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Japanese subculture: Yaoi

This article discusses Yaoi, a genre of fictional media originating in Japan that features homoerotic relationships between male characters.
© Keio University

What is Yaoi? What kind of social background created this culture?

Please read the following article excerpted from my own article; “Only Women Know: Possibilities of Male Homosexual Preferences and Sexuality as Seen by Women,” which appeared in Sanshokuki (1)(May 2011).


The viewpoint of sexuality eventually made it clear that feminism, which had gender as its central issue—a topic often discussed in dualistic terms—was built on the assumption of heterosexuality. Furthermore, while feminism had not addressed differences in ethnicity or class, the concept of sexuality was introduced as a result of a demand for another axis of thought. In this way, it became possible for us to question again the “difference” that we overlooked, even though it existed within us (or that we deliberately ignored it), from the angle of gender. Homosexual people, who had different sexual inclinations, were marginalized by “compulsory heterosexuality” (Adrienne Rich) and “heteronormativity” (Michael Warner), and even within literature, homosexual relationships were overlooked or marginalized. However, through gay and lesbian critique examining sisterhood and gay sensibilities within works of literature, the issue of sexuality gradually came to the forefront.

However, from the late ‘80s to the ‘90s, a form of discussion emerged that harshly criticized the fact that homosexuality and the heterosexuality it marginalized were again falling into the trap of dualism. Are heterosexuality and homosexuality simply binary opposites? If the nucleus of humanity is a fluid grouping-together of possible pieces of the self, then is it also possible to think of a person’s sexuality not as a fixed concept, but rather as an accumulation of fragments that can change shape? Is homosexuality even a uniform concept, or do differences exist within homosexuality? Teresa de Lauretis’s essay “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities: an Introduction,” published in Differences (1991, vol. 3 no.2), objected to the dualistic view of homosexuality as the margin of heterosexuality, and attempted to treat it as something unique with a unique societal and cultural shape. At this point, de Lauretis advocated the use of the term “queer theory” to reconsider and reconstruct the framework of our sexuality, instead of using the term “gay and lesbian studies”. De Lauretis emphasizes consciousness of internal differences, and through consciousness of male sexuality and female homosexuality, gender differences, and particularly differences in ethnicity and class, studies of sexuality that included these aspects came to be known as queer studies.

Theory of Sexuality

The starkest theorization of the fluidity of sexuality comes from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men (1985). Sedgwick examines internal homosocial desires and homophobic relationships through a close analysis of texts from Shakespeare to 19th century Victorian novels. She finds that homosocial desires, mediated by women, appear in the bonds seen between heterosexual men in a variety of works, and indicates the possibility that these could be structured as “continuums” of homosexuality (though these continuums are broken off by homophobia). One noteworthy detail here is that heterosexuality and homosexuality are not positioned as opposite states of human desire, but that at times, their boundaries overlap.

It is likely that when this theory, which truly read into the “bonds” between men who behave in a heterosexual manner was introduced to Japan, many people thought of a certain deeply-rooted, yet hidden, literary phenomenon that exists largely within female literature. This literary phenomenon is none other than the “yaoi” genre of fiction—an embodiment of male homosexual preferences created by women, and a genre that is supported by those tastes.

Male homosexual preferences created by women

Male homosexual preferences created by women, as the term suggests, appear in works of fiction (novels and manga) about male homosexuality by women, for women. Currently, one might say that rather than being the secret pleasure of a very niche group of enthusiasts, this theme has become a phenomenon. The origin of this age in which female authors express love between men for the enjoyment of female readers can be traced to the 1960s, with the publication of Mari Mori’s novels A Lover’s Forest and The Bed of Dead Leaves. Later, in the 1970s, the manga authors Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, members of the Year 24 Group within shōjo manga, released the shōnen-ai works The Heart of Thomas [Toma no Shinzo] and The Poem of Wind and Trees [Kaze to ki no uta] respectively. In 1978, Comic JUN (later JUNE), a magazine specializing in shōnen-ai and male homosexual works, began publication.


