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Distribution channels in Japan: challenges and opportunities for the Japanese market entry.


Despite the fact that US exports to Japan have jumped greatly in the last two years, the USA still has a large trade deficit with Japan[1]. As it does not appear to be in decline, a growing number of US policy makers and business managers have begun to scrutinize Japanese trade practices. A prevailing thought among them is that the Japanese market is not open to US products, whereas the US market is open to Japanese products. As such, the Clinton administration attempted to develop tough measures against a whole web of Japanese trade practices, business customs, and government policies, through a threat of trade sanctions against Japanese products. Such measures, however, can backfire because they may not only result in higher prices and fewer choices for American consumers, but also increase anti-US sentiment among Japanese consumers. The recent survey conducted by Czinkota and Kotabe[2] indicates that trade negotiations alone will not enhance the ability of US firms to enter the Japanese market. A more effective way of enhancing the ability of US firms to penetrate the Japanese market is to study the business practices that the Japanese have adopted over the centuries.

One business practice that is perceived to be a major obstacle in entering the Japanese market is an indigenous form of distribution channel which often disfavours foreign firms because of legal impediments, or the channel member's "locked-up" relationship with Japanese firms[2,3]. In fact, Yamawaki[4] affirms that the success of US exports to Japan largely depends on the US ability to overcome those distributional entry barriers. Despite its significance to Japanese market access, the Japanese distribution system, is often misunderstood or found to be mystifying by Westerners. Such a misunderstanding is due to the complex and idiosyncratic nature of the distribution practices that have evolved from the ancient, self-contained feudal system. In an effort to help US businesses succeed in the lucrative Japanese market and ease unnecessary trade conflicts, we unveil facts and fallacies of Japanese distribution and explore strategic weapons that may be essentials to the successful penetration of the Japanese market.

An overview of Japanese distribution channel structures

In contrast to the typical US distribution channel which is open, independent, and margin-driven, the Japanese distribution channel is often characterized as a long, complicated network of relation-driven middle men who are interacting closely with "fellow-trade" wholesalers, brokers, manufacturers, importers, and retailers. Within this channel, it is not uncommon to include as many as four layers of wholesalers. The relative lengths (or stages) of wholesaler channels are usually determined by the industry type, the financial linkages among channel members, the size of the retailer, and the size and brand recognition of the manufacturer. Such intricacy of the Japanese distribution channel is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and socio-economic setting that underlies Japanese business customs. In the next subsections, we will highlight the unique aspects of the Japanese distribution channel and from where these unique structures have evolved.

Dominance of wholesalers

Even if wholesalers contributed little to functional performance, they have long controlled the Japanese distribution channel through vertical integration, financial linkage, and reciprocity dealings. In 1988, for example, total wholesaler sales volume in Japan was estimated to be 3.1 times total retail sales volume, while US wholesaler sales volume was about the same as its retail sales volume[5]. Ito and Maruyama[6] also reported that while 41.9 per cent of Japanese wholesaler purchases came from other wholesalers, only 24.8 per cent of US wholesaler purchases originated from other wholesalers. More frequent trading among wholesalers means little direct distribution opportunities. In fact, Japanese retailers purchased 92 per cent of their merchandise from wholesalers, while US counterparts bought only 23 per cent from their wholesalers[7]. As such, 64 per cent of the US firms operating in Japan indicate that they are dependent to some degree on the Japanese wholesalers in distributing their products to Japanese consumers[8].

Due to a lack of control over local distribution/sales operations, heavy reliance on the wholesalers has become a major stumbling block for foreign firms entering the Japanese market. Nevertheless, with the slow pace of structural changes in Japanese distribution, establishment of a "non-captive", independent distribution channel is still not a viable option for many foreign firms which would like to enter the Japanese market. Some major reasons include:

(1) Through a so-called "keiretsu" network, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers are often tied by reciprocal trade obligations and therefore such a network controls product distribution/sales from factory doors to retail outlets. That is to say, foreign firms may face severe difficulty in reaching Japanese consumers without aligning themselves with a web of distribution keiretsu networks. Such alignment, however, may pose some managerial risk for foreign firms due to the Japanese keiretsu partner's different management philosophy, business scope, relationship building, and legal boundary.

