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Japonisme and Orientalism

In 1872, French intellectual Philippe Burty became one of the first writers to use the term japonisme to describe the cultural phenomena considered in Looking East: the West’s growing interest in Japan and its exports, and artists’ exploration of Japanese subject matter and styles. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co., went as far as declaring that his company’s products would be “even more Japanese than the Japanese themselves.” 

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. 

Courtesan in the snow at the new year
Courtesan in the snow at the new year, 1804–1818, by Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Fenollosa‑Weld Collection, 11.4628.

Womans dressing gown
Woman’s dressing gown, approx. 1900. Japan. Silk plain weave (taffeta) embroidered with silk; silk plain weave lining; braided silk cord and tassel trim. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Elizabeth Ann Coleman, 2001.933.1–2.

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.