On Digimon, gender, pronouns, and translating

Translation by PositronCannon

This quote (or dubbed versions of it thereof) gets passed around a lot in Digimon circles as proof that “Digimon are genderless”. Unfortunately, as much as it’d be nice to just leave it at that, in actuality Digimon as a franchise isn’t so simple about the topic as a translator would like it to be. Since this obviously impacts how a translator like myself should approach Digimon, Digimon gender, and gendered pronouns from here on out, I thought I should devote a post to this in case I have to refer back to it in the future as a rationale for why I make certain decisions.

This is a post purely dedicated to the likely authorial intent of Digimon and how I plan to go about translating that. It does not apply to fans’ headcanons, and does not even apply to my own headcanons. If you decide to read this and go “well, screw that, I’m going to ignore this and do things my own way,” I outright endorse it. It is purely an explanation and analysis of what is presented within the series itself as-is, which is important from the translation perspective, and what you, the reader, decide to do with it is entirely up to you.

Firstly, you may know this already if you’ve read stuff about Japanese/English translation, but Japanese does not commonly use third-person gendered pronouns. That doesn’t mean they don’t have them (they do — kare and kanojo for “he” and “she”), but because Japanese is a language where you can just drop anything from a sentence when it’s clear with context, usually it’s just the name, or it’s nothing at all. This makes it very, very easy for a Japanese work to obscure or even forget to specify the gender of a character (and unfortunately, quite a bit of pain for the translator who has to work around that with a language that very much does mandate pronoun usage — very difficult for “hidden identity” plot twists and all that).

However, Japanese does have gendered language. The most famous is the first-person pronouns — boku vs. atashi, for instance — but even things like emphasis particles will have things like “feminine” and “masculine” suffixes. These aren’t as clear-cut as “he”/”she” tend to be perceived as (a girl using boku would still be perceived as a “tomboyish girl” more than anything) but they are, nevertheless, present. (Note that this is mostly in regards to fiction, and standard Japanese is much closer to gender-neutral in real life, but since we’re talking about a fictional franchise in this post, we’ll be taking fictional language styles into account.)

Finally, it is again worth noting that Japanese gender politics are very different from Western gender politics, and especially Japanese gender politics from the late 1990s-early 2000s where a lot of these materials originate from. The word used in the rest of these discussions, in the original Japanese text, is more often than not seibetsu (性別), which is basically analogous to the English concept “biological sex”. In other words, much of the below discussion has to do with the involved early 2000s writers most likely equating “biological sex” and gender identity to be roughly the same thing. Ow. On the flip side, note that there are signs that the approach to this issue has been changing in more recent years, and there have historically been times where staff members or fans have had informal discussion over whether this applies on the social construct level as well; however, there has still been no definitive official statement on all of this.

Obviously, the fact that they were likely thinking that way back then is a can of worms in itself, and, as I would like to reiterate yet again, I do not personally approve of this stance at all (and the whole idea of “biological sex” is yet another can of worms to begin with). However, this was, as I can unfortunately attest, a much more common mainstream attitude in the late 90s and early 2000s than it is now.

Modern Japanese discussion on gender identity as an entity distinct from birth-assignment usually refers to gender identity with the words “seijinin” (性自認) or “seitou itsusei” (性同一性), both analogous to the English phrase “gender identity”, or the English loanword “gender” (ジェンダー). Nonbinarism would be something like “X-gender” (Xジェンダー), “genderless” (ジェンダーレス), or “non-gender” (ノンジェンダー). Nowadays, the word “nonbinary” (ノンバイナリー) itself is starting to enter vocabulary as well. None of these words are present in any official Digimon materials on this topic, meaning we have to look very closely at context to see what’s being communicated here.

While the anime has always had moments like Gomamon being kicked out of the girls’ side of the bath (from episode 9 of Adventure), one of the earliest materials we have that more directly addresses the concept of Digimon and gender(?) comes from Hiroyuki Kakudou’s notes on Adventure, specifically episode 50:

By nature, Digimon don’t have gender [seibetsu], but among the rare exceptions are Angewomon and LadyDevimon.

Trying to describe any kind of so-called “biological” element here whatsoever makes this completely fall apart, especially since we’re talking about Digimon, which have no concept of non-egg-based reproduction as far as we’re aware. So mainly the reason why Angewomon and LadyDevimon are supposed to be “exceptions” are because they look sufficiently feminine to be classified as female in some sense. Basically, the only way you can rationalize “Digimon don’t have gender, except when they do” is when you apply the unfortunately-very-common-in-the-90s perspective where physical features are supposed to be the “intrinsic” aspect and outward qualities are supposed to define gender, and…well, this seems to be a pretty unpleasant example, but the point of the matter is that this is most likely that sort of mentality at play, rather than trying to define the majority of Digimon species as nonbinary.

