Ritual and Life-cycle

Japanese society celebrates a myriad of rituals such as in the passage of time, like the New Year and in the passage of various stages in the life-cycle of a person. Many of the rites are associated with the rites de passage, being either a rite of separation, transition or incorporation. Several themes and issues of Japanese society can also be observed from the rituals, such as the idealized gender roles and stereotypes; the importance of marriage; the commercialization of society with the commoditisation of goods and services; the social element of participating in rituals that sometimes take precedence over the supernatural reasons; gift-exchange and reciprocity; as well as regional variations in rituals.

Birth and childhood

This section’s focus would be on the rituals related with the beginning of life. The first ritual, Obiwaii, begins when the mother-to-be is five months pregnant and does a sash congratulation. Obiwaii is a kind of sash-type corset that may be purchased from a shrine or temple, or more recently from a department store.2 In fact, acquiring an Obiwaii nowadays is more convenient than ever before with the presence of websites selling Obiwaii on the Internet3 as well. This trend perhaps shows the ‘vulgarisation’ of the Obiwaii as a religious item yet out for sale at secular places. The Obiwaii acquisition may also be held together with a public announcement of the expected birth and is usually held on a Day of the Dog, reputedly said to be in the hope that it will be a smooth delivery as in the case of the dogs. Symbolically, this ritual celebrates the admittance of the foetus into the society.

The next ritual is the Seventh Night Celebration or the Ohichi-ya. The newborn baby goes through a naming ceremony whereby his/her name will be written out and hung in some prominent place. Ohichi-ya is also an occasion for members of the immediate family, including both sets of grandparents where possible to gather to share a cup of sake to celebrate the safe arrival of their new member.

About a month after the birth of the baby, the newborn is taken to its first visit to the local Shinto shrine known as the Omiya-mairi. This is also the first outing for the baby with the main symbolic purpose of introducing the baby to the shrine’s God. The common prayers are for the child to be healthy, strong, smart and to have a good future ahead. Parents reportedly make their baby cry on purpose at the gate so that the gods can recognise their child. This ritual gives the child a social existence as a member of an extended family and of a community. The mother’s initial rite of donning the Obiwaii as mentioned as the first ritual is seen as a rite of separation from the normal life whereas the Omiya-mairi plays a complementary ritual seen to be a rite of incorporation for the mother back into normal life. The duration of one month is due to the symbolic association of pollution, such as childbirth and menstruation, so the mother and the child should not enter a Shinto shrine during this time.

The next ritual marks the baby’s entry into weaning, known as Okuizome which is held about a hundred days after birth. This ritual is performed in hopes that the baby will never worry about food. During the ritual, the baby is propped up in a sitting position and the parents pretend to feed the baby, who ‘pretends’ to eat the food as well.

Another significant event in the first year of a newborn baby is the first celebration of the Girls’ Day (3 March) and the Boys’ Day (5 May). These events are also known as the Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) and Tango-no-Sekku (Childrens’ Day) respectively. For the Girls’ Day, there are displays of grand figures from the imperial court of the Heian period which features a lord and lady with servants and attendants. The most important symbolic element is that all the figures are dressed up for a wedding, stressing to girls that marriage should be one of their foremost goals in life. For the Boys’ Day, there are displays of warrior armour and helmets, arrows and dolls depicting fierce heroes within the house. Huge carps (koi noburi) are made out of cloth in all kinds of colours and are suspended over the roof of the house. The carp symbolises energy and courage in adversity, thus encouraging the boys to work hard. However, both sexes have the same expectations to work hard. The Girls’ Day and the Boys’ Day thus show a difference in gender socialisation since young with different representative elements and symbols. In addition, the two themes of the rich splendour of the Heian court and the brave ferocity of the samurai armour4 have great symbolic value to represent two major periods in Japan’s history.

