75 Years since the Battle of Okinawa: History that Bodes Horror for the Future
The Emperor’s Gift
You wouldn’t have wanted to take shelter in the caves anyway. You wouldn’t want to be like the elderly, the sickly, the women, and the babies.
But this was even better: it was now your job to shield the Emperor, the highest of honors you could have dreamed of.
It had finally come to that. And you knew, you had been made well-aware that there was nothing to lose, nothing to fear, nothing to regret as you were happy for your young life to have found such a dear purpose so early in its course.
They wouldn’t spare anyone anyway. The monsters would slaughter all unless you were there to stop them. They would burn, slash, and hack, and wipe out all in their way. Your mother, father, sister, brother, and baby brother, your sickly granny, your favorite new-born puppy and the entire litter. Your home, your school, your beautiful garden. Your toy horse, your desk, your sun. All would be put to the sword.
Unless each and every one of you were there to stop them.
And you had been blessed with the chance to do that.
Divine Japan could never fall, you knew this much.
It was that divine force that you had become lucky to be a part of.
Divine Japan would never fall, you knew this much as you were clutching the grenade in one hand and the sharpened bamboo stick in the other.
All of you in the hideout up the hill so calm, almost perplexingly so. Despite the blasts that could be heard in the distance. Despite the pouring rain that hadn’t stopped for days. Despite the spilling of blood that you had seen.
All of you were sensing that this had been your destiny all along, and you were finally near the end, and that end meant fulfilling it. With many of the friends you’ve played, with the two commanding officers gazing towards the opening where those monsters’ tanks were supposed to crawl through.
Yes, some of your friends weren’t with you anymore. Haru and Touma went missing, nobody could figure out when and how – but it didn’t even matter.
Kichirou was blown to pieces by one of their bombs: one second he stood there, the next one he did not but all around was covered in stinky reddish slime
And Takeshi… Last night he burst out crying, and he couldn’t stop. The junior commander was swift to tell you what to do. Because he trusted you. You didn’t even think about it. You had to do it, Takeshi would have given you away. They would have killed you all. Takeshi was not as strong as you, he never was, and he never would be. The Emperor needed just stronger boys who could protect him. The weaker ones must go.
“Tatsuya!” your brother whispered, trying to grab your hand. You knew he was just about to say. He was to tell you to stand back.
You’d started doubting his resolve to protect the Emperor. He wasn’t even two full years your senior. You were thankful that he did submit for you your papers to join the “Student Corps of Iron and Blood for the Emperor.” And, yet, he always had this thing of trying to look after you. To look out for you. Who needed that? Not a soldier of the Emperor like yourself, not at all.
Regardless, you did let go of the bamboo stick, instinctively, to meet his hand… You couldn’t help it. Yoshi always meant well.
You both could now hear the roar crystal clear. What might have been just the background battle tumult was now coming closer by the second. Roaring. Very close. Not even the torrential downpour could drown it down. They’d finally arrived. And what you strangely felt was a relief.
You let go of Yoshi’s hand. You knew what you had to do. The officer had told you, he had taught all of you. And you had helped your mind and body be programmed for that.
That wasn’t your first lesson of how to defend the Emperor.
Two years ago those lessons started. You were 10. You already knew divine Japan was facing evil enemies around this world. So it had gone to war, it had to, people said. The evil ones were trying to stifle it but it was proudly standing up for itself, with your Emperor at the helm. That was all you knew.
You couldn’t even remember if you had existed before the war. You hardly remembered anything from that blur before it. It was all you heard the others talk about, adults and kids alike.
It looked like a game. Because it was. Although the principal had sounded the bell calling the entire school to an emergency assembly, with bamboo poles stacked in front.
It proved to be fun. It was enjoyable. A game it was.
You were all shown how to sharpen bamboo sticks with a knife. You were all taught to bayonet effigies of them. It was great. It filled you up with pride and meaning. The Emperor relied on you with all of his divinity.
You had been a little shy at school, you hadn’t been the swiftest in the games, you used to always look up to Yoshi. You’d listen to your teacher, often more so than the others, and he would praise you, and point you out as an example.
