Why are Japanese Girls’ Comics full of Boys Bonking?[1] – Mark McLelland


‘Boys’ love’ (shōnen’ai) in Japanese does not refer to the love many young Japanese women feel for male teen idols but instead refers to the homoerotic attraction the male heroes in a genre of Japanese women’s manga (comics) feel for each other. Commencing in the early 1970s, women’s manga began to describe love stories between ‘beautiful boys’ culminating in the mid-80s in an amateur genre termed yaoi (an acronym meaning ‘no climax, no point, no meaning’) which, dispensing with the elaborate plots of the earlier comics, focused instead upon sexual interactions between boys and young men. The advent of the Internet has provided a new forum for Japanese women interested in boys’ love fiction to publish their own and read each other’s work and has enabled western women interested in manga and anime to also participate in this subculture – a subculture that overturns western obsessions with traditional heroism. This paper briefly outlines the history of Japanese women’s fascination with male homosexuality and describes the boy love stories in women’s manga and on the Internet. It criticises western academic analyses of the genre which tend to pathologise both the women fans and Japanese society in general. Instead, it is suggested that it is not the widespread representation of homosexuality in Japanese popular culture that should be problematised, but rather the extreme compartmentalisation of homosexuality in western cultures.



When I casually mention that the most frequent representations of male homosexuality in Japan (outside the pages of the gay press) appear in manga (comics) written by and for women and girls, I am usually met with an incredulous ‘Why?’ This always strikes me as odd, for few people react with surprise to the fact that male pornography is full of ‘lesbian’ sex. If heterosexual men enjoy the idea of two women getting it on, why should heterosexual women not enjoy the idea of two men bonking? In English-speaking societies, many women do just this, and what’s more they write about it and illustrate it in ‘slash fiction’ (Jenkins 1992; Penley 1992; Cicioni 1998). This almost exclusively female genre takes the popular male leads from television dramas, movies or novels and ‘slashes’ them, making their homosocial and at times homoerotic subplots explicitly homosexual.

Slash can be understood as a response to the cultural logic of the culture industries which offer, on the whole, ‘consensus narratives’ wherein studios and producers aim to maximise profits by appealing to as broad a section of the public as possible. This results in somewhat bland programming since producers are wary of pushing the boundaries of representation too far beyond what is considered acceptable to a supposed mainstream audience. Many fans, particularly women, are disappointed by the contrived romantic story lines that are appended to ‘buddy’ series and movies in which the real emotional energy is between the heroic male leads (or between hero and villain). Slash fans respond by taking over their favourite heroes and developing their own homoerotic story lines and fantasies that are suggested by the plot.

Beginning in the Star Trek fandom subculture of the mid 70s where sexually explicit Kirk/Spock (or K/S) stories were first written, slash has expanded to include almost any TV series, movie or book where the bond between the male heroes is sufficiently intense to permit sexual readings. Starsky/Hutch stories were popular for a time in the late 70s; the male members of the cast of British sci-fi series Blakes 7 were slashed throughout the 80s; in the 90s, The X-Files’ Moulder found himself slashed both with his boss Skinner and his nemesis, Krycek; and more recently the spook-hunting brothers Sam and Dean from hit series Supernatural have found themselves expressing far more than fraternal affection. Woman on woman slash has, in recent years, also developed a strong following, the most active fandoms being based on heroines such as Xena and Buffy. These stories, digitally manipulated images, re-dubbed video files and fan-drawn illustrations are created, edited, circulated and collected by women fans in print-version zines and on the Internet.[2] As Henry Jenkins notes slash fans are ‘textual poachers’ who concede that ‘erotic pleasure is central to their interest in the genre’ (1992: 191); hence slash should be understood as a form of pornography tailored to women’s fantasies and sensibilities.

In Japan, however, television and movie heroes have not proven so popular for this fan-based enterprise; a cultural preference for ‘home dramas’ has meant that there have been few long-running TV programmes with male leads that are sufficiently charismatic to be slashed. Science fiction, a particularly fertile ground for western women slash fans, is not a genre much represented on Japanese television but is, instead, a staple of manga and its animation offshoots. In Japan, it has not been TV heroes but popular manga and animation heores who have been slashed by women writers and artists.

