Professor, Department of Cross-Cultural Studies, Kanagawa University
Manga, anime, prose fiction, video games, and other media in Japan that depict intimate female-female relationships are widely classified by fans today as belonging to the yuri (lily) genre. The fact that yuri couplings rarely entail the clear-cut seme (top) and uke (bottom) roles that are all but essential to “boys love” (bōizu rabu) notwithstanding, it would be easy to assume that yuri is merely the female counterpart to the better-known and more popular male-male romantic and erotic works commonly labeled BL or yaoi. However, the reality is far more complex.
Broadly speaking, contemporary BL media can most immediately be traced back to manga first penned by young women for shōjo (girls) manga magazines in the early 1970s—works that coalesced into a genre then called shōnen’ai (boys love) (Welker 2015). Today, BL is still generally created by and for heterosexual adolescent girls and women and is loosely classified as shōjo manga, although it has a broader fan base (McLelland et al. 2015). By contrast, while manga depicting female-female romance appeared in commercial shōjo manga magazines alongside shōnen’ai in the early 1970s (Fujimoto 2014), yuri media today often targets a more expansive audience, including adolescent and adult female and male fans. Even when focused on school-aged girls—as they quite frequently are—and thus imbued with a certain shōjo manga sensibility (Nagaike 2010), yuri works appear in commercial manga magazines aimed at readers of all four primary manga audience categories: shōjo (girls), shōnen (boys), josei (women), and seinen (young men). They are also published in the yuri-themed magazine, Komikku yuri hime (Comic yuri princess, 2005–; hereafter Yuri hime), and commercial yuri-themed anthologies, which target male and female readers.
Further, much parodic or derivative (niji sōsaku) BL media, particularly manga and fiction, is produced by amateur fans-cum-artists reading romance and erotic tension into ostensibly platonic relationships between heterosexual males, including characters in popular shōnen manga and anime as well as real-life celebrities. When BL is created based on shōnen works, the original works are generally not considered by fans to be BL. While the same is sometimes true for yuri parodies, many works that fans classify as yuri do not feature overtly romantic or erotic relationships between female characters. Rather, oftentimes they are merely written in a way that seems to invite yuri readings, which some fans render more obvious in their own derivative works. Thus, while BL and yuri fan practices, including classification and production, involve ways of reading into and rewriting texts, they function differently.
Although linking the word “yuri” to girls and women and homosexuality dates to the mid-1970s (Welker 2011, 218–20), its widespread use as a label for manga and other media came in the first decade of the 2000s. This was probably solidified with the usage of the term in the title of Yuri shimai (Yuri sisters; 2003–2004), the first commercial yuri magazine (Morinaga 2016, 44). Since then, what precisely the genre encompasses has remained indeterminate. Katsuyama Toshimitsu (2016, 13) expansively describes yuri narratives as involving “special relationships between girls” (onna no ko dōshi no tokubetsu na kankei), ranging from works that do not actually depict romantic feelings between girls to “girls love” (gāruzu rabu; GL), which does, and on to works involving characters who identify as bisexual or lesbian. Katsuyama notes, however, each person has their own definition of yuri (ibid., 12) and, thus, can choose to see yuri when and where they so desire. Ultimately, then, one might say that yuri is in the eye of the beholder.
Yuri is not simply the female version of BL.
While not primarily a yuri manga, Kurata Uso’s manga Yuri danshi—a title meaning yuri boy(s) or male fans of yuri—offers a useful introduction to yuri, its fandom, and its producers. Prior to the publication of Yuri danshi, Kurata was known to Yuri hime readers for his yuri works that ran in the magazine, including “one-shot” (yomikiri) yuri manga as well as the brief series Linkage (Rinkēji; 2009). The original Yuri danshi series, published from March 2011 to July 2014 in Yuri hime and released in five bound volumes (Kurata 2011–14), focuses on yuri from a male perspective. Although Yuri danshi provides a far less realistic depiction of the genre’s female fans, gradually introduced as the series progresses, it is the depiction of these fans and their “special relationships” (Katsuyama 2016, 13) with other female characters that weaves an overt yuri narrative into the work.
