electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 4 in 2010
First published in ejcjs on 30 September 2010

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The Sexual and Textual Politics of Japanese Lesbian Comics

Reading Romantic and Erotic Yuri Narratives


Kazumi Nagaike

Associate Professor
Center for International Education and Research
Oita University

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This paper discusses a popular Japanese manga (comics) genre, directed mainly at female readers, which deals with female-female romantic and erotic relationships; this genre is commonly called yuri (lily) manga. After an historiographic analysis of Japanese lesbianism (especially the concept of girls' romantic bonding that originated in Japanese literature during the modernization era), I explore the ways in which an analysis of contemporary popular lesbian texts, produced by and for Japanese girls/women, can provide new theoretical perspectives on the discourse of lesbian gender/sexuality, including issues of female homosociality, the lesbian continuum, and female corporeal desire.

Key Words

manga; yuri; lesbianism; gender; sexuality


As Fredrik L. Schodt says, 'it is no exaggeration to say that one cannot understand modern Japan today without having some understanding of the role that manga play in society' (1996:12). A particular subgenre of Japanese manga (comic books) depicts female-female relationships, and this raises a number of specific issues regarding the interaction of popular culture and gender that need more detailed study. This genre of manga, generally called yuri (lily) manga, is mostly produced by and for girls/women; it is not underground reading material, but is openly available in bookstores (sometimes even in convenience stores) in Japan. Rhetorically, the word yuri implies lesbianism, and broadly includes both women who are sexually attracted to other women, as well as any form of female-female spiritual bond. One yuri manga magazine titled Comic Yurihime (Princess Lily, issued seasonally from 2005, Fig. 1) claims a total circulation of around 75,000.[1] The popularity of this manga subgenre thus provides diverse theoretical possibilities from which the discursive originality of female-female romantic and erotic relationships (lesbianism) in the Japanese socio/cultural context may be analyzed. An analysis of readers' comments included in Yurihime magazines clearly indicates that the subgenre of yuri manga is not a phenomenon strictly limited to lesbian culture.

Figure 1: Front cover of Yurihime, Vol. 8 (2007). Cover art by Zaoh Taishi and Eiki Eiki. Copyright: Ichijinsha.

The term yuri is generally believed to have been coined by the male chief editor of Barazoku (The Clan of the Rose), which was the first magazine directed exclusively at gay men (published from 1971). The editor, Itō Bungaku, who identified himself as heterosexual, is believed to have remarked that, since their male homosexual magazine was named bara (rose, in English), homosexual women should correspondingly be called yuri (lily) (Welker 2008: 52). Recently, this genre has also been called by a more popularized term, GL (standing for Girls' Love), in correspondence to existing BL (Boys' Love) narratives. During the early 1970s, many Japanese women started writing/reading novels and manga that featured narratives of male-male romance and/or homoeroticism (Mizoguchi 2003; Nagaike 2003). This genre of male homosexual narrative, commonly called BL, is now widely acknowledged as a significant component of Japanese popular culture. In this regard, the contrast between bara and yuri is equivalent to the dichotomy between BL and GL.

In this paper, I will examine the socio-cultural context of the widely popular yuri manga magazine, Yurihime, through an analysis of the historiography of Japanese lesbianism, especially in relation to the concept of girls' romantic friendship which originated during the early 20th century period of Japanese modernization. To elaborate further on this issue, Adrienne Rich's attempt to define lesbianism as a female-oriented community (a lesbian continuum) should also be discussed. Such issues as the sexuality of the yuri manga readership, the genre's narrative patterns, and the characteristics of its characters also require critical and theoretical elaboration. As Ross L. Beck remarked, 'sexually explicit images produced by and for lesbians challenge the barrier of sexual fear, inhibition, ignorance, and shame by unapologetically foregrounding lesbian desire'(2000: 300). Thus, it becomes all the more important to critically consider questions concerning the discursive nature of lesbian eroticism and desire in relation to yuri manga and its characters.

So far, very little academic research on lesbianism and popular culture has been carried out, either in Japan or elsewhere; no academic paper on yuri manga magazines has yet been published, either in Japanese or English. In this article I will examine the value and validity of yuri writing within the context of Japanese popular culture from the critical perspective of lesbian studies, discussing the ways in which yuri manga demonstrate a specifically Japanese understanding, construction, and idealization of female-female relationships. There may be some theoretical hazards involved in defining the narratives of female-female (sexual) romantic bonding which are found in early 20th century Japanese girls' culture, or even in contemporary magazines, in terms of a lesbian genre of Western coinage; in the early 20th century, the word lesbian had not yet been introduced into Japanese culture.[2] Furthermore, according to Beverley Curran and James Welker's analysis of the lexical and historiographic diversity of uses of the word rezu (the abbreviated term for lesbianism in Japanese), female-female relationships in Japan do not correspond to the narrow, Western-oriented idea of lesbianism (Curran and Welker 2005). However, since this article represents a broad attempt to analyze the discursive aspects of yuri writing in Japan, here I will use the general term lesbianism to include any sort of female-female romantic or erotic relationship.