Tamers and Renamon probably give us the closest thing to a conclusive answer we have on this topic — but, again, it is much more of a complicated situation than what the screenshot by itself would suggest.

In fact, discussing Renamon requires going back to the original notes behind their conception:

At first, I had a sort of androgynous image in mind for Renamon. Officially, digimon [sic] do not have gender; however, many Digimon such as Agumon and Gabumon acted like young boys, and there are quite a few obviously female digimon as well. If anything, gender seems fairly easy to identify in digimon.

Eventually, Renamon would become Sakuyamon, a very feminine digimon. I thought that I was start [sic] Renamon out as a “genderless” digimon, and have that be a large part of its personality.

Further interesting tidbits alluding to Digimon and gender show up in Leomon’s profile:

Up to this point, almost all of the digimon-partner pairs were of the same gender. I thought that it might be best for Jeri to have a male digimon as a partner, and chose Leomon, who had made quite an impact in Digimon Adventures [sic] (Season One).

So we’ve already established some interesting points of context:

  • Konaka’s usage of the word seibetsu also seems to have a similar “Digimon don’t have gender, except when they do” aura to it, even to the point of saying it’s “fairly easy to identify”.
  • Renamon’s status as androgynous or outright genderless is considered to be a particularly notable feature specific to themself.
  • In the original Japanese text, Leomon is referred to as “male (type)” (男性(タイプ)).

Going into Tamers itself, we get to see a lot of the characters in action. One thing Tamers pays close attention to is its own use of first-person pronouns. Takato himself uses the masculine-polite boku as his first-person pronoun, in direct contrast to most Digimon protagonists who favor the masculine-aggressive ore, and would distinguish himself as the only lead Digimon protagonist to use such until Appmon‘s Haru Shinkai. Guilmon refers to himself in third person (“Guilmon”) to represent his childishness at the start of the series, but, starting episode 12, starts to phase into boku to reflect his growing sense of self-awareness.

Notably, Tamers has actually gone as far to exploit first-person pronouns to establish masculinity — that is, in the case of Lopmon. Lopmon, perpetually speaking in archaic Japanese, normally employs the archaic ware, but in episode 42 — a whole nine episodes after his introduction — is instructed by Shaochung to use boku. This is notable because it implies there’s some reason Shaochung is specifically instructing him to use a masculine pronoun (she herself uses atashi, so there has to be a reason she wants him to use a pronoun different from her own). There is a possibility that she expects Lopmon to use boku because Terriermon does, but, practically speaking, most likely this was the writers’ way of communicating that we were supposed to read him as masculine in spite of his more feminine-coded pink design. (Notably, either the American dub writers didn’t get the memo nine episodes ahead or decided to simply disregard it, and treated Lopmon with she/her pronouns.)

This brings us to Renamon, who uses watashi. Watashi is, for the most part, gender-neutral; while for males it would normally be associated with mature or polite characters, Renamon certainly fits the bill. This makes the gender they’re supposed to be presenting as ambiguous from the get-go. Allegedly, similar ambiguity with Tailmon in Adventure, who also uses watashi and has a fairly formal attitude, almost led the American dub writers to mistake her for male*, and the German dub also ended up interpreting Renamon as male. And in case you’re wondering, Taomon’s onmyouji outfit is gender-neutral.

*Actually, Jeff’s story doesn’t track entirely — he says that what got the staff to realize Tailmon was female was V-mon’s crush on her in Adventure 02, but the Adventure dub was written near-simultaneously with the Japanese version, meaning Adventure 02 hadn’t even existed yet. However, it’s quite likely he’s actually just remembering wrong — it takes several episodes before we first see Tailmon start using feminine sentence ender particles, and Angewomon first appears a whole ten episodes after Tailmon’s initial introduction, which fits the suggested timeline for the dub staff realizing their mistake and backpedaling before it was too late — so it’s very plausible for this to otherwise be a true story.

So we get all the way to Sakuyamon’s introduction, and Sakuyamon, on top of visually looking very feminine, also uses feminine language. This might lead to a lot of people deciding, “well, that clearly means Renamon is feminine too,” but ah, remember — Sakuyamon is mostly so overtly feminine when all her previous forms are not specifically because of the presence of Ruki. (Ruki, while generally rejecting overtly feminine aesthetics, still uses the feminine-casual atashi, also used by characters such as Miyako or Nokia.) It’s notable that the above screenshot discussing Renamon’s gender (from episode 49) comes after Sakuyamon’s initial introduction.