(2) Due to the Warehouse Industry Law that requires firms to obtain permits to establish warehouses and to register warehouse fees with the Japanese government, foreign firms may run into difficulty in establishing and operating their own warehouses[9].

(3) To keep the constant supply to retailers who usually order in small quantities with wide assortments, the need for wholesalers is much greater in Japan than in the USA. The rationale is that wholesalers can purchase in large quantities from manufacturers and divide them into smaller quantities that are sold to retailers.

Complex layers of wholesalers

As shown in Figure 1, there are four different levels of wholesalers in Japan; trading companies, primary (initial) wholesalers, secondary (intermediate) wholesalers, and tertiary (final) wholesalers. Trading companies are large wholesale intermediaries which normally distribute a wide spectrum of products encompassing raw materials and finished goods to smaller wholesalers. According to Shao and Herbig[10], there exist more than 8,000 trading companies in Japan. Among these, the 16 largest ones actively engaged in foreign trade are called "sogo shosha" (general trading companies). Most of them, such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui, evolved from horizontally and vertically integrated "Zaibatsu" organizations which dominated both production and distribution until the end of the Second Word War. The basic functions of sogo shosha include trade promotion, market consulting, inventory maintenance, freight forwarding, information gathering, and technology acquisition[10].

Depending on the industry need or the keiretsu connection, additional wholesale layers may be involved in matching sogo shosha to retailers or industry buyers of a variety of products. The primary wholesaler sometimes purchases only one brand of merchandise in large quantities and supplies the merchandise to either secondary wholesalers or industrial buyers. At the succeeding stage, the secondary wholesaler consolidates a variety of goods from primary wholesalers and diffuses the merchandise to tertiary wholesalers. In certain industries, such as the fisheries, the primary wholesaler can contract out to primary brokers to get fish products to the secondary wholesalers. At the exit of the wholesale channel, the tertiary wholesaler delivers a wide assortment of goods in small quantities to "mom-and-pop" stores. it also maintains large inventories, makes a quick delivery, accepts unsold goods, and sends some of its employees to help promote special sales for mom-and-pop stores.

With additional steps of wholesale trading described above, the wholesale margin can increase and consequently raise retail prices for Japanese consumers. As such, the multilayered wholesale channel in Japan is often harshly criticized by many Westerners. In fact, Batzer and Laumer[11] implied that the Japanese wholesale channel could add as much as 60 per cent to the price of products and add up to 300 to 500 per cent to the landed price of imports. The multilayered wholesale channel, however, offers some important advantages for Japanese retailers. These are:

* Through the multilayered channel, downstream tertiary wholesalers can afford to make small deliveries of less than truckload quantities on a frequent basis via non-conventional transportation modes such as bicycles and motor scooters. Such delivery service would help small mom-and-pop retailers with limited space replenish inventories without carrying them.

* The multilayered wholesale channel links the wholesalers to atomistic retailers scattered all over the Japanese islands and, through quick negotiations and break-bulking, helps move the product rapidly from production to retail and consumption[12].

* The close linkage among the multilayered channel members encourages the sharing of information on product trends, innovations, competition, and overall market opportunities[13]. Thus it will help the Japanese retailer provide more streamlined customer services.

Unusually large number of small retail stores

As of 1989, there were 132 retail stores for every 10,000 Japanese people and a total of approximately 1,620,000 retail stores in Japan, while the USA has 66 retail establishments per 10,000 residents and a total of about 1,542,000 retail stores[14]. In Japan, small retail stores of less than 3,200 square feet account for 56 per cent of total retail sales as compared with 3 per cent for the USA. They also comprise 99.6 per cent of total retail stores[15]. These statistics clearly suggest that the Japanese retail industry is highly fragmented and dominated by small retailers which are often undercapitalized, but conveniently located in the back of residential neighbourhoods. There are a number of reasons why the Japanese retail industry has so many small retail stores:

A form of social welfare

As of 1985, 6,329,000 Japanese were employed on a full-time basis by the retail sector[16]. In other words, a labour-force-participation ratio for the small retail stores is relatively high in Japan. Many retail stores were established and operated by ageing Japanese retirees. Therefore, regardless of economic inefficiency, many small retailers have been protected by the government because they provide secure jobs and income for a large segment of Japanese society.