But now you felt truly empowered, it was the long-lost place you always had belonged, and you had finally discovered. You were the best prepared, and you felt great about yourself. You didn’t regret it, you didn’t want to go back to those childish games. Those were for babies.
If they would ever come, they would regret it dearly, they would be crushed. They would be beaten back across that ocean they came from. Or, better, they would be subdued on their knees. And you were going to be a part of it.
The roar was now stupefying. Their tanks were already at the foot of the hill.
The time had come. The time to save the Emperor. Time to be truthful to divine Japan. To proudly perish if need be.
“I should have written them some more.”
That was the thought that crossed your mind.
The one regret you had as you kept mouthing to yourself the words of your letter to your parents. You couldn’t help but cringe when thinking how sad they would be when you’d be no more.
“I may have had a short life but I am grateful for everything to you.”
That was all you could come up with at the time.
It was far more that they deserved. Much more but they would understand. You knew they would. You just knew.
“Still, I should have written some more…”
“Go! Now!” the officer shouted ripping those thoughts out of your mind. Ripping your being out of your childhood. Ripping you out of your life.
You dashed up and forward, not thinking, and not sensing anymore. You hurtled down the hill against them, against the first tank you caught a sight of.
You didn’t even get to see if the others had sprung up as well. And where did Yoshi go?
You didn’t care. It didn’t matter. With all your youthful being, you were the soldier of the Emperor.
Another moment and they’d pay. You’d hurt them bad. They had to suffer.
For going up against Divine Japan.
You lost the bamboo spear down the hill.
But the “benevolent gift from the Emperor”… That you were clutching in your left fist.
That’s all you needed!
A moment more, and you’d be to the tank. A moment more, and you’d pull the pin! The pin of the benevolent gift.
The Emperor’s gift you’d never lose.
A moment more.
Then there was a blow.
And everything went dark.
You couldn’t tell if you had died or lived.
But killed you were.
Apart you fell.
The Mind-Boggling Fighting
The months of April, May, and June of 2020 mark the 75th year since the Battle of Okinawa in what is known today as the concluding phase of World War II. It’s hard to imagine that it felt like a “concluding phase” at the time.
Okinawa, the 82-day fight on that weirdly shaped tropic paradise, was not only the largest battle of the Pacific War, the World War II ocean life-and-death struggle between Imperial Japan and the United States.
Okinawa was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War, a swift reminder of the Normandy Invasion of the Allies against Nazi Germany half a world away, which had occurred on D-Day, less than a year prior.
And the Battle of Okinawa was larger than the Normandy Invasion in a sense as the Allied naval force brought together for the Okinawa landing was even larger than the one at the coast of Northern France – even if the invasion force was somewhat smaller. In fact, it was the largest naval force to have ever been assembled for battle.
Yet, Okinawa especially stands out above all else in one very particular respect:
It is the largest sea-air-and-land battle this world has ever seen.
Wrestling with both its scope and duration, one’s mind boggles to imagine what it may have been like: on sea, on land, and in the air, countless men fought other countless men for endless time.
It was an era in itself, a self-absorbed eternity, a universe negating all beyond. An “Apocalypse Now”, which must have seemed like it would last forever.
Like Operation Barbarossa, like Stalingrad, like Kursk in World War II, or, a couple of decades prior, the execution of the Schlieffen Plan, or Marna, Somme, and Verdun in World War I, or, even earlier, like Austerlitz, Leipzig, or Waterloo in the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Okinawa was so gigantic that it begot its own reality, and lived, and died entirely a life of its own self.
It was a time-place where at one point those fighting had nothing to fight for – they had forgotten all about it, and nonetheless they keep on going. It must have felt like there had been nothing before it, and there was not going to be anything thereafter. It was all there. Timeless. Inescapable. A matrix that had overturned all past and future, where they could do but just a single thing: keep going.
And drenched in blood, and mud, and sweat, and seized by horror, shock, and awe, they did. They kept going. The mind of those who have never seen it, and hope to never do, could never capture it. And their minds do know they are so fortunate because of that.
A testosterone bout and adrenaline rush that lasted so long that fighting was no longer just the means to any end. It’s just the means, with no more ends in sight, and with no conscious mind for those on the ground, the water, and high into the skies.
