Regarding Inio Asano’s gender identity

Nijigahara Holograph

Nijigahara Holograph

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:


Literal translation:

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.”

  1. Snarp’s avatar

    Would you like blog posts, etc. mentioning you to be edited to use she/her pronouns?

  2. Matt’s avatar

    Snarp, I saw that question coming. LOL To be honest, I need to think about it. Until, then either way is fine. I suppose I qualify as “genderqueer,” but for me that term implies a specific kind of presentation that is not me.

  3. Snarp’s avatar

    Just checking; I’ve been sloppy about people’s pronouns in the past, and am trying to be more careful about that. :)

  4. Anna’s avatar

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your translation of Wandering Son was really important to me – the first volume came out shortly after I transitioned, and it helped me feel less alone.

    Also, if ‘genderqueer’ doesn’t quite fit, have you considered bigender, genderfluid, or possibly even femme? I don’t know if you are especially looking for an identity label for your gender or not, but I thought I’d throw those out there in case you’ve never come across them.

  5. Matt’s avatar

    Thank you, Anna! I’m so glad you found Wandering Son comforting. That is something I was hoping for when I chose it. Of the terms you offered, “genderqueer” is certainly the one that most accurately describes me. I suppose I’m femme compared to most cis hetero men, but if I actually had a female body, people would probably describe me as, if not “butch,” then probably “boyish.” On the other hand, early in our relationship, my wife confessed that she had initially worried that we might not work out, “because we’re both femmes.” LOL

  6. RF’s avatar

    Thanks for telling your gender story — I really appreciate hearing it. I’ve been coming to terms lately with my own gender, which I’ve tried to fit into various pots over the years without success. I’ve always presented and identified as a lady, more or less, but there are all these layers inside that I don’t think I’ll ever untangle. I feel like a lot of my friends are in the same situation. To hear you say this so frankly and simply makes me feel even more that gender identity isn’t about choosing what to call ourselves, but about accepting what we are, whether it makes “sense” or not. Words can follow from that, and if some people think those words are a joke or a contradiction or a pretension, it doesn’t change anything.

  7. Matt’s avatar

    Thank you, RF! Yes. There is no need to force yourself into one of the small number of pots that society widely acknowledge. I’ve been conducting a survey of students at my university (Kyoto Seika University), and I am finding that when these students are given a range of choices beyond “male/female/heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual,” so-called cis heterosexuals are not even a majority.
    I asked about gender identity and sexual orientation, but in a somewhat unconventional way.

    For gender identity, I asked respondents to check their “gender identity” and offered these choices: woman/man/mostly woman/mostly man/about half woman and half man/neither/other.” (I’m translating from the Japanese here.) For “sexual orientation,” I offered these choices: “I am only romantically attracted to men”/”I am only romantically attracted to women”/”I tend to be attracted more to men”/”I tend to be attracted more to women”/”I am attracted to both sexes more or less equally”/”I do not feel romantic attraction to either (asexual)”/”other.”

    So far (I am still collating data), only 68% of respondents whose biological sex is female have identified themselves as “woman.” A surprising 12% have identified themselves as “about half woman and half man,” and 4% have identified themselves as “mostly man.” Of the biological males, 80% identified themselves as “man,” while 9% identified themselves as “about half woman and half man.”

    The big surprise, though, came when I looked at the responses to sexual orientation. Only 55% of biological females identified themselves as being attracted only to men. A full 14% identified themselves as being “attracted to both sexes more or less equally.” Of the biological males, 83% said they were only attracted to women, but a surprising 9% said they were only attracted to men.

    Of course, these are all kids aged 18 to about 23. They are also enrolled in a university with an “artsy” image. And the bulk of my students are studying art, design, or manga/anime, so they may not be representative of other Japanese of the same age.

    Still, I think my questionnaire demonstrates that people may not fit as neatly into a handful of clear categories as we often assume, and that true “cis heteros” may be less common than we think.

    Maybe Facebook should add “It’s complicated” as an option to more than just relationship status.

  8. antoinette elizabeth’s avatar

    Your work has meant so much to me as a queer and genderqueer person, both in small me-ways and Big Whole World ways. Thank you for doing it, and thank you for sharing this.

    And you are right, it IS complicated, for so many of us. There’s something about the space created by much of the stuff you have reviewed and translated that makes that OK in a way I don’t see happening in much Western media. I know I’m not the only one this grateful for it!

  9. Matt’s avatar

    Thank you so much, Antoinette! That means so much to me.

  10. RS’s avatar

    Thank you for this article. When I heard about Asano wanting a sex change/SRS, I started to use female pronouns for him without really looking into the story. And thank you for talking about your own gender identity as well.

    I’m really glad to have found your blog; I was super excited to see your translations of Wandering Son, The Heart of Thomas, and Drunken Dream at my library. You’re one of my role models.

  11. Matt’s avatar

    Thank you, RS! You flatter me. *blush*

  12. Johan’s avatar

    Matt, is it alright to refer to you as “they” (or my language’s equivalent) when talking about you? (I saw your reply about “she” in the comments above.) Sometimes your name comes up in discussions, such as yesterday when I was talking about Hagio Moto with a friend. (Which in turn prompted me to come here today and I happened to read your blog posts.) I’d hate to use wrong pronouns for you. I identify as nonbinary myself.

    Since I’m writing anyway, thank you always for your writings and translations. I think you are wonderful. Best wishes from Sweden — where I’m reading “zankoku na kami ga shihai suru” in the cold autumn weather…

  13. Matt’s avatar

    Johan, thanks for asking! I am fine with “they.” As a former English (writing) major, I long resisted the use of “they/them” in the singular, but now I feel that it’s the most practical solution to the lack of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in English. So, yes, please refer to me as “they.” Or “she.” Last time I responded here, I think I said “he/him” is fine, too, but in recent months I feel more and more uncomfortable with that. I just have never been able to see myself as “he,” and recently I’m finding the courage to say so out loud.

    And thank you for the kind words about my work!


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