begin at the beginning: what is yaoi?

…and who reads it?

Haru o Daite Ita by Nitta Youka (published in English as Embracing Love)

Haru o Daite Ita by Nitta Youka (published in English as Embracing Love)

The short answer: yaoi (or boys’ love, BL, or shounen-ai) is a genre of Japanese stories that features boys falling for, and quite often having sex with, other boys. It can be found as manga, anime, drama CD’s, live action movies, novels, and even video games.

Honto Yajuu by Yamamoto Kotetsuko -- a cop and yakuza romance.

Honto Yajuu by Yamamoto Kotetsuko

Contrary to what you might expect, yaoi is primarily written by women for Japanese teenage girls. I don’t know whether the American stereotype of “girls like to have gay guy friends” is a thing in Japan, but apparently a lot of Japanese girls (and women) do like to read about guys romancing and sexing each other.

Note, I didn’t specify “gay guys romancing and sexing each other”, because a significant percentage of yaoi manga feature seemingly-straight guys suddenly falling for a guy, one particular guy, without deciding they’re gay — the, “I’m not gay but I’m in love with my _________ (best friend, boss, neighbor, piano teacher, etc),” scenario. Yaoi stories also not-infrequently include guys who are openly bisexual.

reality test?

So, are these realistic stories about gay-bi-questioning mens’ lives in Japan? Hell no! Remember, written by women for teenage girls? These are female fantasies about boys in love.

Yachin-Hanbun-no-Ibasho-desu

Yachin Hanbun no Ibasho Desu by Asou Kai

The main characters may have male plumbing, but the ways they interact often feel very much like male-female couples. In fact, much of yaoi is dominated by couples that fall into “seme” and “uke” roles, which are essentially parallel to male and female roles in heterosexual relationships — the terms refer to who pitches (seme) and who catches (uke), if you know what I mean… Nor is it unusual for the ukes to look downright girly — on the message boards, I’ve heard that type of uke referred to as “chicks with dicks”. In other words, some yaoi is just like shoujo (girls’ comics) with a thin varnish of gay on top.

Beyond the guys’ looks and roles during sex, their lovey-dovey dialogue has a tendency to devolve into conversations that sound like two girls professing their saccharine-sweet love to each other. I reiterate — Female. Fantasies. Sometimes even the mangakas poke fun at this fact, as below, when Shunpei of Mousou Elektel tries to consult with his BL-reading sister about how gay relationships work…

bl fantasy elektel

Mousou Elektel by Nekota Yonezou

Flutter by Tenzen Momoko

Flutter by Tenzen Momoko

Still, that the stories express female fantasies rather than reality isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the writers are being true to their audience. And, to be fair, quite a few of those who write and draw BL strive to portray couples with male characters who speak like men, act like men, and face the same issues that gay men face in still-homophobic Japan. In fact, the better the yaoi, the less likely it is to fall into a shoujo-esque cliche. Overall, as a literary genre, yaoi runs from insanely superficial to reasonably profound. That’s part of what makes it fun.

So, how’s about you get started by strapping on your BL fantasy goggles, making sure no one can look over your shoulder to see your screen, and joining me in seeking that good ol’time yaoi joy. If you’re interested, all of the titles on this page come highly recommended and together represent some of the diversity within the genre. But I’ll leave the specifics on that for another time…


Running into unfamiliar terms, like seme, noncon, bara, or shotacon? Check out the jargon of yaoi, where you’ll find quick definitions for some of the most popular yaoi-speak.


By the way, I’d love to introduce myself and the blog. Please do drop by for a visit, and say hi while you’re there..

For information on where to buy some of the books on this page (those that are available in English), visit buying yaoi… why and where. No, I make no money from this. I just want to make it a little easier for folks to support the mangaka.


Boku no Shiru, Anata no Hanashi, by Suzuki Tsuta

Boku no Shiru, Anata no Hanashi, by Suzuki Tsuta

10 thoughts on “begin at the beginning: what is yaoi?

    • Arria-san — ありがとうございました。Thank you for coming by to visit and taking the time to comment! I share your fascination with Japanese culture, and I envy your facility with Japanese. I’m still a beginner. 今、私の日本語が下手です。But I have hope for the future… Yes, more power to the mangaka and the crazy lives they lead so we can enjoy their works.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nyankotoさん、
        いいえ、とんでもありません。今習っているので、まだまだです。Everyday is a new learning experience. Let’s just have fun, ne? ~(^◇^)/
        Keep on blogging & learning 日本語。Cheers!

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I actually wonder if this aspect of ‘straight’ man falling for ‘gay’ man, or ‘I like only this man, not other men’ is because perhaps the Japanese tend to fall on the side that being homosexual is not genetic but rather a choice, even if it’s just being homosexual towards only one guy.