Japanese shopping behaviour

Owing to notorious traffic congestion and preference for fresh products such as "sushi and sashimi", Japanese consumers tend to shop in the immediate vicinity of their homes. They are also very choosy and have a penchant for a high level of services. Services that they normally expect to receive from retailers include free-of-charge delivery, less than six hours for delivery, delivery time designation, off-hour handling, aid in product selection, unlimited warranty, and post-sale follow-up transactions[16,17]. Since mom-and-pop stores usually provide such services beyond the act of simply offering goods for sale, the abundance of small-scale mom-and-pop stores is an inevitable phenomenon in Japan.

In addition, Koyama[18] observes that Japanese consumers tend to possess many different items at home due in part to the extended family structure; for example, an average Japanese household keeps about 800 belongings, while a German or French counterpart has around 600 belongings. This suggests that Japanese consumers often require more diversified product lines. For example, the typical Japanese household may need to keep several different types of cups specially designed for coffee, ceremonial tea, and "sake". As such, many small retailers altered their product lines to diversify and have begun to carry locally produced specialty items which are too uneconomic for large retail stores to include as part of their product lines[19]. In fact, most of the small Japanese retailers are specialized and carry relatively deep assortments to satisfy local demand[20]. In other words, Japanese demand for more diversified products may have led to the various establishments of small but specialized retail shops.

Large Scale Retail Store Law

The most important regulation affecting Japanese retailing is the Large Scale Retail Store Law that regulates the opening and expansion of large-scale retail stores with their floor space exceeding 500 square metres (i.e. 5,400 square feet)[21]. This law is usually overseen by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), but they also give authority to the local prefecture government which can further lower the requirement to 300 and 200 square metres[22]. To make matters worse, MITI's notification process for the formal approval of planned stores can take 14 months to 20 months or more[9]. As a result, only 11 large retail stores were permitted to open in the whole of Japan during 1985 through 1988[14]. Until recent years, this regulation has helped sustain a large number of small-scale retail stores in Japan by systematically restricting the establishment of large-scale retail stores, such as department stores (see Figure 2 for various forms of Japanese retailing). Such regulation may have originated from the government's fear of a retail price war spurred by large stores and the subsequent disruption of traditional Japanese distribution culture. The dominance of small stores in the Japanese retail sector often hampers the new market entrants, such as foreign firms, from selling their products to Japanese consumers, because small stores tend to keep only a limited selection of merchandise and consequently cannot afford to carry foreign products.

The Japanese government, however, has begun to relax the law regulating the growth of large-scale retail stores. In the wake of the Strategic Impediments Initiative (SII) talks between the USA and Japan, Japan's MITI agreed to limit the approval process for large-store applications to under 18 months and allowed the retailers to extend their store hours; consequently, applications for the large stores soared by 50 per cent in the recent past[23]. The continual relaxation of the large-scale retail store law would present an opportunity for non-Japanese firms to increase their leverage in the Japanese retail sector, as evidenced by the growing presence of Toys "R" Us in the Japanese toy market.

Good ol' boys distribution network called keiretsu

Surprisingly, Onkvisit and Shaw[24] recently observed that only 7 per cent of Japan's manufactured goods were protected by the Japanese government, while 34 per cent of the products manufactured in the USA were protected by the US government. A number of US firms have reported their difficulty in cracking the Japanese market and their complaints focused on the strong local distribution network called "keiretsu"[3] which is a significant market barrier. In general, keiretsu are referred to as a large group of related companies which share common interests, common banks, and typically, interlocking boards of directors and cross-equity participation[25]. Depending on their formation and principles, keiretsu are commonly divided into two types: horizontal and vertical. The horizontal keiretsu are usually organized around a bank and consist of a variety of companies that perform different functions in diverse fields[26]. Since the horizontal keiretsu resemble cartels in that they tend to restrict business interactions with non-keiretsu organizations, they have been sharply criticized by many US business and political leaders[27]. Unlike the US government, the Japanese government loosely enforced its anti-trust laws, and consequently a number of Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo, Sanwa, Dai-chi Kangyo, and Fuji, have successfully used the horizontal keiretsu system.