They just kept going for endless days and weeks. All men. Both sides, including those who were overpowered, overwhelmed, since history is filled with stories of victories against some overwhelming odds.
And Okinawa was one of those not so many fighting time apocalypses to ever have occurred. It certainly wasn’t Barbarossa or the Schlieffen Plan, or Kursk, or Stalingrad, it wasn’t even Normandy but here is what it was: the ultimate convergence of air, sea, and land, with men so endlessly and hopelessly combating one another in each of those nature realms, and jumping back and forth, all over, the entire time.
The question how they did it relevantly absurd – for was that something to be proud of?
If there is ever once again a major war between such powers, it will be like Okinawa more than like any other battle there ever was – as it would certainly devour the land, and waters, and air, all the way to space.
For the existing giants of today, the mightiest, the grandest of their sort, will not be meeting in the battlefields of old Europe. The vastness of Indo-Pacific space will be their battleground. The history of Okinawa is thus the horribly most telling warning there is.
The Largest Sea-Air-Land Battle Ever
If one would like to stretch this notion of Okinawa as the largest sea-air-and-land battle in human history, over thousands of miles and hundreds of days, it might be “safe” to say that Okinawa started at Pearl Harbor.
The story of how Imperial Japan decided to strike in the east at the United States in order to win in the west, in China, as well as in the south, is unsettlingly reminiscent of how Hitler decided to strike east at the Soviet Union in order to win west against Britain.
Japan’s entire self-perceived “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity” sphere was its version of Nazi Germany’s lebensraum, or living space, the uglier stage of prior Imperial Germany’s quest for a “place under the sun”.
Yet, if one’s historical perceptions could view the entire war in the Pacific as a single battle – from the Americans’ shock at their Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii through all the island-hopping to reach the Japanese mainland, and considering how the US Okinawa operation was codenamed “Iceberg”, it might be “safe” to declare the battle on that strangely shaped island was the iceberg’s tip.
Despite the many ways the Battle of Okinawa was so shocking and so dreadful, there had still been years upon years of ocean fighting hidden beneath it.
Before the Okinawa horrors, there was the entire bouncing back of the United States after its Pearl Harbor humiliation, there was the rise of the aircraft carrier – a development that has been here to stay (until perhaps another “Okinawa” might render it too vulnerable or less useful than before), and there were Guadalcanal, Saipan, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Island, the Philippines, then Iwo Jima.
It is a bit surprising how no-one knew it at the time that the Battle of Okinawa, the island 350 miles from Japan’s four main islands, would prove the last big battle of World War II.
To help one wrap their head around how big the Okinawa Battle was, it’s worth explaining that it commenced before the Battle of Berlin (April 16 – May 2, 1945), the death bell sound for Nazi Germany in Europe, and ended nearly two months after it.
Yet, while Okinawa didn’t “boast” the millions of soldiers clashing head-to-head that the Battle of Berlin did see, the former might have been the trickier collision of the two.
And not just since it was the largest sea-air-land battle ever known, but also since it wasn’t yet the final stand of desperate dead-enders. For those who believed in the victorious-ness of Imperial Japan, it was the most defining time of hope. For the Americans, it was the setting stage for their ultimate invasion of Japan, an effort even the mighty Mongols divinely failed twice at almost seven centuries ago.
It so happened that America’s planned invasion of Japan’s main islands – codenamed Operation “Downfall” – never had to be executed – and the Battle of Okinawa, which was the intended preparation for it – played a major role in that.
Whether the ultimate decision of the Japanese leadership to surrender on August 15, 1945, was exactly due to the fear of that invasion, to the inability to wage war anymore because of the destruction of Japan’s production capacity, to the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the southern advance of the Soviet Union against the Japanese forces on the Asian mainland – still remains a matter of highly academic debate.
But it is beyond doubt that for the leadership of Imperial Japan, Okinawa remained a hope yet not lost, perhaps, the last one – until it demonstrated the American resolve for full-fledged victory despite the brief initial shock the adamant resistance caused.
