Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Knox makes an ideal observer of the clash between Japanese and Occidental civilizations, one of the chief themes of the book. He dryly and ironically notes the postwar follies of the Japanese as well as those of the Westerners who have descended upon them to change their society “for the better.” As a freethinker and self-proclaimed agnostic, Knox can view the Church of England missionaries more objectively than one of their own number; as a foreigner with no emotional ties to Japan, he can see the Japanese as they really are.

What he sees is, for the most part, nightmarish. He despairs for modern Japan, finding in it false values and a lack of a modern culture it can call its own. As a nation, Japan, in Knox’s view, has become a mere copier of foreign ideas and products rather than an inventor of new ones. In the arts, the Japanese, hungry for Western approval, pay court to mediocre painters such as Aileen Colethorpe, the American artist who befriends Sanae, while, at the same time, their own artists, like Furomoto, choose to copy rather than create. More depressing still, Knox discovers that Japan has become devoid of moral dialogue, a place where beast preys upon beast, where the poor and weak are either ignored or destroyed and the strong and rich glory in their obscene triumphs.

A corollary theme found in The Custom House is that of the crippling conformity of the Japanese: their fear of being different in some way. To...

(The entire section is 550 words.)