In art and literature, japonisme is related to Orientalism, the depiction of themes set in a mythic “Orient” (a term derived from the Latin word for “east”). Within the past 40 years, scholars have criticized Orientalism, asserting that exoticized representations of Asian cultures produced stereotypes that supported the colonial ambitions of Western powers. While Japan was never colonized by the West — unlike other parts of Asia — misrepresentation and stereotyping exist in japonisme alongside more nuanced understandings of the country.
For example, as interest in Japan grew, its culture was imagined to be feminine, as symbolized by courtesans and geishas. The frequency with which attractive women, or male actors dressed as women, appear in the Japanese prints and paintings available in the West reinforced this stereotype for some Western observers. A vogue for wearing imported kimono and similarly styled robes flourished in part because of the exotic and sensual associations attached to such clothing in the West.