Manga Studies #3: On BL manga research in Japanese by Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto

29 Jul

As with the larger field of manga studies, the earliest attempts at theorizing what we now call Boys’ Love (hereafter BL) manga were made by Japanese critics and authors in the 1980s when the genre itself surfaced. Academic BL studies, however, had to wait until the 2000s, with some key works published after 2005, and these are the main focus of this article.

The first analyses of the roots of BL manga were written by Nakajima Azusa.[1] She traced the genre back to shōnen’ai manga (boy love)[2], stories about romantic and sexual love between boys that were serialized in shōjo [girls] manga magazines.[3] While shōnen’ai has become a popular loanword within non-Japanese manga fandom, in Japan, the most widespread term — not just for graphic narratives, but also novels, audio-dramas, and games — is BL, which overwhelmingly tends to signify the commercially published variant of this cross-media genre as distinct from the fandom-based, and often more sexually explicit yaoi variant. The shōnen’ai stories of the 1970s were revolutionary as they replaced the conventional girl protagonists of shōjo manga with boys, and they appealed to female fans in a way which went beyond the act of reading. In her early essays, Nakajima dissected not only BL narratives as such but also fans’ motivations for consuming and creating them. However, her psychoanalytical focus was often interpreted as fans of the genre being unable to cope with societal gender roles, to the extent of being, at best, escapist, and at worst, pathological. Nakajima herself was an author and editor of BL literature (which is often accompanied by single-image manga-style illustrations), and she played a seminal role in June (1978–2012), the first magazine dedicated to BL manga and fiction.[4] It goes without saying that her creative involvement in the formation of the genre shaped also her stance as a critic.

Until the early 1990s, that is, before the establishment of the term BL and the diversification of such magazines, June focused generally on female ideals of male beauty, and it was not limited to shōnen’ai manga; it ran top tens of male stars (ages ranging from school boys to men in their thirties and older, including foreign celebrities like David Bowie), “gravure” (gurabia) photography, interviews, literary fiction and poetry with full page illustrations, book and film reviews, as well as detailed reviews of fanzines [dōjinshi], or fan art, sometimes devoting an entire spread to selected reader submissions. Today, BL manga can still not be analytically divorced from other media within the same genre,[5] but on the whole, the genre is most numerous and popular in manga form.

In 2008 visual culture scholar Ishida Minori published the most important account of the genre’s past thus far: Secret education: A pre-history of <yaoi/boys’ love>.[6] After a detailed overview of the shōjo manga revolution of the 1970s, she discusses the influence of novelists Mori Mari, Hermann Hesse and Mishima Yukio, as well as Occidentalist post-war ideals of male beauty which were reiterated in early BL manga such as Hagio Moto’s and Takemiya Keiko’s. Illuminating the profound knowledge of modern literature and cinema on the part of BL creators and fans, Ishida successfully demonstrates that BL fans’ engagement with other media, their use and reuse of specific elements, have made BL more than random narratives of homoerotic romance, but a kind of metafiction.

Since BL manga is a genre that grew out of 1970s shōjo manga, thanks to the so-called Magnificent 49ers (Hana no 24nen gumi), a group of female artists born around 1949 (Shōwa 24), most shōjo manga researchers afford some space to BL in their discussion of girls’ comics. On the one hand, such inclusion has been resting on the alleged ‘literariness’ of shōjo manga: the early shōnen’ai manga were characterized by an expressive density that made them a more intense reading experience than the more readily accessible shōnen manga.[7] On the other hand, critics have been intrigued by the aspect of gender, the fact that these are stories about romantic love between male characters, created and consumed mostly by heterosexual women.

A solid study of female fans’ reception of BL manga magazines is Mori Naoko’s Women read porn: Women’s sexual desire and feminism (2010). Mori pursues sexually graphic comics genres for women, and for her research she acquired permission from a Ladies’ comics (comics about heterosexual relationships for a mature readership) magazine and a BL manga magazine to inspect reader questionnaires.[8] Mori also analyzed fourteen BL manga magazines, comparing their respective frequency of graphic sex scenes. Given the importance of manga magazines for the development of Japanese manga culture as a whole, her analysis of the opinions of BL magazine readers is an important contribution to the field. While Mori looked at women’s pornographic reading of BL, Hori Akiko [9] (2009) studied the specific “Codes of desire”. In her same-titled monograph, she compared erotic genres for men, like hentai, with genres for women, like BL. Especially noteworthy is chapter 6, where she illuminates the latter’s inclination toward relationships (kankeisei) rather than isolated and fetishized characters.