    I’ve never really thought of the uke as being ‘chicks with dicks.’ Lately when I read yaoi manga, I’ve been thinking how the story could be read differently if the uke was actually a girl and personally, the feels and how I read it is different, although that probably says something more about me than the manga. The uke, to me, has always just been the male who is more sensitive and open with their feelings. It’s sort of like how in yuri manga you have a more ‘macho’ girl and the girly girl just becomes more girly. To call them ‘girly’ makes me take another glance at what it means for someone to be ‘girly’ or ‘macho’ and society’s imprinted impression of that on us.

    But yes, I agree that the better the yaoi (or yuri) the less cliche and stereotype bound are the characters! It’s the same as reading a shoujo or shounen and falling in love with the main female/male character because they are more than just a cardboard cutout.

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    • Yes, the “gay” versus “I just like this guy” is a whole debate unto itself, both in Japanese culture and American culture. It’s very controversial in American gay culture, because many feel that the latter is simply a gay man who’s unable to face his orientation, while others believe it’s the sign of bisexuality (a controversial orientation in and of itself). I know less about how it plays out in Japanese culture. Sometimes in yaoi the characters identify as bisexual, sometimes that they’re bisexual could be seen as being implied (I usually like women, but at present I like you), other times they have that “you’re the only one in the universe for me” trope, a very teenage romantic stance that seems to circumvent orientation because it suggests that one would be asexual if one couldn’t have this specific person. Unlike in gay culture in the U.S., I’ve can’t remember ever seeing a yaoi conversation in which one character accused another of being “in the closet”. As to the nature vs. nurture debate in Japan, I haven’t gotten a strong sense of that one way or another, probably because the mangakas don’t really want to engage with homosexuality at a political level. But that’s just a complete guess.

      Ah, “chicks with dicks”. Yes, let me clarify. That’s usually a visual comment, rather than a character one. If you look at, say, Minami Haruka’s work, her ukes have a tendency to look like girls. Or, perhaps an even better example is Hoshi no Yakata (a very hardcore BDSM yaoi), where not only ukes but often semes look like girls. Character-wise, I agree with you that even when the ukes have many traditionally feminine characteristics, there is still a different feel from shoujo (otherwise I wouldn’t like it better than shoujo). I think that if yaoi’s intended audience were not teenage girls (and so many conventions of heterosexual couples weren’t followed), I’d be more inclined to see yaoi’s men as challenging gender conventions. Right now it tends to feel like a masquerade, in which teenage girls are being allowed to see the male “princes” they wish they could date — ones who are in touch with their emotions, willing to be romantic, etc. — in other words, more like girls are raised to be. Which can be very appealing. But, yes, I do think yaoi characters provide opportunities for questioning our assumptions about gender characteristics.

      Liked by 1 person

      • oops – let me clarify — in that last bit, I was talking about the more cliche-feeling yaoi. In really good yaoi, it doesn’t feel like a masquerade at all. It feels like you’ve actually got two male characters on the page.

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  2. Very nice. You covered quit a bit in this post, and it highlights the major issues and topics that many of us see in the genre. Yaoi is not just one thing, it is very diverse. If you want “chicks with dicks” (BTW love that), or manly men, or something in between you should be able to find something you like.
    I am a bit older than the target demographic (I just had my 40th birthday a couple months ago) so I do not know if that has had a major impact on my preferences in the genera. Personally, If the uke is too much like a girl, I lose interest, but I am not into Bara either hahaha. I usually prefer the stories with at least some semblance of balance (male/female that is) between the characters. Not to say that I do not like pretty men, because I certainly do. But just because they are pretty does not mean they have to be weak. My favorite example is Fei Long (Finder Series), he looks feminine (so much so that Asami even taunts him with it just before the Hong Kong Arc), but he does not act like a “girl”. If I wanted girls, I would not be reading BL.

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  3. Yes. The diversity in BL/yaoi/shounen-ai/bara is fantastic — there’s something for most readers in there somewhere, and something for just about any mood I happen to find myself in.
    I am also extremely fond of Fei Long and agree that he lets me feast on the beautiful while acting strong, confrontational, sexually assertive, and independent in ways “proper” women still aren’t supposed/allowed to be.

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  4. This is very interesting. i am glad i came across your page and will continue to follow you. i was asking myself questions about my love for yaoi (being a 32 years old female and not a teenager… x_x) and i like where you are going. 🙂

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    • I’m glad you found me, too. It certainly can be a bit odd to be outside of the main demographic — when I go to yaoi-con, I’m constantly aware of being a couple decades older than most of the other folks there. Sometimes it feels pretty weird. But when I take the time to really pay attention, I notice that there are also quite a few of us “older” fujoshi and fudanshi (I’m mid-40’s). And a number of the yaoi-loving bloggers I’ve interacted with are middle aged or older, too. So there are plenty of us well-aged folk appreciating the boys’ love. Welcome! 🙂

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