Childan is our favorite racist in this book. He's one of the main characters in the arts and crafts plot (see our "Brief Summary" for what we mean by that). He owns American Artistic Handcrafts, Inc., which primarily sells American antiques to rich Japanese administrators. (That is, he sells the fakes that "Frank Fink" makes to people like "Tagomi.")
This gives Childan a very curious social position, halfway between Americans and the Japanese. In fact, when we first meet him he's waiting for a package from the Rocky Mountain States to sell to Tagomi. That's a nice little summary of his position: selling things from the middle of the country to Japan. Because he spends so much time with powerful Japanese officials, Childan has adopted many Japanese manners, like bowing. And his style of talking sounds a lot more like Tagomi's speech than Frank Frink's, especially when he's talking to Japanese customers.
But does he like spending all this time with powerful Japanese officials and picking up their customs? No, no, he does not.
Because of the "POV," we get to see all of Childan's thoughts while he's selling Americana to the Japanese. Sometimes, Childan thinks about how great the Japanese are:
They're so graceful and polite. And I—the white barbarian. (7.45)
And yet, at the same time—in the same chapter!—Childan is pretty prejudiced against the Japanese:
These people are not exactly human. They don the dress but they're like monkeys dolled up in the circus.(7.105)
What a colossal jerk—is there anything worse than saying "those humans over there aren't as human as me"? Now, Childan is a pretty equal opportunity racist. He appreciates the German attempt to make Africa free of blacks (2.57), and he seems to go along with the Nazi propaganda about how Jews have hypnotic powers (7.140).
But Childan's racism against blacks and Jews is pretty one-sided, whereas his attitude about the Japanese can swing quickly from "they're great" to "they're just monkeys who copy white people." But maybe his envy and racism are actually related, not opposed. He's always fawning over the Japanese because that's the easier option—they're the ones with the money and the power, which he envies—but he's not happy with the situation or with himself. As he notes when he's at the Kasouras for dinner, "What I've been doing is to go along with the exterior motions because it is safer; after all, these are the victors … they command" (7.108).
But while he's going along with the "exterior motions," Childan seems to think that the Japanese can't penetrate to the authentic meaning of American culture: "It's all on the surface" (7.86). This makes it nicely ironic that Childan doesn't seem to be all that knowledgeable about the American culture that he's selling. For instance, he can't identity fake Civil War pistols (4.112); he doesn't appreciate American music, like jazz (7.59); and although he's very smug about his ability to understand Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, he's never read it (7.108).
So Childan's racism seems sometimes like he's complaining about things about the Japanese that are really wrong with him. It's classic projection. He says the Japanese only understand the surface—but he's the one who is stuck on the surface, going through the exterior motions. On one side, there's the "Kasouras"—who seem to appreciate both Japanese and American culture—and on the other side, there's Childan, who doesn't appreciate any culture. No wonder he's always so angry and nervous.
But Childan isn't our favorite racist because of his racism or his smugness. He's our favorite because he changes. For most of the book, Childan is obsessed with his status, wildly swinging between admiration and hate of the Japanese. But after Paul Kasoura gives Childan a big choice—go on exploiting American artists or respect the authentic art—Childan changes. For instance, he feels a sense of momentary peace. And he even demands an apology from Paul (11.181). It's almost as if he's less nervous about his social position and more willing to show his interior feelings. (We have this dream that he and Paul become friends and go on a road trip to New Orleans.)
The last time we see Childan is from Tagomi's POV, but it's notable that Tagomi thinks Childan has changed. Childan presents the Edfrank jewelry as something worth a second look, even after Tagomi says it's not for him. When Tagomi notices that "Childan did not cringe" (14.58), the implication is that he would have cringed once upon a time.
Because we don't get Childan's POV here, we can't say for sure that he's totally changed. He might be thinking terribly racist thoughts about Tagomi at this time. (If he is, we will fight him.) But from the outside, his manner has changed. Let's be honest: he's still not the greatest guy in the world. For instance, when Tagomi comes in hoping to sell back an "antique" gun, Childan doesn't say "actually, I learned that gun isn't an antique so I sold it to you under false pretenses" or "Okay." Nope, he says, "I—wonder if that did emanate from my store. I do not carry that item" (14.39)—which is totally a lie to protect himself.
So Childan isn't a great guy, but many of his changes are a clear swing from worse to better on many of the important themes:
History: Childan realizes that there's more to America than just the antiques of the past;
Prejudice: He seems to be less prejudiced against the Japanese, precisely because he thinks that America (and American art) has some possible future;
Power: He's not always doing whatever the powerful people tell him to do (and secretly hating them and himself for it). For instance, he comes out and disagrees with Tagomi, which means…
Society and Class: He seems less obsessed with how he seems to other people.
We're not going to pretend that Childan is the best hero in this book. Still, like many of the other characters in this book, he goes through a change from paying attention to external issues (skin color, the current sad state of America, social hierarchy) to realizing that there's something worthwhile underneath. That's why he can deal with Tagomi, not as a powerful Japanese official, but as a man who is going through a crisis.