As Hata Mikako points out in a recent article, focusing almost exclusively on women’s sexuality and gender when studying the genre can be a boon as well as a limitation. As a manga studies scholar, she discerns two ways of approaching BL manga: the first is studying the genre in and of itself (BL o kenkyū, emphasis by the author), and the second is studying other phenomena with the help of the BL genre or specific works therein (BL de kenkyū, emphasis by the author; 2014: 50). The distinction is important given the fact that studies examining of either a specific BL manga subgenre — such as those that deal with sexual violence — or an individual work have often led to conclusions or generalizations about the entirety of the genre as well as its producers and fans. On the other hand, insights gained from particular subgenres or works can help to tackle issues in a number of different fields, from manga studies proper to gender and queer studies as well as cultural studies, ethnicity studies and many more.

One controversial issue in BL manga discourse is ‘realism’. Mizoguchi notes that critics and researchers both in Japan and abroad judge certain works within the genre as more, or less, ‘realistic’. A work she cites in this regard is Ragawa Marimo’s “New York New York”, serialized in the shōjo manga magazine Hana to Yume between 1995 and 1998, and later published as a set of four single volumes.[10] Although rated as a classic and required reading for BL fans (or fujoshi, lit. “rotten girls”), it was described by the author as well as many critics as ‘realistically’ depicting gay men, and therefore as not belonging to the BL genre. Mizoguchi points out that realism is not only a matter of representation but also perception on the reader’s part, and that these two sides tend to be conflated (2003: 35-38). Set in 1980s New York, “New York New York” was seen as realistic because it dealt with the issue of HIV infection, and deaths caused by AIDS. However, on closer inspection, the most important crisis for the two main characters, the tall, dark-haired and quite masculine-looking police officer Kain and his lover, the non-confrontational, effeminate waiter Mel is that Mel is abducted and raped by a serial killer twice. Kain rescues him in a classic damsel-in-distress scenario.

To categorize BL narratives according to the representation of violence or gender discrimination alone is a precarious undertaking that provides little insight into the actual functions of this genre for its dedicated readers, or users.

Looking at the production and consumption of BL manga as a space that creates social connections appears to be much more productive. In the June 2007 issue of EUREKA,[11] Mizoguchi published an article forwarding this view under the title “The potential of delusional[12] power: Yaoi as a lesbian feminist genre,” and she later expanded upon the same idea in her 2010 paper “Theorizing comics/manga genre as a productive forum: Yaoi and beyond”. Other researchers have defined the production and consumption of BL narratives as an ‘affinity site’ where female fans can form strong homosocial ties as well as safely explore aspects of their sexuality and identity, aspects they might not have given much thought to before coming into contact with BL. Positioning BL as a genre that has the potential to encourage critical thinking about gender provides researchers with a perspective that leaves room to consider more than its entertaining and occasionally ‘escapist’ attributes.

Some of these affinity sites, which facilitate social contact between artists and readers, are events where dōjinshi (cfr. fanzine) are sold (see Noppe, 2013, and Fujimoto, 2013). In the early 1990s, recognizing the potential of BL as a lucrative genre, manga publishers began to scout the frequently held comic markets (dōjinshi sokubaikai, dōjinshi direct sales events) for talented artists, from whom they commissioned original series later. The most comprehensive discussion of BL dōjinshi thus far is Nishimura Mari’s 2002 Ani(me) paro(dy) and yaoi.[13] It offers a timeline as well as a detailed discussion of how the narrative tropes most popular within the genre, for example, ‘seme’ and ‘uke’ developed. Nishimura also points out that many manga artists who now work as professionals and publish original stories in BL manga magazines, used to do anime parody dōjinshi initially. But in many of their original works, there are still strong referential elements, where artists don’t directly rewrite certain works, but lampoon and deconstruct preconceived notions of both femininity and masculinity prevalent in popular culture (2002: 174).[14]