Like other yuri fans, the protagonist, self-described “yuri danshi” Hanadera Keisuke, enjoys reading and thinking about yuri relationships among characters in (yuri) manga. Scattered throughout the work are Keisuke’s yuri-inflected variants on common aphorisms, which emphasize how he sees the world through his “yuri filter” (Kurata 2011–14, 1: 41) and, thus, how central yuri is to his very existence: “I think, therefore yuri is” (ibid., 31) is a common representation of diehard fandom in the media. In the dialogue published in the back of the first bound volume of Yuri danshi, Kurata talks about the series with Yuri hime editor Nakamura Seitarō. In that discussion, Nakamura states he “wants Keisuke to give voice to” what all (male) yuri fans are thinking (Kurata and Nakamura 2011, 161). Kurata explains that he wants to express the hardships experienced by Keisuke (ibid.), who has no interest in anything but the all-female yuri world, which itself has no place or need for him. While Yuri danshi contains a great deal of humor and implausible if not impossible situations, to the extent that the work depicts fans’ feelings and the actual conditions of their reception of yuri works from the perspective of Kurata and Nakamura, Yuri danshi arguably might be read as an autoethnographic study of yuri fandom.
When we first meet Keisuke, he has long been a passionate reader of yuri media, but he has yet to directly connect to the yuri fan community. As the narrative proceeds, Keisuke develops ties with other male fans and quickly becomes involved in communal fan activities. Through this involvement, readers of Yuri danshi are able to learn about the shape of male yuri fandom alongside Keisuke. For instance, Keisuke has imagined yuri fans to be predominantly female. In the opening scene of the series, he thinks it “a little unfortunate” that the latest issue of Yuri hime has removed “men and boys forbidden” (danshi kinsei) from the cover, taking away his sense of being excluded from that supposedly all-female sphere (Kurata 2011–14, 1: 9). And we witness his shock and chagrin when he learns that yuri fandom is far from the girl-only utopia he has imagined. Upon making his way to his first “yuri-only event,” where yuri circles sell dōjinshi (zines, fanzines) and other fan-produced media and goods, Keisuke is aghast to see that the “general participants” (ippan sankasha; i.e., buyers) are predominantly male (ibid., 101–11, 117–18). We also see that, to his surprise, “circle participants” (sākuru sankasha; i.e., producers/sellers of dōjinshi and other fan products) are around 60 percent female and they appear to “frankly interact” with the male general participants (ibid., 118). This replicates what one might witness at the real Girls Love Festival, which from 2009 has been held two to three times each year in the Tokyo area and has since then doubled in size from approximately 50 to 100 participating circles each time the event is held.
In addition, Keisuke learns that yuri fans, who have various backgrounds and characteristics, have diverse orientations and preferences. Keisuke has the good fortune to meet four other male yuri fans at his first yuri-only event, after which they go to a nearby restaurant where they eat while engaging in “yuri chat” (yuri dangi). This chat becomes a debate between the other four over how yuri should be—a fight over issues such as whether the best yuri is penned by male or female artists, whether it is tailored for male or female readers/viewers, and whether it includes erotic scenes or projects merely nonsexual yuri relationships (ibid., 115–23). It is clear in the narrative that some male fans enjoy a sort of escape into “pure” romance narratives in which male characters are insignificant or absent, while others enjoy consuming yuri works for the erotic arousal they provide. For his part, Keisuke considers himself to be a yuri “all-rounder,” who feels “moe” (excitement) about all sorts of yuri (ibid., 117). Had female fans been portrayed with the same level of complexity as their male counterparts, we would likely have learned that their preferences for yuri are similarly diverse. Nevertheless, this debate illustrates that “yuri” is not singular in meaning. Among the other significant male yuri fans in the work is thirty-year-old Ōtori Takashi, who gave the then elementary-school-aged protagonist his first copy of Yuri shimai, introducing the boy to the world of yuri (Kurata 2011–14, 2: 30–32), and serves as Keisuke’s yuri mentor over the course of the narrative. The male homosocial sphere in which Keisuke dwells is eventually disrupted by his discovery that he and his female classmate Fujigaya Saori are both yuri fans and their decision to share their love for the genre (Kurata 2011–14, 4: 82ff). Their friendship, arising from their shared yuri fandom, is presented as unusual and perhaps undesirable because he is a boy and she is a girl (ibid., 73).
