This essay concerns three of Japan's most famous novels and one propaganda tract, all written with pedagogical intent. Each crafted a sense of what it means to be a human being open to or closed down from the social and political world. Each was written during a critical turning point in the nation's cultural and political life, when forms of political engagement, democratic or anti-democratic, were at issue: Mori Ogai's 1890 The Dancing Girl, in the first mature bloom of Japan's cultural modernity and the formative years of a new democratic state; Natsume Soseki's 1914 Kokoro, during the dark climax of that modernity, with democracy still very much alive; the 1936 Essence of the National Polity, a book-length propaganda essay produced by a committee of literary scholars and political hacks in the linguistic vacuum of fascist Japan; and Oe Kenzaburo's 1964 A Personal Matter, in the politically contentious years of the early 1960s, at the beginning of the movement of the antinuclear left.

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