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Artist: Brian Mitchell
Artist: Brian Mitchell www.gaynimation.com

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November 2003 Email this to a friend
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Yaoi: Redrawing Male Love
By Mark McHarry

Some of today's edgiest male homosexual images and stories are being composed by women and girls-- for their own pleasure. Because it's (mostly) young women who've thronged to the burgeoning yaoi underground. What's yaoi? It's homegrown fan fiction based on Japanese cartoon characters. But it's not just Made-in-Japan anymore. Mark McHarry looks at the growing world of yaoi-- and Japan's centuries-old tradition of same-sex love that nourishes its roots. Around the world, millions of girls are conjuring tales of boys in love with each other. What's up with sex and gender in the 21st century?

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[Modern-day Tokyo]

An image flashed into his mind as he moved towards the curb, of himself stepping up, a young boy lurching into him, blond hair screening his face, lean little body pressing to his for an instant. Violet eyes meeting his.

Crawford stepped onto the curb and reached out, catching the boy by his thin arms as he stumbled. It was a perfect catch and the boy shook fine sandy-blond hair out of his eyes, pools of violet lifting up and brimming with surprise. And something else....

The boy blinked. "I wasn't going to pick your pocket, or anything like that, o-jii-san." He drew out the insult to Crawford's age with relish, remarkable eyes glimmering up at him. Daring him....

Crawford looked into the boy's face.... He wasn't going anywhere. It was amazing. Not even five minutes into their acquaintance, he knew the boy had bumped into him after sizing him up-- with sex on the mind.

Some days he loved Japan.

Pet Project, Part One: The Violet-Eyed Imp

Bradley Crawford, member of the criminal organization Schwarz, invites the 13-year-old Touma for lunch. What happens next can be read in the stories of Talya Firedancer, a young woman from Oregon.

What she and probably more than a million other women, along with some men, are doing is called yaoi (yow-ee). They are appropriating characters from Japanese anime (cartoon animations) and manga (comics) produced for young people and putting them in homoerotic situations. In the West, most yaoi takes the form of stories; some of it is illustrations. Its content parallels that of the fan-created manga Japanese women have published since the late 1970s. Both are similar to stories Western women have written about male characters from TV programs and movies. Often these works are sexually explicit. Almost invariably their theme is the characters overcoming obstacles, usually substantial, to connect and bond.

Crawford crosses a curb to catch Touma. Yaoi crosses boundaries, societal ones. Besides same-sex desire, these may include relationships between a teenage minor and an older partner, between siblings, or among multiple partners. The sex may be non- consensual, violent, or carried out in public spaces. The boundaries are felt acutely, portrayed as they are within the characters' personalities. The authors negotiate these boundaries in ways that defy stereotypes. Yaoi is a sardonic acronym meaning "no climax, no point, no meaning." The content of most Western yaoi stories is anything but. The authors use the risk and tension involved in transgressing boundaries to explore issues central to sex and love. They portray the resolution as beautiful and noble, and the struggle for it worthwhile.

In Japan, yaoi is a major cultural activity. Attendance at Comiket, a twice-yearly Tokyo market for fan created manga called dojinshi, is almost half a million people, about 80 percent there for yaoi. Commercial "boys' love" manga (the Japanese use the English words) is one of the largest niche markets in Japanese publishing.

Impelled by the Web, yaoi has spread well beyond Japan's borders. Western yaoi fans publish their stories online in several languages. A Google search in October 2003 returns some 500,000 yaoi Web pages, up from 135,000 in June 2002. Publishers are marketing translations of Japanese commercial boys' love manga, such as Akimi Yoshida's Banana Fish and Sanami Matoh's Fake. As in Japan, yaoi in the West has evolved into a genuine art form, with its own canons of excellence and skill.

The larger culture is taking notice. Two years ago, a North American boy e-mailed a yaoi site asking if it were true his favorite anime character, the Gundam Wing pilot Duo, is gay, as his schoolmates had claimed upon coming across yaoi illustrations. Universities have added yaoi to their curricula. A talk about yaoi was slated for Mexico City's well-known gay bar, El Taller, in April. Last December, National Public Radio's in-house ethicist opined on slash (fan fiction that puts usually male characters in sexual relationships) for the network's millions of listeners. He saw no problem publishing accounts of Harry Potter "in a passionate embrace with one of... or even all of the Weasley brothers" as long as it was not done for profit.