Soon after Ōtori is introduced, he and Keisuke have a battle over the depth of their knowledge of yuri (Kurata 2011–14, 2: 22–29). This knowledge battle, the above-mentioned fight among yuri fans, and other scenes throughout the run of the manga detail a wealth of knowledge about yuri. This includes references to: yuri’s precursor, “s” (esu), or “sister”-like relationships in shōjo fiction by female writer Yuasa Yoshiko and others in the first half of the twentieth century; popular contemporary works and artists, such as Maria Watches over Us (Maria-sama ga miteiru), originally a light novel series by Konno Oyuki (1998–2012), Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi hana), originally a manga series by Shimura Takako (2005–13), and YuruYuri, originally a manga series in Yuri hime by Namori (2009–); and typical yuri plot elements and settings, such as transfer students, all-girls schools, and characters who are misunderstood to be cold and uncaring (e.g., Kurata 2011–14, 1: 116–20; 2: 23–29). Through these scenes, Yuri danshi readers can enjoy learning about various aspects of yuri or take pleasure in recognizing the knowledge they already have. Moreover, over the course of the series, in addition to attending the yuri-only events noted above, other significant practices of devoted yuri fans are introduced, including visiting the “sacred sites” (seichi) used as the settings of one’s favorite yuri narratives and engaging in yuri chat with other fans and even artists around the country via Twitter (Kurata 2011–14, 5: 13–31, 45–53)—both of which are common in many fandoms in Japan.
The social identity of yuri fans is also addressed in depth, and yuri fandom is presented as something that ought to come out of the shadows. For instance, in the beginning, Keisuke is extremely conscious of the perception of others around him when buying yuri magazines or books, which he hides under his bed, and he is reluctant to admit publicly that he is a yuri fan. Ōtori strongly chides him for this, pushing Keisuke to feel “pride” about being a yuri fan. (Ōtori, however, is not called to account for hiding his own love of yuri from his wife, nor she her love of yuri from him.) As the narrative progresses, Keisuke and other yuri fans—both male and female—who had previously hidden their enjoyment of yuri begin to feel a sense of pride in their love for yuri, which they demonstrate by “coming out.” Moreover, a passion for yuri itself is presented as being innate rather than a personal choice. Keisuke and other male yuri fans all realize they like yuri when they are quite young, or this interest is sparked by being exposed at a young age, as in Keisuke’s case (Kurata 2011–14, 2: 30–32). Such an interest in yuri from a young age may reflect the experience of the artist, who recounts in the back of volume one how by middle school he was “secretly, late at night, drawing pictures of girls together” (Kurata and Nakamura 2011, 163). In addition, yuri fan Fūga Shin’ichi suffers from trying to suppress and deny his true yuri nature (Kurata 2011–14, 3: passim).
Some readers might find the use of terms like “pride” and “coming out,” as well as the representation of an interest in yuri relationships as innate, to be making light of serious issues faced by real LGBT people, particularly lesbians and bisexual women. Moreover, in this particular work—while in the series there are female yuri fans (yuri joshi) who are like other girls in real life, including those who want to actually kiss other girls—the possibility that they might have a “lesbian” identity or feel pride as a lesbian is absent. Note that while there are a significant number of heterosexual women who enjoy yuri, some of the genre’s most passionate fans are lesbian or bisexual women. Further, in this work, interest in yuri couples among fans is not translated into support for lesbian couples, nor is discrimination against real-life sexual minorities dealt with in earnest. Rather, one might say the presentation of female characters’ romantic relationships in this work might then be understood as a kind of “representational appropriation” (Ishida 2015)—essentially, the cadging of images of lesbians for the enjoyment of heterosexual fans. In a de facto acknowledgment of such a critique, at one point, Keisuke’s friend Kagome Seijirō points out—in his criticism of Keisuke’s atypical predilection for imagining yuri relationships among real girls around him as well as among fictional characters—that the “yuri” Keisuke loves entails using “the anguish of others,” who Seijirō labels “sexual minorities,” “as fuel for fantasies” (Kurata 2011–14, 2: 73). Seijirō extends his point by remarking that ultimately their shared attraction to yuri is a kind of “heterosexualism,” particularly so because “hetero guys are the furthest from yuri couples” among all yuri fans (ibid., 74; see also 4: 33).
That said, what we do not see within the yuri fandom represented in Yuri danshi is the kind of denial of homosexuality that Ishida Hitoshi (2015) has called out as homophobic in BL media. For instance, in contrast with common tropes in BL, female characters in the narrative do not repudiate “lesbian” desire or identity. More broadly speaking, arising as it did from shōjo culture, yuri manga and anime target a far wider audience than heterosexual male readers, as noted above. Attendance at yuri-only events notwithstanding, anecdotal evidence—including the results of informal surveys (Sugino, 2008, 141)—suggests that over half of yuri readers are female, among whom are a significant minority of self-identified lesbians and bisexuals, along with transgender or otherwise genderqueer people. And, as noted above, the yuri category is often interpreted to include works by and about overtly lesbian and bisexual women. So we cannot simply dismiss the yuri genre outright as homophobic or exploitative.
