I’ve walked across the Sophia University campus in Tokyo, Japan almost every day at 9:10 a.m. for the last few months. The entire campus is shaped like a gigantic T, and from the Yotsuya train station it took me about 10 minutes to turn the corner, walk straight through the main gates and down the long end of the T until I got to the building that housed the Faculty of Comparative Culture, affectionately referred to as the “Gaijin Ghetto” by its inhabitants, most of whom were international students.

Normally, I would show up to school in a T-shirt, jeans and sandals; hopelessly underdressed by the standards of most Sophia students, but I didn’t particularly care. I would only see most of the other students while we were making the long trek across the campus, and general campus-walking etiquette requires that one either look straight ahead, far off into the horizon or stare down at the ground immediately ahead of oneself, the idea being that these two postures are ideal for avoiding unnecessarily awkward eye contact with strangers. This, of course, meant I was blissfully ignorant of wardrobe-based judgments of my character.

The exception to all of this was my bright green 1UP mushroom T-shirt, which inspired even the most tenuous of acquaintances to comment, with genuine curiosity, “So, you know Mario?” More excitable individuals would simply point and yell “Ichi-Appu!” to get my attention. The shirt was, I already knew, tragically, hopelessly otaku, particularly because Japan’s 8-bit memories haven’t been merchandised to the college crowd quite like they have in the U.S., but they didn’t seem to mind. There was no subtlety to my character while I wore the 1UP; it transformed me from an ethnically ambiguous, mysterious foreigner to a dorky American kid who violated the first rule of the Japanese Dress Code by wearing his heart on his sleeve. At least it wasn’t an icon of obscure Japan-worship, like some cult anime character. Mario is relatively harmless, I thought.

After all, Mario is everywhere. He is on New Super Mario Bros. billboards; he is in TV spots starring well-known Japanese actresses; he has his own brand of curry. He shows up in Nintendo-sponsored trivia ads on the Yamanote train line that runs in a loop around downtown Tokyo. If you know where to look, you can find someone’s rendition of Yoshi hidden in Harajuku’s Takeshita-doori. And, of course, he shows up on Game Boys and Nintendo DSes all over. Seeing pink Nintendo DSes in the hands of girls and women of all ages isn’t so surprising when it hits the fastest-selling-console- in-Japanese-history milestone, which isn’t to say that you won’t see plenty of PSPs dotting Tokyo’s portable landscape, for that matter, or tiny laptops with mahjong games. Or cell phones playing baseball sims. This is the same country that brought us the Final Fantasy Potion; of course games are everywhere.

And yet, despite the incredible saturation of Mario in Japan, people were surprised that I wore the 1UP. Average young Japanese people had no idea how popular Mario is overseas. They probably haven’t seen the Super Mario Brothers Super Show, the movie with John Leguizamo, eaten the Nintendo cereal or any of that. Never mind that Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders has successfully penetrated the Japanese market; imagining the reverse, that a Japanese symbol has become an integral image of an entire American generation, is completely unthinkable. Likewise, of course, with Final Fantasy‘s rampant American popularity; to the Japanese who haven’t encountered American fan-people, the idea that Sephiroth occupies the hearts and minds of a million LiveJournals is nigh impossible to imagine.

In the United States, kids who play videogames are relatively “normal”; it is not considered unusual for the children of the last few decades to lust after whatever the flavor-of-the-month game system is. As we age, our platform may change with us; perhaps we will change to a more “adult” platform like the Xbox or the N-Gage. But at some point, the grown man who spends more of his weekend on home improvement in Second Life than his real life is seen as an anomaly. In Japan, videogames are more accessible – there are thriving arcades in most major commercial centers, for one, and almost everyone spends one-sixth of their waking life on a train with nothing better to do than play games – and so it’s not so uncommon to find a mid-30s salary man playing Dragon Quest VIII.

Games are accessible, which means more people play games, which means playing games is less weird, and so it’s not so surprising when my friend Emi, a third-year college student, points out DQVIII as her favorite while I’m running errands in Akihabara’s Electric Town. Yes, people who play too many games are still considered weird – with the notorious examples of “hikikomori,” shut-ins that tend to spend their days insulated in their bedrooms in their parents’ house, playing games all day being a prime example – but presence of games alone, in acceptable contexts, is not necessarily enough to be what we call a “gamer.”

Present-day America does not have the identity of “moviegoer” in the same sense that we consider our gamers. A DVD player alone is not enough to constitute part of our identity; we are science-fiction moviegoers, action moviegoers or Johnny Depp moviegoers. The analogue to a gamer is, perhaps, a “film buff,” but of course, the film buff is characterized not simply by knowledge of movies but excessive knowledge of movies.

This is why it’s a little weird when I wear my 1UP tee, and a little weirder to see Super Potato, Akihabara’s legendary retro game store, populated by wolf packs of college-age Americans. Japanese people – the ones who know Electric Town well enough to know about Super Potato, at any rate – stop by to get in a quick game of Super Mario Bros. 3. Americans come on a pilgrimage. We gasp and drool in awe over something that everyone else takes for granted. We incorporate the gaming into our identity. Everyone else thinks that’s kind of weird.

A fellow American international student landed a sweet job teaching English in Tokyo for about US$30 an hour. One of his students – a housewife in her early 40s – carried Mickey Mouse emblems on her electronic dictionary, handkerchief, watch, cellular phone, cosmetic pouch, even her imitation Louis Vuitton handbag, and introduced herself as “Miki.” “I really like Mickey Mouse,” she said on the first day. As Americans, perhaps we’re not surprised enough to ask, “Oh, you know Mickey Mouse?” because, well, everybody grew up with Mickey Mouse, didn’t they? We won’t, generally speaking, handle Mickey Mouse with the same amount of retro cool that we regard the 1UP. In fact, we might think it’s kind of weird when grown people saturate their belongings with him. But searching for the barest hint of familiarity, like Mickey or the 1UP, can be enough push someone over that cultural gap and hesitantly stammer in a language that’s not their own, “You know Mario?” Which in turn could lead you to “Do you play videogames?” “Oh, you like kickboxing, too?” or, more often than not, “You like drinking?”

Mario – and the 1UP – will not make you look more Japanese any more than adorning her accessories with Mickey Mouse will make a Japanese woman look more American. They will not speak volumes about your personality the way that they can in the U.S. They’re not a cultural skeleton key, guaranteeing you acceptance into another people’s way of viewing the world. But making the effort helps bridge gaps that have been open for far too long. That, I think, is good enough.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.

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