Ultimate Guide to Japanese Conversation

By Team Japan Switch | Revised June 7th, 2022 

If you’re living in Japan and want to put yourself out there to talk more or you’re just looking to see how to finally get to the point where you can engage in a Japanese conversation, we’ve got you covered. For those of you starting with zero Japanese knowledge and those of you just looking to brush up your Japanese conversation skills, there’s something for everyone in this guide. Whether you’re looking to find language exchange partners to practice speaking with or you want to take some classes, use this guide to gain some confidence and find resources to help you get your Japanese conversation level to a place where you want it. 

This article is a part of our extensive series on Learning Japanese.

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    How do I have a Japanese conversation?

    It is understandable to be anxious about having your first Japanese conversation, but as long as you are consistent with studying and practicing, you’re sure to make steady progress toward becoming a confident participant.

    What level do I need to be to have a Japanese conversation?

    You may be worried about your language level preventing you from having a Japanese conversation. While it’s true that you do need a basic level so you can understand each other, you don’t need to be fluent or advanced to have a pleasant Japanese conversation. As long as you know the vocabulary and have built up the ability to understand Japanese conversations about content you have studied, you should be fine.

    It will probably take you about 2-3 months of dedicated study to have Japanese conversations off the cuff with any reliability. Of course, you can have simpler conversations using phrases you’ve memorized earlier than that! This is also just a rough estimate and will vary from person to person based on time spent studying, other obligations in life, as well as how quickly you pick up languages. It’s especially useful if you already know a language with similar grammar like Korean, or a version of Chinese since you will already be familiar with many kanji. I know it can be exciting to have a concrete goal, but remember to enjoy the journey of learning the language before getting caught up in whether or not you can have a Japanese conversation. For a more in-depth look at this, check our article on how long it will take to learn Japanese.

    To get to the point where you can have a Japanese conversation, you’re going to have to focus mostly on grammar and vocab by listening and speaking. Reading and writing are definitely important skills, but if your main goal is to be able to speak in a Japanese conversation without too much difficulty, they’re not going to be your focus for now. I’d recommend checking out our Guide to Japanese Speaking to get you started on that if you’re a beginner.

    Studying Japanese daily conversation in cafe

    How is a Japanese conversation different from an English one?

    Like I said before, in the end people are people and the rules may be slightly different but the game is the same. Everyone is just trying to get to know each other and get through each social interaction with as little embarrassment or problems as possible. So in some ways, yes, there are going to be some conventional differences. The most important is probably going to be the level of formality you speak with. In English, and this is especially true in the US, most conversations are pretty informal. In a Japanese conversation you’re going to have to be more mindful of the positions of both you and the person you’re speaking to. Just like when you talk to anyone raised in a different culture, you just want to try and understand where the other person is coming from and what they expect of you. Check our Guide to Japanese Culture for more information on why that is.

    How do I have a Japanese conversation if I’ve never talked to a Japanese person before?

    You’re heading to Japan, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You board the plane and as your excitement grows, it suddenly hits you -- you’ve never actually had a conversation with a Japanese person! This sounds like a scary situation to be in. You don’t want to accidentally offend someone or come off as a weird gaijin right off the bat. But it’s not as serious as it sounds. First off, it’s best to remind yourself that Japanese people are just people. There may be slightly different social cues and rules because of cultural differences, but in the end people have more similarities than differences. If you’re worried about talking to a Japanese person for the first time, just try to find those similarities and go from there. Check our Guide to Japanese Culture Shock for more information to get you started. 

    If it’s your Japanese level rather than cultural differences that are causing you to worry, just think about how you would treat someone struggling in a foreign language. It’s admirable when someone does their best to speak in a language they did not grow up with. That’s the same way that other people think about you when you’re speaking in a new language. If you can communicate, that’s what’s most important. Don’t get too caught up in the details of how you sound or if you’re doing everything perfectly right. No one does, and you’re already doing the hardest bit-- starting.

    How do I do small talk in Japanese?

    Some people love small talk, some despise it. Lucky for those of you who fall into the latter category, it is much less of a thing in Japan than it is in America and some other western countries. Most Japanese people are not used to talking casually to strangers on the street or the train, so you’re not expected to engage in small talk that often to begin with.