Another literary movement that began in the 1970s worth noting is the first Comic Market held in 1975, also known as “Comike.” Originally billed as a dōjinshi fair, one might say that Comike was a space that made forms of expression differing from those found in commercial magazines possible. The genre known as “yaoi” blossomed within Comike culture. The name “yaoi” is an acronym of the phrase “YAma nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi” (“no climax, no punch line, no meaning”), and the genre consists of derivative works originating from parodies of existing anime and manga works. Generally, if the existing work is meant for consumption, heterosexuality is taken as a given, and either no particular reference is made to the sexuality of male characters within the work, or they are presented as heterosexual. However, not only do the female readers who read something homosexual into the homosocial “bonds” between those male characters overcome the separation of homosociality and homosexuality discussed by Sedgwick with ease, but they also put physical sexual relationships between men clearly in the foreground. For example, the first yaoi work that I discovered was one that portrayed love between the boys who appeared in the shōnen manga Captain Tsubasa, which was a hugely popular series in the magazine Shōnen Jump in the 1980s. This depiction by women fantasizing about homosexual love within the powerful friendship (bonds) between males included some extreme sexual imagery. This queer reading of a work, that nimbly evades “traditional definitions” of sexuality, resonates with Sedgwick’s theory.

Of course, this may be only a facet of popular culture, and one cannot simply say that this phenomenon only exists in Japan (for example, see Joanna Russ’s Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love (1985) and Mari Kotani’s *Techno Gynesis [Joseijō muishiki] (Keiso Shobo, 1994) regarding the existence of the slash fiction genre in the United States). Furthermore, there are real homosexual men who criticize the portrayal of male homosexual relationships in yaoi. However, the question here is: why do women like male homosexuality, or what are women trying to gain by drawing it (or reading it)?

There are several interpretations as to why women (not all women, of course, but some) are interested in the homosexuality of men, rather than their own gender. In Phantasma of Yaoi [Yaoi Genron] (Natsume Shobo, 1999), Shihomi Sakakibara suggests that women have an active need for a subject to stand in for themselves, and that they are seeking an escape from womanhood itself. On the other hand, in On Yaoi Novels [Yaoi Shosetsuron] (Senshu University Press, 2005), Yoko Nagakubo states that by depicting homosexual relationships that mimic heterosexual relationships, yaoi attempts to depict relationships with what is called the “heterosexual code” reduced to its absolute minimum.


In Midori Mizuma’s Shonen-ai as Metaphor [In’yu to shite no shōnen-ai] (Sogensha), released in 2005, a different opinion to the two above is presented, where she delves into the question of the family, which reproduces not only aspects of sexuality but its norms as well. Mizuma theorizes that in order to escape from the body that personifies the existence of the “mother” and her control, women need “shōnen-ai: an eros (a general principle) that has eliminated the female body.” Her theory offers the view that this is linked to the question of why representations of violence and incest are common in the genres known as yaoi and boy’s love.

By temporarily putting away one’s body, one can break out of the restrictions and fetters placed by societal norms of sexuality, and within the family, escape from the controlling power reproduced mainly by the “mother.” One may consider that what women fantasize about in male homosexual relationships that do not require women is not a world in which women are suppressed, but rather a place where those women can reconstruct themselves by actively nullifying themselves.

One interesting point here is the origin of the “yaoi” acronym often used with regard to the derivative works: “no climax, no punch line, no meaning.” To put it another way, yaoi is deliberately removed from context, background, and all that both entail, and takes the stance of removing itself from the temporal and spatial consequences of narrative construction and backstories required of storytelling in general. In this way, it offers a point of view that differs from the values of what is held to be the majority. If, as referenced by Judith Halberstam, quoting Samuel Delany in the book In a Queer Time and Place (New York University Press, 2005), queer existence uses time and space in a form that challenges the normative ideals of development and maturity, and growth and responsibility, perhaps we may be able to identify the reason why the “no climax, no punch line, no meaning” of yaoi depicts existence in the “here and now,” completely separated from both past and future.

© Keio University
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An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures

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