Within Japanese BL manga research, the genre is still largely regarded as a domestic phenomenon, however, more and more researchers focus on the reception and reproduction of BL manga and its fan culture overseas.[15] The field of BL manga studies in Japan, like the genre itself, is dynamic and evolving, with an increasing number of participants: students, both undergraduate and graduate, Japanese as well as foreign. Scholarly presentations are no longer exceptional at academic gatherings, not just in the field of manga studies, but also at sociology, cultural studies, literature and queer studies conferences. Outside of Japan too, BL manga studies have now gained enough momentum for an English collected volume, Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre (2010). Extensive in scope, the book touches upon several areas of research that had not, or not sufficiently been researched within Japan. However, the book is more relevant to scholars of fandom and reception studies than of manga, and with some exceptions, its cross-cultural focus is limited to English-language fandom. The book deserves praise because many of its contributors condense discourse on BL manga thus far only available in Japanese, but might have profited from contributors from a more diverse background; given the subject, the absence of any Japanese contributors in particular is puzzling. For a greater understanding of issues in BL manga research, within as well as outside of Japan, increased collaboration between researchers with different cultural backgrounds is required.

Works cited:

Fujimoto, Yukari. 2013. “Women in “Naruto”. Women Reading “Naruto”.” Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kuemmerling-Meibauer (eds) Manga’s Cultural Crossroads. NY: Routledge, pp_ 172-191.

Hata, Mikako. 2014. “BL manga kenkyū no tayōka ni mukete — sakuhin kenkyū no gaikan to tenbō” [Towards a diversification of BL manga research — An overview of the current situation and prospects of textual analysis]. Joshigaku kenkyū, [Joshi culture research] vol. 4 (March 2014): 50-58.

Hori, Akiko.

——-2009. Yokubō no kōdo — manga ni miru sexuality no danjosa [Codes of desire — The difference between the sexuality of men and women in manga]. Kyoto: Rinsen shoten.

——2013. “On the response (or lack thereof) of Japanese fans to criticism that yaoi is antigay discrimination.” Transformative Works and Cultures 12 (2013), np. (accessed 2014/06/26)

Horie, Akiko. 2010. Kurimoto Kaoru/Nakajima Azusa — June kara guin saga made [Kurimoto Kaoru/Nakajima Azusa — From June to Guin Saga]. Tokyo: Kawade shobō shinsha.

Ishida, Minori. 2008. Hisoyakana kyōiku <yaoi/boys’ love> zenshi [Secret education: A pre-history of yaoi/BL]. Kyoto: Rakuhoku shuppan.

Levi, Antionia, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti. 2010. Boys’ Love manga: Essays on the sexual ambiguity and cross-cultural fandom of the genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Mizoguchi, Akiko.

——2003. “Sore wa, dare no ‘riaru’? Yaoi no gensetsu kūkan o seiri suru kokoromi” [Whose ‘real’? An attempt to organize yaoi’s discursive space] Image & Gender vol. 4 (2003/12): 27-55.

——2007. “Mōsōryoku no potensharu— rezubian feminisuto janru to shite no yaoi” [The potential of delusional power — Yaoi as a lesbian feminist genre]. EUREKA, Sōtokushū Fujoshi manga Taikei [Special issue: fujoshi manga system]. Vol. 39 (7): 56-62.

——2010. “Theorizing the comics/manga genre as a productive forum: Yaoi and beyond.” Jaqueline Berndt, ed., Comics Worlds and the World of Comics, imrc, pp. 143-168. (accessed 2014/06/26)

Mizuma, Midori. 2005. Inyu to shite no shōnenai — Josei no shōnen’ai to iu genshō [Shōnenai as metaphor — The phenomenon of women’s shōnen’ai]. Osaka: Sōgensha.

Mori, Naoko. 2010. Josei wa poruno o yomu — Josei no seiyoku to feminizumu [Women read porn — Women’s sexual desire and feminism]. Tokyo: Seikyūsha.

Morikawa, Kaichirō. 2007. “Otaku bunka no genzai, 9 — josei otaku no shomondai” [Otaku culture today, 9 — Female otaku and the various issues they face]. Chikuma 440, pp. 48-51.

Nagakubo, Yōko. 2005. Yaoi shōsetsuron — Josei no tame no erosu hyōgen [On the yaoi novel — Erotic expression for women]. Tokyo: Senshū UP.

Noppe, Nele. 2013. “Social Networking Services as Platforms for Transcultural Fannish Interactions.” Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kuemmerling-Meibauer (eds) Manga’s Cultural Crossroads. NY: Routledge, pp. 143-159.

Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto is a full-time lecturer at Ryukoku University, Faculty of Intercultural Communication. She came to Japan after completing degrees in Japanese Studies and Anthropology at Leuven Catholic University, and in 2007 received her Ph.D. from Osaka University. Her research focuses on issues of gender and ethnicity in popular culture, and she has published numerous papers and essays in the field of comics studies.

[1] – Under the name Kurimoto Kaoru, Nakajima gained renown as the author of the epic fantasy series Guin Saga, which filled more than 130 volumes, and is the longest running work of fiction in the world. Curator Horie Akiko’s illustrated book, published a year after Kurimoto’s death in 2009, provides a good introduction.

[2] – A term no longer popular, mainly because it may connote child abuse, and also because the protagonists of BL stories have grown progressively older as the genre developed.

[3] – For a concise historical discussion of the terms shōnen’ai, yaoi and BL, see Mizoguchi (2003).

[4] – First titled Jun, the name was changed to June — pronounced similarly to [Jean] Genet — from the second issue on because of a copyright issue; the magazine was released not by a manga magazine publisher, but one of erotic-pornographic material.

[5] – For example, Nagakubo’s 2005 book on Yaoi (or BL) novels is relevant to the study of BL manga as well: Covers and illustrations of BL novels are drawn by BL manga artists, and BL conventions within the novels’ narratives, character designs, story settings, patterns of speech, and more are very similar to BL manga.

[6] – Yaoi is sometimes used interchangeably with BL, sometimes taken to mean fan-created derivative manga and fiction as distinct from BL for original works. For simplicity’s sake, in this article only BL is used.

[7] – Architect and otaku scholar Morikawa Kaichirō made an interesting comparison between conflict-centered shōnen manga and romance-centered shōjo manga, stating that the modus operandi of BL fans is to rewrite shōnen manga according to shōjo manga principles, turning conflict into romance. (2007: 50-51)

[8] – Japanese manga magazines frequently insert postcards with questionnaires between the pages of their magazines. Usually readers can send them in free of charge, and based on these readers’ feedback, editors can gauge which stories are popular, and which need more editorial input to better respond to reader demands.

[9] – In 2013 Hori published an interesting article in English about the infamous yaoi ronsō of the 1990s, discussing fans’ (lack of) reactions to the accusation that the BL genre is homophobic.

[10] – There are official German, Italian, and French translations, but in English the work is only available as scanlation (unofficial fan-made translations shared online).

[11] – EUREKA (Aoshisha publishers), a literary magazine devoted to poetry and criticism, frequently produces special issues focusing on manga, and has to date published three that were entirely about fujoshi and BL culture. Apart from BL artists, authors and critics, EUREKA also gives a voice to many academics in BL and fujoshi research.

[12] – Delusion (mōsō) does not have the same strongly negative and pathological connotation in Japanese as it does in English. A better translation might be ‘wild imagination’.

[13] – Parody dōjinshi are parody not just in the sense that they rewrite homosocial relationships in the original work as homoerotic, but often include other gag sequences that turn gender conventions around. Although not all BL dōjinshi are parody, and not all BL parody dōjinshi are based on anime works, it is the largest and most popular, and most representative genre.

[14] – Both Japanese and foreign critics frequently accuse the BL genre of reinforcing heteronormativity; however, as parody, it is in its nature to simultaneously subvert and reproduce the issues raised within its narratives.

[15] – For foreign researchers entering the field, the Japanese language, and the amount of resources that have not been translated provides a substantial hurdle. Given that the amount of domestic BL narratives is substantially higher than what is available in translation (including scanlation), it should be kept in mind that what forms the canon of BL manga within Japan may overlap with what is available in translation, but only partially.

To read more from Comics Forum’s Manga Studies column, click here.


Posted by on 2014/07/29 in Guest Writers, Manga Studies


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6 responses to “Manga Studies #3: On BL manga research in Japanese by Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto

  1. mudakun

    2014/08/27 at 06:30

    Wow, thanks for this; an impressive short survey of the existing Japanese literature in the field of fujoshi studies. The first thing that becomes apparent to the casual follower of the field is that English language sources so far are extremely secondary and limited. (except for Mizoguchi, and she is often glossed, even though she has at least four interesting and accessible essays in English) I also note for the most part the absence of your sources as primary materials among the “usual” english language treatments of the genre. A lot of translating needs to be done. Your mention of certain western fan approaches to a Japanese socio-cultural phenomenon is… considered. I find the gulf between the two reflections on the genre and its practitioners fascinating. Thank You.



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