Transnational boys' love fan studies

Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma

Oita University, Oita, Japan

[0.1] Abstract—Editorial overview of "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12 (2013).

[0.2] Keywords—BL; Dōjinshi; Gender; Homosexuality; Transnationality

Nagaike, Kazumi, and Katsuhiko Suganuma. 2013. "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies [editorial]." In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0504.

[1] We either become fans of something, or others invent us as fans. Fans can be infinitely diverse because no definitive or monolithic signifier is inscribed in the term fan. Some fans are conscious of their fan identities; others are less so. The idea that a certain (imagined) role of fan raises collective fan identities is valid for some fans, but not for others. Also, some fans are consciously (and subconsciously) willing to comply with the specific images of fans created and distributed by the media, while others refuse to do so. Identity formation is always multifaceted and in motion, and so are the ways of being and becoming a boys' love (BL) fan (note 1).

[2] In its early stages of development, BL in Japan represented a genre produced through interactions among fans. This remains true today. For this reason, the cultures of BL have always been intertwined with issues of fans and fandom. It may be appropriate, therefore, to first provide a brief overview of Japanese BL fan studies before broadening the discussion to incorporate transnational BL, which is the task of this special issue. Thus far, analysis of Japanese BL in terms of fans and fandom has ranged from ethnographic research on BL fans and communities focusing primarily on the processes of community building and identity formation to the rather essentialist attempts of psychoanalytic inquiry into the question, "Why do women crave BL?" Some of these psychoanalytic approaches attempt to uncover the psychological processes through which female BL fans sublimate negative notions concerning femaleness and femininity by imaginatively disguising themselves as boys/men in the BL world. For example, scholars such as Azusa Nakajima (1998), Midori Matsui (1993), and Tamae Tanigawa (1993) indicate that women's psychological alienation from their socially assigned gender roles leads them to adopt an imaginative masculine subjectivity. Another area of inquiry in Japanese BL fan studies is media discourse analysis, which reveals the ways in which the media have often perceived female BL fans as those who are dubious of and deviate from heteronormative conventions. Mari Nishihara (2010), for example, demonstrates this historical tendency in media discourse concerning BL phenomena especially during the 1990s, when popular Japanese media, in accordance with the prevailing patriarchal ethos, generally portrayed female BL fans as socially/sexually immature, escapist, and essentially antisocial.

[3] Any discussion of recent developments in Japanese BL fan studies must consider several controversial issues regarding the term fujoshi. The concept of fujoshi, which literally means "rotten girls" and connotes the (presumably self-mocking) perversion of women who fantasize about male homoeroticism/homosexuality, has recently received a great deal of popular attention in Japan. In media discourse, the term has emerged as a female equivalent of the male otaku (obsessive fan or nerd). Midori Suzuki's Symposium essay included in this volume, "The Possibilities of Research on Fujoshi in Japan," provides the historiographical details of the term and its controversial public recognition. As Jeffry Hester (forthcoming) argues, while some analyses of fujoshi (Galbraith 2011) recognize the concept as potentially subversive in that it inherently involves nonconventional perceptions of female gender, popular media (mainly directed at male audiences) generally describe fujoshi fans within a patriarchal framework, purposefully containing their activities under the purview of heteronormativity.

[4] Moreover, perceptions of Japanese BL fans also reflect the importance of dōjinshi (amateur writings and drawings) in the subcultural context. The critical discussion concerning BL dōjinshi so far may be broadly characterized as a growing recognition of the autonomy of female self-expression and also as an attempt to comprehend the nature of female-oriented BL fan communities. Junko Kaneda's 2007 analysis of BL fan communities as kaishaku kyōdotai (collective interpretation) reveals one specific aspect of such groups: that they have a tendency to create jargon and behaviors that can only be shared among BL fans, and this in turn serves to enhance their solidarity. But BL fans' interactions can no longer be limited to human-to-human communication, as Keiko Nishimura's Symposium essay "Where Program and Fantasy Meet: Female Fans Conversing with Character Bots in Japan" explains. Nishimura examines BL fans' interactions with character bots (kyrakutā botto), computer-generated characters programmed to post characters' lines from original comics, manga, and other artworks on Twitter. Nishimura says, "Conversing with a character bot constitutes affective play with a nonhuman program, but at the same time it can trigger the formation of a fan community or strengthen bonds in an existing fan community" (¶7.1).