    If you do end up in a situation where you’re trying to make small talk in a Japanese conversation, though, just try to keep things light and polite. Talk about the weather, some good food you had recently, or some other benign topic, so as not to put off the other person. Plus, the simpler the topic, the easier it will be to understand the other person and keep the conversation going even if you’re at a lower level of Japanese.

    How do I speak politely in a Japanese conversation?

    You probably already know that the rules for politeness and etiquette in Japan are stricter than they are in America most of the time. This definitely extends to Japanese conversation rules as well. So it’s important for you to try to keep these things in mind when engaging in a Japanese conversation. But the other person will also probably be pretty understanding if you don’t pick up on all the small cues. One of the biggest problems with cross-cultural communication is assuming that everyone else understands unspoken rules because they seem so obvious to you when you’ve grown up with them. So just try to keep your mind open.

    How do I talk to strangers?

    As I mentioned earlier with small talk, you’re not often going to be having a lot of conversations with people whom you’ll never see again. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have to talk to strangers. So when you are meeting someone for the first time, here’s what I recommend you ask yourself:

    What’s the context of our meeting?

    Is this a friend of a friend? A work colleague? A new student? Your professor? If you think about this, you can get a good idea of how much you need to focus on being polite compared to making good conversation. The higher the rank of the person you’re talking to, the more you need to worry about what you say and how. If they’re a friend of a friend or a classmate, then you can think more about trying to get to know them casually. If you’re really interested in making friends in Japan, I recommend our Top 15 Tips to Make Japanese Friends for the best and easiest way to start.

    japanese conversation business conversation in Japan

    What are keigo and aizuchi?

    You know how there’s stuff you phrase differently at work vs when you’re talking to your friends? Well Japanese has the same politeness changes, but it follows stricter rules than what sounds less casual. There are 3 main levels of politeness to speaking: casual speech or tamego / tameguchi, the basic polite language teineigo, and respectful and humble language, or sonkeigo and kenjougo respectively. These different forms of politeness are sometimes collectively referred to as keigo, or respectful speech. 

    Usually you just have to change the ending of the verb to make a sentence go from casual to polite, but respectful and humble language are where things get difficult. There are often entirely different words you have to use. This is pretty advanced though, so you don’t have to worry about it in the beginning. As a rule, you can use teineigo, also sometimes referred to as desu/masu form, in a majority of situations, and as a beginner most Japanese people will not expect you to use sonkeigo or kenjougo.

    Another politeness factor in a Japanese conversation that you should be able to do, however, is aizuchi. Aizuchi is what you do to show the person that you’re talking to that you’re listening. It’s really simple, and some form of it exists in most cultures. In a Japanese conversation it’ll be more pronounced than in English. You better get those neck muscles warmed up because you’re going to be doing a lot more nodding than you’re used to. Compared to two Americans talking, where eye contact and complete silence are the best indicators that you’re listening, a Japanese conversation requires sound and movement from the listener. Within a minute, you may do some form of aizuchi up to 20 times. The key to aizuchi is that you’re showing the person that you’re listening. It shouldn’t be too loud or distracting, just enough that they don’t have to look to notice. Aizuchi isn’t just something you do in person either! It’s expected over the phone as well. So if you’re sitting silently and the other person asks if you’re still there, that might be why. 

    What kind of aizuchi are most common? Well, it depends on the formality of the conversation. If you’re using casual speech, you can interject an うん (un) or そうなんだ (sou nan da) to show you’re listening. If you’re talking to a superior, stick to はい (hai), and use です(desu) at the end of phrases. There are a variety of sounds and phrases that you can interject that all have different meanings and interpretations for the speaker. The simple un and hai are probably your best fall-back when you’re not sure, as they’re neutral ones.  






    How is a Japanese conversation different from scripted Japanese like anime?

    Okay, maybe you’re not a complete beginner, and you’ve seen some Japanese conversation on TV or in anime. While that’s great listening practice as well as a good way to build vocabulary, there are some big differences between the scripted content you can see on TV and anime and the real-life everyday conversations you’ll have in Japan.

