What Is This Nonsense?
If you’ve browsed the manga section of your local bookstore, odds are you’ve pulled out a book that sported a flowery cover with soft pastel colors and a pair of attractive young men. They could be high school students, college slackers or businessmen; they might hold hands, snuggle or pose suggestively.

And if you flipped through the book, you might already have an idea of what yaoi is. For those of you who put it back on the shelf, yaoi is a popular subgenre of girls’ manga that features men in romantic relationships with each other.

Confused? You’re not alone. The media, men and marketers alike are all trying to make sense of the yaoi phenomenon, whose fans are so devoted that there are two yaoi conventions in the United States alone, and it seems like every Western manga publisher issues a few volumes of BL (“boys love”) a year, unless, of course, they only publish yaoi.

The word “yaoi” (officially pronounced “yah-oh-ee,” but actual pronunciation varies greatly) comes from a Japanese acronym for the phrase “yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi,” which roughly translates to “no climax, no resolution, no meaning.” The phrase wasn’t necessarily coined only for male/male romance stories, but it eventually took on the meaning as the fandom evolved.

The word is mostly not used in Japan in favor of “BL,” but English-speaking fans use the term as a catchall for BL works originating in or inspired by Japan. In fact, Western fans sometimes distinguish “yaoi” from what they call “shounen-ai,” which translates literally to “boy-love.” In Japan, it refers to a long-defunct manga subgenre that featured young boys, but English-speaking fans sometimes use “yaoi” for hardcore pornographic works and “shounen-ai” for non-explicit titles.

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The exact development of yaoi is something of a mystery; Japan, in fact, has a long history of homosexuality in its art and literature. But sometime during the 1960s or ’70s, fan-made comics featuring the men of popular manga series in romantic relationships with each other began appearing.

Not long after, artists began creating their own original yaoi manga, and in 1978, yaoi had its very first monthly manga anthology, titled June. Now a dozen or so yaoi publishers exist in Japan, and more than a handful in the U.S. license Japanese works or create their own.

Tales of boys in love was never exclusively a Japanese phenomenon, however. In fact, the western “slash” movement – which consists mainly of fan-fiction and art featuring men from such series as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean – established itself separately, although similarly. Slash’s roots can be traced primarily back to Star Trek: The Original Series, which inspired many fans to wonder if Kirk and Spock had a more intimate relationship than the show let on.

Although there are some male readers of yaoi, it is by and large created by and for women. As such, it’s an entirely female fantasy of homosexual sex, and it often resembles heterosexual sex more than homosexual in its depictions. As such, it’s not “gay manga,” and the effeminate styling and unrealistic portrayals of homosexual life turn off some gay men.

What’s In This Stuff?
Yaoi’s content varies widely from book to book. Some titles may feature a simple romance, such as Satoru Kannagi’s Only the Ring Finger Knows, which tells the tale of a couple of high school lads who fall in love but have trouble with their own insecurities about their romance. The series features no hardcore scenes, which isn’t uncommon in yaoi.

And yet, for every Ring Finger there’s a series like Tokiya Shimazaki’s Love is Like a Hurricane. Hurricane explores a similar theme, but the boys’ love initiates in a particularly lustful manner, and their adventures are far more explicit.

Some yaoi is as plotless as your average American porno, and a manga volume may consist of multiple short stories instead of a single multi-chaptered one. A series might be sweet and serious like Ring Finger, over-the-top and sexy like Hurricane, an outright comedy like Kirico Higashizato’s Love Recipe or it could take a considerably darker turn, as in Under Grand Hotel.

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Mika Sadahiro’s Under Grand Hotel features a Japanese man who goes to prison for murder. He rooms with an African-American man named Sword who rapes him regularly. The two form an unusually deep bond with each other as they deal with the other prisoners and corrupt prison guards. It’s an unusually grim tale, but rape and coercion are common in most types of yaoi.

In most hardcore BL, there is a primary couple that consists of two roles: the “seme” and the “uke.” A seme is the dominant (“top”) character; the word comes from the Japanese word for “attack.” An uke (from the Japanese word for “catch”) is the submissive (“bottom”) character. Some BL writers like to play with these stereotypes by offering up a “bottom” who is more aggressive, or characters who swap roles, but typically a couple will consist of a seme and an uke.

OK, So … Why?
Some girls stumble upon yaoi while they’re scouring bookstore shelves; others might be introduced by a friend or simply find it by accident online. They may be as young as 12 or full-fledged adults, although the fandom consists primarily of 16- to 30-year-old women.

Entire books could be written on why women are so fascinated by the fantastical depiction of homosexual sex and romance, but there are a few popular theories. Here are some of the most common explanations that yaoi fans themselves tend to give:

  • Two is better than one. If Occam’s Razor insists that the simplest explanation is the best, how about the idea that women simply prefer to see two men instead of a man and a woman – not unlike how some men favor lesbian porn because they don’t have to spend any time staring at a guy? Some women simply prefer to be able to identify with either the dominant or submissive character as they see fit, and they prefer to admire good-looking men without the distraction of a woman they may instinctively compare themselves to.
  • The freedom to explore. A significant chunk of yaoi manga features sex scenes in which the dominant character coerces or even outright forces the submissive one to have sex. These scenes are often written off later as the seme simply being unable to control his feelings for the uke, or even by announcing that the uke actually wanted it and simply didn’t know it.

    Imagine a manga in which a man rapes a woman and tells her he did it because she really wanted it, and she believes him and falls in love with him. Uncomfortable yet? Women don’t want to advocate rape, and certainly don’t want to be raped, but as many as 50 percent of women harbor rape fantasies. Some readers suggest yaoi is an opportunity for women to explore those interests (and others, such as BDSM) in a fantasy setting, keeping the reader a step apart from the characters in the series.

  • The girls’ club. There is very little pornography out there geared almost entirely toward women. Even most lesbian pornography is actually aimed at men, and romance novels have the unfortunate association of being junky soap operas for bored housewives.

    Yaoi, on the other hand, grew exponentially more popular on the internet, and accrued a vast fan community that is, by and large, women-only. The community continues to feed itself by recommending new original titles, sharing and selling merchandise and creating fan fiction and fan art.

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    It shouldn’t be too surprising that women enjoy having an outlet to be a bit perverted without the judgment of the world at large, though yaoi fangirls don’t necessarily have the best reputation among anime fans.

  • It’s just different. There’s nothing out there quite like yaoi, and we live in a world where novelty sells. It’s generally accessible, and there are titles out there for just about any kind of yaoi fan, from the softcore to the hardcore, plot-light to plot-heavy, comedy to tragedy. Sometimes readers just want to try something a little different!

Boy-Love and the Art of Bookshelf Maintenance
Next time you’re browsing the manga section and you happen to catch that suspiciously pink book with pretty boys on the cover, rest assured you’ve stumbled upon a genre as varied and challenging as manga itself. But, as with so many other forms of manga, just make sure you’re ready for what you may encounter.

Gia Manry is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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