The next one is the Shichi Go San festival or the 7-5-3 festival. This festival marks the end of infancy and the beginning of childhood. It is a celebration for 3 and 5 year old boys and 3 and 7 year old girls where children visit a Shinto shrine with their parents on the 15th of November to ensure a future free of sickness and misfortune. Girls wear kimonos and boys don haori jackets and hakama trousers. This festival is an occasion for parents to dress their children in their finest clothes, especially for girls, such as their headdress and accessories. These children are then presented with the Chitose-ame (“thousand years” candy) candy, which is shaped like a stick and comes in a bag that bears designs of cranes and turtles which traditionally signify longevity in Japan. The candy and the bag are both an articulation of the parents’ wish that their children lead long and prosperous lives.

The various rituals or practices may diverge from different regions of Japan, such as the actual numerical number of days for a ritual. Moreover, a suggestion from the Japanese anthropologist Takao Sofue is that socal interaction with relatives and/or neighbours is a stronger motive for holding the rituals than the ‘supernatural’ effect.


Marriage is a prerequisite to social respectability. As male and female individuals, they are thought of as incomplete in their competencies- in a complementary fashion. Therefore, only when they are married can they be considered fully adult. Maturity does not come with adulthood, but is achieved through full recognition and acceptance of the inevitable consequences of one’s incompleteness, of one’s interrelatedness with others.

The Japanese traditionally distinguished between two types of marriage. Miai kekkon are those that result from arranged introductions. Ren’ai kekkon are those that result from love matches. However, from the 1950s, this line is increasingly blurred- arranged marriages were giving increasing importance to individual preference; love matches were just as likely to include negotiations using go-betweens (nakodo) to formalize their relationship.

There is much diversity in the prewar period and weddings are typically held in the home of the husband’s family. Today, Japanese weddings are commercial affairs and there is remarkable uniformity. Many events such as the wedding cake, flower presentation and the candle service are work of the commercial institutions. The general acceptance of these innovations depended on their ability to articulate values appropriate to the context- values concerning the nature of the marital bond; proper shape of relations between husbands and wives, role of the individual and as a married couple in society.

Although Christianity accounts for less than one percent of the population, Christian wedding ceremonies, even those conducted by sham priests, are increasingly the norm in largely agnostic Japan, where they are considered more modern, relaxed and romantic than the austere, traditional Shintō rites. The white wedding dress, which has wide publicity in the media, makes the Japanese bride feel like a princess and is appealing.

The wedding generally starts with a Shintō ceremony and then a reception, in which events such as cake-cutting ceremony, candle service and flower presentation takes place sequentially.

This Shintō ceremony commences the task of articulating society’s basic values into an image of the ideal couple roles. For instance, the newlyweds’ exchange of sake (san-san-ku-do) is used to symbolize a pledge for the bonding of husband and wife; to announce their new statues. The sharing of sake is one of the oldest traditional Japanese wedding ceremonial customs dating back to the 8th century.9 The mizuhiki (strings made of coloured paper) used to tie the origami to the two vessels from which sake is poured is very important to the ritual as this symbolizes “to tie a social knot”, equivalent of the English idiom “tying the knot” – to get married. Together with the nakodo, the bride and groom sit in the center of the shrine room, quite apart from the rest of the guests. This relative isolation is to symbolize their departure from their old status, which is further enhanced by the wedding clothes they wear.

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The Japanese Wedding cake is inedible.10 However, there are exceptions and guests get slices of the cake.11 For the inedible wedding cake, a slot was created in the cake, for a symbolic cake-cutting ceremony. Guests may each be given a slice of real cake, as a representation of it.

Wedding cakes have been considered in Western traditions as a grain product, and similar to the rice thrown at the bride, are related to images of seeds and insemination, thereby symbolizing children and fertility. On the other hand, because Japanese have a strong distinction between sweet-tasting things (amai) and spicy/pungent ones (karai), they simply draw on the broad association of sweets with children. Besides that, the cake-cutting ceremony also serves as a representation of the first step of cooperation in a couple’s new life.

During the candle service, the bride and the groom each hold a long, unlit candle. They then light their candles from their respective parents’ table. Following this, they move round the room, lighting unlit candles on every table by simultaneously touching their flames to the candles.

While the cake-cutting ceremony depicts the gist of the relationship – as comprising ideally of harmonious cooperation and as producing children – the candle service shows the relationship’s external aspects. The way that the newlyweds’ candle is lighted from their parents candle symbolizes how the new social unit is created from the existing ones. The flame is also used to portray the ideal of a lasting relationship. Furthermore it shows how the couple’s lasting existence in the society can be ideally achieved – with support and guidance from superiors, family, friends and relatives. This reflects the Japanese society’s values that no man is an island, and that everyone must work together to ensure continued success.

