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"They" exists as a singular pronoun, it is not simply "plural" - it is "neutral"

I realize that for some people English is a second language, so they may be less aware of this. However, it has been in common use in English for hundreds of years[1] and is still in use today. For example, "I got a letter from someone. I do not know who they are." This is unambiguously a singular case of "they" and NOT a plural one.

The only thing "they" is, is neutral. Which is why it should be favored as it is closest to the neutral way the source text refers to adult Kino. Timbahofftoast (Talk)

The use of Pronouns and Gendered Words in Japanese more Generally

"Pronouns" in Japanese are most commonly 彼 and 彼女. Unlike what some people who do not speak the language may read online, these are in fairly common usage in daily Japanese. They are not necessarily "rude," but you would likely avoid them for professors and the like. "Rude" pronouns do exist - things like こいつ, そいつ, あいつ, or やつ (obviously) but these are ungendered and can even refer to objects like books, tables, light switches, etc. in addition to people.

Japanese does refer to people by name (or use the "zero pronoun") more regularly than many Western languages. This does not mean that pronouns are not used or that they are explicitly avoided. Their (relative!) lack of use is due to norms and structures present within the language that encourage optimizations which reduce subject references generally and not due specifically to rudeness.

Gendered words also exist in Japanese independent of pronouns and are used for descriptions and are not considered rude at all. 女性, 女, 女子, 少女, 男性, 男, 男子, 少年, etc. You would use this regularly to say things like 田中という男です ("this is a man named Tanaka"). If you were talking to someone in a position above you, you might use 方 instead of any of these though. Kino is tellingly never referred to using honorifics by the narrator or Hermes, and certainly never refers to themself that way, so any sense that the ambiguity objectively present in the text is produced out of politeness shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the Japanese language. Timbahofftoast (Talk)

The use of Gendered Words in the Text

The gendered pronouns mentioned above (彼 and 彼女) are used commonly throughout the novels to refer to all sorts of characters, including protagonists like 師匠, 相棒, フォト, and シズ. A simple count of the number of references throughout existing textual sources count hundreds of instances. Exactly 0 of these refer to adult Kino. This is not a mere coincidence as characters that appear less often than Kino does are described with these pronouns quite regularly.

Moreover, pronouns are not the only gendered words that exist in Japanese or are used in the text. The above-mentioned words 女性 (female), 女 (woman), etc. are used quite regularly in the Japanese source text while describing all sorts of people. For example, フォト is described by her mottorad as 性別(Sex):女(woman). 師匠 is called 師匠と呼ばれた女性 (a female called Shishou). These words appear THOUSANDS of times throughout the Japanese texts. Exactly 0 of them refer to adult Kino.

It is not "reading into the text" to notice this difference. It is unambiguously and objectively reading the language usage, which is backed up by native Japanese readers who have also noticed this. Digital humanities can even be used to reliably and scientifically reproduce this phenomenon statistically if necessary. Timbahofftoast (Talk)

Censoring the Text to Force your Personal Reading on Others Should be Avoided

If you decide to forcefully reference Kino by feminine pronouns, neo-pronouns, etc. you are erasing the text in favor of your own reading. You are erasing other possibilities the text intentionally leaves open.

The whole point of Kino is to portray them as ambiguous such that they can be non-binary if you like, your tomboy romantic interest if you like, or even a trans man if you like. No interpretation is invalid (or, perhaps, all interpretations are invalid), since Kino, Hermes, and the narrator refuse to take a stance - this is also one of the key points that makes them interesting in the Japanese source.

If you think that it is mere coincidence that over thousands of references to adult Kino across over tens of thousands of lines of text, that the aforementioned sources have referred to Kino as a "woman" exactly 0 times... And that it is mere coincidence that this contrasts with other protagonists and side-characters (like 師匠, フォト, and countless one-off characters), who are collectively referred to by gendered words thousands of times, then I do not know how honestly you are engaging with the source material. There is nothing that can convince you if something this obvious is not convincing. There is, in fact, more textual evidence that Kino is just in a coma, hallucinating all of their journeys than there is that adult Kino identifies as a woman (or non-binary or anything else).

I do not know why people want to force their personal views and censor the ambiguity the text very intentionally provides and which any even moderately competent reader of Japanese could pick up on. Timbahofftoast (Talk)

Kino and Gender

Kino's gender is notoriously difficult to pin down and the Japanese source makes it clear that this aspect is important to their characterization. Sigsawa is quite careful to never have Kino describe themself as identifying as any particular gender, to never have Hermes describe them in any particular way, and to never have the narrator describe their gender (as an adult) in definitive ways.

