This article presents a definitional and historicalsummary of `civil society' as a western concept, andthen traces how it was used in Japanese politicaltheory and practice. `Civil society' discourse becamea familiar term amongst post-war Japanese historiansand social scientists in the period 1945–1970, andthus preceded the recent international proliferationof `civil society' literature in the `west' from the1970s onwards. `Civil society' discourse waspoliticised in practice in Japan in the 1950s and1960s, principally in opposition movements wanting toencourage political participation by ordinarycitizens. While some `civil society' discourse inJapan was based on an idealisation of `western' ideasand practice, it is also the case that theindividualism and democratisation implied in `civilsociety' discourse has been very differently understood in `western' countries and very unevenlyinstituted in their political practice. A simpleEast–West frame makes significant similaritiesbetween Japanese ideas and practice and `western'concepts and politics disappear, and additionallycauses significant differences within the `west'regarding individualism and democratisation to becomeinvisible.