At the flower presentation ceremony, music with narration of details of the principals’ upbringing may be played. At the end of it, the couple walks across the room to where their parents stand waiting. At the director’s signal, they stop and bow, each in front of the other’s parents. Then they present the floral bouquets to the mother and insert the carnation in the father’s lapel. Usually, guests are put in a sentimental mood and applause and emotion pour forth spontaneously.

This is the third main event of the reception and tends to be emotional. Unlike the cake-cutting and candle service, the focus shifts from the husband/wife relationship to the bond between principals and their parents. It thus does not serve to highlight the new social unit’s emergence, but to accentuate the one that is coming to an end – the new couple is no longer viewed as dependants nor as children, but is themselves full members of the society. However, it is also done to remind the couple of their parents’ sacrifices and hardships they endured while bringing them up, and the pain they as children cause in return. It further brings forth the idea that they are indebted to society, and should work hard, in harmony, to ‘repay’ the debt. For Japanese, the image of one’s parents and the sacrifices they made in raising oneself is the most powerful reminder of the person’s dependence on others for his existence.13

Funeral rituals and ceremonies

Death rituals in Japan are predominantly Buddhist, though there are also other options of secular and Shintō rites available. The reason for this could be because of the polluting element of death and Buddhism’s ability to deal with it unlike Shintō which has a preoccupation with purity. This association of Buddhism with funeral rituals went back all the way to the late Heian period when Buddhism was spread through all classes of Japanese society. Shintō rites were for ‘exclusively Shintō families, the Emperor and members of the imperial family”.

Since death is linked to the notions of pollution and impurity, death rituals conducted thus had a purification role such as the purifying of the spirit at the 49th day (shijūkunich ) after the funeral rituals and the memorial services on the 7th and 49th day. The immediate family members and those of the community cooperatives who helped in the organization of the funeral also had to cleanse themselves through the eating of vegetarian food and the sprinkling of salt over their clothes and scrubbing their hands with salt after the return from the funeral procession and burial. A notice would be placed on the house gate by the deceased family members to warn others of the death pollution. The impurity of death affected not only the people but gods as well, hence the family members would cover the shrine altar (kamidana) with white paper and abstained from visiting Shintō shrines for a year.

This notion of death impurity is more associated with traditional community funeral rituals than contemporary funeral ceremonies where pollution is thought to be present only at cremations as noted by Hikaru Suzuki. This decline in death pollution can be seen in the decreasing use of purification salts unless prompted by funeral professionals and even the trend to stop using it completely. The Buddhist temples and funeral companies who agreed to halt this practice explain that impurity associated with death is a mere superstition and that death should be seen as an “opportunity for enlightenment” rather than a source of pollution.17

Community ties played a very important role in community funeral rituals as members within each community cooperative were responsible for organizing the funeral rituals for the family of the deceased such as digging the grave, making handmade objects needed for the funeral, arranging the funeral altar and leading the procession to the grave.18 Operating with a system of reciprocity, the social ties of the community were cemented and reinforced during the funeral rituals. The ties between the members within the community cooperative were even closer than that with distant relatives as seen by the immediate family members and community members who bore the greatest pollution through the handling of the deceased body. The social ties that link the community members were equal because the traditional knowledge of the rituals and the materials used were the same and the size of the condolence gift was fixed.

With the urbanization of Japan, and the migration of young people to the cities, there was a shift from traditional funeral rituals to contemporary funeral ceremonies and a weakening of the community ties as noted by Suzuki19. The funeral companies took over the role of community cooperatives in organizing the funerals and providing comprehensive services. This dependence on funeral companies together with the decrease in community elders who have the knowledge of performing funeral rituals resulted in the knowledge for funeral rituals being specialized in funeral companies which then provide the services as a commodity. The links are now built between the funeral companies and individuals with funeral professionals as the middlemen who will maintain these links for long term services to the family. The social ties cemented during the contemporary funerals are more often that between individuals and their work place; and business ties between companies especially in company funerals. Funerals also provide a time for family members, relatives and friends to gather together to share the grief of loss.