Yaoi is remarkable.

That fiction in different media in cultures as diverse as Japan and the United States, Latin America and Europe resonates similarly in so many people may reflect something deep in our imaginations.

Readers of yaoi and boys' love manga say it has changed their lives, helping them better understand themselves and the world. Matt Thorn, a cultural anthropologist, has written eloquently about his reaction on reading Moto Hagio's boys' love manga Toma no shinzo (The Heart of Thomas); others have published similar accounts.

Not least, yaoi marks an evolution in young people's expression. Women of all ages create yaoi, but many are in their teens. They are taking the adult-created characters of their childhood, redefining them to express their desires, and publishing these for the world. Never before have young people been able to do this. Free of editorial constraint and parental control, their voices are authentic. Reading their stories, one sees that their thoughts about sex are as deeply felt and complex as those of adults. A discourse among young people and adults is taking place around these views, another unprecedented development.

What effect might this have on how our society views sex? For this, we must consider how yaoi came to prominence in the West, and first we need to understand some of the cultural factors which may have helped give rise to it in Japan.

Japanese homosex: deep roots

Although a famous literary work, Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Heian court in 1004 C.E., women's expression was so restricted that literary historians such as Rebecca Copeland refer to their "centuries of silence." When Japan opened to the West in the mid-1800s, women were allowed only limited public expression, denied the right to attend political meetings or vote. But they began publishing. Copeland looked at Shizuko Wakamatsu's translation of Little Lord Fauntleroy (Shokoshi, The Little Lord, 1892). In back- translating Wakamatsu's Japanese into English, Copeland found she "could explore other realms-- realms she could not reach in her own voice. She could write of seafaring men and golden-haired boys. More important, she could dare to be inventive."

Women founded a feminist journal, Seito, in 1911, a dangerous activity at a time when the government censored the nascent democracy's dissident voices. The police murdered a former Seito editor, Noe Ito. One of those attending Seito meetings, Nobuko Yoshiya, wrote the best-selling lesbian story Yaneura no nishojo (Two Virgins in the Attic, 1920). Yoshiya drew on a popular phenomenon, the "Relationship of S," in which girls in the liminal space of adolescence formed romantic relationships with one another. Yoshiya went on to write many other popular stories and novels. Her work helped give rise to the new genre of shojo (girls) popular literature-- novels then; after the war, also manga and anime.

About the time Yoshiya began publishing, the artist Kasho Takabatake portrayed bishonen (beautiful boys) in boys' magazines. The action/adventure stories he illustrated showed them bonding by rescuing each other or sharing the same sleeping bag for warmth. Thorn says his works "reflected idealized relationships among boys in a time when boys and girls lived in separate worlds, and it was common for... young people to have romantic feelings for and even sexual involvement with the same sex...." A collection of Kasho's works, Bishonen zukan (Illustrated Compendium of Beautiful Boys), was published two years ago, and includes an essay by the well-known boys' love manga artist Keiko Takemiya.

The longest and most public expression of same-sex affection was nanshoku, eroticism between male adolescents and men. It flourished for at least 1,000 years until the 19th century. It was so widespread and long-lived that scholars like Gregory Pflugfelder document a broad and publicly supportive discourse which produced one of the richest caches of written material on male-male sexuality anywhere in the world before the present.

Although Pflugfelder writes about the period after 1600, there were many earlier works treating nanshoku-- novels, paintings, stories, poetry, plays, guidebooks and instructional texts. Kitamura Kigin's Iwatsutsuji (Wild Azaleas, published 1713) is an anthology. The title is from a poem written in 905 about a priest's unexpressed love for a youth (the translation is by Paul Gordon Schalow): omoi izuru / tokiwa no yama no / iwatsutsuji / iwaneba koso are / koishiki mono o (Memories of love revive, like wild azaleas bursting into bloom / on mountains of evergreen; my stony silence only shows / how much I love you).