Origins of Yurihime: Yoshiya Nobuko, Shōjo manga and anime

The genesis of pure yuri manga in the field of Japanese popular culture came in 2003, when a Japanese publishing company, Magazine and Magazine, started publishing a yuri manga magazine, Yurishimai (Yuri Sisters), directed exclusively at female readers. Yurishimai ceased publication in 2005, due to the publisher's decision to follow a new marketing strategy. Right after the discontinuation of Yurishimai, another Japanese publishing company, Ichijinsha, began publishing Yurihime, having recruited the artists who used to publish in Yurishimai for this new yuri magazine. Yurihime thus resumed publication of a number of serialized works which had originated in Yurishimai.

Yurihime is published four times each year (in January, April, July and October). Each issue contains approximately 15 manga narratives; some are complete in one issue, while others are serialized. Each issue comprises approximately 350-400 pages, including a readers' questionnaire, a section of readers' comments, pages devoted to advertising, interviews with manga authors and artists, reports on yuri conventions (or yuricon), and other related news (e.g. a visit to a Maid Café, where female staff dress up and act like female servants of the English Victorian era). Other features include discussions that advocate yuri manga, as well as reviews of newly released anime, novels, films, games, dōjinshi (amateur writings), and so forth. Well-known European folk (fairy) tales, such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, are also rewritten in yuri style, and these rewritten versions, as forms of postmodern pastiche, constitute subversive gender parodies that enable prevailing theories of sexuality and gender to be explored and challenged. It is therefore all the more important to note here that each issue of Yurihime contains one section, titled 'Yuri dōjō' (The Arena of Yuri), in which the novelist, Mori Natsuko, answers Yurihime readers' inquiries and responds to their descriptions of their personal sufferings; in this way, the nature of lesbian discourse is explicitly explored. Most of the topics dealt with in this section concern questions from female readers who have fallen in love with other women.

One of the origins of yuri writing can be traced back to a female Japanese writer, Yoshiya Nobuko (1896-1973), who actively produced lesbian narratives concerning shōjo (girls) during the early 20th century. One of her most popular novels, Hana monogatari (Flower Tales), was serialized from 1916-24 in a magazine titled Shōjo gahō, which was mainly directed at young women. This work is set in a girls' dormitory and depicts, in very romanticized language, the emotional (but also more overtly sexual) bonding between girls. The development of a particular shōjo bunka (girls' culture) in Japan has been strongly influenced by Yoshiya Nobuko's writings (Honda 1982: 172, Dollase 2003: 724). Another influential novel, Yaneura no nishojo (Two Virgins in the Attic) demonstrates the semi-autobiographical nature of much of Yoshiya's writing. One of this novel's primary themes involves her confession of her lesbian desires and relationships (Dollase 2001).

The genealogy of yuri manga can also be analyzed in relation to the genre of shōjo (girls') manga, which became popular during the 1970s and is predominantly characterized by a juvenile boy-meets-girl narrative motif. Many shōjo manga artists have also developed the theme of (sexually) romantic relationships between girls. Explicit sexual scenes are usually excluded from stereotypical shōjo manga narratives, partly because the majority of readers are believed to be shōjo (girls). Thus, the lesbianism represented in shōjo manga remains fundamentally distanced from women's corporeal desires for other women; instead, these texts emphasize the spiritual side of female-female (or girl-girl) relationships. Fujimoto Yukari (1998), a manga scholar, comments that lesbian narratives in shōjo manga first appear in the early 70s; one example is Yamagishi Ryōko's Shiroi heya no futari (Two in the White Room, 1971). According to Fujimoto, many early lesbian narratives in shōjo manga have rather tragic conclusions, internalizing the disillusionment which was felt at the failure of previous attempts to challenge heterosexual conventions. The genuinely revolutionary wave of lesbian-themed works in shōjo manga occurred during the 1990s, when the number of works dealing with female characters' lesbian-oriented self-revelation and with the idea of playing with gender roles started to increase.

