Period

The Kofun period is the last of three Japanese historical periods defined by archaeology as opposed to written records. This period is characterized by burial mounds whose size were an indication of political importance. As buddhism was introduced, the presence of burial mounds declined in the archaeological record, likely due to the Buddhist narrative against earthly attachment. Additionally, this period also came to an end as chinese characters were introduced into Japan, allowing for the definition of eras to be outlined using historical records. Source: lecture 1/25/16

0500-01-01 00:00:00

Introduction of Buddhism and the term Shinto

Buddhism was first introduced into Japan during the 6th century AD when a statue was sent by a Korean ruler to the Japanese Court. During this period, the term Shinto was developed to differentiate the native religious practice and belief system from the new foreign presence of Buddhism. Although at first shunned as foreign, Buddhism eventually became integrated into Japanese society and religion since its relationship with buddhas mirrors the Shinto relationship with kami and compliments the kami's local domain with buddha's more universal aims. Sources: Reader 35 Image:

0563 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Foundation of Buddhism

The creation of Buddhism began with its founder, the Buddha Shakyamuni, who was born in 563 BC. According to Buddhism, all lifeforms are stuck in a cycle of suffering, known as samsara, due to earthly desire. In order to become enlightened and leave samsara, one must cease desiring by accepting the concepts of emptiness and lack of self. The karma that one accumulates determines the next realm in which one will be reborn and can result in either good or bad events in one's lifetimes. In order to be a Buddhist, one must "take refuge in the three jewels" which are the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Source: lecture 2/1-3/16,

0589-01-01 00:00:00

Tiantai Buddhism

Tiantai Buddhism is a branch of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism that focuses on the Lotus Sutra almost exclusively. Additionally, it warns against attachment to emptiness and advocates for the realization of three truths to combat this attachment: the truth of emptiness, the truth of provisional existence, and the truth of simultaneous emptiness and provisional existence. Due to its adherence to the concept of radical non dualism, Taintai buddhism suggests that all beings can become enlightened in a "single thought moment" simply by recognizing that there is no different between themselves and a bodhisattva (or any other sentient or non sentient being). Source: lecture 2/24/16

0600-01-01 00:00:00

En no Gyoja

En no Gyoja, meaning En the Practitioner or Ascetic, is a legendary character of Japan who inspired yamabushi practices and the sect of Shugendo. As a historical figure, En no Gyoja practiced in the Katsuragi-yoshino and Kumano regions of Japan, which contain the Omine mountains. By going in into the mountains and practicing asceticism, he gained powers and was able to control demons. Source: RJP 246-247, lecture 3/16/16

0710-01-01 00:00:00

Nara Period

The Nara Period is a period in Japanese history characterized by the rise of literacy, Buddhism, and centralized government. During this period, Japan was almost entirely united by military campaigns and also experienced an influx of Chinese and Korean influence via trade and refugee immigration. Chinese writing made its way through Korea and was adapted both using both phonetics and definitions into the written language of Japan. Even though this period is named for its capital, the capital was temporarily moved multiple times to avoid the pollution caused by a previous emperor's death or where the maternal relatives of the new emperor had power. Sources: Ambros 25, lecture 1/27/16

0712-01-01 16:12:24

Kojiki and Nihon shoki

Kojiki and Nihon shoki are Japanese texts finished in the years 712 and 720 respectively that record the oldest myths of Japan. The Nihon shoki in particular was used to legitimize and give power to the Japanese emperors by conferring divine authority. As influence from China and Buddhism increased, these texts were also assimilated into a Japanese amalgamation involving concepts of yin-yang and buddhist ideals. The Kojiki is considered more authentically resemble Japanese "furokoto", meaning ancient words, while Nohon shoki is more influenced by Chinese language and culture, which is exemplified by its focus on Izanami and Izanagi as representations of the yin and yang. (Borgen 61 and Konoshi 54,58, 62)