While, as noted at the outset, yuri is not simply the female version of BL, a clear line between the two genres and their fandoms cannot easily be drawn. This is evident, for instance, in the presence of advertisements for BL works in Yuri shimai and early issues of Yuri hime. Moreover, some well-known professional yuri artists, along with many yuri fans and amateur yuri artists, started out in the BL sphere. Popular yuri artist Morinaga Milk (2016, 42), for instance, recalls that she originally drew parodic BL dōjinshi, like many yuri fans who became fans of the as-yet-undefined genre in the 1990s. Like others who became interested in female-female romance narratives before they came to be recognized as a distinct genre, Morinaga developed her interest from watching Sailor Moon (Bishōjo senshi Sērā Mūn), a highly popular anime based on Takeuchi Naoko’s hit shōjo manga of the same name (1992–97) about a team of ten sailor-suit-clad beautiful girl warriors, including a pair who are romantically involved. It bears noting that Sailor Moon is an early example of a work about which both all-female and all-male circles produced fan works, resulting in a lack of distinct gender barriers among fans (Ajima 2004, 199), something we see when Keisuke first attends a yuri event. Morinaga realized that what she liked about BL was the “sense of taboo” surrounding same-sex romantic relationships (2016, 42), a feeling shared by at least some other fans of both genres.
The ease with which the homosocial world of Yuri danshi was transformed into the BL series Yuri danshi-kun (Akiwo and Kurata, 2015–16), further demonstrates this overlap between yuri and BL, as well as the overlap between their respective fans. The premise of this parodic spin-off is that Keisuke and his fellow male fans face an existential crisis upon being catapulted into a world without girls. While they attempt to continue to share their common love for yuri, which brought them together in the first place, some boys gradually give in and begin contemplating both the romance found in BL and the potential for romance with one another—theretofore taboo to all of them. While female-female intimate relationships in yuri manga, anime, and other Japanese literature are by no means the flip side of its BL counterpart, Yuri danshi as well as contemporary yuri media and its fans demonstrate the ways in which homosociality and homosexuality have been interwoven in the Japanese imagination to offer a respite from the pressures of normative notions of romance and sexuality.
* Large portions of this chapter appeared in Japanese in a special issue of the literary journal Yurīka (Eureka) focused on yuri culture (Welker 2014). I thank Akashi Yōsuke of Seidosha, the journal’s publisher, for permission to reproduce an English adaptation here. ↑
I write “girls love” and “boys love” without an apostrophe preceding or following the “s” to keep the meaning of the terms as open-ended as possible (see McLelland and Welker 2015, 19n2). ↑
Jennifer Prough (2011, 11) notes that shōjo manga works variously target readers from primary school to high school. ↑
In effect the continuation of the magazine Yuri shimai (Yuri sisters; 2003–2004), Komikku yuri hime was first published as a quarterly in 2005. Komikku yuri hime S was published as a variant, ostensibly to target male readers, from 2007 to 2010. The two were combined into a bimonthly magazine under the original Komikku yuri hime name in 2011. The magazine became a monthly starting with the January 2017 issue. ↑
By contrast, BL and yarō-kei (guy-type) works targeting gay men are treated as separate genres. ↑
Kurata penned a subsequent, short-lived second series for Komikku yuri hime, compiled into the single volume Ore no yome nante inee! (Bride? What bride?!; Kurata 2015). ↑
Details of past events are available on the Girls Love Festival website: http://www.lovefes.info. ↑
Publication dates of the manga volumes cited here do not always correspond with the works’ original serialization dates. ↑
See also “Yurinin (yurisuto) ni kiku,” Yurisuto 0 (May 5, 2012): 4–10; and “Hyakunin no yurinin (yurisuto),” Yurisuto 1 (August 8, 2012): 4–21. ↑
See, for example, “Yurinin (yurisuto) ni kiku,” Yurisuto 0 (May 5, 2012): 5. ↑
Kun is a title affixed to names, similar to san, which is most often used to address boys by those who are of the same age or older. ↑
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Welker, James. 2015. “A Brief History of Shōnen’ai, Yaoi, and Boys Love.” In Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland et al., 42–75. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.