[5] At the same time, the sexual orientation of fans can sometimes disturb seemingly well-balanced, monolithically harmonious BL communities. As Akiko Hori's Symposium essay in this issue, "On the Response (Or Lack Thereof) of Japanese Fans to Criticism that Yaoi Is Antigay Discrimination," clarifies, the yaoi ronsō, or yaoi dispute, was first provoked around 1992 by a self-identified gay activist who criticized BL narratives as derogatory and discriminatory in relation to gay men. Other gay critics subsequently claimed that on a subconscious level, female BL fans are homophobic; these critics thus accused BL of "plundering" gay men's images. Hori argues for the importance of discussing the ramifications of fantasies and realities presented in BL, and by doing so reminds us of the problematics of the internalized heteronormative psyche.

[6] In December 2012, one of us (Nagaike) attended a yaoi con called Blush, which was held in Manila (http://blush-con.org/). During the convention, she had a chance to observe the BL fan community in Manila and to interview both male and female BL fans. Close observation of BL fans (and fan communities) in the Philippines, with reference to the Japanese BL fan studies mentioned above, demonstrates the compelling necessity for BL critics to expand their own horizons. In the interviews that took place at the Blush convention, Nagaike encountered several testimonies that not only resemble but also differ from the Japanese situation. One female fan, who was wearing a mask to conceal her identity, said that her parents would kill her if they found out what she was doing. Some men echoed her confession. For example, a young man selling his sexually explicit BL dōjinshi confided that if his father discovered his BL dōjinshi activity on the Internet, he would disown him unless he ceased the activity. More than a few female fans remarked that whenever they disclosed their BL involvement to men, they were always asked if they were lesbians. Furthermore, most of our interview subjects, regardless of their gender, raised issues concerning Catholic accountability for their "sins." Not only religion but also class affect the ways BL artworks are consumed and created in the Filipino context. Most female and male convention participants have a good command of English and easy access to online BL networks, and identify themselves as educational elites. Our observations of Filipino BL fans and fandom were by no means carried out to confirm the originality or distinctive characteristics of their Japanese counterparts. Instead, we have been simply reminded of the cross-cultural diversity of BL fan and community cultures that both globalization and localization propel. This experiential realization of the urgent need to pursue transnational BL fan studies was crucial to the formation of this special issue.

[7] Toshio Miyake's analysis of nation anthropomorphism manga dōjinshi in terms of their discursive Occidentalism reveals the complex mechanisms that both construct and deconstruct ideas of nation, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Hidekaz Himaruya's nation anthropomorphism manga Axis Powers Hetalia was originally published online and instantly gained worldwide popularity in the field of BL dōjinshi. Given the analytical scheme of Occidentalism as an active reconfirmation of the Occident performed by the Orient, Axis Powers Hetalia seems to comply with the idea of the consummate colonial power hierarchy (for example, the hard-powered nations are personified as male). However, Miyake points out that Hetalia personifies nations as childish, cute-boy characters and consequently parodies the power configurations of Occidentalism. Moreover, the parodic nature of Hetalia dōjinshi (that is to say, parodies of the original Hetalia's parody of hegemonic Occidentalism) represent even more critical subversion by way of the essence of male homosexuality and its sexual appeal for female readers, neither of which is in accordance with heteronormative assumptions. In Hetalia dōjinshi, the very essence of historicity, politics, and racial constructions that emanate from Occidentalism could potentially be deconstructed through parody. At the same time, Miyake's investment in such a postmodernist potential is only partial. Miyake is careful to remind us of the flip side of dōjinshi's parodic reproductions of the original and warns us against the eventual confirmation of pervasive hegemonic colonial structures.

[8] Mark McLelland (2011) shows in his recent study of censorship in relation to Japanese BL that the Tokyo metropolitan government passed a controversial bill to regulate and censor sexually explicit materials (including BL) that depict "seemingly" underage characters. Research concerning censorship issues surrounding BL can also be explored cross-culturally, as demonstrated by Paul M. Malone's "Transplanted Boys' Love Conventions and Anti-Shota Polemics in a German Manga: Fahr Sindram's Losing Neverland," included in this issue. Malone's essay introduces both the historical and present-day contexts of the comics industry in Germany, which allows us to fully grasp his analysis of OGL comic artist Sindram and her provocative Losing Neverland, which depicts seemingly underage characters engaging in homosexual intercourse. Malone's objective is to explore Sindram's discursive construction of her comic work (and herself) as the icon of the anti-shota (love for boys) pornography movement in Germany by examining German BL fans' reception of this particular work as well as the artist's own political statements on this issue. By elaborating on McLelland's analysis of Western expectations that single out Japan as a pathetic Orient lawlessly disseminating child pornography, as well as utilizing the cultural theory of popular culture capital and its subversive potential for resistance against authority, Malone views Sindram as an artist whose "necessary pursuit of money has cost her her productivity, and [who] has not necessarily gained the agency for resistance that [John] Fiske posited fans stood to gain from harnessing their creativity" (¶6.5).