0750-02-01 21:01:30


The belief in onryo, Japanese vengeful spirits, can be traced back to at least the 8th century. Onryo are typically the spirits of powerful politicians who die discontented or in exile and must be appeased though rituals and proper enshrinement to avoid retribution to the living. People often attributed natural disasters and epidemics. Belief in onryo experienced a revival in the new new religions of the 1970s and are also involved in mizuko kyuyo. Source: Underwood 754

0774-01-01 13:53:01

Kukai/Kobo Daishi

Kukai was a monk that founded the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism; he more commonly known by his deity name, Kobo Daishi. In 804, Kukai was chosen to be a part a the same Chinese diplomatic and religious mission that Saicho (the founder of Tendai) attended, most likely due to his advanced chinese skills. After returning, he eventually became the highest ranking monk in the land established many temples and monasteries. He he is said to still be in eternal meditation at his mausoleum Oku no In on Mount Koya, where he awaits the return of the Buddha Maitreya. Sources: lecture 2/2/16, RJP 357-378

0790-07-01 05:24:33


From the late 7th to 14th centuries, the saio was the highest religious authority, a priestess, who performed the rituals at Ise. The saio was selected as a young girl from the imperial line, and lived in seclusion in her Saiku residence nearby the Ise Shrine. Serving for around 20 years, the saio would maintain strict diets and practices to stay as pure as possible for purification rituals. Source: lecture 2/15/16

0822-01-01 00:00:00

Nihon ryoi-ki

Nihon ryoi-ki is the oldest collection of japanese anecdotal and moralistic tales, known as setsuwa. It was written by the Buddhist monk Kyokai in the Heian period. This literary work reviewed legends about anomalies in Japan and explained them using karma and Buddhist principles. In this manner, the Nihon ryoi-ki argued on behalf of Buddhism in Japan and outlined how Buddhism could serve as a useful tool to understand and explain the world. Additionally, this text incorporated and accommodated Shintoism into Buddhism. The Nihon ryoiki was not directly transmitted to the Japanese public, however, and was instead delivered through other mediums into mainstream japanese culture. Source: LaFleur 34,45-46

0822-01-01 02:40:58


Jizo is a bodhisattva that remains in samsara to comfort and lead others to better rebirths. He is an important figure that assuages the fear and anxiety over rebirth that was historically very present in Japanese Buddhism. He is often depicted as a young monk and became recognized as a particular protector of children in their path of rebirth during the Muromachi period (1334-1573). In modern Japan, he is a very popular figure often present on roadsides and is dressed by visitors with gifts of hats and scarves. Sources: LaFleur 51-52

0871-01-01 13:30:13

Jogan shiki

The Jogan shiki was a governmental code that aimed to separate Buddhist practice from the jingi cult rituals. The jingi cult empowered and legitimized the emperor lineage and government using the Shinto creation myths. On the other hand, Buddhism undermined the divine authority of the Shinto gods by subjecting them to karma as well. Consequently, buddhist nuns, monks, and influence in general were banned form jingi rituals and shrines and during certain periods of the year in the royal palace. This attempt to separate was largely if not entirely ineffective outside the palace and court. Source: Breen and Teeuwen 39-41

0875-01-01 01:44:57

sennichi kaihogyo

Likely the most rigorous ascetic practice of Japan, sennichi kaihogyo is a 1000 day mountain circumambulating austerity performed by at the Tendai center of Mount Hiei. The 1000 days of circumambulation are divided up into section of 100 days over 7 years. After 700 days, the monk fasts with no sleep for 9 days before given a three week rest and continuing with the journey. Since 1571, only 50 Tendai monks have undertaken the austerity. Source: RCJ 124, lecture 3/14/16

0940-01-01 11:55:46


This temple was erected by the order of Emperor Tengyo after his victory over a rebellion in the Kanto region. According to the temple's engi, a follower of Kobo Daishi erected an alter with a statue of Fudo in Kanto and prayed for a successful campaign for the Emperor. After the rebellion was quelled, it was discovered that the statue could no longer be moved, despite its small size, prompting the Emperor to build the temple to house the statue. Source: RCJ 144, (picture)