So what does that conversation say?

Renamon: Ruki.
Ruki: What?
Renamon: I really shouldn’t be sitting here at this table…
Ruki: You’re saying this now? You went along with it earlier…
Rumiko: Renamon, you’re a girl, right?
Renamon: Digimon don’t fundamentally have gender [seibetsu]…
Rumiko: But you’re definitely a girl, so that makes you part of our family.

Recall that a big deal has historically been made about the fact that, in the absence of Ruki’s father, the Makino household is all-female. Judging from context, it’s hard to imagine Rumiko is trying to deliberately misgender Renamon as much as she’s attempting to define a gender identity as much as staying within the constraints of the word seibetsu will allow, especially since she just saw Sakuyamon earlier: “Digimon may not technically have the distinction, but if you are a girl, you should be welcome at our table.” However, Renamon does not actually give a response to Rumiko about whether they’re a “girl” or not.

This is important because it means that, even to the end of the series, Renamon being of ambiguous gender and potentially nonbinary persists and is in direct contrast to most of the other Digimon presented in Tamers. (The reason why it’s “most”: Culumon and MarineAngemon also lack any gendered language.) In fact, in context, this scene says far more about Renamon as an individual character than it does about Digimon in general; the fact that Renamon’s first response to being asked about gender is “Digimon don’t technically have them” indicates that gender (or any other arbitrary human social construct, for that matter) has never been a priority to them nor something they’ve particularly ever cared about all that much.

For the record, there is a Renamon in Savers, or, more specifically, its video game (Digimon Savers Another Mission, localized as Digimon World Data Squad), voiced by the male voice actor Susumu Chiba. Who uses watashi, and evolves into the incredibly feminine-coded Lilithmon. I’ll leave the rest to you to figure out.

Moving on from Tamers, we get the example most often used as a rebuttal to the various assertions about Digimon not having gender: Xros Wars‘ Cutemon, who is not only referred to with language like “son” (musuko/息子), but also establishes, in episode 28, for the benefit of both the characters and the audience: “I’m a boy!!” No ambiguity here; it’s a solid, impossible-to-dispute otoko no ko/男の子. Cutemon is male.

So exactly what relevance does this have to other franchise branches? As many people have already pointed out, it’s hard to say. Xros Wars is unique in that due to the mechanics of how it works (no eggs, actual biological reproduction going on, hence why something like seibetsu might be considered a bit more pertinent to the lore), perhaps that kind of thing is exclusive to the Xros Wars universe. In the end, very little conclusive info can be taken from it — but, nevertheless, there is a Digimon out there who cares enough about his gender to have a very strong opinion on it.

The final topic for today is Cyber Sleuth/Hacker’s Memory, which muddles things up much further. On one hand, you actually get NPC Digimon willing to flout their masculinity/femininity using words like otoko and onna (most notably, a Lilimon referring to herself as a “girl in love”, who gets rejected by a human NPC who explicitly says that he’s only into guys). On the other hand, however, Cyber Sleuth/Hacker’s Memory has a remarkably cavalier attitude towards gender, in ways that even prior Digimon entries didn’t often have. (Perhaps driving it even further, there’s actually a human NPC who directly states themself to be nonbinary at one point.) There are Digimon for whom the game completely just does not state any gender at all, and there’s no voice actor you can work off of — and the localization doesn’t really help you, because it’s so permeated with mistranslations in general that it’s hard to consider it reliable.

The most spoiler-free example is Erika’s Wormmon, a Digimon that had historically been portrayed as masculine (most notably, Ken Ichijouji’s Wormmon, a boku user). Erika’s Wormmon uses atachi, a “baby-ish”, clipped version of the feminine pronoun atashi. Notably, her language becomes progressively more and more feminine as the game progresses, mainly because it’s implied that she and Erika are starting to resemble each other more and more to the extent that Wormmon’s own personality is adopting Erika’s feminine mannerisms. As Wormmon and Erika’s personalities start to become indistinguishable, Wormmon eventually starts using Erika’s watashi.