For the Americans, on the other hand, the desperate Japanese resistance seems to have contributed tremendously to focusing on ways to avoid the casualties from an all-out invasion of Japan, including by the first ever employment of nuclear weapons.
Okinawa is an unusual place in so many ways. The long and narrow island (66 miles / 107 km long, and 7 miles / 11 km wide), with its toothy coastline, with mountains, caves, forests, valleys, and beaches, halfway between the four main islands of Japan and the island of Taiwan (a Japanese colony at the time of World War II which today harbors the “Republic of China”).
Okinawa is the largest of the Okinawa and Ryukyu Islands but it is also described as the smallest, least populous, and southernmost of Japan’s five largest islands, a setup underscoring its importance to Japan as it sees it on equal footing with the far larger islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku.
Situated just north of the Tropic of Cancer, Okinawa is part of the “first chain” of islands off the coast of mainland Asia, the one conditionally separating the East China Sea from the Pacific Ocean – to borrow some modern-day geopolitical terminology about the US-China great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region.
In 1945, however, the location and geography of Okinawa were the reasons that led the US leadership to decide to conquer it for the sake of using it as the major launch pad for the invasion of the (four) main Japanese islands.
The Battle of Okinawa raged for 82 days from April 1 until June 22, 1945 (the latter date marking the fourth year since Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 in Operation Barbarossa, i.e. the far more mammoth European version of Imperial Japan’s preemptive strike at Pearl Harbor against the United States.
The US forces for the sea, air, and land invasion of Okinawa came from Admiral Chester Nimitz’s campaign in the Central Pacific and General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign in the Southwest Pacific, converging upon the island.
At the start of the Battle of Okinawa, the US 10th Army commanded by Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner had some 183,000 troops, including more than 80,000 marines. Those came from four Army divisions (the 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th) under Maj. Gen. John Hodge and three Marine divisions (the 1st, 2nd and 6th) under Maj. Gen. Roy S. Geiger, plus 18,000 Navy personnel.
The US 10th Army even had its own tactical air force for the Battle of Okinawa, which was under joint Army-Marine command, and was supported by naval and amphibious forces.
Several hundred of various naval, amphibious assault and auxiliary vessels, including 17 aircraft carriers, were involved on the Allied side, as part of what was called Task Force 58.
While there were no British or Commonwealth landing units, the British Pacific Fleet provided a quarter (450) of all planes, and a fleet with British, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian ships and personnel.
The Japanese force defending Okinawa was the 32nd Army, including both regular imperial army troops and local Okinawan conscripts, and exceeding 100,000.
These were mostly entrenched in sophisticated fortifications utilizing the advantages of the terrain such as caves and ancient tombs in the southern part of the island, linking tunnels with a combined length of 60 miles.
The Child Soldiers
Some 2,000 Okinawan high school students were mobilized to join the defense of Okinawa, not unlike the child soldiers mobilized by Adolf Hitler for the Battle of Berlin – except in Okinawa’s case, unlike Berlin’s, no gut-wrenching video footage has survived, in which underage kids could be seen being caressed by a bloodthirsty fuhrer before being sent to their deaths in a brainwashed, zombie-like state of mind.
That mobilization of children is just one of the many parallels between the Battle of Okinawa and the Battle of Berlin.
The mobilized children in Okinawa included 222 girls used as nurses behind the frontlines, and some 1,800 boys used as child soldiers from the Blood and Iron Student Corps – whose fate was illustrated in the opening section of this article.
The child soldiers were distributed in guerilla units and used to attack American targets such as tanks. They and other civilians were armed with sharpened bamboo sticks as well as hand grenades referred to as “benevolent gifts from the Emperor”.
The main landing on Okinawa was made on its western coast with relative ease, when the more than 60,000 American troops who landed on the Hagushi beachhead, managing to capture within hours the two main airbases – Kadena and Yomitan – which the US leadership intended to use in order to launch the final assault on Japan’s four main islands.
From there, the northern part of Okinawa was seized and cleared by the American forces by April 18, save for a suicide attack of airlifted Japanese commandoes on Yomitan on May 24.