Contemporary funeral ceremonies are very compressed with the funeral, cremation and the seventh-day memorial services all done within a day, reducing the mourning period. The informal memorial addresses (chōji) by close friends and family members personalize the funeral ceremonies, providing a glimpse into the life of the deceased and allow those who attend the funeral to remember and share in this memory. The memorial addresses involves selective remembrance of the deceased where only the virtues are shared but not the faults or failures. Suzuki quoted a funeral professional who said, “A good funeral is one that erases the deceased bad deeds”.

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Funeral rituals and ceremonies might be structurally similar but not totally homogenous. There are regional variations as well as variations among the different ethnic communities living in Japan. Though the Chinese and Korean employ similar services for their funeral ceremonies as their Japanese counterparts, there was still something unique about their ceremonies. As Suzuki noted, “What is distinctive about the Chinese and Korean communities was their food, the mourner’s behaviour in front of guests, and the inclusion of Chinese and Korean funeral customs.” There is also the company funerals organised by the funeral committee from the company. The greater emphasis of company funerals in cementing business connections than focusing on the deceased results in “leaving a feeling of emptiness” so much so that the family might have to arrange another funeral (missō or “secret funeral) inviting only close friends and relatives.

Ancestor Worship

Ancestor worship and Buddhism are also inextricably linked. The association of ancestral rites with institutionalized Buddhism became so complete that Buddhism has come to mean ancestor worship. Only a very small minority of the households profess a family religion exclusively Shinto in character.

After a person’s death, the household has to perform three sets of rites directed to the individual spirit. They are the annual deathday rite (shou-tsuki-meinichi) and the monthly deathday rite (mai-tsuki-meinichi) which are usually dropped after a few years. Periodic anniversaries are then held on the following anniversaries which differs across areas: 1st, 3rd, 7th, 13th, 17th, 23rd, 27th,33rd, 50th, 100th.

The final memorial service (tomurai-age) is usually held on the 33th or the 50th anniversary and is the last individualized rites for the deceased. After which, the tablet is disposed, signifying the lost in identity. The spirit being ritually and symbolically purified and elevated finally joins the realm of the generalized ancestor worship.

The transient from a single grave to double graves also provide some insights into this lost identity. The ryou-bonsei (double grave) practice consists of the burial and the ritual grave. The burial grave is usually located in remote areas to prevent pollution to the household. The ritual grave enables the ritually pure rites and ceremonies to be conducted. Holding rites at the ritual grave merges the spirit of the recently deceased with those of the generalized ancestors. In other words, the burial grave is the ceremonial ground for the spirits of the dead, the ritual grave the ceremonial ground for the spirits of the ancestors.

Observances directed to the collectivity of the spirits of the household dead are as follows: the New Year (shougatsu), January 1-3; Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes (higan), March 18-24, September 20-26; and the Bon Festival, August 13-15.

New Year festivities had remained essentially Shinto. The ancestors are perceived to come back to visit their homes during this time. It is customary to include them in the celebration as part of the household. Although offerings are made, they are far less central to the occasion than at the equinoxes and at the Bon.

At the equinoxes, family members visit the grave and schedule a special memorial service for the dead. A kind of sweet called o-hagi is prepared to offer to the ancestors and the rest is eaten at the evening meal.

Bon is the most elaborate of the seasonal rites. It is a Buddhist event and one of the most important traditions for the Japanese. Historians now think that indigenous Japanese practices had combined with Buddhist concepts to give shape to the Bon customs observed today. Bon is a collective familial observance, where each closed corporate entity welcomes back its own ancestors to be reunited with the family. It is also the praying for the repose of the souls of one’s ancestors. It is also considered to be an important gathering time.

Before August 13, the family’s o-haka (grave) is cleaned up and ancestors’ spirits are called back home. Houses are also cleaned. Offerings are made in front of a butsudan (Buddhist family’s altar) which is then decorated with flowers and chouchin (paper lanterns). Chouchins are also lit at the entryway to the house compound. Welcoming fires called mukaebi are lit at the entrances to homes to guide the ancestor’s spirits back. By the early evening, family members would gather in the house to welcome back the spirits of the dead.