Japan’s manga industry is immense, accounting for about 38 percent of all published matter (Kinsella 1999: 568), and its creators, known as manga-ka, can become as famous as film or pop stars and are treated as such. Likewise, their creations, the manga heroes and heroines, have an adult fan base which would be unthinkable in western countries where comics are seldom regarded as an important product of the culture industry, much less a serious art form. Running parallel to the immensely profitable official manga business is a semi-tolerated world of amateur artists who take the copyrighted characters and produce their own dōjinshi (fanzines) about them. Japanese copyright laws are more relaxed than those in Europe or America (Hatcher 2005) and major publishers realise that the amateur fan publications augment rather than challenge the sales potential of the originals. Also, the amateur market supports a huge pool of talent from which many professional manga-ka have emerged.

Yet, despite the fact that the manga phenomenon in Japan has received a great deal of academic attention (Schodt 1983, 1996; Buruma 1984; Allison 1996; Kinsella 2000), the women’s ‘boys’ love’ genre has been largely overlooked by western academics who write on Japanese popular culture.[3] What analysis does exist has tended to treat the genre as problematic, attempting to explain the sexist features of Japanese society that drive Japanese women to fantasise about homosexual, not heterosexual romance (see Lunsing 2006 for a critique of this approach). Underlying these arguments is the assumption that in a non-sexist world women would ‘naturally’ choose heterosexual fantasy, itself a sexist assumption given the popularity of representations of ‘lesbian sex’ among heterosexual men.

Male homosexuality and Japanese women’s culture

Japanese women have long been avid consumers of popular entertainment that would seem to disrupt sexual and gender boundaries while at the same time being committed to normative gender performances in their daily lives (McLelland 2000a; Welker 2006). In the early modern period, onnagata (f
emale-role players) in the kabuki theatre were popular role models for many townswomen who followed the fashions pioneered by men performing as women on stage (Dalby 1993: 275). Later, in the Taisho period (1912-1927), the otokoyaku (male-role performers) in the all-woman Takarazuka revue became national celebrities to their all-female audience (Robertson 1998). Both kabuki and the Takarazuka continue to be popular today and gender play on the Japanese screen and stage is still widespread. Indeed, in 2001 The Tale of Genji, a popular film about Japan’s legendary romantic hero featured Amami Yuki, a retired Takarazuka male-role star, as Prince Genji.[4] The US equivalent would be to remake Romeo and Juliet starring not Leonardo Di Caprio but Hilary Swank.

The extent of women’s fascination with gender bending and homosexuality became apparent in the early 90s, when Japanese media underwent a ‘gay boom’ (gei būmu) wherein Japan’s previously clandestine homosexual subculture was suddenly exposed in a wide range of media, from newspaper and magazine articles to documentaries, TV dramas and movies (McLelland 2000a: 32-37). Much of this material was clearly pitched at a female audience, including two of the most popular ‘gay boom’ movies: Okoge (‘Fag-hag,’ Takehiro Murata 1992) and Kira Kira Hikaru (‘Twinkle,’ Matsuoka George, 1992) as well as Dōsokai (Alumni reunion), a hit TV show; all three starred female leads who fell in love with, and eventually married, gay men (McLelland 1999; 2000a: 98-102; 2003). But perhaps the most intriguing and voluminous evidence for this fascination occurs in girls’ comics (shōjo manga) featuring stories of ‘boys’ love’ (shōnen’ai).

Romantic stories about ‘male love’ (nanshoku) have a long tradition in Japan, usually focusing on the attraction between a priest or samurai lover (nenja) and his acolyte (chigo) or page (wakashu) (Watanabe & Iwata 1989; Leupp 1995; McLelland 2005a). Indeed, ‘erotic relations between males (but not between females) carried a certain amount of cultural prestige’ and were ‘interpreted as a sign of masculine rectitude or an admirably refined sensibility’ (Reichert 2006: 6). During the Edo period (1600-1857), the apogee of samurai culture, male-male love was genuinely regarded as a heroic virtue.

