Re: Is this just an English thing ?
You are actually both wrong.
Japanese does have pronouns, and also gendered pronouns for persons. There are even some pronouns that are generally used for or by one gender, but may also be used to characterise a person (or oneself), independent of sex or gender. For example, a woman could use "boku" for "I" to explicitly express a less-ladylike demeanour, instead of the more common "atashi". If no such expression is desired, a gender-neutral pronoun like "watashi" can be used.
There's also a number of ways to address a person, both gender-neutral and gender-biased.
In contrast with English, where the address is usually gendered, Japanese also has the nice concept of referring to a person by their profession, rank or last name plus the gender-neutral "-san" suffix. This can be used almost universally and elegantly avoids situations where the correct address is difficult to determine.