The publisher of Yurihime, Ichijinsha, once performed a readership survey, showing that approximately 70 per cent of its readers are female, and 27 per cent are teenagers; 27 per cent are 20 to 24 years old; 23 per cent are 25-29; and 23  per cent are over 30.[3] Even though this survey seems to rely upon self-reporting, the data shows that nearly half of the Yurihime readers are over 25, and thus cannot be labeled as shōjo themselves. However, Yurihime can be viewed as a specific subgenre of shōjo manga, mainly because of the prevalence of girls' schools in its narrative settings and the less erotic descriptions which these narratives contain. In her periodic column titled 'Yuri no kafun wa ochinikui' (Pollen of Lilies Rarely Falls), Miura Shiwon, winner of the Naoki Literary Prize (one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Japan), introduces distinguished works of shōjo manga that possess yuri components. Among the shōjo manga works introduced by Miura are: Bishōjo senshi Sailor Moon (Beautiful Fighting Girls, Sailor Moon, by Naoko Takeuchi, published by Kōdansha), in which shōjo characters assemble, in order to strengthen their spiritual bond and save the world by fighting against evil; Ariyoshi Kyōko's Apurauzu (Applause, published by Shūeisha) depicts a lesbian relationship between two women who, although they had become lovers when they had first met as girls in a Belgian girls' dorm, are destined to become rivals in competing Broadway musicals; Ikeda Rieko's Berusaiyu no bara (The Rose of Versailles, published by Shūeisha), which is reputed to be a masterpiece of shōjo manga, with its depiction of an aristocratic woman named Oscar, who always dresses like a man and attracts a number of women throughout the narrative; Shimura Takako's Aoi hana (Blue Flowers, published by Ōtashuppan) and Konno Kita's Himitsu no kaidan (Secret Stairs, published by Popurasha), both of which are set in contemporary Japanese girls' schools; and Yamaji Ebine's Indigo Blue (Shōdensha), which depicts a more realistic version of lesbianism, in which the story's female protagonist only half-heartedly identifies herself as lesbian, while continuing to date a heterosexual man. Takeuchi Sayoko's Hani to Hani (Honey and Honey, published by Media Factory) should also be noted here, since it reflects female homosexual inquiries, such as its characters' struggles with coming-out regarding their sexuality, more realistically than many other shōjo manga do. Ōshiyama Miwako (2007) also states that the shōjo manga genre has a long history of shōjo and adult female characters who disguise themselves as men. Thus, a subgenre of narratives concerning women in drag developed, and this provided a foundation for the emergence of yuri manga.

Other popular works also constituted a background to the development of yuri writings. The advent of fighting shōjo anime in the 1990s—the best-known work in this genre is unquestionably Sailor Moon—should also be noted here. Nishimura Mari asserts that, after the success of Sailor Moon, negative gender constraints regarding women were at least partially nullified in this realm of representation (2001:138). Thus, partly in reaction to the removal of these constraints, not only professional writers but also amateurs (dōjinshi) began to elaborate on yuri themes. In Sailor Moon, a yuri dōjinshi, the two characters who appear most frequently are Haruka and Michiru. They look exactly like a butch/femme couple: while Haruka dresses and speaks like a man, Michiru is shorter, more kawaii (cute), and more in need of protection. According to Nishimura's research, Haruka became very popular among female fans, precisely because she possesses clear male attributes, even though she is biologically female. Konno Oyuki's best-selling serialized novel, Mariasama ga miteiru (The Virgin Maria is Looking), began publication in 1998 under the most widely recognized shōjo imprint, Cobalt Books (Shūeisha Publishers). This work is set in a private girls' high school, and thus presents contemporary girls' culture and girls' homosexual/homosocial relationships within the peculiar, claustrophobic space of such a school.

Homosexual, Heterosexual, and Homosocial Readings of Yurihime

Examining readers' comments in the 'Yuri dōjō' section that was mentioned above, we find that, while some of these female readers are heterosexual, others are self-identified lesbians. Many of the readers who wish to consult with Mori Natsuko in 'Yuri dōjō' appear to be teenagers, thus corresponding with the average age of shōjo manga readership, as shown by Schodt (1996: 92). The following quotes from the 'Yuri dōjō' section provide a few hints concerning Yurihime readers' ages: 'I'm a junior high student, in my second year. I fell in love with a senpai (senior), who is a year older and belongs to the same club (Vol. 8: 124); 'When I was an elementary school student, in grade six, I loved the teacher who taught a different class' (Vol. 6: 240); 'I'm a junior high school student, in my third year, and I am in love with a boyish senpai who is 22 years older than me and performs in the drama group' (Vol. 7: 256-57); 'When I was dating K in the second year of junior high school, I realized that I was a lesbian' (Vol. 4: 201). The section devoted to readers' comments also includes comments from many lesbian readers:

I am in love with a particular woman and baked a cake for her for Valentine's Day. But she thought I was just joking and merely said 'Thank you.' I'll cheer myself up by reading Yurihime, until she eventually realizes my true feelings (Vol. 4: 316);

'I fell in love with a girl who works at the same company. She's so cute. Though she has a boyfriend, I'll never give her up. I'll confess to her my true feelings and steal her away from her boyfriend' (Vol. 7: 312).