[9] An analysis of shota desire, in fact, reveals a more complex mechanism than merely the harmful perversion of pedophilia. Tamaki Saitō (2007), a Japanese psychoanalyst and critic of popular culture, argues that the fictionality of shota is realized through its absolute distance from realistic everyday life, and he proceeds to explore the similarities between male shota desire and the "space of perfect fictionality" of superflat art (note 2). A close exploration of Saitō's concept of shota reveals that the imaginative characters of shota provide a proxy for an ultimate fictionality through which adults can express their repressed desire to be boys (or something that is not masculine or feminine). Thus, the transnational research on BL shota, as Malone demonstrates in this issue, also contributes to the overall discussion of encoding/decoding practices of BL fans.

[10] By and large, the term BL itself does emit the "odor" of the Japanese cultural element, which does not necessarily represent the realistic, objective idea of Japan, as discussed by Lucy Hannah Glasspool in "Simulation and Database Society in Japanese Role-Playing Game Fandoms: Reading Boys' Love Dōjinshi Online." In this Praxis essay, Glasspool describes the conditions of transnationality of BL as cultural capital upon which the postmodern simulacrum (pseudoness) of Japaneseness is endlessly constructed as a seductive force for non-Japanese fans. Glasspool examines the online BL dōjinshi of RPG Final Fantasy in England (and other English-speaking areas), integrating several theoretical models including postmodernist simulacra; Kōichi Iwabuchi's (2002) theory of mukokuseki, which attributes the transnational popularity of Japanese cultures and productions to the very absence of specific Japaneseness; and Hiroki Azuma's (2009) data-based fictionality, which views the (imaginative) configurations of the database as our subjective orientations. Glasspool applies and at times expands these theoretical models to illustrate the complex processes of (un)making the images of Japanese cultures and gender constructions that take place within BL cyberspace.

[11] As we mentioned previously, academic discussion of BL narratives that uses psychoanalysis has focused much on the motivations that lead some women to write/read supposedly perverse narratives concerning male homosexuality. This psychoanalytic approach has been questioned by some scholars of Japanese BL, who treat BL products as polythetic entertainment media, rather than a simple manifestation of their audiences' inner psychological concerns. Björn-Ole Kamm's "Rotten Use Patterns: What Entertainment Theories Can Do for the Study of Boys' Love" (in this issue) demonstrates the significance of the diverse patterns of consumption of BL. On the basis of his ethnographic research conducted on BL fans in Germany and Japan, Kamm employs the uses and gratifications approach (UGA) to explore the possibilities of understanding BL materials as polythetic, not monolithic, entertaining media. He categorizes those fans into four different groups: the connoisseuses (active interest in sexual matter); the net girls (consumption, production, and communication via the Internet); the con girls (convention goers); and the sporadic (multiple practitioners). Kamm consequently integrates the discussion of BL entertainment that involves limitless, interchangeable, and transformable acts among its producers and consumers.

[12] Erika Junhui Yi's Symposium essay "Reflection on Chinese Boys' Love Fans: An Insider's View" provides the important raw voice regarding Chinese boys' love fans. She discusses the official persecution of Chinese female BL writers and the harsh criticism they have received from state-controlled media. In order to fully explore the circumstances of BL fan cultures, we need to investigate the transnational influence of the BL phenomenon. Even though BL has become increasingly popular not just in Asian countries but also in North America and Europe, little research has been done on the effects of the countervailing forces of globalization and localization on BL. Regrettably, it seems to us that most Japanese BL scholars are often indifferent to BL cultures in other countries, and their frame of reference is usually limited to Japan.

[13] In the early 1990s, during which time the aforementioned yaoi dispute took place in Japan, BL writers and readers alike became an object of criticism for appropriating images of gay men. The logic behind this type of accusation is explicated through the concept of ownership. If one pursues this line of logic and extends it to the transnational context, then Japanese fujoshi themselves could now accuse non-Japanese BL fans of appropriating their materials across national boundaries. Critical discussion surrounding the idea of ownership is no doubt interesting and merits further investigation; however, the essays included in this special issue are concerned more with the questions of why and how BL is desired among different kinds of fans and within various geocultural contexts.

