Disregard Canon, Acquire Representation: Naoto Shirogane is a Transman

Why accept the canon explanation when the story could be so much more interesting?

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This article deals with gender-related terminology. Any unfamiliar terms are available here easy reference.

Undeniably the most attractive characterThe Detective Prince

The Persona games are games set in the Shin Megami Tensei series, and feature a focus that is incredibly different from the main line. In each installment you play a silent protagonist that finds themselves able to awaken their inner self—a Persona, if you will—and enter a dark realm to do battle with monsters that represents the faults of the city they live in and the people around them. Through the course of the games you meet people that can also awaken their Personas, but they have to accept who they are, even the parts of themselves they don’t want to acknowledge. If they reject their faults, their Persona turns into a Shadow: a monster that desires only to be accepted by the person that spawned it, and will kill that person if they keep denying their Shadow.

Oh mister Shirogane~Does this look like a girl to you?

That bit of an infodump is important because Shadows and Personas are key parts of a character’s story arc and development. Through these you learn a lot about the characters you play with in a nontraditional method of character development. However, this isn’t the only major difference with the main Shin Megami Tensei line; while the main line deals with societal reform as a major story element, Persona deals more with interpersonal struggles—getting to know your friends and helping them grow past their issues and insecurities in society. The most recent game, Persona 4, features a character named Naoto Shirogane with a major story arc involving gender identity as a heavy element.

Some men aren't looking for anything logical like money. They can't be bought, bullied, or reasoned with.Some men want to watch the world burn.

When you first meet Naoto Shirogane, you know them as male; everyone uses male pronouns, and nobody assumes otherwise. As the game goes on, Naoto’s narrative focuses around chafing under the misogyny of the Japanese police system, and their dream to become a detective like their parents. Naoto also struggles with femininity, and this is a key element of their story arc. According to the canon story, Naoto just feels like being a man is the only way to accomplish their hopes and dreams in life. With the help of the protagonist, Naoto learns that’s not the case, and that being a woman isn’t bad.

Anime husband right hereNaoto has the largest bust out of the whole cast, and the game goes out of its way to de-emphasize that.

However, it seems that canon and authorial intent disagree with each other. Shigenori Soejima, the art and character designer of Persona, says that Naoto was intended to be male all along, which would make for a boring story that lacks the conflict of the canon story. Another thing is that Naoto responds negatively to being referred to as female. When students do it after acquiring Naoto as a party member, they’re very uncomfortable about it. When doing so during the Social Link scenes, it will cause you to lose Social Link points which are required to realize Naoto’s true potential. In the Japanese script there’s an event that if you pursue a relationship with Naoto, they’ll ask if it’s okay for them to use male pronouns. And while it’s a superficial detail, for almost all of the game Naoto wears a male student’s uniform to school. There’s still even more, however.

His Persona is so~ dreamy...Shadow Naoto(Left), Sukuna-Hikona(Right)

Except for the main character, all of the characters in Persona 4 have Shadows. There’s some aspect of themselves that they are rejecting, whether they know it or not. In the case of Naoto, it’s their gender. Their Shadow takes the form of a robot scientist version of Naoto, and in true Shadow fashion demands acceptance. However, it doesn’t threaten with death; it tries to erase the reason for the rejection. Shadow Naoto offers to make Naoto a man, offering to perform gender reassignment surgery upon Naoto’s body. This represents a key part of the trans identity, deciding if being trans—and transitioning—is something that’s right for you. Refusing this angers Shadow Naoto who turns on the party and they must defeat it. Defeated, Shadow Naoto turns into Sukuna-Hikona, a Japanese god of healing—also take into consideration that all of Naoto’s Personas are male mythical figures.

That collarbone!“Another night spent blocking people in the Naoto Shirogane tag on Tumblr.”

While canon says Naoto Shirogane is a woman, he reads like a transman. His story arc has elements that are present in trans narratives, his own Personas are all exclusively male, and he dresses in ways that emphasize his masculinity. And it’s really important we regard Naoto as a transman; beyond the fact that trans characters don’t get positive representation in media outside of their transition, transmen also do not get much representation as society focuses almost solely on the transition of transwomen. So, rather than accept the canon explanation, let’s embrace the opportunity to gain some representation!