    One of the main differences between TV Japanese and real Japanese conversation is the physical way people talk. With no script to follow, people make mistakes and jumble their words. Some things that are clearly enunciated in a TV show will get smushed together or mumbled in a real-life conversation. This is especially true for anime, where the voice actors go to great lengths to speak clearly. When you’re in a real conversation, people don’t know exactly what they’re going to say, and Japanese is one of the most quickly-spoken languages in the world by syllables per second. That is to say, people may stumble over their words a bit when they’re going a million miles a minute. 

    Another difference is the dialects you hear. Of course most dialects you see on TV are based on real Japanese dialects, but they’re also coded for specific character types. Anime is especially prone to this. Because it’s often a fantasy world, they emphasize characters’ personalities through their speech as well. Old men may sound rough and tumble and all old people may speak with a country accent. Depending on the type of show, you’re also going to be hearing some vocabulary that isn’t just uncommon but altogether unused in general day-to-day Japanese conversation. 

    This video from That Japanese Man Yuta goes over how anime differs from real-life speech in more detail:


    How can I improve my Japanese conversation skills?

    Your language skills are probably the most important factor in your ability to engage in a Japanese conversation. If the other person starts talking about stuff you’ve never heard of, it’s going to be hard to navigate. The best thing you can do to prepare for that is to just build your vocabulary knowledge and listening skills. Even if someone says a word you don’t know, you can still have fulfilling conversations. For example, you might be able to understand the unfamiliar word if they explain it in simpler Japanese, or you might be able to do the same for words you aren’t sure of.

    The best way to do this is to build your listening skills. In the age of the internet, this is easier now more than ever. You don’t need to start off by trying to talk to Japanese people and hoping something sticks. Now, you can practice by watching other people talk first. We’ve already talked about how natural Japanese conversation doesn’t always sound like the stuff you’ll see in anime or dramas, so in addition to watching that, I’m going to recommend you move on to unscripted Japanese conversation listening practice. For a complete look at listening, check our Top 15 Japanese Listening Tips.

    There are a lot of resources available, but I’m going to go through some of the most common and popular ones:

    Variety shows

     If you’re a fan of Japanese comedy or fun challenges, then a lot of Japanese variety shows could be a good way to hear some unscripted Japanese. Variety shows tend to focus heavily on challenges, so there’s a lot of commentary but the topics tend to stay simple. Of course it depends on the show, but most variety shows aren’t very conversation-heavy. Plus, since they’re full of visual cues, these may be a good first jump into Japanese conversation listening practice. They also provide a look into Japanese comedy as most shows have comedians or other celebrity hosts and focus on making the show entertaining through comedy.

    Some variety shows I recommend are "Downtown’s Gaki no Tsukai," "Zettai ni Waratte wa Ikenai," and "Getsuyou kara Yofukashi."


    YouTube is another great resource. Since most of the shows are made completely by people on their own, there’s less production and more genuine interactions. Plus there is something for everyone on YouTube. Whether you love to watch travel vlogs, stationery reviews, gaming videos, comedy skits, or makeup tutorials, there are a plethora of options for you. This is also a great way to get a feel for more slang and common Japanese that you probably won’t hear on TV or other public forms of media. See our full guide on How to Learn Japanese through YouTube for a more in-depth look. 

    Radio and Podcasts

    Listening to the radio or podcasts is a little more advanced because there is no visual associated with it, so you have to trust your listening skills completely to understand the Japanese conversation. There are some podcasts specifically aimed at Japanese learners, so they talk a little slower and more deliberately. If you’re just starting out with podcasts, that’s what I recommend going to first. Then you can move on to more advanced podcasts. There’s so much content in this category alone that you should be set for a long time regardless of your skill level. If you can easily handle the podcasts for learners, then try some natural Japanese conversation ones. If those are still too easy, you can start getting into the specialty podcasts that use specific vocab for your niche interests.


    Of course, if you have Japanese lessons available to you, then you have something that just listening to Japanese conversation online won’t provide--feedback. A teacher or tutor can take you to the next step when you find you can understand a lot but you’re having problems taking your knowledge into a real Japanese conversation. A teacher can help you focus on problem areas, give you specific things to work on. Group lessons also give you the chance to practice your Japanese with other learners, which alleviates some of the pressure you may feel speaking to a native. There are lots of places in Tokyo where you can sign up for in-person lessons, as well as a plethora of online lessons you can sign up for.