The really significant examples, however, are the spoilery ones, and since Cyber Sleuth/Hacker’s Memory is still a fairly recent game, I’ll put this under a cut:

LordKnightmon and Alphamon have typically been portrayed as masculine Digimon, but are revealed to be “inhabiting” women, and seem to have adopted their voice actors, too. In fact, the fact that they’re present in female characters comes off as a huge plot twist in itself. This is notable especially because past entries had consistently tried to make it a point that LordKnightmon is masculine despite being pink and into “beauty”, but here, this one is inhabiting a very feminine woman and is voiced by the female Aya Hisakawa. Alphamon, on the other hand, has Kyoko speak with a mildly masculine affect in her language, and when you meet the “real” Kyoko at the end of the game, the fact she uses feminine sentence ender particles instead is one of the first things to clue you in that this isn’t exactly the same Kyoko you knew before.

Even more notably, if you add a LordKnightmon or Alphamon to your party, they’ll have male voice actors instead of Aya Hisakawa or Maaya Sakamoto. Does that mean the plot-relevant LordKnightmon and Alphamon are comparatively feminine? Are they the kind who would even care about gender? The game establishes that they didn’t have the luxury of being picky with their mediums’ gender, but both of them embrace their mediums’ natures having reflexively impacted their personalities, so would it be accurate to say they’re now feminine thanks to their mediums?

In the end, Cyber Sleuth/Hacker’s Memory is, perhaps deliberately, not very clear about the concept of gender when it doesn’t feel a need to be. Which is great, except it leads to the question: How do you translate this?

If the question you’re asking is “are Digimon nonbinary?”, I’ll be very frank about this: there is no official answer to this question, and even I don’t really feel equipped to answer it. I think there is a very good case for them, or at least a plurality of them, being nonbinary, since it makes sense after all; they’re not humans, and there are many ways they shouldn’t be beholden to human societal norms. But the good thing is that whether Digimon are nonbinary or not doesn’t actually matter that much to translation by itself; after all, if you get an outburst like Cutemon saying he’s a boy, that’s very straightforward to translate.

The real issue, however, is pronouns. As I said above, Japanese does not often employ third-person pronouns, and the way the language is set up means you can go an entire series without mentioning a single one or bringing up the concept of gender if you don’t feel it’s necessary. English, on the other hand, gets awkward if you don’t use pronouns, and at some point you’re going to have to commit to something, whether you feel equipped with the proper info or not.

After quite a bit of deliberation, my personal stance is that, for any Digimon-related material I translate going forward, I will continue to use she/her and he/him when it seems appropriate, in conjunction with they/them. My reasoning is as follows:

  • There are many people — in both real life and in fiction — who are nonbinary but use such pronouns, and so, ideally, this should still not conflict with any interpretations of Digimon as nonbinary. (Example: the Gems of Steven Universe use she/her pronouns, but are very much nonbinary.)
  • There are no other real English equivalents of gendered first-person pronouns like boku or atashi. It’s not an exact equivalent — she/her and he/him are a little stronger in gendered implication than the Japanese first-person pronouns are — but many writers use gendered first-person pronouns and corresponding language to establish a character’s gender in the absence of the factors English would normally use, and it is also very much used as a deliberate device to code certain characters as masculine or feminine when their designs and voices would suggest otherwise. (For example, Lopmon or Cutemon.) Failing to account for those contingencies might lead an audience to start making assumptions that the writers deliberately tried to avoid letting them have.
  • Tamers‘ Renamon is explicitly written as gender-ambiguous/genderless, and is portrayed as altogether unconcerned about gender in contrast to the other mildly-gendered characters (hence why you’ll notice I use they/them for them, as I don’t personally feel that Rumiko attempting to claim them as female is sufficient to determine that they would agree). Not accounting for this difference makes this aspect of Renamon’s character difficult or impossible to discern, and the same would apply to other similar characters.
  • I still plan to go ahead with they/them for any Digimon characters for whom an obvious gendered language affect or other plot-related aspect is not apparent. I have no interest in making unwarranted assumptions nor playing into stereotypes.
  • Unreliable as official translations have been, they have generally still historically used she/her and he/him pronouns. That includes official translations that come from even the Japanese sides of Bandai Namco and Toei Animation. As much as I don’t put too much stock in them as they tend to contain issues of their own, I think it is still a reasonable assumption that official sources intend English translations to use the pronouns.

This is, ultimately, a personal judgment call, and I believe that other translators may choose to approach it differently. In addition, as a fan of the franchise, I plan to keep an eye on any word from official sources that better clarify the franchise — or even individual works’ — stance on Digimon and gender identity. I am also open to further discussion on potential ways to handle this issue, since I’m not necessarily deadset on this being the only or right way to go about things. Until then, however, this is the sort of pseudo-manual of style I plan to work with, so I hope that at least clears up why I’m making certain translation choices in the future.

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