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The Popularity of Gay Manga in Japan: What are ‘Bara’ and ‘Yaoi’ and Who Are Its Fans?

Japanese manga and anime depicting gay sex have a huge fanbase here and abroad. So what's it all about?

By 8 min read

While the topics covered in Japanese anime and manga are seemingly endless, if recent hits like Yuri on Ice (2016), or My Brother’s Husband (2014-2017) are any indication, gay and homoerotic relationships fill an extremely popular niche in manga plotlines.

But, My Brother’s Husband (which was was remade last year into an NHK drama) and Yuri on Ice are only the tip of the iceberg. Get ready to blush, gasp and “kyaaa!” as we delve into why gay manga is so popular, and how to navigate an already huge international fandom.

Gay manga subgenres: BL and Bara

Gay manga has two major subgenres, not to mention the huge variety of plotlines ranging from futuristic dystopian societies to gay cops fighting crime and finding love. Yuri on Ice and My Brother’s Husband are good examples of these two subgenres. 

Yuri on Ice, a light-hearted love story between a retired master Russian figure skater and his Japanese apprentice, falls under “BL,” or “Boys’ Love” which is a direct translation of shonen’ai (少年愛—literally, “boy love”) an older term for BL manga that fell out of usage in Japan.

Fun fact: Victor and Yuri never explicitly kiss. Another fun fact: They were still hardcore gay for each other.

Another disappearing term for BL is yaoi. This is said to come from the Japanese expression yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, or “no climax, no fall, no meaning,” to jokingly describe how BL is often critiqued for a lack of actual plot.

Among Western readers, yaoi tends to connote BL works that have more explicit scenes, while shonen’ai is still sometimes used to refer to tamer gay manga series in which you watch an entire series only for the main couple to kiss. Six hours… for a kiss.

If popular BL series like Gakuen Heaven, Shungiku Nakamura’s Junjo Romantica, and Maki Murakami’s Gravitation are any indicator, BL characters are usually more willowy and traditionally “pretty.” There’s even a word for this style of male beauty: 美少年 (bishonen or “beautiful boy”). Flowers, tearful love confessions and slow-motion hugging scenes abound within the BL subgenre.

Among Western readers, yaoi tends to connote BL works that have more explicit scenes, while shonen’ai is still sometimes used to refer to tamer gay manga series in which you watch an entire series only for the main couple to kiss.

My Brother’s Husband, however, falls under bara manga, also known as “men’s love” or “gei komi (gay comics).” These comics are decidedly more “macho” when compared to BL.

Bara draws its name from the popular 1970s gay magazine Barazoku (薔薇族), or “Rose Tribe.” In a 2006 article by scholar Jonathan D. Mackintosh, he explains that Barazoku “pioneered a homo magazine genre and industry” that helped Japanese gay men feel less isolated.

A book cover for Tagame Gengoroh’s renowned series My Brother’s Husband. Via Twitter @tagagen.

Some say the name also derives from a photo series in the 1960s called Barakei (“Killed by Roses”). The erotic portraits captured by photographer and filmmaker Eikoh Hosoe displayed the muscular writer Yukio Mishima, who wrote the homosexual novel Confessions of a Mask, which was first published in 1949.  

The word then later fell out of fashion, however. In an interview with My Brother’s Husband creator, Gengoroh Tagame, he explains that he doesn’t use the word bara and prefers “gay comics” or the abbreviated gei komi. Nonetheless, the word bara still persists among Western fans of the genre.

Bara has far fewer full-fledged series (i.e. longer than a few volumes) than BL. That said, works such as Standing Ovations by Tagame or Hide and Seek by Reibun Ike tend to feature characters that YouTuber KrisPNatz describes as “thick and fluffy” as opposed to BL’s willowy personae. Instead of flowers, you’ll find a lot more muscles and bulging jockstraps.

Who creates and consumes gay manga?

You might have noticed that most BL creators tend to be women. In fact, after looking at a sample “The Top 10 Best Gay Mangablog post by Lindsey Lee, a google search reveals that all 10 listed manga were drawn by female artists. 

In an article on Savvy Tokyo titled “Boys’ Love, the Genre that Liberates Japanese Women to Create a World of Their Own,” writer Kirsty Kawano noted that women are the primary readers of BL. This is mostly true, and consumers of other shojo series (manga aimed at teenage girls) like Nichijo, Ouran High School Host Club, or Lucky Star are familiar with the common fujoshi (literally, “rotten girl”) character who, often quiet and bespectacled, enjoys reading and/or drawing sexually explicit gay manga.