However, these early stories were written by men for an anticipated male audience; women manga artists and writers did not begin to feature love stories about ‘beautiful boys’ (bishōnen) until the early 70s (McLelland 2000b, 2005a; Welker 2006). These early romances, aptly described as ‘Bildungsroman’ by Midori Matsui (1993) were long, beautifully crafted tales with a historical focus, often set in private boys’ schools in the last century. Homosexuality in 70s girls’ manga was largely incidental to the plots which concerned the heroes’ search for love, acceptance and identity. The doyenne of the manga Bildungsroman is undoubtedly Hagio Moto whose homoerotic manga November Gymnasium (1971) and Thomas’ Heart (1972-3), about life in a European public school set at the beginning of the twentieth century, remain favourites today. Hagio was not shy about alluding to sex and her work contains a number of ‘bed scenes’. These scenes became increasingly explicit in other women’s manga throughout the 70s. Surprisingly, it was not only male artists writing for a heterosexual male audience who tested the censorship laws on representations of sex but the limits were tested by women writers, too, and the sex they represented was not heterosexual but homosexual (Buckley 1991: 173). No flash-in-the-pan, Hagio has continued to create compelling boys’ love stories; her manga Zankokuna kami ga shihai suru (A cruel god reigns), a tale about a beautiful boy who is sexually abused by his evil step-father while being secretly attracted to his step-brother, was published in 1993. By 1997, the first volume had gone through ten reprints and the entire series stretched to nine volumes.

Indeed, by the late 1990s researchers in Japan speculated that there was a core readership for boys’ love material of about half a million. In 1998 there were 9 literary magazines, 12 comic magazines and approximately 30 paperbacks being published each month that specialized in boys’ love, with estimated total sales of 1,275,000 (Mizoguchi 2003: 57). Moreover, the readership for this material is probably on the increase since, as Mizoguchi notes, the space given over to the genre in bookstores seems to be expanding (2003: 58). In fact, commercially produced yaoi in Japan is big business and ‘has generated enough jobs for hundreds of women to be economically independent by providing products to female customers’ (2003: 66).

‘Boys’ love’ and amateur manga fandom

Since the early 80s, manga fans of both sexes have been producing their own versions of their favourite manga and distributing them through the huge ‘comic markets’ (komiketto) held regularly all over Japan. The year 2006 saw the sixty-ninth such meeting, the events regularly attracting over 300,000 visitors.[5] At komiketto, fans and artists, both professional and amateur, meet together, establish ‘circles’ (sākuru) dedicated to specific manga or genres and sell or swap their work. Many fans appear dressed as their favourite manga characters (in Japanese referred to as kosupure or ‘costume play’) and their pictures and profiles are featured on the komiketto homepage. These massive gatherings of manga fans are Japan’s equivalent to the fantasy and science fiction conventions held in the US and Europe and are major commercial ventures.[6]

Although the vast majority of manga in Japan are written by and for men and boys, most of the fans attending these gatherings are female: at their peak in the 1990s only about 35% of attendees were male (Kinsella 1998: 300). One reason why the gatherings proved so popular with women was that they were taking manga intended for male consumption and rewriting them to embody their own desires and interests. Frequently this involved introducing a homosexual subplot between the main male characters which did not exist in the original versions. One of the first mainstream comics to be ‘slashed’ in this way was Captain Tsubasa, about a school football team.

However, female manga fans do not simply slash mainstream manga, they create homosexual characters of their own. This genre is known as yaoi, an acronym of the Japanese phrase YAma nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi, meaning ‘No climax, no point, no meaning,’ indicating that these stories are about little more than sex. They clearly parallel the PWP (Plot? What plot?) scenarios created by western slash writers, who put their male characters into bed together on the slenderest of pretexts. These comics, both ‘original’ (orijinaru) and ‘parody’ (parodi) are circulated among female fans at komiketto, by mail, and increasingly via the Internet. Male fans also produce their own amateur manga and, like women’s stories the themes are often sexual, except the characters are not boys but ‘beautiful young girls’ (bishōjo
). Schodt points out that some of these manga ‘would be regarded as kiddie porn in North America’ (1996: 37) and many do indeed fall within the category of ‘virtual child pornography’ as defined in jurisdictions such as Australia which place severe limits even on ‘fantasy’ representations of the sexual exploits of ‘under-age’ characters (McLelland 2005b).

