Apparently there has been some concern about the proper pronouns for Nijigahara Holograph creator Inio Asano. Almost exactly a year ago, English-language anime and manga news sources reported that “Inio Asano Reveals Desire for Sex Change.” The source for that news was piece in the popular Comic Natalie, which in turn cited an interview in the March 2013 issue (which went on sale January 18, 2013) of the now defunct magazine Break Max. Unfortunately, that interview is not available online, and I could find no other Japanese language sources that directly quote the original article. (The fact that no one could be bothered to buy the magazine and read it for themself helps explain why the magazine only lasted for two more issues.) I have just ordered a used copy of the magazine, but it has not arrived yet.
I won’t bother to parse the exact wording of the Comic Natalie piece, since that piece was a paraphrase at best. What matters, though, is that the piece says that Asano “wishes he could have a sex change” (浅野に性転換願望がある). This was interpreted quite literally in the English-language press. The ever alert folks at Fantagraphics picked up on this and asked me, on October 15, 2013, to check on this for them. I did.
On October 15, I wrote to our contact person at Ohta Books, described the situation, and explained that while it was possible to write at length about a person in Japanese with out once referring to the person’s gender, it is an unfortunate characteristic of English that it is extremely difficult to avoid using “he/she/him/her,” and that we wanted to be sure we were using the pronouns Asano preferred. On that same day, I received the following response:
And here’s my literal translation:
Please use “He.” Regardless of any inside facts regarding Asano-sensei’s desires, his sex is male, so please use “He.” Otherwise it becomes complicated.
As you might imagine, this response did little to allay my concerns. At the risk of annoying our contact person, I requested (still on October 15) that she confirm the matter with Asano directly:
Thank you for your response. Although it indeed makes things complicated, the current in American mass media is to give the highest priority to the pronoun preferences of the individual, regardless of biological sex. The case of Asano-sensei has already spread throughout the otaku community in the U.S. If we were to use “he/him” without confirming with Asano-sensei directly, it is likely we would be criticized. I’m very sorry to trouble you, but I would be very grateful if you could confirm this with Asano-sensei directly. Thank you.
The following day (October 16), I received the following terse response. (Apparently I did in fact irritate our contact person.)
Please use “He.”
Apparently Asano-sensei said those things in a light hearted way (though I can’t express it well in words). The editor in charge was surprised by how far the ripples have spread.
The phrase “though [...] can’t express it well in words” is ambiguous. As is usually the case in Japanese, the subject of the clause is not specified. I am assuming based on the nuances of the wording and context that it is the Ohta representative who can’t express it well in words, not Asano. And I interpret that clause to mean that there was actually a long, complicated conversation, the gist of which was “Asano-sensei said those things in a light-hearted way.”
And while it may not be a satisfying response for fans who want a black and white answer to their questions about Asano’s gender identity, it is a perfectly legitimate response. Sometimes things “cannot be expressed well in words.” And that is sometimes the case with gender identity. Most trans* people are satisfied with (indeed, may insist on) a binary gender identification for themselves. Some don’t like to be pigeonholed as “male” or “female.” And that is fine for them.
Although I’ve never spoken about it publicly before, most of my closest friends know that my own gender identity is feminine. I am commonly mistaken for a cis heterosexual male, because my gender expression is mostly masculine (or at least not explicitly feminine), and I am known to be married to a person whose biological sex and gender expression is female/feminine. (And in fact her gender identity is feminine.) I spent many years in my twenties secretly pondering the possibility of transitioning to female, but ultimately decided against it. I am now more or less comfortable with my male body, but if you spend much time with me you will notice that I am not masculine. My way of dealing with this is to tell people with a smile that I am a lesbian born in a man’s body. Most people take that as a joke, and I don’t bother to disillusion them. More perceptive people recognize that I am not joking. For example, my wife (who is herself bisexual and was once in a serious, long-term relationship with a woman) immediately understood what I meant when I said that, and in fact felt that it answered some questions she had had about me. We think of ourselves as a lesbian couple, and sometimes say so in front of others (who generally assume we are joking).
The point being, gender identity, gender expression and sexuality are complicated and messy. In our eagerness to respect trans* identity, we should not make assumptions about a particular individual based on a common pattern. Just because an English-language Internet source reports that “Inio Asano Desires a Sex Change” based on a Japanese source which itself is a paraphrase of a Japanese source that few people even in Japan have actually read, we should not assume without confirmation from the individual in question that certain pronouns must be used.
What matters is what Asano prefers, and Asano prefers, at least for now, “he/him.”