As Kawano’s article eloquently points out, many women in Japan feel “liberated” to explore their own sexuality through love scenes between two men rather than between a man and a woman. 

Work by Gengoroh Tagama via Twitter @tagagen.

But just because women primarily draw BL doesn’t mean only women read it. Just like fujoshi, men who enjoy BL are called fudanshi (literally, “rotten boy”).

Not all fudanshi are gay, either. One manga series, The High School Life of a Fudanshi (2015-present), features a teenage boy who loves gay manga but identifies as straight. 

many women in Japan feel “liberated” to explore their own sexuality through love scenes between two men rather than between a man and a woman.

Bara is supposed to be aimed more at men, and it definitely has a more macho aesthetic that appeals to men. However, Anne Ishii, a popular bara translator who also happens to be a woman, points out in an interview with women’s website The Hairpin’s Chris Randle that plenty of women enjoy the more “muscley” aesthetic of bara artwork, too.

Bara and BL are not all that different in terms of plots, and Anne Ishii notes that women read gay manga to get down to the “nutty core of desire” prevalent in both BL and bara fiction. 

The fetishization of gay sex

You might be thinking that BL, as it appeals more to straight women, would be much less sexual than the more outwardly pornographic bara titles. You would be wrong. More often than not, sexually explicit BL consists of “one-shots,” or manga/anime series that only have 1-2 volumes/episodes, like Sensitive Pornograph (self-explanatory title), Ai no Kusabi, or Haru wo Dateita, to name a few. 

The sexual dynamic in BL is a bit different from the sex in bara, however. Because of the strong heterosexual female influence, BL couples often consist of a more masculine seme (literally, “attacker”) character who pursues a smaller, more effeminate uke (literally, “receiver”) character. 

Ai no Kusabi anime based on the novel by Rieko Yoshihara; DVD cover.

Unsurprisingly, BL terminology differs a bit from actual gay relationships in Japan.

In the real world, uke is still used to denote the “bottom” of a gay relationship (i.e. the receptive partner during anal sex) but has nothing to do with that person’s masculinity. Seme is only used in BL; in the gay world, tachi is instead used to denote the “top” (i.e. the insertive partner during anal sex) and riba (short for “reverse”) describes a guy who likes to do both. 

Because of the strong heterosexual female influence, BL couples often consist of a more masculine seme (literally, “attacker”) character who pursues a smaller, more effeminate uke (literally, “receiver”) character.

In fact, BL depictions of the dynamics of gay relationships are often so unbelievable that many fans talk about the “yaoi hole,” which Kabi Nagata, in her autobiographical manga My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, describes as a “mysterious organ in much of BL that doesn’t appear to be the anus in position, shape, or function. When they [BL characters] bone, stuff goes in, it gets wet, etc. [It’s about] High performance.”

Gay readers, and some woke fujoshi, often find that BL sex scenes fetishize gay men and lose sight of actual social issues gay men face in their fascination with oftentimes bizarre, unrealistic sex.

Not all of the sexual misrepresentations of gay manga are as benign, though. Both bara and BL also feature many sex scenes that tread the line between consent and rape, and BL also commonly features characters that appear to be underage, known as rori characters, named after the famous novel Lolita, which depicts an adult man’s desire for an underage girl.

Scholar Mark McLelland points out in his essay “What is the Future for BL?” that international law may pose a threat to BL if creators do not speak out against the too-common depiction of underaged characters in sexual scenarios.

Ready to explore gay manga? Do your research first

Be sure to research any gay manga before reading it to avoid this content. While some of the titles mentioned in this article may feature younger characters, none of them are depicted having sex.

BL sex scenes fetishize gay men and lose sight of actual social issues gay men face in their fascination with oftentimes bizarre, unrealistic sex

When considering that both men and women are creating and reading gay manga, it’s easy to see a sort of conversation happening between BL and bara. It’s a fast-evolving, varied world of fiction with an enormous online fanbase, and while some issues within the BL/bara creator communities need to be challenged, the pros outweigh the cons.

Gay manga is a space in which both men and women can explore fantasies, laugh at cheesy romances, question society, and look at hot, highly stylized drawings of dudes making love. If you didn’t think gay manga was for you, think again. There’s a lot to love in boy’s love. 

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