0950-01-01 00:00:00

Gion goryo-e and festival

The Gion Festival, which is held annually in mid-July, was originally a goryo-e, a ritual meant to appease angry spirits of the deceased. In the tenth century, the original Gion goryo-e procession involved 66 portable shrines, which were carried throughout Kyoto, in an attempt to bring peace after an epidemic. Many modern festivals today are linked back to these rituals which were performed to appease the ghosts of powerful politicians and dissenters who had died in exile and or with great dissatisfaction. Source: Plutschow 139

1000-01-01 00:00:00


Saicho, a Buddhist Monk, originally brought the Tiantai Buddhist sect to Japan in 806, where it became known as Tendai. However, Tendai did not come into prominence until the medieval period from the 11th to 16th centuries. During this period, Tendai was a hotbed for intellectual and religious growth in Japan, and wielded significant political power over the government. Tendai practice hinges on one single, all inclusive method to obtaining enlightenment, namely the daimoku, dissociating the achievement of enlightenment from merit accumulation and linear progression. Source: lecture 2/24/16,

1000-01-01 11:13:00


Yamabushi translates to "to lie down in the mountains" and refers to Buddhist shugendo practitioners that began appearing in the Heian period who strove to gain powers through by practicing mountain asceticism. Yamabushi perceive specific mountains within Japan as mandalas, and as a result pilgrimages are the physical equivalent of entering a mandala through meditation. With the power they accrue in these moutain-mandalas by envisioning themselves as buddhas, yamabushi perform exorcisms and firewalkings. Source: lecture 3/16/16

10000 BC-01-01 00:00:00


Jomon is a period of Japanese history defined by archaeology and named for the characteristic "cord pattern" found on pots. During this period, agriculture was developed, which allowed for the formation of classes, including the aristocratic and priest classes. Because the information of the period is entirely archaeological, religious practices of the Jomon are entirely speculative, although traditional burial practices are observed (lecture 1/20/16).

10000 BC-01-01 18:52:06

Izanagi and Izanami

Izanagi and Izanami are the last of five husband-wife or brother-sister deity pairs in the earliest Japanese creation myths as portrayed in The Kojiki and Nihon shoki. They play a particularly important role in the myths as the joint creators of Japan. Izanami's death, followed by the disturbance of her rest in the underworld and Izanagi's cleansing bath ritual, reflects Japanese concepts of death and traditional funeral and purification rituals that are intended to appease uneasy spirits or ancestors. On the other hand, the occasional portrayal of Izanami and Izanagi as Yin and Yang demonstrates the influence of Chinese thought. Sources: Ambros 26, Reader 24-25, Konoshi 54-55, Borgen 67-68.

1050-01-01 00:29:52

Nyonin Kekkai

Nyonnin kekkai refers to a practice, based off of the belief that women are impure, that bars women from ritual sites or temples. Although historical records of women being prevented from entering religious areas date back to the 9th century, the idea of nyonin kekkai did not gain ground until the 11th century. While many of the nyonin kekkai restrictions have been lifted in the past century, some are still in place, such as the males-only restriction on the Mt. Omine pilgrimage. Source: lecture 3/21/16, Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan By Lori Rachelle Meeks 38-39

1050-05-07 02:09:00


Itako are traditionally blind woman that act as spirit mediums; blindness was often considered as a sign of spiritual power in Japan. They often conduct rituals at Osorezan, or Mount Dread, at a buddhist temple although the temple officially rejects all affiliation with the group. The itako are also known for practicing asceticism. Today, people often accuse itako of using patterned responses to inquiries over dead loved ones and are slowly dying out. Sources: lecture 2/14/16

1051-05-07 02:09:00


Hijiri, or "holy men", were traveling monks who were often either unordained or disillusioned by the bureaucracy of buddhist institutions. These monks occasionally lived in seclusion and incorporation Shinto ideas into their practices. Often, the line between entertainment and religion were blurred, as dance and music were incorporated into hijiri practices. One hijiri, Kuya, is known for reintroducing the idea of the nembutsu as a means to obtain enlightenment through Amida's pure land. Source: RCP 268

