The Japanese Civilising Process

  • Wai Lau

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the patterns of development found in Japanese society to establish how structural and psychological changes led to the Japanese seeing themselves as ‘more civilised’ than their forebears and neighbouring countries in the nineteenth century that contributed to the breakdown of their civilisation in the twentieth century. While existing scholarship from Eiko Ikegami, Shmuel Eisenstadt, and Johann Arnason sought to explain the development of the Japanese, they focus on a structuralist or culturalist approach. Both approaches have been limited and problematic because they have reached an impasse. To bridge this scholarly impasse, I have employed a novel approach by examining the development of Japanese society in a four-dimensional approach from longitudinal and latitudinal and macro and micro ways. Using Norbert Elias’s theory of civilising processes as the foundation of this thesis, I have traced the long-term developments in Japanese society from the seventh century to the nineteenth century. By drawing from primary and secondary sources in particular, I have illustrated various complex underlying psychological and structural processes similar to those found in Europe by Elias. Although the theory of civilising processes outlined in 'On the Process of Civilisation' by Elias is the most crucial reference point, I have drawn from other parts of his writing to trace how the Japanese cultural arts (e.g., the tea ceremony), the Japanese court society (e.g., imperial and warrior courts), and the Japanese state-formation process (e.g., imperial and warrior state formations) form the civilising process in Japan. Moreover, to compensate for some shortfalls that Elias’s theory presents when examining the civilising process in Japan, I have engaged with writings from other scholars that have built on a partially scholarly consensus on the historical experience of the Japanese to address the different complex questions that have emerged. As such, by examining the Japanese civilising process, this thesis has presented an alternative way to understand the complex development of Japanese society and interceded into an ongoing debate about the applicability of Elias’s theory in a non-Western context by establishing, with minor modifications, a way to address developments beyond Europe.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPeter Mcmylor (Supervisor) & Penny Tinkler (Supervisor)


  • Human Behaviour and Emotions
  • Violence
  • State-Formation Processes
  • Culture
  • Civilising Process
  • Process Sociology
  • Norbert Elias
  • Japanese Society
  • Civilisation
  • Modernity

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