Legendary Japanese warship Yamato, one of the two heaviest battleships ever constructed, together with the Musashi, was sent on a suicide mission to aid the Okinawa defenses, and was destroyed by US bombers in the early stages of the battle, on April 7, 1945. The largest naval losses of the Allies were two aircraft carriers, the Wasp and the Franklin.
The fiercest fighting, reminiscent of the Western Front in World War I, occurred in Southern Okinawa. It was complicated greatly by the rugged terrain and the downpours of monsoon rains all throughout May 1945, at the time news was arriving about the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe, with the Japanese forces launching numerous counterattacks despite the overwhelming fire power of the American troops.
Shuri Castle, a late-medieval fortification of both strategic and symbolic meaning, was finally captured by US marines on May 29, after which the US forces advanced towards the largest of the island’s towns, the port of Naha.
Throughout the entire Battle of Okinawa the Japanese forces carried out in large numbers their infamous kamikaze (suicide) attacks on Allied vessels, planes, and troops, which, while causing shock and awe, could achieve little to influence the overall outcome of the fighting.
At the beginning of June, the Japanese forces with their last remaining 30,000 troops had established their last defensive line on the Kiyan Peninsula, which was where the most horrible bloodbath unfolded.
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The two most senior Japanese officers in the defense of Southern Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, and his chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Isamu Cho, committed suicide by seppuku in the final hours of the Battle of Okinawa, on June 21, 1945, to avoid the shame of surrender inadmissible under their honor code.
“Our strategy, tactics, and techniques were all used to the utmost. We fought valiantly, but it was as nothing before the material strength of the enemy,” Cho wrote in a final message just before taking his life.
Before killing himself, the supreme Japanese commander on Okinawa, Ushijima, commanded the third highest-ranking officer, Col. Hiromichi Yahara, not to commit suicide.
“If you die there will be no one left who knows the truth about the battle of Okinawa. Bear the temporary shame but endure it. This is an order from your army Commander,” Ushijima famously told Yahara, who later wrote a book entitled “The Battle of Okinawa”.
The Battle of Okinawa has gone down as “the typhoon of steel” in English, and “rain of steel” or “wind of steel” in Japanese, because of the incredible amount of military equipment as well as the ferocity of the fighting.
While estimates of the casualties of the Battle of Okinawa vary, the figures are shocking, with the Cornerstone of Peace Monument at the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum listing a total of 240,931 names of people who lost their lives in the battle.
These include 149,193 Okinawan civilians, 77,166 Japanese soldiers, 14,009 American soldiers, several hundred from Korea, and dozens of people from the UK and Taiwan.
Estimates about American losses are at about 82,000 casualties, with more than 13,000 killed or missing in action, and the rest suffering injuries, illnesses, or psychiatric consequences. The Battle of Okinawa caused more mental health issues than any other battle in the Pacific War, according to the Marine Corps Gazette.
The US Army lost more than 4,600 dead and 18,000 wounded, the US Marines Corps – 3,200 dead and 13,700 wounded, and the US Navy actually saw the highest number of combat deaths – almost 5,000 dead, and 4,900 wounded – because of kamikaze attacks.
The top US commander on the ground in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Buckner, was killed by Japanese artillery fire during a frontline inspection of troops four days before the end of the battle, becoming the most senior US military officer to be killed by enemy fire during World War II.
According to the estimates of the US military, a total of 110,071 Japanese soldiers were killed in the Battle of Okinawa, or 94% of all troops defending the island, while only some 7,000 Japanese soldiers surrendered.
The some 150,000 civilians who perished in the Battle of Okinawa are estimated to have made up between half and a third of the island’s total population in 1945.
Many of the civilians died as a result of mass suicide at the direction of Japanese soldiers who had told them that the Americans would commit mass slaughter and rape. There are records of numerous cases in which Japanese forces used locals as human shield. Many of the civilian deaths are also attributed to mass starvation caused by the confiscation of food from the locals by the Japanese military.
The capture of the island of Okinawa by the US forces did not end up resulting in the use of its airfields for the invasion of the Japanese mainland because the leadership of Imperial Japan decided to surrender not so long thereafter.