1052-01-01 00:00:00


Mappo, also known as the latter days of the law, is a period in buddhism theology that occurs when the temporal distance from the Buddha's teachings make enlightenment exceedingly difficult if not impossible. The calculated beginning of the period sparked the creation or reinvoragtion of all-inclusive practices that could foster enlightenment easier than more intensive and numerous practices.These simple practices include the daimoku advocated for by Nichiren and the nembutsu advocated for by Honen Source: RJP 269, lecture 2/24/16

1141-01-01 00:29:52

Noh theater

Noh theater is performed very slowly and without speaking by two actors wearing masks. The actors are always traditionally male; the first actor is the shite and plays the main character, who is a ghost, and occasionally a local villager while the secondary actor is a waki and plays the traveling priest that interacts with the ghost. The structure of the play involves the traveling priest being told by a local about a local ghost, who later visits the travelling priest to tell the priest their tale of grief or anger. The tale ends with the priest agreeing to pray for the ghost. Source: lecture 4/4/16

1141-01-01 00:29:52

Eisai and Rinzai

Eisei was a Tendai monk who is credited for founding Rinzai Zen buddhism, although he considered his zen teachings as incorporated into the Tendai tradition. Rinzai buddhism focuses on obtaining enlightment through the contemplation of koan, stories or questions intended to cause doubt and separate practitioners from attachment, preconception, and the false notion of duality. Rinzai was patronized by the upper warrior class who opposed the imperial rule and its associated religion. Eisai also introduced tea drinking to Japan. Source: lecture 3.23.16

1160-01-01 00:00:00

Pure Land Buddhism

Inspired by the the Tendai monk Honen, Pure Land Buddhism focuses on one all-encompassing practice for enlightenment: the nembutsu. By Chanting the nembutsu, practitioners worship the Buddha Amida in an attempt to be born in Amida's Pure Land, where enlightment is easily achieved. This simple practice of the nembutsu was aimed at combatting the increasingly difficult path to enlightenment during the mappo. Pure Land Buddhism, also advocates for the idea enlightenment by other-power as opposed by self power, which was seen as a form of attachment and ego. Sources: lecture 3/28-30/16, RCP 268-69, Honen 242

1173-01-01 01:29:12


A disciple of Honen, Shinran is the founder of True Pure Land sect, which diverged from Pure Land in its rejection of clerical precents and even rigourous monastery practices involving the nembutsu. Shinran saw this imposed structure as an extension of self-power instead, which directly opposes the idea of reliance and faith in the vow of Amida and other-power. As a result, Shinran's form of true land was even more accessible to lay people since it only required the original ten repetitions of the nembustu. Source: lecture 3/30/16, RJP 280

1185-01-01 18:29:06

Kamakura Period and The First Shogunate

During the 11th and 12th centuries, instability in the court and the Fujiwara lineage escalated. Young emperors and regents that retired early would often return to fill the power vacuum in the courts. This instability lead to the creation of the first shogunate, which was based in Kamakura. Source: Breen and Teeuwen 41.

1200-01-01 00:00:00

Dogen and Soto

Dogen was a Tendai monk who is credited as the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism. Dogen became entered a monastery at 12 after the deaths of his wealthy parents, and trained under a disciple of Eisai, the credited founder of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Dogen travelled to China and received the dharma transmission before eventually forming his Eiheiji temple, now the center of the Soto sect. Dogen was critical of emphasizing the koan in Zen methodology, and instead advocated for shikan taza, a seated meditation technique where enlightenment is brought about naturally without the need to create doubt. Soto gained popularity among the lower warrior class and commoners. Source: Yampolsky 144, lecture 3/23/16

1222-01-01 00:00:00


Nichiren was a Tendai monk who focused on the Lotus Sutra and social engagement. Nichiren challenged political authority and Buddhist sects, including his own, claiming that they had abandoned the Lotus Sutra for provisional teachings. The 3 staples of his teachings are the daimoku, the honzon, and the kaidan. Nichiren's principle influence on Japanese religion and society was his example of defying authority for religious principles, which many monks in his lineage imitated. Source: Stone 595-8

