On the response (or lack thereof) of Japanese fans to criticism that yaoi is antigay discrimination

Akiko Hori

Kyoto, Japan

[0.1] Abstract—In this essay I examine Japanese criticisms of yaoi as antigay discrimination and the reactions to these criticisms from Japanese yaoi fans. Japanese fans are often described as apolitical, and their apolitical attitude has been the subject of much controversy. Here, I identify the most salient aspects of fannish reaction to the charge that yaoi constitutes antigay discrimination. I want to reconsider criticisms of fans' reactions via an argument centered around people's conceptions of reality and fantasy, which gives more weight to the status of yaoi as a part of popular culture.

[0.2] Keywords—BL; Boys' love; Fujoshi; Manga; Sexuality

Hori, Akiko. 2013. "On the Response (Or Lack Thereof) of Japanese Fans to Criticism that Yaoi Is Antigay Discrimination." In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12.

[1] In this essay I examine Japanese criticisms of yaoi (note 1) as antigay discrimination and the reactions to these criticisms from Japanese yaoi fans. I include both readers and creators among yaoi fans, and I will refer to this group as fans throughout the text; today, these fans are also referred to as fujoshi (note 2). Japanese fans are often described as apolitical, and their apolitical attitude has been the subject of much controversy. Here, I identify the most salient aspects of fannish reaction to the charge that yaoi constitutes antigay discrimination. The so-called yaoi dispute (yaoi ronsō) of 1992 and the writings of Hitoshi Ishida are my main points of departure. I want to reconsider criticisms of fans' reactions via an argument centered around people's conceptions of reality and fantasy, which gives more weight to the status of yaoi as a part of popular culture.

[2] Manga in Japan can be divided into two types: commercial manga, which are original works, and dōjinshi, which are often derivative works based on existing media. The dōjinshi convention Comiket was first held at the end of 1975. At that time, commercial manga magazines aimed at girls were already serializing a genre called shōnen ai (boys' love) that featured romantic relationships between boys (note 3).

[3] In the middle of the 1980s, fannish dōjinshi based on the manga Captain Tsubasa exploded in popularity, and yaoi dōjinshi circles proliferated accordingly. This caused dōjinshi conventions to grow as well, to the point that commercial manga magazines could no longer ignore the existence of the major dōjinshi circles. These major circles consisted of woman creators who, although amateurs, had often amassed large fan followings of their own. Publishers reasoned that they could save themselves the effort of cultivating new artists if they let these popular fan creators publish in commercial magazines. They began to scout popular yaoi fan creators, and commercial manga magazines that focused solely on boys' love were launched one after the other. With the availability of yaoi in regular bookstores, a massive expansion of yaoi fandom ensued. However, a less desirable consequence of yaoi's commercialization was that a hobby that had previously been underground was now thrust into the public eye.

[4] Around the same time, support organizations for Japanese gay men began to be established as a result of the spread of the AIDS epidemic. In the 1990s, antigay discrimination began to be challenged in Japanese courts of law, and gay rights were increasingly foregrounded as a social issue. As Japanese popular culture experienced a gay boom with popular magazines at its center, yaoi broadened its readership through both dōjinshi and commercial boys' love; many women became very open about their liking for gay-themed films and novels (note 4), and many openly stated that they wanted to be friends with gay men. Reactions to this boom varied considerably. Yaoi was a genre in which men belonging to the homosexual minority were being depicted in a purely fantastical way by and for women belonging to the heterosexual majority, and it began to attract criticism from support organizations for homosexuals and from individual gay men. It was one of these criticisms that became the starting point of the 1992 yaoi dispute.

[5] The yaoi dispute was a debate held in the pages of a feminist zine (note 5), beginning when one gay man criticized yaoi stories as discriminatory against gay men. A female fan wrote a rebuttal of the criticism, the original critic responded, and other readers got involved in the discussion.