Western slash fiction has never been taken up commercially, and most women’s slash fanzines barely make enough to cover costs. But Japanese publishing companies with an eye for profit have picked up some of the brightest amateur yaoi artists of the early 80s and published their work. One of the earliest ‘boy love’ monthly magazines was June (pronounced ju-neh) first published in 1978. By 1995, June was being published in a 300-page bimonthly format with a circulation of between 80,000 and 100,000 (Schodt 1996: 120). In contrast, G-Men, one of Japan’s most popular gay magazines, sells only 20,000 copies per month (McLelland 2000a: 140). June has been so successful in pioneering a new style in boy-love stories that the term June-mono (June stuff) is sometimes used to refer to boys’ love stories in general. June’s publisher Sun Publishing[7] has continued to develop a range of ‘boys’ love’ titles and contains a BL-shi (that, is Boys’-Love magazine) category on its main page. In July 2006, a click on this category brought up over 15 distinct boys’ love titles such as (in English translation), Boys’ Love, Boys’ Kiss and Boys’ Pierce.

In the 90s, many other boys’ love manga followed June’s lead, the most famous of which was the B-Boy series published by Biblos. The original B-Boy comic, published monthly, was joined by the monthly Gekkan Shōsetsu B-Boy (Monthly B-Boy Novel) and the bimonthly B-Boy Gold (‘gold’ is sometimes added to the titles of other manga publications and signifies more hard-core content). Biblos also published the quarterly ‘Men’s love novel’ Beast, a massive ‘telephone book’-size manga full of sexy illustrations, stories and comics about schoolboys and young men getting it on together. However, Biblos’s hold on the market has now ended–a recent visit to their website[8] revealed that the company has filed for bankruptcy (apparently due to the follow-on effects of the bankruptcy of Biblos’s parent company). Like the once-popular gay men’s magazine Barazoku, which recently also went out of publication after a run of over 25 years, the end of Biblos points to the rise of the Internet as a preferred medium for exchanging and consuming erotic narratives.

At present, the majority of yaoi manga are produced by amateur women fans either as dōjinshi (fanzines) or on the Internet. There are now so many amateur yaoi titles, and such is Japanese women’s interest in them, that special editions of general manga and animation magazines often bring out ‘boys’ love’ specials. For instance, the February 1999 issue of Pafu, describing itself as a ‘Boys’ Love Special’, contained synopses and illustrations from a wide variety of boy-love comics organised according to genre. These include ‘lovely love’, ‘requited love’, ‘secret love’, ‘naïve love’, and ‘sexual love’. The edition also includes a question and answer guide to help female fans understand why they are so attracted to the genre. Some reasons suggested include ‘you are attracted to a pure kind of love’ and ‘you wish to wrap yourself in the joy of love’.

In case some readers are wondering whether these stories written by and for women are of a homoerotic rather than a homosexual bent, it should be remembered that an alternate reading of the acronym yaoi offered on many websites is YAmete, Oshiri ga Itai! (Stop, my ass hurts!). This playful derivation is not far off the mark for, as Mizoguchi points out, ‘in the ‘boys’ love’ genre, virtually all the protagonists engage in anal intercourse’ (2003: 65). Indeed, a main structuring device in yaoi narratives is the often tense relationship between two male leads termed seme (from semeru, ‘to attack’) and uke (from ukeru, ‘to receive’).[9] The seme (older, stronger, larger) character is in hot pursuit of sexual favours from his younger and weaker uke comrade and sometimes does not hesitate to use force, Mizoguchi noting that many yaoi stories feature ‘rape as an expression of love’ (2003: 56).

Given yaoi’s ‘overwhelmingly female’ readership (Nagaike 2003: 76), the pornographic nature of these stories and illustrations may come as a surprise to those not familiar with Japanese culture, but despite the fact that much of the debate about pornography in an Anglophone context assumes a generalized male consumer, in Japan there are numerous pornographic print media created and consumed by women; as Jones points out ‘In Japan, visual pornography is not for men only’ (2002: 5). Yaoi stories and illustrations do not shy away from explicit sexual references; as Nagaike notes, yaoi is ‘an example of narrative pornography directed at female readers’ (2003: 77) and ‘yaoi narratives include all kinds of sexual acts, such as hand jobs, fellatio, digital penetration of the anus and S/M’ (2003: 80).