Unlike the horizontal keiretsu, the vertical keiretsu are usually composed of a major industrial corporation and its suppliers or distributors/retailers in a particular industry such as automobiles and electronics[26]. The vertical keiretsu can be further subdivided into supply keiretsu and distribution keiretsu. Supply keiretsu are groups of companies integrated along a supply chain dominated by a major manufacturer such as Toyota, Nissan, Toshiba, and Hitachi[27].

In contrast to the supply keiretsu which have interlocking interests in their upstream suppliers, the distribution keiretsu develop the web of relationships with their downstream distributors and retail outlets. Since the distribution keiretsu tend to exclude non-keiretsu companies (both foreign and domestic) from competition and tend to keep retail prices high for consumers through the retail price maintenance agreement, the distribution keiretsu may be the important cause of distribution inefficiency. Nevertheless, the Japanese traditional culture often values mutual trust and loyalty created by the distribution keiretsu (see Table I). Therefore, it is still an accepted form of business practice in Japan where a paternalistic business relationship developed by the distribution keiretsu precedes its economic inefficiency. Distribution keiretsu offer various managerial benefits for the participating members which include:

Technology and information transfer

Without the foundation for a stable, long-term, and co-operative relationship among the manufacturer, the wholesaler, and the retailer, the distribution keiretsu are doomed to failure. Accordingly, a close partnership is the cornerstone of distribution keiretsu. Such a partnership can only be established by mutual information and technology sharing through open communication among the keiretsu members. For example, Japanese manufacturers often supply advanced retail support involving computerized online data processing systems that provide retailers point-of-sale (POS) information about consumer behaviour, per capital sales, and customer credit[13,28]. Furthermore, some progressive Japanese firms have recently developed electronic ordering systems (EOS) with POS to supplement inventory, shorten delivery time, and reduce delivery errors[28]. In fact, Milgrom and Roberts[29] note that the keiretsu have proven to be extremely effective in responding to new market opportunities by transferring information and technology among the members.
Table I. Comparative cultural backgrounds of the USA and Japan

                      USA                   Japan

Cultural type         Low-context           High-context
Prevalence            Logic                 Emotion
Communication style   Explicit, verbal      Abstract, less verbal
Sense                 Efficiency            Surface harmony
Value                 Substance             Presentation
Constraint            Legal sanctions       Social obligations
Business bondage      Economic well-being   Human relation

Financial risk sharing

Through mutual share holding, distribution keiretsu encourage their members to not worry about hostile takeovers and subsequently focus on their long-term interests such as new product marketing and distribution. Also, many manufacturers traditionally provide their keiretsu members with several forms of financial assistance, such as credit extension, acceptance of promissory notes with deferred payments, discretionary rebates, and return privileges of unsold products at no cost. Such assistance will help the keiretsu members survive through tough financial times.

Stable supply of the needed merchandise

The keiretsu manufacturer can assure its downstream distributors and retailers a constant supply of the needed merchandise through exclusive dealings. Such merchandise often includes high quality brand name products that many Japanese consumers tend to favour over the unknown quality of obscure brand products. With the long-term stability and security guaranteed by the keiretsu system, the keiretsu manufacturer can bring its downstream distributors and retailers under its wing and thus assure long-term partnership with its members. That is to say, keiretsu member distributors and retailers are likely to adapt their delivery schedule to the requirements of their customers on a stable basis.

Japanese market penetration strategies

In the past year, Japanese bought twice as many US products ($47.9 billion in total) as they did about eight years ago[30]. As opposed to what many Americans allegedly believe, this statistic indicates that the Japanese market is not impenetrable. Although a majority of Japanese consumers may not be content with Western-style marketing and distribution strategies, there is an increasing sign of hope. For example, several US firms, such as Coca-Cola, Salomon Brothers, and Toys "R" Us, are reported to make more profits in Japan than in the USA[31,32]. In addition, many other US firms such as McDonald's, Schick, IBM, Xerox, Motorola, Bose, and Johnson & Johnson have captured the number one market share in Japan thanks to their emphasis on customized marketing tailored for Japanese consumers[32]. The recent marketing success in Japan is not limited to US firms. A growing number of European and Asian firms have begun to attain a strong foothold in Japan through their strong commitment to product quality and variety. These firms include the German automaker, BMW; the Italian sportswear producer, Fila; the Belgian chocolate maker, Dalloyau; the French cosmetic firm, L'Oreal, and the Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer, Giant[33-35]. Following suit, other US firms can capture a larger share of the Japanese market by adopting a number of proactive marketing/distribution strategies described below.