1280-01-01 00:00:00


Aragyo is a Nichiren buddhism ascetic practice. It takes place in winter over a span of 100 days where monks perform ice water ablutions ever three hours, which amounts to a total number of seven ablutions per day. During this time, practitioners copy sutras, abstain from shaving, only sleep for 3 hours a day. Additionally, meal periods are only three minutes each. Source: lecture 2/14/16

1336-01-01 00:00:00

Muromachi period

The Muromachi period is characterized by by the control of the Muromachi shogunate family and the return of the capital to Kyoto. During this period, the gates of power governmental power structure, which was a balance between courtiers, temples, and warriors, was abolished. Additionally, Christianity Noh theater, and the tea ceremony were introduced at this time. Source: lecture 2/8/16

1350-01-01 00:00:00

Shingon Buddhism

Shingon Buddhism is a type of esoteric Buddhism. As a sect, its focus is on the dharma body, which is the true form of the buddha manifest in everything. As opposed to all worldly object being sources of attachment, according to Shingon buddhism every object is also a potential source of enlightenment. Its foundation is the 3 mysteries: the mudra, the mantra, and the mandala. Source: lecture 2/4/16

1350-01-01 00:00:00


Shugendo translates to "Way of cultivating spiritual powers" and refers to mountain ascetic practices. Although yamabushi and shugenja, who practice mountain austerities, divination, exorcism and firewalking, operated in both Tendai and Shingon since the Heian, communities dedicated solely to Shugendo practice did not emerge until the 14-15th century. Shugendo practice involves specific retreats to Mt. Kumano and Mt. Kinpusen which embody the womb and diamond mandalas, which allows yamabushi to physically enter a mandala to and become buddhas. Shugendo was disbanded in 1875 during the Meiji period because it was seen as superstitious by the newly reestablish Imperial government, but reformed in 1945. Source: lecture 3/16/16, RCP 246-247, Blacker 215

1435-07-01 20:23:38

Yoshida Kanetomo and One and Only Shinto

Yoshida Kanetomo was the head of the Yoshida family, which had once served the Council of Kami Affairs and then presided over the Yoshida shrine in Kyoto as priests. Kanetomo is responsible for the creation of the One and Only Shinto religious cult, which depicted kami as the originators of and therefore superior to Buddhism and Confucianism. Kanemoto used fraudulent methods and unprecedented reinterpretations of previous texts to justify a new religious order where kami were superior to buddhas instead being their avatars. Through his relationship with the emperor, Kanemoto essentially instated One and Only Shinto as a state cult similar in structure to the jingi cult. Sources: Breen and Teeuwen 47-49

1549-01-01 18:52:06

The Christian Century

In 1549, the first Jesuit priests arrived in Japan. At first, the catholic missionaries encountered success, so much so that at one point one in fifteen Japanese was a Christian, or at least had been baptized. However, Christianity was outlawed in 1644 after the unification of Japan and as many as 40,000 Christians were killed, driving remaining Christians underground for two centuries. Source: Mullins 134, lecture 4/11/16

1600-01-01 00:00:00

Edo period

During this peaceful period, the Tokugawa family shogunate ruled over Japan, while the emperor had very little power. Japan at this time traded with the Chinese and the Dutch but otherwise maintained isolation from the rest of the world. It is also during the period that the tea ceremony and wood block prints emerged. Source: lecture 2/10/16

1600-01-01 23:05:33

Shikoku Pilgrimage

The earliest record of the Shikoku pilgrimage dates back to the 1600s, and the first guidebook to accompany it was created in 1687. This pilgrimage includes 88 temples, all of which have been related to the figure Kobo Daishi in their engi. While walking by foot typically takes 45 days, the vast majority of pilgrims now opt for vehicular transport. Today, Shikoku pilgrims make the journey for an array of reasons, ranging from spiritual growth and merit-accumulation to tourist and cultural travel. Sources: RCJ 159, Walking Pilgrims (Arukihenro),