Nanshoku faded away with the adoption of the Germanic psychosexual theories at the dawn of the 20th century, part of Japan's rush toward industrialization after it opened to the West under US pressure. There was resistance to nanshoku's repression, albeit at the margins. In Satsuma, at Japan's southwest periphery, it continued to be celebrated publicly in the early 20th century, with schools prescribing on the first day of each year the reading of a tale recounting the love between a pair of 16th century samurai, one a youth, the other a man. Given the extent and depth of nanshoku's practice and its expression in cultural texts, the idea of male adult-adolescent eroticism may have lingered in Japan's popular imagination to a greater degree than in any other modern society.

Another cultural aspect which may have played into yaoi's creation is an openness toward depicting the body, including those of children, and a frank depiction of violence. These are staple themes in manga, which account for almost 40 percent of all printed media in Japan and are widely read by children.

Some Westerners find today's manga's content as troubling as 16th century Europeans did nanshoku. Manga authority Frederik Schodt cites Tatsuhiko Yamagami's Gaki Deka (Kid Cop, 1974), whose protagonist is an elementary school boy who entertains onlookers with tricks he performs with his testicles. Gaki Deka's popularity boosted sales of the children's manga Shonen Champion by more than a million copies.

Gender-variant themes have long been common in shojo manga. Shosuke Kuragane's popular Ammitsu-hime (Princess Ammitsu, 1949) features a tomboy. Osamu Tezuka's hugely successful Ribon no kishi (Princess Knight, 1953) tells the story of a girl who blends attributes of both genders, a theme present in today's anime seen by children, such as Chiho Saito's brilliant Utena: Adolescence Mokushiroku.

Female manga artists became more prominent in the late 1950s as manga sales increased sharply. In the early 1970s, with the emergence of influential women artists such as Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, shojo manga took a male homoerotic direction. Hagio's Toma no shinzo (1974) and Takemiya's Kaze to ki no uta (The Song of the Wind and the Trees, 1976) told the stories of adolescent boys in sexual relationships.

They were, says Kazuko Suzuki, "influential masterpiece[s]... one of the first attempts [in manga] to depict true bonding or ideal relationships through pure male homosexual love." They were also runaway hits among their mostly female readers, schoolgirls to older women. Today commercial boys' love flourishes. Titles such as BeBoy and BeBoy Gold consist of several hundred pages and sell 250,000 copies a month between them, about ten percent bought by men and boys.

"Yaoi" was coined by a group of amateurs who titled their 1979 dojinshi Rappori Yaoi Tokushu Gou (Rappori: Special Yaoi Issue). They created the acronym because their work was a collection of scenes and episodes with no overarching structure.

With the large number of yaoi dojinshi published in the past 25 years, summarizing their plots is beyond this article's scope. Their approach ranges from serious to humorous. Some have no depiction of sex. Others have scenes that may seem to leave little to the imagination but, if read without some understanding of Japanese culture, lose meaning which greatly enriches the text.

Yaoi goes West

Yaoi's rise in the West has been driven by the increasing popularity of anime shown on commercial television for children and by the Web as a dissemination medium for fan-written stories.

Two popular fandoms for yaoi are Gundam Wing and Weiss Kreuz. In Gundam Wing, a quintet of 15-year-old space pilots fights to defend their colonies against the OZ forces of earth. Weiss Kreuz, based in modern Tokyo, relates the adventures of a group of assassins in their teens and early 20s who battle organized crime. Yaoi uses these characters' struggle against evildoers to uncover other needs that can be met only by turning to teammates-- or in some cases to their opponents.

Judging by how Western yaoi fans describe themselves, how they write, and conversations with them, many are young. One girl boasted in her blog that she locked out students from her high school's computer lab so she could upload her yaoi stories. Yaoi is an activity of the young in part because anime did not became widely seen in America until the 1990s.

Authors post yaoi stories to their sites or fan-fiction archives. Many stories are not sexually explicit, but as sex underlies romantic love, sex is present in much of yaoi. Sex goes to the heart of what we might want in our relations with another. Depicting it gives the author a platform to explore desire with an urgency not possible any other way.

Yaoi stories range from minimalist sketches to detailed scenarios of different worlds. Many are like fairy tales, a genre established in literature by the French aristocracy. They became the basis for today's children's publishing, much of which, produced by corporations such as Disney, are paeans to industriousness and heterosexual monogamy.

