The title The Custom House is taken from a sermon delivered toward the story’s end by missionary M. C. Welling and refers to a heavenly custom house wherein the content of departed souls’ earthly existence is assessed. This assessment is an excruciatingly penetrating one: No secrets are allowed by the heavenly customs official and no covering up of past sins is possible. All who enter the custom house receive the judgment they deserve.
Certainly, the title accurately describes the careful examination of lives undertaken by the narrator, William Knox, during his stay in Kyoto, Japan, in the period immediately following World War II. To Knox, Kyoto, like other Japanese cities in this era, is highly Americanized, so much so that old beliefs tied to emperor worship—for centuries the glue holding together the Japanese—have been scrapped for a materialistic outlook scarcely tempered by the introduction of Christianity.
Despite the fact that Knox attempts to keep his distance from missionaries such as the Amblesides, M. C. Welling, and other Westerners, he is inexorably drawn into their lives and affairs. Through the lovely Setsuko, a neighbor of Knox who studied at an American college, Knox has the opportunity to talk openly about both the missionaries’ deficiencies and those of the Japanese.
Setsuko intrigues Knox, for she agrees with him that modern Japan is cursed by the mindless, pervasive conformity of her people; by their cruelty toward anyone who will not conform; by Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, which has led to an often stultifyingly provincial outlook; and by her lack of moral direction or foundation. Knox, astonished by Setsuko’s insight into Japan’s shortcomings, finds himself in love with her. To a forty-four-year-old widower such as Knox, her fine intellect and beautiful features are overpowering. Yet, at story’s end, he discovers that she was typically Japanese in her duplicity, for word comes to him that she has fled Japan after having been found to have been a Soviet spy.
Central to The Custom House is the tragedy of the naive missionary, Welling, who teaches English to a group of Japanese young people by means of Bible studies. From the...
(The entire section is 923 words.)