How much exactly the US victory in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War of World War II contributed to this decision remains a matter of debate. Yet, the fierce resistance of the Japanese troops, and the fact that it took the numerically and materially superior US forces nearly three months to subdue it, is deemed a major factor contributing to the American decision to seek to evade an all-out invasion of the four main Japanese islands, including by demonstrating the destructive power of America’s newly developed secret weapon, the atomic bomb.
It is well-known how the decades after the end of World War II in the Pacific, in which Okinawa was the bloodiest and the last major battle, altered the relationship between the United States and Japan:
From one between a victor and a loser who conceded unconditional surrender, to a robust alliance first directed against the threat of communism posed by the Soviet Union and Maoist China, to a just a little uneasy but continuing alliance, which might stabilize further as both the United States and Japan are geopolitically concerned by the rise of China in the past three decades.
To this day the Kadena Airbase – captured by US troops in the early stage of the Battle of Okinawa back in April 1945 – remains the largest US airbase in Asia, and the island of Okinawa – despite intermittent protests by locals – remains the home of 70% of American troops stationed in Japan.
The intensifying US – China rivalry for leadership in the Pacific as well as Japan’s concerns over the Chinese rise seem to guarantee that the massive American military presence on Okinawa is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The Boding for the Future
Despite all philosophical and rhetoric exercises in that direction the world over, history is not a bad teacher about the future. It’s just one whose lessons are not readily applied in that regard, and do require a lot of interpretation, with getting that interpretation right the most challenging part.
One of history’s main lessons is that what seems unimaginable at a certain moment in time, including with respect to the human life spheres with the greatest destructive potential such as great power wars – might easily become not just imaginable but also real, tangible, and life-threatening – from the Japanese attack on US soil (albeit in Hawaii) to the robust US-Japanese alliance.
Nonetheless, the greatest historical lesson from the story of the Battle of Okinawa seems frighteningly adequate with respect to the global political realities of the first half of the 21st century.
That lesson is that the largest sea, air, and land battle in human history – which was fought between the United States and Imperial Japan 75 years ago on a major island in the Indo-Pacific, might be what a major skirmish (for fear of a stronger word) might look like in the same region (maybe even on the same island) in the context of the great power rivalry between the United States and China.
Or in the lingering rivalry between China and Japan, China and Vietnam, etc., or in some other even more complex and large-scale configuration of the United States and its regional allies vs. China and its regional allies.
Tremendous technological advancements and the now wide-spread availability of nuclear weapons aside, any war scenario in the Indo-Pacific, hopefully a purely imaginative one, might look a lot like the closing stages of the Pacific War of World War II, and might involve a lot, if not all, of the same players.
Okinawa has been the largest sea, air, and land battle in history so far. In the 21st century, with East Asia, or the Indo-Pacific, as the world’s perhaps most important, potentially most prosperous, and certainly most populous geopolitical region, it is hard to imagine that any “skirmishes” would be anything but sea-air-and-land, plus cyber, plus space, plus AI & robotic machines, plus hybrid, plus potentially WMD, if they truly escalate, plus who knows what else.
(After all, who could imagine the use of child soldiers in the Battle of Okinawa and the Battle of Berlin, and the fact that anybody would think they might be of any military value. And they did prove not to be of any, but they were still “employed” to such means.)
The unprecedented scope and combined sea-air-land character of the Battle of Okinawa are its most distinctive and defining features.
For so much of today’s potential for geopolitical explosion has to do with precisely the type of stuff Japan and the United States fought over in the Pacific back during World War II – coastlines, islands, sea lanes, waterways, sea access, access to energy and other resources, exclusive zones, strategic spots and bases, and all in the same region – where Okinawa was once one of the most strategic spots, and, interestingly and not paradoxically so, remains one of those to this very day.
It is an extremely chilling thought that the Battle of Okinawa, the largest sea, air, and land battle there has ever been, might turn out to be the movie we’ve all already seen, but whose remake could now be in the making.
Because that would make the Battle of Okinawa that particular moment in the not so distant history that bodes horror for the not so distant future.
Ivan Dikov is the author of Got Nukes, Mr. Dictator? You Hold On to Them! and Madman Diplomacy: Is North Korea Trying to Bring Back Regime Change?, among other books.
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