[6] The fan who first responded pointed out that gender inequality was still pervasive in Japanese society, and that using a male-male relationship in their fiction allowed female fans to write stories that would be impossible to write (and enjoy) if they featured a male-female relationship. She explained that enjoying "fantastical" yaoi stories was a very important part of female fans' lives, and that such stories gave them comfort in a way that male/female romances never could. Yaoi novelist Kaoru Kurimoto expressed a similar opinion. Writing under an alias, Kurimoto said that women "are constantly classified based on how they look, how they fulfill female-gendered functions, how they perform as home maintenance machines, how much 'added value' they're perceived to have, or how 'fresh' they are," and speculated that these women imagine yaoi to be "a place where the gaze of men and society doesn't exist, and where they themselves—always the objects of that gaze—don't exist either" (Nakajima 1991, 100, 191).

[7] During the yaoi dispute, the fan who responded to the initial criticism wrote that "yaoi does not depict real gay men" (CHOISIR 1994a, 14). This assertion ended up inviting even more vehement criticism; some felt that she was basically arguing that yaoi fans are just taking peeks at gay romance in order to escape from their own gender-related problems.

[8] Of particular interest is the contribution of another woman in the debate. She had been a yaoi fan at one point, but had stopped reading yaoi works by the time the dispute erupted. This former fan emphasized that she felt it was shameful that she had once used gay men as fuel for her own fantasies. She had been both a yaoi fan and an okoge (fag hag) (note 6), but as she got to know gay people she became aware of her own discriminatory attitude toward them and stopped reading yaoi works as a result. The yaoi fan who had argued that yaoi is purely fantasy replied that she couldn't "just let go of yaoi altogether, even if it's discriminatory" (CHOISIR 1994a, 29), and she explained that yaoi meant something special to her because she herself could never be entirely free, no matter how hard she tried to resist gender boundaries. In response, the gay man and the former yaoi fan wondered, "Why is an intelligent feminist like you choosing such a politically incorrect stance?" (CHOISIR 1994b, 11).

[9] Gender was one of the most important issues under discussion during the yaoi dispute. Some participants attested that as women, they could not enjoy fantasies tailored to their desires if they were expressed through stories about heterosexual romance. This claim is based on the idea that a fictional romantic relationship between equal partners is much more likely to appeal to, and be plausible to, female readers and creators if the relationship is between two men. In a society with a marked power imbalance between men and women, it's hard to suspend disbelief and imagine that romance might somehow be the one exceptional context where men and women can be equal.

[10] Other participants in the dispute countered that yaoi works contain power imbalances too (Hori 2009). The gay man argued that "yaoi completely ignores gay realities," and that a system in which members of a majority group (straight women) write stories of romance between members of a minority group (gay men) is inherently discriminatory (Hori 2009, 4). Besides gender and sexuality, a wide variety of other politically significant issues were eventually raised, including more general problems of representation (who represents, who is represented) and feminist critiques of pornography (specifically, how yaoi inverts the relationship of watching versus being watched to make gay men an object of the gaze).

[11] After the yaoi dispute wound down, the expanding Internet gave a boost to the boys' love market, the word fujoshi came into use around the year 2000, and yaoi began to draw the attention of the mass media. Yaoi and fujoshi also caught the eye of researchers, but as Hitoshi Ishida notes, the yaoi fans who were the subject of such research tended to respond with "Leave us alone" (Ishida 2007). Ishida points out that yaoi fans—who imagine a gay romance that is not apparent in the original works on which yaoi is based—usually don't react to hearing their activities called disgusting or yaoi denounced as antigay discrimination.

[12] For Ishida, the fact that yaoi always already references real, existing gay people means that it is a mistake to see it as no more than a fantasy or fiction that has nothing to do with reality. Wondering if "yaoi may be misappropriating gay symbols" (Ishida 2007, 114), Ishida mentions that Japanese fans tend to look the other way when confronted with a serious issue like antigay discrimination, or say things like "Real gay people and yaoi have nothing to do with each other" (Ishida 2007, 116). This attitude stands in stark contrast to the tendency of yaoi fans in other countries to associate their love of yaoi with support for the LGBT movement. Japanese fans have no doubt noticed critiques that they are apolitical. Why is it, then, that they still tend to stay in their shells—or seem to do so?

