In Novel Japan, John Mertz elucidates the interplay between popular fiction and its political and economic contexts, showing how ideas of nationhood were often the incidental result of conflicting projects of modernization and literary representation.
To illustrate these mechanisms, the author explores cultural phenomena such as crime trial reportage, steamboat tourism, the market for overseas fashions, peasant uprisings, images of crowds, changing expressions of social mobility, and other topics rarely brought into discussions of literary history. For instance, crime trial fiction prompted readers to consider the fate of the nation as an extension of the politics of the courtroom. Images of women were used to allegorically represent the nation itself, suffering at the hands of corrupt government, yet comprising a potent force of political righteousness.
In the final chapters, Mertz examines the relations of these early Meiji works to the canon of modern Japanese literature, demonstrating the self-concealing nature of literary history, and questioning the role of the West as Japan's model for modernity. Novel Japan considers major popular writers Kanagaki Robun, Mantei Ōga, Fukuzawa Yukichi, Komuro Angaidō, Miyazaki Muryū, Yamo Ryūkei, Suehiro Tetchō, and Tsubouchi Shōyō, as well as translations from Bulwer-Lytton, Scott, Stepniak, Dumas, Verne, and others.