For instance, the manga ‘I want to lose myself in a rude kiss,’ from an edition of B-Boy (1994 vol. 18), is about a high-school boy who is seduced by his art teacher. The teacher spills coffee on the boy’s trousers as an excuse to get him to take them off, once removed, he proceeds to fellate him. Disturbed in the act by the (improbably young and beautiful) Math teacher, the protagonists then engage in a threesome, including oral and anal sex. This emphasis on sex is not restricted to the boys’ love genre but occurs in other women’s manga. The genre of ‘ladies comics’ written by and for women that developed in the 1990s troubles the assumption that manga are a male medium where images of women are debased, for, as Schodt points out, ‘some of the raciest material [is] in magazines not for men but for women (and drawn by women)’ (1996: 126; see also Jones 2003). As Sharon Kinsella has noted: ‘pornography has not been as strongly compartmentalised in post-war Japan as it has in post-war America or Britain…Pornographic images have tended to appear throughout the media as well as in specifically pornographic productions’ (2000: 46); women’s (and girls’) media being no exception. Of particular interest is the apparent lack of concern with which characters who, in a western context, would be considered ‘under-age’ are featured throughout all genres of manga, both male and female-oriented.

Far from being removed from public view or placed in shrink-wrapped plastic on the top shelf of specialty book stores, yaoi manga are sold alongside other shōjo manga or girls’ comics in high street malls across Japan. Moreover, yaoi-themed stories are not limited to a few specialist publications but can occur in almost any Japanese girls’ comic. Famous comic series that occasionally publish yaoi fiction include the biweekly Margaret (first published by Shueisha in 1963), Hana to Yume (Flowers and Dreams, first published by Hakusensh
a in 1975) and Princess (first published by Akita Shoten in 1975). All these comics are aimed at an audience of schoolgirls but are often read by adult women as well.

The popularity of ‘boys’ love’ among Japanese, and increasingly, western women has not gone unnoticed in the western gay press. An article in the American gay magazine The Advocate (February 4, 1997, p. 66) discusses the ‘gay’ relationship between Ranmaru and Enjoji portrayed in the Japanese animation Kizuna based on a manga by the female artist Kazuma Kodaka. The review is dismissive of the plot, stating that ‘never once is their gayness questioned or explained’. The reason is that Ranmaru and Enjoji are not ‘gay’: they just happen to be two young men who love each other. This is an important point that applies also to slash fiction. These stories about men bonking created by and for women do not ‘trivialise gay life’ as suggested in the review, because they are not about ‘gay men’. In women’s yaoi fiction, homosexual love has been naturalised, which is why so many of the stories are situated in futuristic fantasy societies where the political divides over sex and gender issues that polarise contemporary communities are largely redundant.

This does not mean that women writers do not occasionally borrow themes that relate to realities experienced by many gay men. For instance, the first attempt to deal with AIDS in any literary medium in Japan was the manga series Tomoi, about a gay Japanese doctor working in New York. This long and ultimately tragic love story appeared in the mid-eighties in the bimonthly women’s manga, Petite Flower (Schodt 1996: 193). A more recent manga, Ragawa Marimo’s New York New York (1998), sets the story in New York’s gay scene and narrates the troubled life of a beautiful male prostitute as he searches for love and acceptance. Scenes of homophobia, gay bashing, depression and attempted suicide are touchingly depicted before the story is brought to its heart-rendingly sentimental conclusion. However, it should be remembered that yaoi is not written for gay men and so should not be criticised for failing to represent their concerns accurately. Yaoi is a fantasy genre for women, and, as male readers of heterosexual pornography often argue, fantasy should be free. Indeed, despite the so-called yaoi ronsō (yaoi debate) sparked by complaints from a gay activist that women were falsely manipulating male homosexuality for their own entertainment (see Lunsing 2006), many gay men in Japan enjoy the genre and some key titles (including the June series) are stocked by gay bookstores in Tokyo.