[13] I argue that fans' attitudes are related to their tendency to emphasize the divide between reality and fantasy. For example, it used to be common for male characters in yaoi to tell their lovers, "I'm not gay or anything. I just love you because you're you." Such a claim (which is somewhat less common in contemporary works) has been criticized as discriminatory. However, it can also be interpreted as reflecting the obviously fantastical nature of yaoi, because in real life it's probably rare for a heterosexual man to fall in love with another man despite his own sexual orientation.

[14] Because popular culture is popular, it is rooted in mainstream norms and values. Antigay discrimination and the heterosexual, gender, and sexual norms associated with that discrimination surround yaoi creators, readers, and works. Individuals may subscribe to these norms or try to ignore them, but they will always carry those norms with them into fictional works. However, unlike the okoge, who want to interact with real gay men, most yaoi fans are keenly aware that their fantasies are exactly that—fantasies, and nothing more. I suspect that this strong awareness of the dividing line between reality and fantasy is what leads yaoi fans to attest that yaoi has nothing to do with real gay men.

[15] Yaoi can be conceptualized as a subculture that is centered on fantastical works that remain rooted in mainstream values, but that nonetheless resists those values. (I wonder how many yaoi works are basically thought experiments in which the creators try to depict love that overcomes their own sexualities.) Culture should not limit itself to acknowledging only politically correct creations. All political and social issues exist along an axis of reality and fantasy, and the reactions (or lack thereof) of yaoi fans to claims of antigay discrimination are a fascinating example of this axis at work.


[16] Translated by Nele Noppe.


1. I use yaoi as a general term for works about male-male romance that are aimed at a female audience. Such works can also be divided into yaoi (fan works) and boys' love (commercial works), but I use yaoi to describe both.

2. Fujoshi means "rotten girl." The word is a self-deprecating expression that refers to the practice of imagining male-male relationships where none exist in the source works. Fujoshi used to refer only to women who created and enjoyed fan works, but these days, readers of commercial boys' love are also called fujoshi.

3. Examples include Moto Hagio's November Gymnasium (1971), The Poe Family (serialized from 1972), and The Heart of Thomas (serialized from 1974), and Keiko Takemiya's Song of Wind and Trees (serialized from 1976).

4. Examples of gay-themed films include Another Country (dir. Marek Kanievska, 1984) and Maurice (dir. James Ivory, 1987). Examples of gay-themed novels include A Boy's Own Story (Edmund White, 1982) and Valley of the Shadow (Christopher Davis, 1988).

5. This feminist zine, Yaoi ronsō gōhon (CHOISIR 1994a, 1994b), is privately published and is now out of print. See Hori (2010) for a detailed account of the discussion contained within it.

6. Okama, a slang term for homosexual, literally means "pot," and okoge means "burned rice," which sticks to the bottom of a pot.

Works cited

CHOISIR, ed. 1994a. Yaoi ronsō gōhon 1 [Yaoi dispute collection, volume 1]. Zine. Privately published.

CHOISIR, ed. 1994b. Yaoi ronsō gōhon 2 [Yaoi dispute collection, volume 2]. Zine. Privately published.

Hori, Akiko. 2009. Yokubō no kōdo: Manga ni miru sekushuariti no danjosa [Codes of desire: Differences between male and female sexuality as seen in manga]. Kyoto: Rinsen Book Co.

Hori, Akiko. 2010. "Yaoi wa gei sabetsu ka? Manga hyōgen to tashaka" [Does yaoi discriminate against gay men? Manga portrayals and the creation of others]. In Sabetsu to haijo no ima 6: Sekushuariti no tayōsei to haijo, edited by Yoshii Hiroaki, 21–54. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

Ishida, Hitoshi. 2007. "'Hottoite kudasai' to iu hyōmei wo megutte: Yaoi/BL no jiritsusei to hyōshō no oudatsu" [About the expression "Leave us alone": The misappropriation of yaoi/BL (boys' love) autonomy and symbols]. Eureka 39 (16): 114–23.

Nakajima, Azusa. 1991. Komyunikēshon fuzen shōkō gun [People suffering from imperfect communication]. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

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