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What exactly do we know about Japan? What is the image common Westerners have of this faraway country? A few films and comic books come to mind (not to mention high-tech equipment and vehicles), but it is more than likely that most of our Japanese imagery is second-hand. Despite globalisation, there is still a somewhat exotic aura surrounding the West's view of this ancient nation.

In terms of Japan's cultural exports, there are, of course, remarkable examples. For instance, the films of the great Akira Kurosawa, whose Seven Samurai (1954) earned him a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an indelible place in history. The interest Western film-makers have taken in Japanese cinema since then greatly resembles the craze for everything Japanese among the European artists of the previous century. Having been isolated from the world for more than 200 years, Japan reopened its doors to foreign influence in 1868, provoking an enormous exchange of goods with the West. Among these goods were ukiyo-e, the traditional Japanese woodblock prints that would prove a decisive source of inspiration for the likes of Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, James McNeill Whistler, and Vincent van Gogh. The latter not only adopted some formal lessons from Japanese artists, but even made direct homages to some of their works.

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