Targeting specialized niche markets

Targeting the neglected segment of the Japanese market has proven to be a successful strategy for some US firms operating in Japan. For example, American Family Life Assurance Company (AFLAC) based in Columbus, Georgia, began to sell cancer insurance policies in Japan where cancer is the number one killer. Although foreign firms used to share less than 3 per cent of Japan's $390 billion-a-year insurance market, AFLAC found a way to insure 28 million Japanese primarily for cancer, roughly 22 per cent of the Japanese population[36,37]. Its unusual success in the tightly regulated Japanese market is due to AFLAC's recognition that supplemental cancer insurance was largely neglected by Japanese competitors who focused on typical life and health insurance. As such, AFLAC was given the license to sell cancer insurance policies including so-called "Super Cancer" which pays a cash disbursement when cancer is first diagnosed, because selling such policies are not in direct competition with Japanese insurance companies[38].

As Dorney[39], a co-founder of Daytimers, succinctly summarizes, the success in the foreign market rests on the company's ability to recognize and deal with the special characteristics of its chosen market segment. Such ability is particularly important in Japan, because Japan is broken down into fragmented market segments, each with its own distinct distribution culture, tastes, and territories. Considering this, the foreign firm may concentrate efforts on only the most attractive or untapped market segments and later expand distribution. Those efforts, however, may take years to pay off.

Selling under Japanese brand names

Though less inclined towards conspicuous consumption, Japanese consumers tend to display great respect for goods produced by the large corporation which carries famous brand names and good image[15,18]. Very often, such a corporation happens to be the well-known Japanese firms. Considering the Japanese consumer's brand loyalty, some Asian firms such as Korean electronic manufacturers and Hong Kong garment makers, sold their products successfully in Japan under the Japanese brand names[34]. Selling under Japanese brand names, however, means that the foreign firm delegates all of their marketing and distribution tasks to the local Japanese distributor. Thus, the foreign firm's ability to exercise control over how its products are marketed will be greatly restrained. Also, the foreign firm's chance of gaining a strong foothold in the Japanese market may diminish, since it cannot establish its own consumer brand loyalty.

Emphasizing follow-up services

Although Detroit's big three automakers are expanding sales of US models in Japan, their market share remains a tiny slice (less than 1 per cent) of the Japanese auto market[40]. One of the main reasons for sluggish sales of US cars in Japan is a lack of effort on the part of US automakers to improve their post-sales services. For instance, Inoue, senior managing director of Autorama, pointed out that it often took two to three weeks to receive spare parts for Ford models compared with two to three days required to obtain spare parts for Japanese-made cars[41]. On the other hand, BMW invested $29.7 million to improve their follow-up services including quick part delivery and such an effort may have helped them become the number one import automaker in Japan[35].


In an effort to circumvent the Japanese distribution maze, some US companies are "piggybacking" with other US ventures which have already established their own distribution channels in Japan. For example, Blue Diamond Almond Growers of California teamed up with Coca-Cola to take advantage of the complementary nature of snack foods and soft drinks, while utilizing Coca-Cola's well-established distribution routes in Japan. As a result, Blue Diamond has successfully achieved its target goal of 40 per cent of the Japanese market share in ten years[42]. In another example, Shop America aligned with 7-Eleven in Japan to distribute their catalogues to potential Japanese consumers and take orders from them through the well-established 7-Eleven's distribution network[43].

As illustrated above, piggybacking is an effective means of circumventing the locked-up distribution channel in Japan. However, it is not without some drawbacks, such as a limited opportunity of piggybacking for non-complementary product lines, the piggyback rider's limited direct control over its distribution operations, and the compensation of the piggyback carrier for its distribution services.

