Nissan's design chief, Shiro Nakamura, pops the door on a sleek Skyline coupe and runs his hand over the sliver of silver trim on the inside panel.
"The texture was inspired by Japanese paper," he says. "The shape, a Japanese sword."
He then points to the swept-back, eyelike headlamps: "Those come from Kabuki makeup."
Japanese swords? Kabuki mask makeup? It seems a stretch to link ancient Japanese cultural forms to modern car design.
But believe it or not, Nakamura's words typify a new self-confidence among Japanese designers that is redefining street style from London to Los Angeles.
Examples of the coming of age include the urban chic Scion xB and upcoming Nissan Cube, the transformation at Lexus and the latest wedge shapes from Honda.
Japanese cars were long dismissed as derivative and dull. But a distinct look is emerging, thanks to a generation of designers who have, in part, tapped Old Japan for new inspiration.
The result: paint surfaces glistening like silk kimonos, leather interiors graced with Zen calligraphy strokes and asymmetrical silhouettes inspired by traditional tea gardens.
The trend is in full swing. It was pioneered by Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., which labored for years to create an original Japanese look.
The goal: Show off their creativity and silence the critics.
"A German car feels like a German car. An Italian car feels Italian. Why can't a Japanese car feel Japanese?" says Toyota's head designer Wahei Hirai. "We needed to start from our own original base. That's why we decided to go back to our roots."