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    The Ultimate Guide to Your First Japanese Conversation

    So now you know all about the hypotheticals of a Japanese conversation, but now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. Here are some practical examples of how certain parts of a conversation may go. Rather than a step-by-step how-to, I’m going to focus on a few examples that you can adjust to fit your situation.

    Introducing yourself

    The first step to any conversation is introducing yourself to the other person. The way you do this will depend on who you’re meeting and where. Is it a casual lunch where you’re meeting a friend of a friend from school? Then you might say something along the lines of this:

    Student 1:  はじめまして。田中です。
    You: はじめまして!ミラーです。松本の友達ですよね。
    Student 1: うん。鈴木先生の授業で会いました。
    You: ええ、私もその授業を受けました!面白かったと思いませんか?
    Student 1: そうですね!特に最後の講義がすごかったです。

    Student 1:  Hajimemashite. Tanaka desu.
    You: Hajimemashite. Miraa desu. Matsumoto no tomodachi desu yo ne.
    Student 1: Un. Suzuki sensei no jyugyou de aimashita.
    You: Ee, watashi mo sono jyugyou wo ukemashita. Omoshirokatta to omoimasen ka?
    Student 1: Sou desu ne! Toku ni saigo no kougi ga sugokatta desu.

    Student 1: Nice to meet you, I’m Tanaka.
    You: Nice to meet you, I’m Miller. You’re Matsumoto’s friend, right?
    Student 1: Yeah, we met in Suzuki-sensei’s class.
    You: Oh! I also took that class! Didn’t you think it was interesting?
    Student 1: Yes! The last lecture was especially great.

    This conversation flowed pretty smoothly! It didn’t take much information to get moving into a conversation about a topic you’re both familiar with. If it’s a more formal situation where you’re meeting a business colleague, however, you will need to be a bit more formal. Introduce yourself in relation to your company and stay polite. For example:

    Business person: はじめまして。会社Aの橋本です。よろしくおねがいします。
    You: はじめまして。会社Bのジャクソンです。よろしくおねがいします。

    Business person: Hajimemashtie. Kaisha A no Hashimoto desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
    You: Hajimemashite. Kaisha B no Jakuson desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

    Business person: Nice to meet you. I’m Hashimoto from Company A. I look forward to working with you. 
    You: Nice to meet you. I’m Jackson from Company B. I look forward to working with you. 

    At this point, you would exchange business cards so that you can both contact each other at some point in the future. Physical business cards are still the norm in Japan, and there are specific rules associated with them.

    Exchanging business cards

    What rules could there possibly be for exchanging business cards? Well actually, quite a few. When exchanging your business card, or meishi, make sure to hold it with two hands and hand it to the person so the letters are facing them. It should be oriented so they can read it. The only exceptions to the two-hand rule should be if you’re placing it on a table (respectfully), or if you receive their card with your left hand while offering yours with your right This is all to show respect for the person you are meeting. So you want to receive the card, read it properly before putting it away, and do so by treating it with respect. Don’t fold or crease it, and put it neatly into your wallet or other storage, don’t throw it into a pocket or purse.

    How do I ask for someone’s Line?

    If, on the other hand, you’re meeting someone outside of a business context, you may have built up enough rapport by the end to ask for their Line to keep in touch. Do be careful with this though, you don’t want to seem overbearing or pushy. If you’re both comfortable with each other and you seem to be getting on well, try asking for their Line. The easiest phrases for this are :

    Line koukan shimasen ka.
    Shall we trade Lines?

    Line oshiete kuremasen ka.
    Couldn’t you tell me your Line?

    If you do get someone’s Line and want to message them, don’t double message or try again if they don’t respond, as it could be a polite way to say they aren’t interested in further conversation. On the other hand, if they seem invested in responding and talking to you, you may have just made a new friend.

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    What vocabulary and conversation topics should I use?