[14] Needless to say, Japanese BL continues to be spread abroad through the publication of legitimate and pirated translations, BL Internet sites, and so forth. This process has also transformed local BL contexts, both within and outside Japan. BL conventions are now held in numerous foreign countries, where local manga artists produce and publish BL narratives influenced by Japanese BL. Whatever the path future BL studies may take, scholars will have to open their eyes to the ever-evolving transnational realities and fantasies of contemporary BL praxis.


[15] The following people worked on TWC No. 12 in an editorial capacity: Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma (guest editors); Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (editors); Cameron Salisbury (Symposium); and Louisa Stein (Review).

[16] The following people worked on TWC No. 12 in a production capacity: Rrain Prior (production editor); Beth Friedman and Shoshanna Green (copyeditors); Wendy M. Carr, Kristen Murphy, and sunusn (layout); and Amanda Georgeanne Retartha, Carmen Montopoli, and Vickie West (proofreaders).

[17] TWC thanks the journal project's Organization for Transformative Works board liaison, Andrea Horbinski. OTW provides financial support and server space to TWC but is not involved in any way in the content of the journal, which is editorially independent.

[18] TWC thanks all its board members, whose names appear on TWC's masthead, as well as the additional peer reviewers and Symposium reviewers who provided service for TWC No. 12: Patrick Galbraith, Sharon Goetz, Katrien Jacobs, Alexis Lothian, Sharalyn Orbaugh, and Druann Pagliassotti. We also extend special thanks to Nele Noppe and Lori Morimoto for their translation work.


1. As some scholars have pointed out, the category of BL may ultimately need to be differentiated from other related terms, especially within the Japanese sociocultural context. However, many BL researchers, including the contributors to this issue, use BL as an umbrella term, while the appropriate uses of other terms such as shōnen ai and yaoi have never been universally accepted. We therefore use BL generically to designate the entire range of popular narratives written by and for women that include fantasies involving male-male eroticism.

2. Superflat is a postmodern artistic style founded by the artist Takashi Murakami. Japanese manga and anime have had a discernible influence on the development of superflat art, which is based on the premise that the absence of reality (flatness) itself can be conceived of as the presence of postmodern reality.

Works cited

Azuma, Hiroki. 2009. Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Galbraith, Patrick. 2011. "Fujoshi: Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy among 'Rotten Girls' in Contemporary Japan." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and in Society 37 (1): 211–32. doi:10.1086/660182.

Hester, Jeffry. Forthcoming. "Fujoshi Emergent: Shifting Popular Representations of Yaoi/BL Fandom in Japan." In Boys' Love Manga in Japan: History, Culture, Community, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Iwabuchi, Kōichi. 2002. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kaneda, Junko. 2007. "Manga dōjinshi: Kaishaku kyōdōtai no poritikkusu" [Manga dōjinshi: The politics of communities' collective interpretation]. In Bunka no shakai gaku, edited by Kenji Satō and Toshiya Yoshimi, 169–90. Tokyo: Yūbishikaku.

Matsui, Midori. 1993. "Little Girls Were Little Boys: Displaced Femininity in the Presentation of Homosexuality in Japanese Girls' Comics." In Feminism and the Politics of Difference, edited by Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman, 177–96. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

McLelland, Mark. 2011. "Thought Policing or the Protection of Youth? Debate in Japan over the 'Non-existent Youth Bill.'" International Journal of Comic Art 13 (1): 348–67.

Nakajima, Azusa. 1998. Tanatosu no kodomotachi: Kajō tekiō no seitaigaku [The children of Thanatos: The ecology of excessive adaptation]. Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

Nishihara, Mari. 2010. "Masu media ga utsushidasu yaoi no sugata: Gensetsu bunseki ni yoru" [Analysis of yaoi discourse as reflected in the mass media]. Ronsō kuia 3:62–85.

Saitō, Tamaki. 2007. "Otaku Sexuality." Translated by Christopher Bolton. In Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi, 222–49. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tanigawa, Tamae. 1993. "Josei no shōnen ai shikō ni tsuite II: Shikisha no kenkai to, feminizumu ni aru kanōsei" [On the yearning of women for shōnen ai II: Experts' opinions and feminist possibilities]. Joseigaku nenpō 134:66–79.