On defining yuri

Erica Friedman

[0.1] Abstract—The term yuri, referring to lesbian-themed Japanese animation and comics, is both descriptive and divisive, shaped by creators and industry and by different audiences within fandom. The story of yuri is the story of a genre driven forward and backward between conflicting requirements and heterogeneous audiences.

[0.2] Keywords—LGBT community; Japan; Publishing; Social Media

Friedman, Erica. 2017. "On Defining Yuri." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Yuri, a genre of Japanese comics, animation, and related media focusing on lesbian themes and content, is unlike the four main demographically focused genres of Japanese media. Without a single, discrete source, yuri is the product of disparate creators and audiences with conflicting needs, tropes, and conventions of storytelling. With such incompatible demands, the different audiences (i.e., female, male, straight, gay) who read, watch, and create derivative material in yuri fandom often lose sight of the roots of yuri, while publishers promote properties that are marketable to a minority male audience rather than to the majority female audience (note 1).

[1.2] To understand how yuri reached this point, it's useful to understand that its sources have a point of commonality (lesbian themes) but lack a shared purpose.

2. Herstory: Japanese social politics and media

[2.1] In the early 20th century, a sociopolitical movement called the S movement was formed by Japanese women. The letter "S" stood for shoujo, sister, schoene, and even sex, but among some members, S also stood for Sappho (Robertson 1992, 427). Their desire to effect change took artistic form as they established a uniquely Japanese girls' culture, even as they looked to the West for cues on fashion and lifestyle (Dollase 2008, 339). Like the Lavender Menace of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s in the United States, the separatist and/or homosexual members left or were driven away from the larger S movement throughout the 1920s.

[2.2] Japanese girls' magazine publishers modulated this new girls' culture through an externally imposed community, one that idealized the new consumer culture of the early 20th century (Thorn 2008). As the popularity of manga as entertainment and lifestyle grew, these girl's magazines retained a consumer culture profile but also featured comics designed to highlight desired qualities for Japanese girls—smiling through hardship and self-sacrifice and effort on behalf of the group (Sievers 1983, 22).

[2.3] Women radically altered the world of manga as artists in the late 1960s, pioneered by the group known in English as the Magnificent 49ers. They became the first women to draw comics specifically by and for women and included sexual and gender minority themes in their work (Thorn 2008). Hagio Moto drew Toma no Shinzo (Heart of Thomas [1974]) with gay elements, and Riyoko Ikeda (note 2) created several key manga which deal with lesbian love and included transgender characters in her work. Her stories, Oniisama E (Dear Brother [1975]) and Claudine (1978) both feature crossdressing women, and Claudine can be interpreted as either gay or trans. 49ers Igarashi Yumiko and Yamagishi Ryouko both explored same-sex love between women in, respectively, Paros no Ken (1986) and Shiroi Heya no Futari (1971).The latter work can be considered the first yuri manga, as it drew from many of the conventions of girls' literature and same-sex romance used or established by influential S writer Yoshiya Nobuko and thereby cemented these as tropes for future yuri manga (Yoshiya 2003).

[2.4] The first known formal lesbian community was founded in Japan in 1971, Wakakusa no Kai (Fresh Green Club) was named to literally represent the fact that it was a grassroots organization (Sawabe 2007). Wakakusa no Kai did not disband completely until the mid-1980s. A separate group, Studio Regumi, was founded in Wakakusa's ashes in 1985 (Subramanian 2007) to be, according to their Web site, "Japan's first Lesbian assembly." (

[2.5] The year 1971 also saw the creation of Japan's first commercial gay magazine, Barazoku. The editor, Ito Bungaku, included a page for lesbians, which gave information on how to get in touch with lesbian organizations. In an editorial, he named gay men barazoku (rose tribe) and lesbians yurizoku (lily tribe). Yuri is the Japanese word for "lily," and so the lily flower became the de facto symbol for lesbian-themed media (note 3).

[2.6] Japanese manga, well established by the 1970s, is at the forefront of political and artistic discourse in alternative manga magazines such as Garo magazine (Holmberg 2010). Just as their S forebears had found their voices through letter writing, poetry, short stories, and novels centered around community in girls' magazines, manga was engaged by the lesbian community in Japan.

[2.7] After the massive comic event known as Comiket had formed in 1975 (Comic Market Committee 2008), Itou's word Yurizoku was shortened to yuri and appropriated by comic artists to describe not lesbians but lesbian sex. The imagery of the lily had attached to lesbians permanently but not in a way that was comfortable for lesbians.