Two altars could be prepared at bon. One is for the ancestral spirits who come back to the living world to participate in the festivities. The other is for the wandering spirits which are potentially harmful because they are homeless and not worshiped by their descendants. Hence, they are fed and comforted in the hope that they will be pacified and not wreak vengeance on the innocent.

On the 16th, people bring the ancestor’s spirits back to ohaka, hanging chouchins painted with the family crest to guide the ancestors’ spirits. Farewell fires called okuribi are lit at entrances of homes. Formal farewells are said, and expressions such as “Come back next year” are widely used. Toro Nagashi (floating paper lanterns) are held in some areas where people send off the ancestor’s spirits with a paper lantern, lit by a candle inside and floated down a river to the ocean.
Bon odori (folk dances) is a religious folk dance that was originally given to comfort the spirit of the dead. It is also the public expression of the corporate community’s veneration of the ancestral dead. It should be held at night because the Japanese believe that ancestors’ souls come back in the night. Many Buddhist temples also hold a service called urabon’e during this time.

Hatsubon is the first bon festival for the spirit of any family member (shirei) who has died since the last bon. They have a special bon altar which is removed from the other ancestral tablets. It is quoted “to keep the observance for purified souls of distant ancestors from contamination with mourning for the newly dead”. It is the object of far more elaborate offerings than are made to the other tablets. The shirei, which has yet become an ancestral spirit, is thought to have potential harm. Hence, given community-wide attention and welcomed back in some areas with a poignant local greeting – “You must be very sad” (o sabishuu gozaomasu). This indicates that the family understands how hard it is for them to leave their living members.

At the end of the hatsubon, the shirei is thought to had broken its ties with the living world and begins its long process of becoming an ancestral spirit though the series of rituals. They are sent away with special boats made of straw or paper and sails, instead of the paper lanterns, bearing the words “paradise boat”.

The hatsubon is the last cycle of corporate acts directed to the individual as a member of the community. At his birth he was welcomed into it; at his first bon after death he is sent away from it. Thereafter, the person’s soul is left to the care of his own household. The periodic merging of the 2 worlds strengthens the sense of continuity of the house. It is reassuring for the dead to know of the living’s continuing concern for their well-being. The unity is so strong that neither death nor time can weaken or destroy it.

Ancestor Worship in Japan can be said to be a form of filial piety because it is through ancestor worship rituals that the descendents express their gratefulness to the
ancestors. Through it, gratitude is expressed for past favours and continuing protection. It is believed that the spirits of the ancestors are wholly dependent on the living for comfort, and that they lack any capacity to improve their own lot after death. Hence, such rituals are performed to extend to ancestors the care they are thought to require. Descendents also seek personal protection, health and happiness for all family members as it is believed that success and prosperity flow from the beneficent protection of the ancestral dead. They are seen to always oversee the actions of the living in the manner of tutelary deities.

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A more ‘negative’ reason for it would be to avoid manifestations of the dead, because should the dead be neglected, they may manifest their sorrow and anger in a way potentially dangerous to the living. In such cases, some acts will be performed to placate the spirits, rituals such as making a more elaborate memorial tablet, holding more complete memorial services, offering special prayers for the soul, or simply making more regular offerings of food. All these are intended to make up for the neglect or ill- treatment of the spirit.

Of the rites observed, visiting the graves of ancestors annually tops the chart as the rite in which almost everyone participates in. This has become such an ingrained
practice that it has become an occasion when busy family members from different parts of Japan come back and gather together again, much like the New Year. Another common practice is that of giving offerings at the ancestral altar. In the daily offering to the altar, the ancestors are usually given a portion of the meal before the family eats. However, surveys done have shown that families usually do not offer meals at the altar until the day’s first traditional meal is served. Other than traditional meals, “unusual things” which the Japanese term “mezurashii mono”, such as fine cakes, foods from distant places not usually available locally, and first fruits of the season, are offered to the ancestors first. It is considered a breach of etiquette to consume gifts of food without first offering them to the ancestors. Reports of matters concerning family members such as their achievements and failures will also be “reported” to the ancestors. When achievements are obtained, ancestors will be thanked, whereas in the case of failures, descendents will pray with much remorse to the ancestors, promising to work harder in their next attempt. Ancestors are thus not blamed for the failures of descendents and yet are given credit for the good that befalls the family. The central theme of offerings and reports to the spirits of the dead is to assure the deceased of the continuity of the pleasures and tastes that he enjoyed in life, for he is offered favourite foods, shares in unusual gifts of food brought to the family, and is kept posted on family affairs. The Japanese also believe that what pleased a man in life will please his spirit, and to offer him more is both unnecessary and inappropriate; to offer him less is to betray his memory and to court danger.