Yaoi fandom in English

Not only are yaoi manga popular among Japanese girls and women, but they are beginning to attract a sizeable following among women internationally, including the west. A Google search for ‘yaoi’ in May 2006 produced 3,740,000 English, 639,000 Spanish, 181,000 Italian, 41,200 Chinese and 24,500 Korean hits. Some Japanese-speaking western fans have done a great service to the western yaoi community by scanning and translating some scenes from the most famous yaoi stories (referred to as ‘scanlations’), and have provided online summaries of many more. Indeed, in response to demand from non-Japanese readers, komiketto and some publishers now have English web pages that allow browsers to order copies of their favourite manga online direct from Japan. There is also a growing international market for commercial yaoi products (produced mainly in Japan but recently published in English translation in the US) via online sites such as Amazon.com and E-bay (Cha 2005). In response to this demand, translated English editions of yaoi manga debuted in the North American market in 2003. Since the debut, so far in North America approximately 100 yaoi manga books have been published by major comic publishers as well as by small publishing companies dealing exclusively in yaoi, and about 30 additional books were announced for release in 2006. In the week of November 7, 2004, four of the top ten, and three of the top five manga bestsellers at Amazon.com were yaoi (ICv2 News, 2004). There is even an international convention for yaoi fans and authors which takes place in San Francisco (now in its sixth year).[10] As in Japan, in the U.S. the genre attracts a mainly heterosexual female fan base. As one organizer of ‘yaoicon’ comments, ‘convention membership is about 85% female’ and attendees are ‘predominantly straight’ (cited in Cha 2005).

Not content to simply collect or describe the creations of Japanese yaoi artists, many western women fans are creating their own yaoi stories based on mainstream Japanese manga and animation series or creating their own characters in yaoi style and publishing them on the Web. Given the increasing number of foreign fans of the yaoi genre, male homosexual love stories are turning into one of Japan’s biggest cultural exports. However, the tone of many English yaoi fan sites is rather different from that of the Japanese originals in that the conflation of ‘homosexuality’ with boys is problematic in current Anglo-Saxon sexual regimes (McLelland 2001). As Germaine Greer, in her study of ‘the boy’ in Western art points out, late twentieth-century fears about pedophilia have resulted in a ‘criminalization of awareness of the desires and charms of boys’, the effect being that ‘they are now considered attractive only to a perverted taste’ (2003: 10). Consequently, English-speaking yaoi writers and illustrators are constrained to be defensive, putting warnings on their sites and using password protection to restrict access to ‘underage’ browsers. The Aestheticism site,[11] one of the oldest and best resourced boys’ love sites in English, goes so far as to offer a ‘Legal FAQ’ section where yaoi fans can post questions about censorship and the legality of some of their representations. Fans are well-advised to be cautious since yaoi fiction and illustrations fall within the definition of ‘virtual child pornography’ in some jurisdictions, rendering the creation and circulation of these texts illegal. While the rights of U.S. fans over the age 18 to enjoy this material are protected by first-amendment guarantees of free speech, the sexualization of characters who are (or may only appear to be) under the age of 16 remains illegal in Australia in any medium—including fictional illustrations and text (McLelland 2005b).

Conclusion: Why boys bonking?

As journalist Richard McGregor states ‘in Japan almost anything homosexual can attract an all-female audience’ (1996: 229) and this includes not just manga but movies. For instance, lesbian activist Sarah Shulman was astonished to discover in Tokyo in 1992 that a lesbian and gay film festival was being held in a popular shopping mall and that ‘the audience was eighty percent straight women’ (1994: 245). This makes sense when contemporary male-female relations in Japan are placed in the context of Japanese history where the notion of ‘romantic love’ was a late arrival, imported along with the European novel at the end of the nineteenth century. In Confucian Japan, women’s sexuality has long been tied up with reproduction and the family system and this has made it difficult to represent women romantic
ally involved with men as their partners and equals. As one Japanese fan of ‘homosexuality’ expressed to Sara Schulman ‘images of male homosexuality are the only picture we have of men loving someone as an equal, it’s the kind of love we want to have’ (1994: 245). Many other reasons for Japanese women’s fascination with male homosexuality have been offered (Aoyama 1988; Buckley 1991; Matsui 1993; McLelland 2000b). The usual argument (which I once advanced myself) is that these beautiful young men are projections of the largely female audience’s own femininity, the idea being that in a society as sexist as Japan, women can only identify with truly autonomous figures in male form. Yet, I remain sceptical of academic analyses which attempt to explain this extensive and complex product of women’s culture since they tend to pathologise both the women readers and Japanese culture in general; such explanations can be reductionist and deny the complexities of both desire and identification. Nagaike is surely right to stress the ‘multiple, shifting, and synchronic process of identification experienced by female readers during the act of reading yaoi manga’ (2003: 88; see also Welker 2006). The process of identification involved in the production and consumption of yaoi is obviously very complex, may differ according to the sexual orientation of the reader, and different factors may also be at play in the context of different yaoi language communities.[12] However, there is so far no empirical research that might enable us to address these issues.