By contrast, yaoi fairy tales, such as RazorQueen's After the Fire, are about desire. They are stories without a corporate agenda, tender fantasies that explore possibilities, not circumscribe them. After the Fire pairs Gundam pilot Duo with his enemy Zechs. It has, as archivist Nitid says about yaoi generally, "a sweet innocence, and [an] unabashed display of... affection...." Yaoi can also take us on darker journeys, such as Chalcedony Cross' F�den aus Mondlicht and BrightAngel's Measure for Measure. Both have ambiguously constructed scenes of non- consensual sex between Weiss teammates Aya and Yoji.

Anria's Thinking About Forever pits Duo against a relationship between fellow pilots Heero and Trowa. We see Duo struggling mightily to overcome his inhibitions to join them in a m�nage � trois. Scenarios like these are not necessarily fictional. The noted author Samuel Delany said he was approached at a science-fiction convention by a very young man who asked him if it were possible for three people to have a relationship. Delany said it was, at which the young man "gave an immense sigh of relief... [and] I thought, 'I am doing something right.'"

All good fiction is transgressive, says historical novelist E.L. Doctorow. Writers must "have the sense of... doing something forbidden.... If you have that feeling, the work is going well." Good fiction needs more, of course. The sex in gay erotica written by amateurs is transgressive, but often it seems an end in itself. In yaoi, the sex serves the goal of getting the characters to connect.

Yaoi has not been without controversy. In Japan, police have arrested yaoi fans, and a debate raged in the feminist magazine Choisir after a gay-identified man, Masaki Sato, complained that yaoi's characters had nothing to do with "real gay men." His critics, such as Hisako Takamatsu, see yaoi as a refuge from a misogynist culture and a critique of heterosexist gender norms. She said her sexuality centered exclusively on fantasies of boy-love and emphasized there is no reason why one's biological gender should predetermine the gendering of either the subject or object of one's desire-- a position which agrees with the critique of identity offered by queer theory, which emphasizes the processes of identification through which identities are formed, rather than identity as an ontological given.

This debate has not happened in the West, but anime and manga have been attacked. Sailor Moon and Ranma 1/2 were taken off the air in Mexico, accused of promoting homosexuality and satanism. Anime broadcast on US television has much of its sex and violence altered or deleted as well as content deemed offensive to Christians. The Sailor Moon character Zoicyte had his gender changed to female during dubbing to eliminate the same-sex relationship intended by the anime's creators.

Why yaoi?

Yaoi creators report different reasons. One seems to be erotic attraction coupled with freedom: yaoi transcends gender roles and male bodies are attractive.

As feminist author Joanna Russ said, women want "a sexual relationship that does not require their abandoning freedom, adventure, and first-class humanity... they want sexual enjoyment that is intense, whole, and satisfying, and they want intense emotionality. They also want... to create images of male bodies as objects of desire." This desire varies. Some women prefer yaoi's young male characters be hunky, others androgynous, others feminine.

At the beginning of As Long As You Love Me part six, Missa and Miriya say, "If we owned any of these bishies (beautiful boys) we wouldn't be writing about them. We'd be watching them boffing like bunnies and video taping it.... But since we don't own them, all we can do is play with them in our own little fantasy world."

Fantasy is not necessarily about escaping reality as much as it is desiring a different one. Some yaoi authors imbue their stories with playfulness. But play can also be quite serious. Bruno Bettelheim valued the violence of fairy tales for helping children come to terms with their feelings of aggression and impotency. Yaoi author Rose Argent says "I put my characters into the worst possible situations and see what happens. I also pull them back out. It's a little bit of self therapy."

Yaoi provides a safe place from which to explore sex. In yaoi author Joyce Wakabayashi's words, "[male characters] have to go through a lot of what the women have to go through, being vulnerable and not always in control.... it's a bit of voyeurism spiced with just a drop of revenge." Some women say they prefer to appropriate and/or identify with a male, not female, persona.

Slash authors surveyed report their conceptions of sexuality, their own and others, as "fluid" and/or say they identify as bisexual or "open." (I found no yaoi author surveys outside of blogs.) Several said they were lesbian. English professor James Welker says the ambiguity of boys' love manga gives the reader "licence to vicariously experiment with sex and sexuality, acting as either passive or active lover, or both.... freedom to re-narrate and en-gender-- or de-gender-- the story [including] opening these texts to lesbian re- interpretations."