Selling directly to non-keiretsu chain stores or "cash-and-carry" wholesalers

Although excluded from carrying many traditional Japanese national brands, the so-called "cash-and-carry" wholesaler has emerged as the major distribution force in the Japanese wholesale sector. They defy norms by bypassing the traditional multilayered distribution channel, and distributing foreign imports at substantially lower prices through discount stores. Since they are not affiliated with the keiretsu network, many foreign firms which are excluded from the distribution keiretsu may channel through the well-recognized "cash-and-carry" wholesalers such as Etoile Kaito and Companies. In fact, Stone[34] noted that South Korean TV makers and Taiwanese computer manufacturers utilized these independent wholesalers to market their products to Japanese consumers.

Similarly, non-keiretsu retail giants such as Daiei, Ito-Yokado, and Seiyu, bought $2.05 billion worth of goods directly from neighbouring Asian countries and successfully sold them under their own brand names at discounted prices[34]. Although Japanese consumers are less sensitive to price advantages than are their US counterparts, the aforementioned forms of distribution recently gained popularity from Japanese consumers who have become more price conscious due to ongoing recession in Japan and gradual changes in their lifestyles. Despite numerous merits, the foreign exporter's heavy reliance on unauthorized Japanese distributors may undermine consumer loyalty to its products, because many Japanese consumers channelled through the unauthorized distributor can be excluded from post-sales warranty services and product recall.

Direct marketing

Some foreign firms such as Daytimers, Amway, and Otto Versand, which were overwhelmed by the Japanese distribution complexity, have developed a variety of direct marketing techniques involving telemarketing, daytime TV shopping, door-to-door selling, in-home party, and mail ordering to reach Japanese consumers directly. Although direct marketing accounted for only I per cent of Japanese retail sales in 1987, it shows a sign of promise[44]. According to the Japanese Ministry of Labour, retail sales through direct marketing have doubled from 1983 to 1988[45]. This drastic increase in the volume of direct marketing retail sales may have resulted from the increase of Japanese working women who have less free time to shop. In fact, Dodwell Marketing Consultants[46] reported that over 50 per cent of Japanese working women used mail order at least once a year, while only 30 per cent of working men bought merchandise through mail order. For example, many Japanese women are unwilling to buy their underwear and hosiery at the retail store, because they often feel shame when shopping for those products in public. Therefore such merchandise can be a perfect candidate for mail-order-based direct marketing.

Nonetheless, some direct marketing techniques require fine tuning. For example, telemarketing targeted for Japanese housewives may backfire because they could be easily offended by unsolicited phone calls from strangers. Mail order sales also may create problems, because of unusually high mail cost, lack of a third class rate, and serious difficulty in obtaining direct mail listings in Japan[43].


In recent years the US policy makers made the Japanese distribution barrier one of the most significant topics at bilateral negotiations with the Japanese government for the Structural Impediments Initiative (SII) talks. However, many US firms interested in entering the Japanese market are often unaware of various opportunities for turning what is considered to be a market entry barrier into advantageous incentives aiding entry. Such unawareness is due in large part to the Westerner's misunderstanding of the Japanese distribution system, which has long evolved from Japanese cultural and historical roots. For instance, Americans tend to perceive the Japanese distribution system as a "closed" and exclusive lockout, whereas the Japanese tend to view their system as one of "close" co-operation crucial for the constant harmony of their society. From Table I, it is evident that the Japanese cultural base is quite different from its US counterpart. Therefore, it is naive to evaluate the Japanese distribution system from the US perspective only. As Goldman[20] observed, the Japanese distribution system displays high levels of consumer responsiveness, coordination, and equity, while yielding low labour productivity.

Recognizing those differences, it is time for the US companies to re-formulate their distribution/marketing strategies which can adapt to the current Japanese rules and standards. In so doing, the US firms should increase joint interdependency between domestic and foreign firms operating in Japan so that they can encourage a mutual exchange of information which, in turn, facilitates concrete understanding of market competition, distribution dynamics, and consumer needs. Furthermore, the US firms must not only shift their focus from short-term profit/cost saving to long-term gain/stability, but also re-examine their conventional channel alternatives, so that they can create the most streamlined distribution channels that will fit best with their long-term objectives in the Japanese market.


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Title Annotation:Current Logistics Practices in the Asia-Pacific Region
Author:Min, Hokey
Publication:International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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