I would like to conclude this brief tour of the world of boys’ love by rephrasing the question raised in the title of the article: Why shouldn’t Japanese women’s comics be full of boys bonking? It is worth remembering that ‘lesbian play’ (rezupurei) in the Japanese sex trade refers not to two women performing for the gratification of men but to cross-dressed men acting out their ‘lesbian’ fantasies with female sex-workers (McLelland 2000a: 34). In Japan, as elsewhere, men seem to be granted greater license to experiment with sexuality than do women. Why should men’s interest in ‘lesbianism’ be taken for granted whereas women’s interest in male homosexuality somehow be in need of interpretation?

It is important to remember that Japanese popular culture is replete with homosexual and gender-bending images that would be segregated in western societies. For instance, IZAM http://www.izamania.net/, a one-time member of popular boy band SHAZNA, performs cross-dressed as a woman and in 1999 appeared in advertisements in Japan as the face of Shiseido cosmetics. ‘Peter’, one of Japan’s top TV ‘hostesses,’ is a cross-dresser; and Maruyama Akihiro, a once stunningly beautiful cross-dresser whose singing and acting career dates back to the 50s, is still featured in TV commercials aimed at selling top quality make-up, kimono and other luxury goods to rich housewives. Not surprisingly, given the popularity of these media stars with women fans, as well as the positive evaluation of homosexual love in other women’s media, women’s magazines frequently feature articles criticising straight Japanese men and idolising gay men who are considered to be a woman’s ‘ideal friend and best partner’ (McLelland, 1999).

Of course, media representations which take place in the safe space of the entertainment world do not accurately depict the lived realities of ‘real’ gay men; but they are not supposed to. As one Japanese fan writes on her boys’ love home page: ‘[boys’ love] comics are like a Spielberg movie, they are an imaginary playground in which I can flee the realities of everyday life’ (cited in McLelland 2000c). This widespread exposure of ‘homosexuality’ in Japanese popular culture, occurring even in comics aimed at schoolgirls, would be inconceivable in anglophone societies and is important evidence for the relativity of sexual values as well as the social ‘constructedness’ of sexuality. Perhaps more relevant questions to raise would be ‘Why are homosexual images so strictly segregated in contemporary western cultures?’ and ‘Whose interests does this segregation serve?’


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[1]An early version of this paper was first published in the discussion section of the now defunct online journal Intensities: Journal of Cult Media in 2001.
[2] For those new to slash fandom, consult the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_fiction (2 July 2006).
[3] Japanese researchers, on the other hand, have long been aware of the importance of the genre. For works in English, see Aoyama (1988), Mitsui (1993), Mizoguchi (2003) and Nagaike (2003). Despite the interest shown by Japanese researchers (and the substantial literature on the topic in Japanese), the Routledge Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture (Sandra Buckley, ed., 2002) references neither yaoi nor its ‘boys’ love’ (shōnen’ai) roots. Important new work on the fandom by non-Japanese researchers is, however, now beginning to emerge, see Welker (2006) and Lunsing (2006).
[4] Genji: sennen no koi (Genji: a thousand-year love), dir. Horikawa Tonko, Toei Co., 2001.
[5] See the komiketto home page for statistics: http://www.comiket.co.jp/ (2 July 2006).

[6] In 1991 US$30 million changed hands at komiketto (Schodt 1996: 43).

[8] http://www.biblos.co.jp/ (accessed 11 July 2006).
[9] Uke is also used in Japanese gay slang to designate the receptive partner in anal sex.
[10] See their website: http://www.yaoicon.com/ (accessed 20 July 2005).
[11] http://www.aestheticism.com/ (accessed 11 July 2006).
[12] For instance, I hear from fans that the boys’ love fandom in Chinese is considerably less sexualized than that in either Japanese or English but there is as yet no published data to confirm this. Indeed research into boys’ love fandom outside of Japanese o
r English is almost non existent.

Author Biography:

Mark McLelland is a Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong. For further infomation, go to: http://www.uow.edu.au /arts/staff/mmclelland/