Content Warning: racism/racial caricatures (including example screenshot), sexual harassment, transphobia, sexualization of minors
Stop!! Hibari-Kun!’s titular character is, for me, one of the best representations of a trans woman in media—made all the more shocking by the fact that it was made in the 1980s, a time when the concept of trans women was even more deeply misunderstood than it is now.
However, with that decade came many problematic aspects, such as casual transphobia, racism, and uncomfortable sexuality. The dichotomy of Hibari as both a progressive trans narrative and an ignorant product of its time showcases Japan’s complicated relationship with trans women and other marginalized groups. As a non-binary person myself, I certainly found a lot of fun and gender envy from Stop!! Hibari-kun. I discovered it two years ago, coincidentally around the time I was coming to terms with my own identity. The confidence with which she displays her femininity is something I’ve always admired. This ironically makes it all the harder to recommend, because Stop!! Hibari-kun also has aspects that I was incredibly uncomfortable with despite its great qualities.
Stop!! Hibari-Kun! follows Sakamoto Kousaku, an average high-school student, who recently suffered the death of his mother. With no other close relatives, his mother, in her parting will, designated an old family acquaintance, Oozora Ibari, as Kousaku’s custodian.
Kousaku is alarmed to discover that the Oozoras are a leading yakuza family. It’s not all bad news, though, as he also finds himself attracted to one of Ibari’s daughters, Hibari. However, it turns out Hibari was assigned male at birth, which shocks Kousaku all over again. The manga follows the misadventures of Kousaku adjusting to a new life with Hibari trailing deviously behind.
To establish why Stop!! Hibari-Kun! is so progressive yet so paradoxically backward, you only need to look at the years it was published. The manga was published in the early 1980s, with the anime following not soon after. Even then, trans identity already had a long and complex history behind it in Japan. For most of the late 20th century, most trans women were associated with either the entertainment industry or prostitution. Trans women were quite popular in the nightlife, and the movie Tokyo Godfathers even references this with the backstory of Hana as a former cabaret singer.
In 1981, the term newhalf started gaining steam in the Japanese consciousness, originated by an Osaka pub owner named Betty who had a hit song using the term, proudly proclaiming themselves as “half-man, half-woman.” Although the term is very fraught for obvious reasons, this was the understanding that many Japanese people had about being trans back in the day. Matsubara Rumiko, a nightclub hostess and model, popularized the term when her transgender status was revealed. Instead of controversy, this revelation led to Matsubara skyrocketing in popularity.
An unfortunate side effect is that this only reinforced the perception of trans women in the Japanese consciousness as “performers” or “perverts” due to Matsubara’s openness with her sexuality—a trend that continued to plague LGBTQ performers for decades after. When it began publication in October 1981, this was the culture that Stop!! Hibari-kun! found itself stepping into.
Despite all that background, Hibari is written to be totally confident in her identity and in her femininity. Much like real-life newhalfs, there was no doubt in Hibari’s mind of her identity. Everyone who knows her assigned gender at birth consistently calls her a boy or a pervert. Regardless, Hibari soldiers on, and that means she’s never the butt of the joke. Much of the humor comes, instead, from the transphobic characters being outwitted or overpowered by Hibari’s sheer charisma.
Not only that, Hibari stands strong alongside other popular love interests of boys’ manga at the time, like Urusei Yatsura’s brash Lum or the titular Cutie Honey. A star athlete, top student, and school idol, everyone worships her or is jealous of her. Although none of those students know her birth gender, the way they treat her without a bigoted bias clouding their judgment is quite telling.
However, this positive depiction gets a lot more complicated when you zoom out from Hibari’s character. The characters around her never truly acknowledge Hibari as a “real girl.” There are also rampant amounts of teen nudity and non-consensual groping played for laughs. While those two problems were common and are frankly still an issue for modern shounen, they remain frustrating and all the more uncomfortable because the series is dealing with marginalized characters.
The societal pattern of Japan’s xenophobia manifesting through humor is plain to see throughout the series. Even if Hibari herself was not affected by these attacks on her identity for the most part, there’s no denying the meta aspect of Japan’s lax attitude towards these problematic topics. The manga features caricatured depictions of Black characters, which is unsurprising when looking at public anti-Black statements made by Japanese politicians in the 1980s, or the fact that The Story of Little Black Sambo was very popular post-WWII and not removed from sale until 1988 (not to mention how it would receive a reprint in 2005).
There’s also the author Eguchi Hisashi’s own views about the character’s identity, which is influenced by cultural context and thus just as complicated as Japan’s history with trans women. Simply put, the premise of Stop!! Hibari-kun! rests on the fact that Eguchi, in all of his available commentary, describes Hibari as male, albeit one who doesn’t conform to gender norms. Eguchi thought it would be funny for a crossdressing boy to be the romantic lead, and went out of his way to highlight the comedy by drawing her as cute as possible. Short of actually calling Hibari a girl, Eguchi did all he could to appeal to what readers of the time liked in leading ladies. The understanding of trans as an acceptable identity simply did not exist and so the character was filtered through this lens.
Even today, the recognition of trans identity remains complicated, owing to the strict standards set by the Japanese government, and the general lack of knowledge amongst the public about the topic. For example, it wasn’t until 2003 that a law was even passed that allowed trans people to change their gender markers on legal documents, and it included harsh prerequisites like medically transitioning, not having biological children under 18, and getting sterilized. The sterilization requirement was upheld as recently as 2019.
