In our speech and even in our thought we frequently divide the world into two great parts, occidental and oriental. To distinguish broadly between two great cultural spheres, this categorisation is at times convenient, but if it obscures the fact that there are many characteristics common to both east and west, or gives the impression that either is homogeneous, it is exceedingly misleading. Within both occident and orient there are areas that, because of topographic, climatic, or racial differences, display unique cultural patterns. On the other hand, throughout known history, interflow of cultural elements between eastern and western civilisations and among the various subdivisions in each has tended to reduce regional idiosyncrasies. Aside from that, the reaction of the human animal, oriental or occidental, to similar circumstances has ordinarily produced similar results. Thus, while Japan and China are both classed as "oriental" and are, indeed, considered by many to be very much the same, because of natural differences, they are and always have been dissimilar. Indeed, paradoxical though it seems, Japan's political, economic, and social history resembles that of certain "occidental" nations to a greater extent than it does that of China.
The history of Japanese art is, in a sense, the history of the spread of Asiatic, and particularly Chinese, cultural elements to the island kingdom of Japan and of the reaction of the Japanese people to them. For hundreds of years prior to the late nineteenth century Japan was continually buffeted by the out-pourings of the older and more cosmopolitan culture of China. It is probably no exaggeration to say that in all realms of life the Japanese have at some time or another been influenced by the civilisation of their affluent neighbours. Yet the process whereby the continental culture was adopted into this small insular nation was, of necessity, not a matter of sheer copying. On the contrary, since what was suitable and pleasing to the inhabitants of the continent was usually unnatural and frequently totally impracticable to the islanders, elements imported from China were almost invariably reinterpreted, revised, or altogether rejected. The result of this assimilation was a Japanese culture, which, while rooted in Chinese civilisation, was nevertheless a thing completely unto itself.
Direct Japanese imitation of Chinese models is perhaps more evident in the arts than in any other phase of life, and yet, at the same time, the developed arts of Japan contrast greatly with those of China. Chinese subjects, Chinese materials, and Chinese styles have played a tremendous role in the evolution of Japanese art, but differences in aesthetic sense between the Japanese and the Chinese peoples have given rise to distinct modes of expression among them. Throughout the present work we shall have occasion to call attention to this phenomenon. It will be seen that, notwithstanding their wholesale borrowings from the Asiatic continent, in the formative arts the Japanese have retained and expressed an ego of their own.
Alien contacts are such a vital factor in the history of Japanese art that it will perhaps be helpful to give a very brief summary of them here.