Ancestor worship is a form of social control in the sense that ancestors act as extensions of parental authority. It is the very humanity of the ancestors that render them formidable. They rejoice or are disappointed in their descendents, and they can be frustrated or angered by events. They also serve as moral arbiters and as sources of emotional security. Some say that they pledge themselves to observe certain moral standards in order not to shame the ancestors. It is a belief that “the ancestors are always watching”, so one must behave properly.

In the observance of these rites, grandmothers play an important role as the teachers to their children and grandchildren. The conventional wisdom among Japanese concerning this is that if there is a grandmother in the house, her grandchildren will learn from her; but if there are no old people at all, then the children are likely to know nothing about the ancestors. This view is so commonly held because grandmothers have more free time than their busy daughters-in-law, thus they can be assigned with relatively light household tasks. The traditional role of the grandmother has always been to look after the children, and they are thought “naturally” to take more interest in religious and ritual affairs, Hence they are the logical choice to teach the children about the ancestors. Since women have longer life expectancies than men, the grandmother is usually the oldest household member. She is then the closest link to the ancestors and more than anyone else in the family, knew the people whose memorial tablets are on the altar.

Death does not completely sever the ties between the deceased and the members of his household. A person can expect that his spirit will continue to be part of the life of his immediate kinsmen, till he is honoured only as one of the remote ancestors. The ancestors are thought to take pleasure in this when they are not excluded from the world of living. Ancestors are once strong agents of social control within the household and exercise tutelary power over the living. However, today they are more likely to be serve as sources of emotional support for its members.

Ancestor veneration reemphasized the importance of dependency relationships in the Japanese culture. This mutual dependency is more effective than authority alone in guaranteeing the continuity of the rites. This mutual dependency is defined as the complete dependence of the junior members of the household on their seniors and the entire dependence of the elders on the descendants to venerate their spirits.


Rituals and ceremonies that celebrate the various stages in the life-cycle of a person in Japan shows the importance of mutual dependency and being part of a family and collective group. For instance, marriage which is an extremely important stage represents the individual leaving one family to form one of their own; the most basic unit of Japanese society being that of a “husband/wife unit”. Traditional funeral rituals also show the dependence of the family members on the community cooperatives for the organisation and work division though with the shift to contemporary funeral ceremonies, the dependency was on funeral companies. The spirit of the deceased is dependent on the family members for rites of purification and memorial services so the purified spirit will be able to join the rest of the ancestors.

Religion and rituals are also linked. In Japan where many people practice more than one religion, a person will usually be expected to have a Shintō wedding and a Buddhist funeral. The most important factor that allowed faiths to combine is that Shinto, a naturalistic religion, does not possess one all-powerful deity, sacred scriptures or a particular philosophy or moral code. It holds that its followers must live their lives according to the way or mind of the kami (gods), and that the kami favour harmony and co-operation. Therefore, Shinto tolerates its worshippers following other religions, and they find it an easy step to combine Shinto’s nature worship with the worship of an almighty deity, such as that in Christianity, or with the philosophical moral code of Buddhism. This has resulted in an apparent mix of rituals from a range of religions- which is seen as a Japanese religion and a way of life.


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Stefánsson, Halldór, “On structural duality in Japanese conceptions of death: Collective forms of death rituals in Morimachi” in Ceremony and Ritual in Japan: Religious practices in an Industrialized Society, ed. Jan van Bremen and D.P. Martinez (London and New York: Routledge, 1995)

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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