Hello, everyone, and thank you for reading this far down! This has been the first installment of a column I will be doing called “Disregard Canon, Acquire Representation”! In this column, I will look at popular characters and explain why they’re in some way part of a group that’s marginalized by society, and why the canon should be disregarded in favor of representing marginalized people! If there are characters you’d like me to examine, let me know in the comments!

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About the Contributor


Since 2013

Obviously, I'm Robyn. I'm nonbinary/gender neutral(my pronouns are xe/hir), into videogames, and other stuff. Somehow I found myself on this corner of the internet. I hope we all can be friends and have a good year together at this school!

10 Comments

  1. Hmmm…it’s an interesting interpretation, but I think this fails to take into account that this is a Japanese game. Naoto’s idea that she must be a man to accomplish her dreams addresses the very real issue of gender discrimination in the workplace in Japan, which is very high. Naoto realizes that it’s an obstacle and one that seems unconquerable, so she feels she can only overcome it by disguising herself as a man.

    When the protagonist convinces her that this is not the case, she realizes she can be a woman…but she doesn’t necessarily know how to (Japan is big on gender roles), so she is uncomfortable being referred to as such, as it leaves her out of her depth and that is something she hates as a detective. Could it be interpreted as Naoto identifying as a man, and thus he is uncomfortable when others refer to him as a woman? Sure, but I don’t think that was the intended interpretation. She was confused as to how she was supposed to act, as many people who play any sort of role are when said role is done. Furthermore, her Persona is not the first in the series to be of the opposite sex of its user.

    The game wasn’t trying to tackle the issue of transgenderism. It was criticizing how many women feel hopeless in the work place because of gender discrimination in Japanese society and Naoto served to assure players that it’s a hurdle that can be overcome.

    I think that transgenderism needs more representation in media, but I think Naoto is not a character who should serve that purpose. She was created to tackle an entirely different issue and I think it’s a bit of a disservice to deny her role in overcoming that issue for the sake of making her an icon of another issue.

    1. Yeah, that’s the canon interpretation. See Also: The name of this series of columns. My whole purpose with these columns is to give representation to myself and others who feel that video games don’t have characters that represent them. So yeah disregard canon, acquire representation.

      And the whole, “Girls you can succeed in a career!” thing has been done a /lot/ while the narrative of a transman’s transition has not. As well, your interpretation basically says, “With the encouragement of a man, women can strive to be equals in a male dominated world.” And doesn’t quite explain how in the Japanese script Naoto asks if it’s okay to use male pronouns, and the choice that gets Naoto to “accept” being a woman is “No, it’s weird for girls to use male pronouns.” Which is another part of the transition narrative, asking the people closest to you to respect your identity and refer to you by the pronouns you wish to be referred to by.

      1. Ya know, her problem was not about being male or female, but about age.
        Naoto problems were that the people in the police force didn’t consider her work valid because she was a kid trying to do the job of an adult.
        Even her shadow shows the mottifs of being a child wanting to growp up to have her opnion validated by older people, from dialogue to the design of the shadow itself (A toy robot figure with two toy laser guns).
        In the anime, Yu Narukami, Yosuke Hanamura and Teddy were hit by the lasers from Shadow Naoto’s guns, and guess what happens? They turn into old people instead of having their gender switched. Wouldn’t make sense in a Persona game to a person who have gender identity problems have any form of “attack” that would change the person’s gender instead of age.
        You took Naoto character and development and twisted soo danm hard that the only thing that i had in my mind was that Kermit “You’re 100% wrong” clip from the first till the last word of your text.

      2. Yeah, completely ignore what Naoto actually represents for both females and age and intentionally cause misinformation about the character, that’s positive. Why should Atlus give a shit about what some idiots in the west can’t understand or purposefully misinterprets? The games they make are not specifically made to suit your interests, that goes for everyone else too. If they bent over to suit everyone’s wants (not needs), they’d most likely go down in quality.

        Just let them tell their stories the way they want to.

