Johann Arnason’s exploration of the historical constellation of East Asia has helped reproblematize the conceptual framework of modernity and civilization. This article outlines Arnason’s innovations in civilizational analysis and social theory in the field of comparative studies of Japan. It sets out the terms on which a nuanced elaboration of Arnason’s framework could occur. Two areas warrant closer attention: state formation and the institution of capitalism. It is argued that there are signs of what might be termed a ‘tertiary’ phase of state formation, implicit in Arnason’s discussion of advanced modernity. Moreover, this phase brought Japan into close contact with the newly unfolding context of the West’s civilizational imaginary, particularly in its ideological expressions of evolutionism. The article ends on the problematic of capitalism, raising questions about further potential theoretical developments based on Arnason’s conclusions and other inventive studies of Japanese capitalism.