'Boys’ love,' the genre that liberates Japanese women to create a world of their own

By Kirsty Kawano

Walk into the manga section of your local Japanese bookstore and the overwhelming image you will see is one of a wide-eyed girl with impossible melon breasts in an available position. Even before one brushstroke of word or picture is written, the assumption is clear that girls exist to titillate men, whether they be characters, readers, or the wider patriarchal society as a whole.

Now go to the part of the manga section that is furthest from the entrance. Here, alongside softer images of romance on titles for elementary school girls, you will find glossy covers featuring only pretty boys — some of them closing in to kiss each other. This is “boys’ love,” (BL) the Japanese genre of manga, novels, anime, movies, and now computer games, that features love relationships between young men, but, to our surprise, are not made for a gay audience.

For a female audience

The BL following in Japan is fierce but small. Less than one percent of the population identifies themselves as BL fans and the market earns only about one-twentieth of the overall domestic manga industry, according to 2015 data from the Yano Research Institute. Yet, despite being a minor one, the audience is solid.

Predominantly written by women, readers are also overwhelmingly female. BL is more than just double the eye candy, as these tales of romance between beautiful androgynous boys release women from a judgmental gaze and create a world that frees them from the constrictive social norms of reality.

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Boys’ love is similar to the West’s slash fiction in that they both depict homosexual relationships and have emerged in large part due to the amateur creations of the genres’ fans. The majority of readers of both categories are women, but most female fans of slash fiction identify as other than heterosexual. In contrast, BL has some gay and bisexual — as well as heterosexual male — readers, but its fan base is predominantly heterosexual young women. Around 60 percent of them are aged between 15 and 29 years old.

The Japanese genre is currently known by the katakana name ボーイズラブ (boizu rabu) or the abbreviation BL (ビー・エル). In the West however, it is still predominantly known by the older Japanese name of yaoi. This was the self-deprecating name that writers used back in the early days and was derived from the initial sounds of the Japanese words “*ya**manashi ochinashi iminashi,*” (山なし、落ちなし、意味なし) which mean “no climax, no point, no meaning” — in other words, a really dull, dud of a manga.

Currently in Japan, the two terms refer to different genres: boys’ love focuses on romance and is less extreme, while yaoi goes all the way with explicit sex scenes.

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© Savvy Tokyo

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Some men like to watch two women together, perhaps this is the other side of the coin?

7 ( +7 / -0 )

I agree. The majority of lesbian porn is marketed for heterosexual men.

However, I don’t see any purpose in romanticizing and making social excuses as justification for BL.

If women want to get their rocks off on pretty boys getting freaky, it’s generally nothing more or less than just that.

Guys don’t make excuses for watching lesbian porn, so women shouldn’t have to either.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

In my teen-years, I was quite the consumer of anything BL. And first of all, it's not always comparable to lesbian porn, or porn at all. Often it's just a love story without all the naughty parts, so it isn't just about getting off.

In hindsight, a lot of BL actually leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Many of the portrayed relationships are extremely volatile and toxic, but played off in a "im just so desperate, I'd do anything to have you!"-way. As an adult, it's kinda horrifying. Also the extreme sexualization and fetishization of gay men - I've seen it spill over into reality, where girls squeal when they see gay couples, shipping people they know... It's pretty tasteless. But if done right, it can definitely be a vehicle for acceptance and understanding.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

OK on the politics of it, but the art is offputting. Loads of spiky hair and jawlines with no angles. Artistically pretty awful. I wish it were drawn better. Usually looks more like two hedgehogs going at it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )


Yes, much of it wouldn’t qualify as “porn” by strict definition, but the term pornography has taken a much broader meaning to imply anything that titilates a lust or viewed for pure gratification. (Food porn for one)

Men are more visually stimulated, and women are more mentally stimulated. Which is why women read erotic novels more, and men watch XXXTube more. But you would agree that both are porn, right?

About the over-sexualization of gay men by women. I don’t know enough about BL to form an opinion, but a gay friend once told me that he absolutely hates women who go to gay bars to attempt to appear “lit” and get fashion advice. Apparently it’s quite common in Japan, and some 2-chome gay bars even prohibit straight women from entering.

0 ( +0 / -0 )


Sure, porn come in many shapes and sizes, and there is definitely loads of it in the BL-world. It just wanted to point out that that isn't all there is to it - I didn't read it for the lusty parts, I just liked the romance-stuff. Didn't have to have anything to do with lust or eroticism.

I definitely understand where your friend comes from. I don't know how it is specifically in Japan, but I've seen it a lot in my own country too, and it most be sooo annoying as a gay man.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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