|

In the valley of the uncanny

by Thomas Dillon

I am at this bar, see, and with me are two friends.

Both have lived in Japan as long as I have, give or take, and both claim to like it here, mostly.

“Mostly my eye,” says my first friend. Let’s call him Mutt. And Mutt says, “I adore Japan! No qualifications whatsoever!”

“Likewise,” says my other friend. I’ll name him Jeff. “I love Japan. And if asked, ‘Why?’ the answer is simple . . .”

“. . . Because Japan loves me back.”

This, then, is a love story. Jeff and Japan; Japan and Jeff. Two peas in a passionate pod, like Romeo and Juliet, John and Yoko, Mickey and Minnie, Barbie and Ken . . .

“Oh shuttup.” Mutt is crying in his beer. For Japan doesn’t love Mutt. Never has and never will. No matter how hard he tries.

“What is wrong with me?” he wails. “I know every nuance of the spoken language, every single inflection. And I no longer need a kanji dictionary because I AM a kanji dictionary. Japanese history, pop culture, law and art — I can recite it all by verse, backwards and forwards, in my sleep, while playing the shakuhachi, and so on. But . . . “

And his lip curls down. “I am still unloved.” With this, he gestures to Jeff.

“Me? I know nothing about Japan at all. I speak the language like a baby with gas and can hardly get through a single day without gumming something up. The only time I cannot be classified as a walking disaster is when I’m sitting down.”

“Yet . . .” he smiles. “People fall over themselves to help me. Or to invite me to parties. Or to hire me. Or to do anything to help them spend money.”

“Meanwhile,” says Mutt, “I work like a jackhammer. I teach, I translate, I edit, I write. I take any job I can to make ends meet. Most of the time I live like a mole. And if I goof up, even a little, I catch it.”

“In my case, I goof up all the time,” says Jeff. “I am expected to be stupid and incompetent and I exceed expectations. And people love me for it.”

Why this discrepancy? Why does the capable fellow plough through the mud, while his incapable friend just slides? It is a matter of attitude? Luck? Fate?

“Or is it,” I say, “. . . the ‘Uncanny Valley’?” (Cue theme from the “Twilight Zone.”)

The Uncanny Valley is a theory first voiced by Japanese robotics wiz Masahiro Mori in 1970. The idea is that the more human-like a robot appears, the less humans will like it. Robots are cute. Androids are creepy. The Uncanny Valley speaks to that odd discrepancy in perception.

“But,” says Mutt, “I am not an android.”

We stare at him.

“I’m not! Really!”

Yet, I suggest, his plunge into Japanese culture has brought him too close to the edge of the valley. Everything about him says “foreigner.” Until he opens his mouth. Then a different signal is sent . . .

“That I have mastered Japan!”

“No, that you are CCREEPIO of the androids. You are more Japanese than Japanese. And people are unnerved. It’s like false advertising.”

“In my case,” says Jeff, “they get just what they’re looking for. An eager-beaver, smiley-faced guest. I have to be hand-held through daily life, but people enjoy helping me. And I am delighted by their kindness.”

“Right. You are the robot, cute and clumsy. While Mutt is the android, repulsive in his uncanny replication.”

“Repulsive!? Replication!? All I have done is to adapt to the culture!”

“Right again, but this is about love. And if you want to be loved, you need to be more WALL-E and less T-1000.”

We decide we need to test the Uncanny Valley theory. The judge will be our waitress.

Who flutters around Jeff as he fumbles his order. She smiles and giggles and pours on her high school English. When Jeff winks and asks her to marry him, she almost says, “Yes.”

And then it’s Mutt’s turn. He orders food in a cannonade of language and that’s just how the waitress looks — like she’s been shelled. Her eyes widened. She steps back. She seems lost for breath, dazed.

We nudge Mutt and when — in perfect Japanese — he proposes marriage, she screams and runs to the kitchen.

“Creepy as charged,” says Jeff.

“Alright . . .” Mutt fingers me. “But if I’m creepy and he’s cute, what are you!?”

“That’s easy,” I say. “I’m half creepy. Or half cute, depending on which half people see.”

And so how, asks Mutt, does one climb from the valley? Can one unlearn what has been learned? Reacquire innocence?

“Pick up the tab,” says Jeff, “and I’ll tell you.”

“That’s ‘reacquire innocence,’ not naivete.”

“If this is about love,” I say, “maybe what you need is another creep. A Japanese woman with a machine-like zeal for foreign culture. They exist, I’m sure.”

“Well forget that!” says Mutt. “I would much rather have someone cute!”

And there you have it . . . The Uncanny Valley in a nutshell.