    1. Shadow naoto was never going to give Naoto a gender reassignment surgery, if you paid attention the “surgery” was to increase her age as shown in the anime, also Naoto being a girl was never a big part in her struggles in the story although that was present that was never the reason why she struggles with her life its was mainly to do with her age and how the police force treat her as a child and her need to be taken seriously.
      In the end you can not change the fact that SHE was a cross-dresser who was afraid of being called a child and not being taken seriously, and has now has accepted that she is a woman who does not have to be older to be a great detective.

      She was never trans, if your version of trans is someone who dresses up as the opposite gender then i must say your definition of trans is just wrong.

  2. Okay, so. I genuinely think that Naoto’s base storyline was intended to be a comment on gender discrimination in the Japanese workforce (which is much worse than it is here, or so I’m told), as I’m sure has been pointed out to you a lot, and I think there’s value in the narrative. And that maybe we in the west don’t feel the full weight of that narrative because of societal differences. We may have had plenty of stories about women overcoming adversity in the workforce in the past, but there hasn’t been so much in Japan. I get that.

    However. It CAN’T be denied that Atlus uses a lot of trans coding, iconography, and tropes in Naoto’s plotline and character interactions. The fact that one of Naoto’s shadow’s Big Things is surgery at all (even if it were true that said surgery was about Naoto’s age, like some claim) should cause bells to ring in your head, the whole concept of “changing” your body to be satisfied/at peace with it, the references to body/gender dysphoria, the scene where he asks if he can use masculine pronouns in the original Japanese release (side note: yes, I’m aware that pronouns function differently between english and japanese, hence “masculine” instead of “male”, but I’ve read explicitly trans narratives from Japan before and this part of the script is…. let;s say, very, very trans), ect ect ect.

    And I think the key word here is “used”. Atlus USED this coding, these framing devices and trans-alluding scenes and phrasing, not because they wanted to make an honest, thoughtful comment of gender identity or tell a trans story, but because they wanted to prop up their underlying narrative of Naoto as just “a woman trying to escape an unfair sexist system”. This is a common thing I see aimed at trans men like me, that we’re just women frustrated with gender roles, we’re just women who want to escape sexism, we’re just women who suffer from internalized misogyny and need to Embrace Our Womanhood. It’s this dangerous idea that being a trans man isn’t a valid feeling, a valid identity, a valid way of experiencing the world and ourselves, we’re just “women who just need to taught that its okay to be woman and that out full potential is as women”. (side note: and this is part of why it’s so hard to find historical trans men; all of them, once discovered, were immediately branded as “woman who disguised themselves as men to escape their circumstances/get into a profession they otherwise couldn’t. And that’s not to say that never happened, especially when things were much worse in the past, but…… you see the problem,,)

    Persona 4 did Not have to use trans coding with Naoto to get across the idea of a woman trying to operate under a sexist system. It did not. And you could argue that at least Naoto pretending to be a boy in and of itself was justified because that has, in fact, been a real thing in the past and the game was commenting on that, and…. well, I won’t dismiss that outright. I don’t think its a story or an idea thats damned from the start. The problem is that the trans coding is beyond the premise, it’s in Naoto’s dialogue, it’s in the iconography of their Personas and dungeon, it’s in the way other characters talk to and about Naoto and how those interactions ring the bells of “oh, I’ve seen that almost verbatim on some transphobes blog before”, “oh, I usually see that kind of reaction/phrase when someone’s discussing EXPLICITLY trans people/characters” in my head.

    Atlus, in at LEAST partial knowledge, used these things in Naoto’s plotline. For what reason? As a punchline. A plot-twist. Window-dressing. And a furthering of their own mindset, their own worldview, that “women who wish to be men” are denying their “true nature”, that they are and always will be, inescapably, “women”. A worldview that has proved dangerous and damaging to people like myself. They don’t think about us except in that they want to use bits and pieces of our stories as window-dressing and gags. (seriously though. Not feeling me on the “punchline” thing? remember the gags about Naoto having the biggest bust of the group, the school festival where Naoto won the pageant (despite extremely discomfort at being scrutinized in a women only contest) because of all the female students voting for them, the side-stepping of the Kanji’s sexuality and ‘gay panic’ with the reveal of Naoto being dfab, the snide comments on Naoto imitating male heroes and detectives, the “detective prince” title that’s treated like an ironic joke once Naoto begins to attend school, ect ect ect. It’s not always super in-your-face, but the subtext is Always there.)