[2.8] The creation of Comiket and the spread of small presses and self-published comics, known as doujinshi, opened up a new door to expression for sexual and gender minorities to create stories for themselves. Early doujinshi and minicomics gave Japanese lesbians a chance to tell their stories outside the confines of editorial constraint. Artists like Amamiya Sae, Takashima Rica, Ang, and Morishima Akiko created comics to express their own personal narratives, explicitly lesbian for lesbians, completely separate from popular pornographic comics featuring lesbian sex for male consumers. Lesbian stories for lesbians had finally found a home.

3. What girls want, what boys want, what publishers want

[3.1] As the Magnificent 49ers had inspired early lesbian doujinshi artists, those artists inspired a new generation. By the 1990s, commercial publishers had reentered the manga market with stories of sexual and gender minorities. When the wave of political and social activism dissipated in the postwar bursting of the Japanese economic bubble, the bulk of stories were cautionary. Lesbianism was associated with pathology, with depression, suicide, and madness. Commercial publishers were willing to show lesbian stories—but not for a lesbian audience.

[3.2] Following the success of any popular manga series with implicit or explicit lesbianism, publishers pushed out a wave of similar stories that cashed in on now-established tropes but without any explicit lesbian identity. The popular light novel series Maria-sama ga Miteru (1998–2012) was a game-changing franchise with strong explicit roots in the S novels of the early 20th century, the midcentury S manga, and stories of sexual and gender minorities of the 1970s, tied together with well-developed characters and a fantasy setting of an old-fashioned Catholic school. The series was published in a magazine for young women, hearkening back to the 1930s girls' magazines. Marimite also became the springboard upon which dozens, if not hundreds, of similar series, both implicitly (Kannazuki no Miko) (note 4) and explicitly (Strawberry Panic!) yuri, were launched—for a straight, male audience (note 5). By the time publishers considered the idea of an audience for purely yuri content in 2003, there were enough artists in the field to sustain a magazine (note 6).

[3.3] In 2007, Ichijinsha, publisher of the second yuri-focused magazine to be published in Japan, Yuri Hime, split the magazine into two—Yuri Hime, which was meant to cater to a female audience, and Yuri Hime S, designed to appeal to a male audience, with more explicitly sexualized views of female bodies and dress, a practice referred to in the Anime News Network's encyclopedia as fan service. ("Readership Data Analysis" 2008) Ichijinsha incorporated a simplified art style called moe (Galbraith 2014) which rehashed popular, safe themes of young schoolgirl romance and avoided adult or realistic narrative.

[3.4] The focus on the male audience continued in Comic Yuri Hime with Kurata Uso's Yuri Danshi series, which follows the adventures and fantasies of a yuri fanboy. James Welker (2014) has written about this series as a metareview of yuri fanboy types and tropes of being a male fan; however, until the inclusion of recent side stories, Yuri Danshi focused on male fans and their needs and desires around yuri but left women out of the narrative that portrays them. In recent chapters, Kurata has created a yuri story, but one that highlights readers' imagination of what modern relationships based on tropes of S relationships of the 20th century might look like.

[3.5] From 2011 to 2014, yuri-focused magazines increased from one to three (note 7). In all three, yuri relationships showed lesbian content (girls in love) without lesbian identity. However, lesbian identity in yuri manga increased as manga artists came out. Out lesbian manga creators, such as Nakamura Ching (in an interview by Erica Friedman published on Okazu on August 8, 2009) and Takemiya Jin (in an interview with Erica Friedman published on Okazu on June 2, 2013) included lesbian culture, slang, and life in their yuri, outside the idealized commercial yuri romance. However, despite resistance from publishers and researchers, creators and fans inextricably mesh yuri and lesbian identity.

4. What is yuri?

[4.1] Corporate sales, creator identity, and audience heterogeneity lead yuri to an awkward place in terms of genre identity. Is yuri the schoolgirl romance created by men for a male audience who consider love between girls pure, or is it the girl's romance that has roots in S literature for a female audience who fondly remember their days admiring upperclassmen at all-girls schools? Or is it for lesbians, whose stories are nominally acknowledged in narratives of self-awareness of love for a member of the same sex or feelings of being different, without any use of the word lesbian? The heterogeneity of creator and audience causes difficulty in both definition and scholarship. Who gets to define yuri?

[4.2] Fans, almost inevitably, have their own terms (note 8). Fan organization Yuricon has taken the broadest possible look at yuri, which both includes lesbianism and acknowledges nonlesbian sources, that is, admiration (akogare), platonic romance, or intense emotional connection. Fan language is free to shift and change with fashion and need, so that it often runs ahead of both commercial and research terminology, hand in hand with creators.

[4.3] Shamoon (2012), in her Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girl's Culture in Japan, warned readers to avoid reading real-life lesbian Yoshiya Nobuko's work as lesbian even when it reflects an intimate relationship between two women. Frederick (2013) has noted the irony of not acknowledging a lesbian's lesbian work as lesbian.