Some may be tempted to analyze yaoi using one or another interpretive methodology. But yaoi is created and consumed by women-- and some men-- with disparate motives and diverse conceptions of sexuality. Binary labels such as "male and female," "gay and straight," are semiotic strategies that do not reflect a diverse reality. Categories such as "gay-" or "women's writing" are universalist constructs that gloss over varied points of view.

Identifications in manga are shifting and incomplete, says Setsu Shigematsu. They move "among multiple contradictory (psychic) sites that are constituted differently depending on the specific history and experiences of the subject." These can be expressed as: "I desire to be the object of desire / I hate the object of desire / I conquer the object of desire / the object of desire wants me / the object of desire hates me."

Western yaoi exemplifies this fluidity. It also resists categorization. Some have labeled it queer in one way or another. But most of the small number of yaoi authors with whom I talked reject labels. Many said they like yaoi because it is fun. Any attempt at explaining "why" must be done carefully, mindful of contradictions and respectful of the fact that sex and gender are multidimensional and labile.

The future

Published at Yaoi-Con, held in San Francisco, Burning is one of the few fully realized Western dojinshi executed in the Japanese tradition, including its distribution at a yaoi-centric event. Set after the war, the ex-enemies Zechs and Duo are drifting through life until Zechs, cruising for a young man to pick up, encounters the former pilot on the street, selling his body. Burning and works like it could mark an increase in visual expressions of Western yaoi. There is a small but active community of Western yaoi artists working in a variety of media.

In the US, yaoi seems to be beyond the reach of those who would take it away from its creators. It is probable that yaoi falls within the copyright law's statutory exception for fair use, although this has not been adjudicated. A different federal law prohibiting posting on the Web material harmful to minors was struck down by an appellate court. The great majority of yaoi sites would have been exempt due to the law's commercial requirement. Last year the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a "virtual" child pornography law. Yet obscenity laws remain on the books and could potentially be brought to bear against yaoi authors/artists.

Yaoi is play, but it is more. Thinking about something doesn't mean one wants to do it, or wants others to. But if one thinks about something s/he is acknowledging it exists, even as something only to be imagined. Thinking implies receptivity to additional information and thus the ability to change. Yaoi fans are envisioning possibilities. In so doing, they are taking steps toward their realization. The goal may be symbolic but the steps toward it are real.

One is the appropriation of others' texts, which, even in their canonical form, such as Sailor Moon S or Dragonball Z, are considered deviant enough in the West they must be bowdlerized or suppressed.

Another is the subversion of these texts. Much in the same way classic Japanese stories such as Torikaebaya, a widely read tale from the 12th century, destabilize our conceptions of fixed positions for gender and sexuality, so do Western yaoi stories undermine their accepted norms. Aspects of this destabilization are evident in many of the stories I have read.

A third step is a discourse among fans and non-fans who post comments to sites' guest books, and read or write reviews and blogs, enter contests, and e-mail site owners. It is easy to imagine more such exchanges as new anime is broadcast, additional yaoi sites go online, and others encounter the genre.

A fourth is scholarly work. This is already underway for slash, where people present papers, publish analyses, and teach it. The areas of inquiry for yaoi could include who is writing/drawing yaoi works and why, its content, and how this compares to the content of other erotic fan works in Japan and the West.

Anthropologist Anne Allison describes how contemporary toys, games, TV programs, and movies-- many from Japan-- are queering Western children's play. She says the new play objects create "a bleeding of the female/male border." With their transformations and fragmentation, they reflect a "world of flux, migration, and deterritorialization," unlike that of past superheroes, whose "powers were centered in and secured by a holistic... male body." Many yaoi players have only recently left behind the toys Allison describes. Their "play" is deliberate, consciously performed.

A large group of people in the West, most of them female and many young, is imagining forms of sex outside today's cultural boundaries. They are creating alternative constructions of masculinity, often envisioning these as ideals. They are exposing others to these, as took place with the boy who asked if Duo was gay. Yaoi has already affected how our society views sex. It seems to have started with the young, and it is just beginning. It remains to be seen how powerful its effects will be.

Author Profile:  Mark McHarry
Mark McHarry keeps an eye on Latin culture from the Bay Area

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