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.
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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