This is true even in instances when other characters are clearly described with gender markers. For example, Photo is described by her motorrad, Sou, as "Sex: Woman."[2] Meanwhile, Kino is most commonly described by the narrator using neutral terms like "a person called Kino,"[3] "A driver called Kino"[4], and a "traveler called Kino."[5]. These create a stark, and clearly intentional, contrast to the exact same phraseology used to describe Shishou, often in the very same volumes, "a woman named Shishou."[6] The only time another of these set, and often repeated, descriptions appears it is typically "young girl"[7] and this is only while Kino is young, training with Shishou. Upon becoming a young adult, however, the narrator ceases to describe Kino with gendered words, even if other characters are.

Kino will never correct someone however they are gendered. Myriad stories exist where Kino is assumed to be a young man and there is no correction given, but they are also stated to be both "a different gender from" another man named Kino[8] and "actually a female"[9] by third parties in volume 15, which likewise receive no correction. Still, their relationship to their gender identity remains both key and intentionally ambiguous through clear mechanisms in the writing style, the pronoun use,[10] and the "feel they give [the readers and others]" whatever their "sex" may be.[11]

This ambiguity in gender has been remarked upon often when discussing this text by native Japanese academics.[12] The works they have produced about the series have also critiqued the lack of ambiguity in the English translations due to the "unfortunate" necessity for pronouns present in English that does not exist in Japanese.[13]. Although Japanese academics seem to universally acknowledge Kino's "female sex," the ambiguity of their gender performance/identity/reception is a feature that stands out as not only particularly unique to Kino, but also uniquely Japanese, although some languages like the German translations of the series aim to replicate this somewhat.[14]

The above issues have led a number of Western readers to understand Kino as "non-binary." Other Western readers want to label them strictly as a woman due to their female sex. Both interpretations lack cultural context.

On the first count, "non-binary" is currently predominantly a Western phenomenon and other alternative-gender labels tend to be preferred by similar populations in Japan. Moreover, Kino never explicitly defines themselves as non-binary, making the imposition of that label forceful. Additionally, neither Japanese readers (commonly) or the text itself use language like "non-binary" to describe Kino.

However, the imposition of feminine pronouns is something that the source text firmly and clearly rejects as well,[15] which makes their cavalier use a less accurate interpretation of the source's language. This less accurate interpretation is predicated on ignorance or erasure of literary features that are key to defining Kino's identity for native Japanese readers.

That said, gendering Kino in English story writing and translation is a difficult prospect as the Japanese academics cited above point out. It is imperfect, but it may be best to compromise by simply saying that Kino's gender is "ambiguous" rather than "non-binary" or "woman" and use the neutral singular they, which has been in use since Shakespeare's time,[16] and which is in common use in contemporary English,[17] until which time that a formal declaration is made by Kino in the source text. Avoiding inserting personal interpretations (neo-pronouns like xe/xir or feminine pronouns like she/her) keeps closer to the source text's obvious and intentional refusal to clearly state adult Kino's relationship to their identity, although how to refer to younger Kino is a more open question. Timbahofftoast (Talk)

  2. 性別は女 in volume 15, 16, and 19
  3. キノと呼ばれた人間
  4. キノと呼ばれた運転手
  5. キノと呼ばれた旅人
  6. 師匠と呼ばれた女性
  7. キノと呼ばれた少女 or, less commonly, キノと呼ばれた女の子
  8. 性別も違いますね
  9. 男の子に見えますが実は女性ですよね
  10. The masculine/quasi-androgynous ボク
  11. 一柳廣孝, ‎久米依子. "ジェンダーを考えるために――『キノの旅』『制覇するフィロソフィア』の試み" in ライトノベル研究序説. 165.
  12. 一柳廣孝, ‎久米依子. "ジェンダーを考えるために――『キノの旅』『制覇するフィロソフィア』の試み" in ライトノベル研究序説. 165.
  13. 石井照久・菊池友希子・立花希一・望月一枝. マンガとライトノベルにおける姿形・言葉・ジェンダー表現英語訳・独語訳と比較して. 51.
  14. 石井照久・菊池友希子・立花希一・望月一枝. マンガとライトノベルにおける姿形・言葉・ジェンダー表現英語訳・独語訳と比較して. 51.
  15. Although Sigsawa himself can be more cavalier outside of it when giving off-the-cuff interviews
  17. For instance "I got a letter from someone. I do not know who they are."