Thankfully, in anime and manga, depictions of trans women have significantly improved. By the early 2000s trans women were appearing in fiction without being treated as mere gag characters, such as Hana from Tokyo Godfathers and Kotobuki Seiko from Lovely Complex. Although Hana and Seiko are also misgendered by some characters in their respective stories, their narratives receive far more nuance than Hibari was ever given.
Hana is a homeless trans woman surrounded by well-meaning but ignorant friends who didn’t understand her gender. Even so, she was not thought of as lesser for it; if anything, she’s the empathetic heart of the movie. Meanwhile, Seiko is shunned by the male protagonist for her trans identity, but unlike in Hibari-kun, the male protagonist learns to accept her identity, even if he is no longer attracted to her. There’s even a story arc with Seiko focusing on her dysphoria, which was relatively rare at the time in anime and manga history. Hibari herself was never really one for self-introspection, though it’s worth noting that this, in itself, was also impressive. She was always sure of who she was, skewing the historical tradition of trans characters being confused and miserable about their gender identity and their dysphoria
While admittedly still not great, the representation of trans women has continued to grow in anime and manga, including recent characters like Venus from Heaven’s Design Team and Nao-chan from Skip and Loafer. Still, even if time is marching on and trans representation is evolving, Hibari remains notable and appealing to many. In an interview with manga-news, answering a question about Hibari’s popularity despite being in a boys’ magazine, Eguchi said:
“I think what appeals so much to my female readers about Hibari is how he completely owns up to who he is, without touching on the question of gender identity; he’s someone who always lives freely, who’s always cheerful, who simply does what he likes. I think it’s a story I couldn’t have told in any genre other than shounen. If I’d made it a seinen, it would immediately have been much more serious, whereas here it’s still light-hearted and doesn’t really delve into the theme of identity. Hibari remains a very charismatic character, after all.”
The focus on creating a character first, not a token queer woman, ironically makes Eguchi more progressive than many modern writers. Hibari’s not written to fulfill some diversity quota, because said quota didn’t even exist back in the day. Eguchi wanted to write a smart, funny, and beautiful character, who just so happened to be trans.
To be blunt, I am a Southeast Asian, reading a Japanese manga from the 1980s, and basing my knowledge of the author’s take on their work over 40 years later from a French interview. There’s inevitably going to be some nuance lost in the sauce. I can’t truly experience what it was like reading Stop!! Hibari-Kun! from a Japanese lens. However, what I can share is my own experience with the manga as it was shared worldwide.
When we read localized manga, we don’t read the original text. We read an interpretation of the translator and trust that they kept the spirit of what was written. The official French translator for Stop!! Hibari-Kun!, Aurélien Estager, tackles this unique issue in an interview with the Konishi Foundation:
“….Speaking on behalf of a gay teenager, a lesbian, or an agender person who talks about the difficulty of accepting themselves or the discrimination they suffer, requires a lot more thought on my part. As a cisgender heterosexual man who is relatively spared injustice, I have to project myself, empathize and try to put myself in the character’s shoes to find words that resonate with sincerity.”
Empathy lies at the core of every good story. In this regard, Eguchi does understand trans folk a bit more. Even if he didn’t ask himself the complex questions of gender identity, Eguchi sympathized with the queer community and their hidden plight:
“……I was thinking that, in the end, if someone were like Hibari, born in a boy’s body but feeling more like a woman, they’d have every right to live as they want to be. Society, people, and those around them don’t have much say in the matter. I was more in favor of people owning their differences. At the time, people hid a lot, and I thought it would be good if they could express their differences, and display them in public.”
Eguchi may not have totally understood what trans identity was, but he definitely understood the need to be yourself without a care for what society thinks you should be. If you feel you are a woman, then you are a woman. That’s what matters. In writing Hibari this way, Eguchi acknowledges that what he thinks of Hibari doesn’t matter as much as what the character herself thinks.
It is this philosophy that makes Stop!! Hibari-Kun! such a heartwarming read despite being anchored in many of the problematic tropes and social ideas of its historical context. The dichotomy of those problematic elements with an emotional understanding of the trans experience is precisely why it’s so fascinating.
Even through all those societal issues, Eguchi somehow created a trans character that deeply resonates with queerfolk such as me to this day. Eguchi is clearly not a man who is well-versed in the minutia of trans knowledge. There’s a lot of valid criticism of his more ignorant representations of race and sexuality. Even so, there’s a level of progressiveness here, accidental or otherwise, that makes it feel strangely modern.
Eguchi portrayed a comical world full of bigots, where the smartest and most successful character was a loud and proud queer individual. I yearned for that level of confidence in myself. At the same time, the bigotry being played for laughs makes me feel validated for seeing bigots for what they truly are. A joke. It’s such a satisfying read that hits to the core of what I wish my life was like. So even if it’s problematic, I can’t help but love Stop!! Hibari-kun for showing me that the queer experience isn’t just doom and gloom. The world might suck, but I don’t have to be part of the reason it does. I can just be happy being me.
(Author’s Note: Interview quotes were translated using DeepL and double-checked by a French native)
Additional Works Cited
Eguchi, Hisashi (February 23, 2004). “Bunkoban Afterword”. Eiji (in Japanese). Shueisha. p. 277. ISBN 978-4-8342-7291-8.
Eguchi, Hisashi (August 2005). “Hisashi Eguchi interview”. Eguchi Hisashi Jump Works: Stop!! Hibari-kun! (in Japanese). Vol. 1. Shueisha. pp. 308–310. ISBN 978-4-7976-2001-6.
Eguchi, Hisashi (October 15, 2007). “Real wine guide interview”. Real Wine Guide (in Japanese). Vol. 19. Kotobuki Studio. p. 115.