[4.4] Maser (2013) created a whole new term for yuri romance, so that lesbian identity need not apply. Despite the plethora of terms already in existence—girls' love, yuri, shoujoai, onna no ko-doushi—Maser stated that existing terms do not create the distance from lesbianism that researchers need in order to objectively understand yuri.

[4.5] Again, the heterogeneity of yuri is the single overarching characteristic of the genre. As researchers seek to limit and define yuri, fans seek to broaden the definition and push it forward.

5. Yuri overseas

[5.1] Once yuri leaves Japan, the term stops needing definition at all. Audiences that compose yuri fandom have adopted yuri as a term that means any narrative of love (romantic, sexual, intimate or not) between women. European anthologies of comics about lesbian romance have tagged themselves as yuri without need for further explanation (see, for instance, the Kickstarter Web site at Indiegogo for "Freya Sequential Love Stories" 2015).

[5.2] The concept of yuri has spread from Japan to overseas and from overseas fandom to non-Japanese creators who want to express their own lesbian narratives. While commercial publishers have stuck with more broadly appealing nonidentity narrative, there are leaks driven by internal pressure. Morishima Akiko's work in Comic Yuri Hime, Takashima Hiromi's work in Pure Yuri Anthology Hirari, Takemiya Jin's work for Hakusensha, and Nakamura Kiyo's autobiographical manga, all have forgotten to shy away from explicitly lesbian discussion.

[5.3] Yuri in 2016 is a genre created from mutually exclusive desires and different needs. Manga creators tell stories based in manga culture tropes rooted in 20th century lesbian community and life; commercial publishers sell to nonlesbian audiences; researchers seek to codify from a distance; and fans want stories of their own fantasies and realities. New waves of lesbian identity, with new storytellers, shape and reshape the genre as culture shifts. Yuri is constantly in flux.

6. Notes

1. Citing poll results from Yuri Hime, ComiPress reported on a 2006 poll on readership of Ichijinsha Publications ("Readership Data" 2008). This news was greeted by Yuri Hime magazine editor-in-chief Nakamura with dismay. "Don't forget male fans," he said in an editorial when the survey was released in the March 2007 issue.

2. Japanese names appear in Japanese format—family name followed by given name—with this one exception. Riyoko Ikeda's name, when written in Western text, is always presented in Western format.

3. LOVE MAGAZINE, October 2014. Fbooks. A page titled "Yurizoku no Heya" (the lily tribe's room) solicited letters from lesbians and gave lesbians a way to connect that was reminiscent of the letters pages from Girls' magazines of the 1930s.

4. Kannazuki no Miko (2004–2005), a series by the artist Kaishaku, was serialized in Shounen Ace by Kadokawa Shoten in 2004–2005 as a seinen (for men) title; it includes rape along with all the earlier girls' literature tropes.

5. Kimino Sakurako's Strawberry Panic! (2003–2007) was published by Media Factory in 2004 originally as a series of short stories; it was later expanded to an anime, manga, and novel franchise, all with an intended audience of adult men. Like the series Kannazuki no Miko, it includes nonconsensual and coercive relationships (and incorrect explanations for lesbianism, such as a neglectful father) sprinkled in among the idealized romantic schoolgirl romance.

6. The first yuri-focused magazine, Yuri Shimai, published from 2003 to 2005 by SunSun Publishing, was eventually sold to Ichijinsha and relaunched as Yuri Hime in 2005. For a detailed review of the relaunched magazine, see the post at Okazu (2005), October 28

7. The two new magazines were Pure Yuri Anthology Hirari from Futabasha 2010–2014 and Tsubomi from Houbunsha Publishing 2009–2012.

8. Bangin's blog Japanese Words of Anime Fans was a fascinating glossary and history of such words from 2007 to 2015

7. Works cited

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Frederick, Sarah. 2013. "Review of Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls' Culture in Japan, by Deborah Shamoon." Mechademia, no.9.

Galbraith, Patrick. 2014. The Moe Manifesto: An Insider's Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.

Holmberg, Ryan. 2010. Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964–1973. New York: The Center for Book Arts.

Maser, Verena. 2013. "Beautiful and Innocent, Female Same-Sex Intimacy in the Japanese Yuri Genre." PhD diss., Universität Trier.

"Readership Data Analysis of Ichijinsha Publications." 2016. ComiPress: Manga News and Information, June 25. Retrieved 23 February 2016.

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Welker, James. 2014 " Kurata Uso Yuri danshi ni arawasareta yuri fandamu no sugata ni tsuite no ichi kōsatsu." Yurīka 45 (15): 148–54.

Yoshiya, Nobuko. (1920) 2003. Yaneura no Nishojo. Tokyo: Kokusho Kankoukai.