    Anyways…… I don’t really have a conclusion to this, honestly, but I felt the need to type/post it because maybe it’ll help someone understand better why the framing of Naoto’s character and plotline bother so many people. A lot of it is subtext and heavily entrenched in coding and insidious (but widespread) mindsets, so I understand why people thing it’s more clear-cut than it really is. I, a trans man myself, didn’t even pick up on some of it until recently, and it’s been YEARS since I started discussing the game at length with people. But hopefully what I’ve said here will help someone understand just a little bit better, whether they fully agree or not, and will make them more aware of these kinds of things on other media.

    And maybe one day, we won’t have to disregard canon so much to get the representation we need.

    1. FWIW, I think a lot of that subtext is at its worst if you take Naoto to be a transman, which I don’t believe to be the game’s intent and as such I don’t believe that it presents the view that ‘“women who wish to be men” are denying their “true nature”’. I don’t think they are used well, on the whole, but they are generally snide remarks that can be taken as “she’s not male because she’s a woman” and not “he’s not male because he’s a transman”. The game conflates being trans and being a woman presenting as male without wanting to BE male, but I felt it came from being poorly thought-out rather than being actively malicious.

      There’s also the possibility that some of the random student remarks _are_ intended to be transphobic and that you _aren’t_ supposed to like it – let’s not forget that perhaps one of the game’s biggest downfalls is that Yosuke makes explicitly homophobic comments without being called out on it (I think again the character was ignorant rather than deliberately malicious, and subtlety came around on it, but somebody should have taken him to task WAY earlier in the game).

  3. > When doing so during the Social Link scenes, it will cause you to lose Social Link points which are required to realize Naoto’s true potential.

    When exactly does this come up? The only explicit mention I recall is the choice between “I’m glad you’re a girl” -> sets lovers flag and “Your gender doesn’t matter” -> S.Link Bonus, where _both_ are positive outcomes.

    > There’s some aspect of themselves that they are rejecting, whether they know it or not. In the case of Naoto, it’s their gender. […] Shadow Naoto offers to make Naoto a man, offering to perform gender reassignment surgery upon Naoto’s body. This represents a key part of the trans identity, deciding if being trans—and transitioning—is something that’s right for you.

    This ignores a fairly key part of how the TV world, and by extension Shadows, work. They are formed of humanity’s _collective_ unconsciousness, and aren’t necessarily a true reflection of a person’s hidden desires. In the hospital scene Shadow Namatame gloats not because that is something he is suppressing, but due to the unconscious influence of the Investigation Team, as explained later: https://youtu.be/8drHuB7AipE?t=1938 As such, the behaviour of Shadow Naoto can be seen as _society_ assuming Naoto must be trans to act as she does, rather than being a true understanding of her motivations.

    IMO, the arc makes more sense as Naoto not fitting the traditional age (the Shadow also states “Still only a child in their eyes”)/gender roles for her desired profession, and that she has forced herself to align with them (to the point where she is uncomfortable acting outside of them), rather than wanting to be male per se. The realisation/moral is that she can pursue being a detective _without_ rejecting her gender identity. Pushing it further, to her being a transman, is less interesting IMO – wanting to go into a male-dominated profession, whilst (essentially) being a man, undercuts the game’s themes of people being pushed around by and bowing to societal pressure. I feel that Naoto being trans doesn’t fit how the character (not her Shadow) discusses her gender, nor does it fit the broader themes of the game, and mechanically the elements that point most strongly to being trans (i.e. the Shadow) aren’t necessarily a true reflection of the character.

    You can see parallels in Kanji’s character – there is a _societal_ presumption that he must be gay because of his hobbies and interests. I know it’s often seen as side-stepping the issue, but I like the fact that they _didn’t_ make him gay. It felt like a natural portrayal of someone who is confused about and questioning their sexuality, and it would have felt very stereotypical to go down the route of “man who likes making dolls turns out to be gay”. Perhaps pairing him with Naoto was not the best choice, but I believe the intent was to highlight those parallels, rather than, e.g., being relief that he is not gay when Naoto is revealed to be female.

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