1675-01-01 03:58:59

The Kokugaku Movement

During the Edo period, beliefs and practices with foreign influence were rejected as non-Japanese. The Kokugaku movement espoused nativist principles and rejected both Buddhism and Confucianism. As a result, Buddhism lost the "intellectual hegemony" that it had previously maintained in Japanese culture. Even the previous One and Only Shinto cult was perceived as being to accommodating towards Buddhism by Kokugaku thinkers. The Kokugaku period culminated in the creation of the New Shinto religion as the official national religion in the Meiji period. Source: LaFleur 59, lecture 2/10/16,

1686-01-01 23:56:32


Hakuin was a Zen monk during a time when Tendai buddhism was weakened and therefore no longer the birthing ground for other sects. He reformed Rinzai by advocating more strongly for the use of the koan as a curriculum and means of enlightenment. Today, all Rinzai sect trace their lineage back to Hakuin. Source: lecture 3/23/16, Yampolsky 155

1730-06-01 16:40:56

Motoori Norinaga

Motoori Norinaga is an example of a nativist thinker during the Kokugaki movement. He is responsible for introducing the Kojiki to intellectual circles, which had previously only been aware of the Nihon Shoki. He was an advocate of Japanese exceptionalism, superiority, and imperialism and sought to expunge Chinese thought from Japanese religion. Norinaga drew most of his inspiration from Ameratsu, the sun goddess, who he considered to be the most powerful kami and revered for her connection to the imperial lineage and his idealized concept of the perfect "Way" of Japan. Source: Breen and Teeuwen 61-62

1750-01-01 03:58:59

Danka system

The Danka system originated in the Edo period; it is a manner in which Japanese families affiliate with a specific Buddhist temple and sect and donate to the temple in return for funeral practices and memorial rites for their members. Danka means "household of donors". Today, this affiliation with a particular temple and is typically how an individual affiliates with a specific Buddhist sect regardless of personal belief. Source: lecture 4/6/16

1868-09-01 22:21:50

Meiji Period

The Meiji period is primarily characterized by the return of power to the emperor and the demolition of the final shogunate. Additionally, it was during this period that Commodore Perry demanded that Japan open up trade to the US and other countries besides Denmark and China. This outside threat, prompted rapid modernization, industrialization, and militarization within Japan. The imperial government supervised the implementation and promotion of New Shinto in all Japanese shrines, expunging Buddhism from the names, worship, and rituals of kami. This new religion marks the first time "shinto" was fully separated from Buddhism. Source: Breen 12, lecture 2/10/16

1869-01-01 00:00:00

Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukini Shrine was built as a place to enshrine those that had died to reestablish imperial rule and unify the country. For the most part, it was a social venue and tourist spot until 1910, when war dead from newer Japanese military campaigns in Russia and Korea were enshrined. The concept that the spirits of all the war dead of Japan would meet again at Yasukuni rose to prominence and supported Japanese militarism. To this day, the Yasukuni Shrine is a source of contention because it is intricately tied to both honoring dead soldiers and Japanese militarism. Sources: lecture 2/17/16

1870-01-01 10:13:18


Before the 1870s, Japan did not have a word that signified religion. However, increased trade and Christian proselytization from the West produced the necessity for a Japanese term for 'religion.' Eventually, Shukyo, which combines shu meaning sect or denomination with kyo meaning teaching or doctrine, became the Japanese term for religion (Reader 13). Because Shukyo implies single affiliation with a lineage and focuses on teaching rather than practice, the roots of this term could potentially add to the high percentage of Japanese who self-identify as non-religious.

1912-01-01 00:00:00

Taisho period

This modern Japanese period is marked by the rule of a mentally weak emporer. Due to this weakness, it is possible that limited democratization occurred. Despite the weak leadership during this period, Japan also rose in international standing. Moga and mowa culture also distinguished the Taisho period. Source: lecture 2/17/16

Religions of Japan

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