Yaoi: the unlikely outlet for women’s sexual expression in Japan

What yaoi tells us about a changing society

Andre Kwok

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

14 October 2019

Yaoi Japanese anime and manga functions as an outlet for sexual minorities, Andre Kwok writes.

Whenever I visit Japan, I can’t help but notice the ubiquity of sexually provocative manga, filled with drawings of half-naked men in suggestive situations with other men.

This is yaoi, a peculiar genre of fictional media centered on romantic and sexual relationships between male characters. This is not an insignificant genre as the industry is annually worth around $21.3 billion AUD, with rising popularity overseas.

Interestingly, one of the most distinctive features of this genre is that it is written by mostly female authors, for a largely heterosexual female audience.

This leads to an intriguing question.

In a conservative Japan where displays of homosexuality are still considered taboo, what is the appeal of these homoerotic anime and manga and why are they increasing in popularity today?

Digging deeper into the world of yaoi, especially with its heightened consumption in public spaces like trains, highlights underlying trends within Japanese society.

Yaoi is generally characterised by two main archetypes.

The ‘seme’ (meaning ‘to attack’) is the usually taller and stronger dominant figure. The seme is complemented by the ‘uke’ (meaning ‘to receive’) the more ‘cute’ and submissive character in the relationship.

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These submissive and dominant characteristics in yaoi parallel issues faced by Japanese women.

There is a common Japanese proverb, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, which points to Japan’s strong culture of a collective society, making it difficult for under-represented groups like women to speak up against a male-dominated society.

Japanese working women face a multitude of challenges, such as being limited to lower-level working roles, submitting to entirely male management, and taking care of children. These issues are further illustrated in an earlier scandal of institutional discrimination showcased by a Japanese university lowering entry scores from women.

As yaoi is predominantly produced by female artists, it offers a conceptualised space were women can openly explore their sexuality and fantasies without the threat of masculinity. In discussion with yaoi writer Beatrice Phan, she said that the “majority of Yaoi manga, despite relationships in yaoi manga being homosexual…are still very heteronormative”. This allows women to identify with characters in a much more familiar way.

It constructs a reimagined reality where men are objectified, as opposed to their domineering control on Japanese women in the workplace and in personal relationships. In addition, subjecting males into submissive ‘uke’ positions give women a strong sense of power and domination in a patriarchal society.

A popular anime, Sekaichi Hatsukoi, is an example of the yaoi genre and includes the distinct dominant and submissive characterisation. The protagonists Chiaki and Hotori are co-workers in a Japanese publishing firm and their relationship transitions into a romantic and sexual one.

Chiaki, the senior and dominant employee and Hotori, the naïve and younger worker, reflect the uke and seme pairing. This dynamic reflects the difficulties of women in the workplace, often having to be passive and accommodating of the mostly male leadership.

Recently, the popularity of yaoi has exponentially increased and the notion of yaoi challenging the concept of, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, has also extended to the homosexual community. The realities of homophobia and homosexuality in denial have been rarely explicitly explored in most yaoi publications.

However, mainstream storylines are beginning to reflect more authentic experiences of the homosexual community, as it has risen in popularity.

Best-selling anime Koisuru Boukun (The Tyrant Falls In Love), provides an insight into yaoi as a subtle vehicle for social change. The protagonist, a university student, falls in love with a ruthless and prejudiced researcher. This yaoi anime was unique as it made explicit references to California’s gay marriage laws, inferring Japan’s lack of recognition of homosexual relationships. Both characters embark upon a journey that begins with ignorance, grows into mutual affection, and ultimately blossoms into a typical yaoi romance.

As diverse yaoi storylines are becoming popular, the medium is starting to represent more genuine experiences of Japan’s homosexual community and provides subtle political commentary. As seen in Koisuru Boukun, manga editor Toshiko Sagawa says, “gay characters have to overcome many obstacles…making their love seem real”.

As Japan is starting to make small steps towards recognition of homosexuality and efforts to support women, the wide-spread consumption of Japanese fictional media enables yaoi to function as a powerful outlet for sexual minorities.

Through this, women and homosexuals can express their escapism for experiences and fantasies that are shunned in mainstream spaces.

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