    Okay, you’ve gotten to the home stretch and now you’re actually about to have that Japanese conversation we’ve been talking so much about. But what do you even talk about? There are some easy conversation topics you can prepare for, though of course never perfectly. I’ve provided some vocab for some of the most common situations or topics I think you should know about. This is some pretty basic stuff though, so if you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide on your first Japanese vocabulary, I’d look at A Guide to Learning Easy Japanese, which takes you through all the most common words and phrases you need to know.

    Weather (お天気 - otenki)






    To be sunny



    To be cloudy


    Ame ga furu

    To rain


    Yuki ga furu

    To snow
















    Kyou wa ii tenki desu ne.
    The weather is nice today.

    Ame ga furisou desu.
    It looks like it’s going to rain.

    Food (食べ物 - tabemono)













































    Kesa nani wo tabemashita ka.
    What did you eat this morning?

    Okashi wa suppai no to amai no to docchi ga suki desu ka.
    Do you like sweet or sour candy?

     School (学校 - gakko)









    Elementary school



    Middle school



    High school



    College / university



    Graduate school









    Senior (in school year)






    Junior (in school year)


















    Foreign language









    Physical education





    Cram school





    Kimatsu shiken

    Final exams

    Ichiban suki na kamoku wa nan desu ka.
    What is your favorite subject?

    Kimatsu shiken wa mou sugu desu ne. Benkyou wa dou desu ka.
    Final exams are coming up soon, how are your studies going? 

    Work (お仕事 - oshigoto)
























    Office worker (male)



    Office worker (female)












    Idol (singer)



    Patissier (pastry chef)

    Oshigoto wa nani wo sarete imasu ka.
    What do you do for a living?

    Chiisai koro, shourai no yume wa nan deshita ka?
    When you were little, what was your dream job?

    Hobbies (趣味 - shumi)

















    E wo kaku

    To draw












    Flower arrangement









    Video games

    Shumi wa nan desu ka?
    What are your hobbies?

    Watashi wa geemu to e wo kaku no ga suki desu.
    I like video games and drawing.

    If you’re having trouble remembering these words, then try looking at our Top 15 Japanese Vocabulary Tips to help you solidify them in your mind.

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    What are some topics to avoid the first time I meet someone?

    Especially when you’re having your first Japanese conversation or you’re talking to someone you don’t know, keep the conversation simple. It could be slightly offensive to the person you’re talking to if you bring up certain topics or talk in a certain way, so you don’t want to be too casual.

    • Your job - If you’re coworkers and not that close or it’s not a necessary part of the conversation, do not mention your job. It may come across as boastful. Japanese people will also usually choose to just say that they are an “office worker” as opposed to mentioning the specific company they work for.
    • Politics - Most of the time Japanese people try not to stir the pot, which is exactly what happens when you get into politics. It can be a touchy subject and you may end up accidentally offending someone, so it’s best to just steer clear.
    • Religion - Although most Japanese people tend to follow the same religions and many consider themselves not religious at all, it’s still not a topic you’d want to bring up in casual conversation. Especially if you are a devout believer in some faith or have extreme views on religion in the opposite direction. Keep the conversation to light topics no one is too personally invested in.

    Overall the most important thing is to be open-minded and willing to experience a new culture. Try not to compare everything you’re experiencing directly to your own culture. It may be a natural response, but in doing so you risk letting your preconceived notions, comfort zone, and preferences color your perception and ability to truly understand and process Japanese culture. Instead of focusing on the comparison, try to fully immerse yourself in the new experience.

    Phrases young people use that you will want to be careful with

    If you’ve been listening to younger people talk, you may have picked up some phrases that are very common but you’ll want to be careful with them. Most slang is only appropriate in casual settings with people you are friendly with. You never want to use slang in a work environment or when talking to people of higher rank. So don’t use phrases like yabai (cool, sick, whoa), or maji (seriously) unless you’re sure it’s context-appropriate. 

    If you’re interested in learning some slang to impress your friends with, check out our article on the Top 40 Japanese Slang to Know.

    What should I be careful NOT to do in a Japanese conversation?

    Since we talked about the importance of formality, I think the number one thing you should avoid in Japanese conversation is being too casual. For example using tameguchi, or informal speech, with strangers, superiors, or even people you haven’t established that speech pattern with may offend them, or at least make the situation awkward. This formality extends to more than just the way you speak as well. Don’t stand too close to someone, as Japan’s personal space bubble is bigger than America’s. If you’re meeting a friend of a friend for the first time, you’re probably not going to want to touch them casually, like on the back or shoulder, as you might in America. You want your physical expression of closeness to match the level appropriate for the relationship.

    Japanese conversation practice talking cafe japan

    Outside of the actual conversation, it’s best if you try to keep up with the social expectations of the situation in general. This will make conversation much smoother as the other person doesn’t have the initial discomfort with the way you start out. For example, punctuality is very important in Japan. If you’re getting coffee with someone at 10 a.m. and you show up 20 minutes late, the mood may already be dampened, and you haven’t even gotten a chance to start talking!

    If you want a more in-depth explanation, check our Guide to Japanese Customs, so you can know what is expected in most situations.

    How can I practice having a Japanese conversation?

    There are a few options for you if you’re all ready to start having a Japanese conversation. Of course the easiest would be to find someone to practice with who’s willing to give you feedback. That’s a great way to learn more, and a language exchange partner who is also learning your language is a great way to do this! There’s a give and take because you’re both studying and helping each other, and it can be a great way to make friends as well.

    Where can I find Japanese conversation partners?

    A language exchange is one of the best ways to get your language learning kicked into gear. If you’re not in Japan yet or you’re too shy to meet up with strangers, finding a language partner online is probably your best choice. There are a variety of websites and apps built specifically to help language learners find each other and help each other learn. Some of the most widely used are:

    HelloTalk is an app that is super popular, and for good reason. It has a lot of features that make interacting with people in a language you’re studying smoother and easier. HelloTalk essentially functions as a social media platform, not unlike Twitter, but the main focus is on learning languages and connecting with other people studying than on keeping up to date with the world at large. People will post pictures of their day with short captions, as well as their thoughts, in their native language. This is a great chance to learn some common words and phrases you may not come across in an anime or drama for example. You can ask the community questions to get a native’s perspective. There are also lots of in-app translation and dictation features to help you understand the other language. It does have some downsides, one being that some features aren’t available on the free version. HelloTalk does a good job of facilitating meetings and conversations between learners and lots of people have had great luck using it to find language exchange partners.

    Tandem is one of the most widely used apps for language exchange. People’s profiles show a short bio, prompts, and some pictures. The chatting section has a lot of the same features as HelloTalk, where you can automatically translate people’s messages, comment or correct them, or have messages read out loud to you. Tandem even has a tutor section so you can see tutors and their rates if you’re interested in more dedicated help. This is a great option for meeting people.


    Italki is more focused on matching language learners with teachers and community tutors. If that’s something you’d be interested in, Italki is a pretty affordable option. But it also has a community tab. You can make posts in languages you’re studying, correct others, and follow your favorite users. There is a private messaging function as well, and people here tend to be seriously looking for partners. I personally used Italki to find my language partner. 

    If, on the other hand, you are in Japan then you may have some more options to meet Japanese people in person. Of course, you can always take lessons such as at Japan Switch, but if you’re looking for free options there are also plenty of ways to find a practice partner. If you meet someone on one of the online options we talked about earlier, there’s always the chance you’ll hit it off well enough to meet in person! The app Tandem also allows you to search by city for partners. Meetup.com and other websites also have plenty of groups that meet to facilitate English and Japanese conversation practice and going to one of those regularly is a great way to practice and make friends at the same time. Plus you might get to explore parts of Tokyo you’ve never seen before.

    For more options and in-depth reviews, as well as tips for having the best exchange possible, check our Guide to Japanese Language Exchange

    If you’re lucky enough to participate in a homestay program, it’s a bit more intense than casual Japanese conversation practice, but it is rewarding. Not only do you get the chance to practice all day with your host family, but you’re also getting a peek into the everyday life of Japanese people and getting a deeper understanding of the culture by experiencing it first-hand in a way you just can’t without living through it.


    Now that you’ve gone through this guide, I hope you’re feeling more confident about diving into a Japanese conversation. It’s really a rewarding experience, and once you start practicing it’s hard to stop. Whether you’re honing your listening skills, picking up some relevant vocab, or finding a long-term language partner, I hope you enjoy your journey!


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