On the other hand, a detailed analysis of the readers' comments section makes us realize that the view that Yurihime readers are all lesbians must be incorrect. The female homosocial (not necessarily homosexual) qualities that Yurihime represents seem to attract not only readers who are self-identified lesbians, but also heterosexual women. The following comments clearly illustrate this: 'I'm a heterosexual, and I've never fallen in love with girls. However, through reading Yurihime I've discovered a different culture, and I find it quite exciting' (Vol. 6: 280); 'I don't know why female-female relationships make me so excited. I'm not in love now, but I secretly fantasize about having yuri relationships with the cute girls in my class' (Vol. 12: 370).

The narratives in Yurihime make evident that one of the magazine's primary purposes involves an inquiry into the sexuality of women who are attracted to other women. However, the very concept of yuri also organizes the representation of women's emotional bond (homosociality) according to the interests of heterosexual readers. Eve Sedgewick asserts that the fundamental compatibility between homosexuality and homosociality can clearly be seen among women, while male homosexuality and homosociality are intrinsically dichotomous (1985: 5). One example of the former compatibility occurs in the serialized work, 'Hatsukoi shimai' (Sisters in First Love), where a high school student, Chinatsu, attempts to console her beloved, a senpai girl who is still suffering from her past traumatic relationship with another girl. At one point, Chinatsu declares to her senpai: 'I'll do whatever I can to help you. I've never felt like this before. Really, you are the most important person to me.' Having witnessed this scene, a female teacher exclaims: 'You two are spiritually bonded to each other so strongly!' (Vol. 7: 236-37, Figure 2). Another Yurihime manga work, Shunkashūtō (Four Seasons), created by Zaoh Taishi and Eiki Eiki, in its depiction of a high school girl who has been traumatized by her relationship with a man and is finally consoled by her lesbian relationship with another girl, also focuses on a strong female-female emotional bond. In this regard, Yurihime stories are characterized by female characters' strong emotional attachment to each other, and thus serve to reinforce the female homosocial relationship.

Figure 2: 'Hatsukoi Shimai' by Shinonome Mizuki. Yurihime, Vol. 7 (2007). Copyright: Ichijinsha.

Girls' Schools and Romantic S Relationships

Within the Japanese sociocultural context, female homosocial bonding was first 'recognized' and became a topic for public discussion at the beginning of the modernization period. After the national isolation policy was withdrawn in 1857, the advent of modernist consciousness produced new and different perspectives on issues surrounding female subjectivity; among these, what is called S (pronounced esu, standing for sister) culture, a direct influence on contemporary yuri manga, was established. Jennifer Robertson, a scholar of female participation in performing arts, asserts that the advent of the Takarazuka review in 1914 provided a solid foundation upon which S culture could develop (1998: 246). In this all-female form of performing art, women play all of the male roles, and these female otokoyaku (male-role performers) possess a bisexual attractiveness (in Helen Cixous' sense) in relation to primarily female audiences. Imada Erika's study of shōjo culture in modern Japan points out that the term S is mentioned as early as 1926 in a section of Shōjo gahō magazine (a magazine for girls) titled 'Joshi gakusei kakushi kotoba jiten' (Dictionary of Shōjos' Secret Terms, 2007: 190). Kawamura Kunimitsu concludes that S culture began under conditions of oppression, as the principal modernist ideal in relation to women's social status was ryōsai kenbo (good wife and wise mother). This ideal compels women to fulfil the functions of (heterosexual) mother and wife in the interests of national development, as epitomized by the term fukoku kyōhei (rich country strong army — meaning that raising strong soldiers contributes to the development of the nation) (Kawamura 2003: 63). Several cases of double suicide among girls believed to be involved in S relationships also reflect the general societal persecution of S girls which occurred at this time. According to Hiruma Yukiko (2003), in terms of Japanese gender history, the 'discovery' of female homosexuality may be dated to the sensational double suicide of two female students in 1911.

The moods and tonalities of S relationships in Taishō Japan (1912-26) parallel those discussed in Lilian Faderman's study (1991) of romantic friendship between women in a heterosexual North American context. She demonstrates that women who are forced to fulfil heterosexual-patriarchal responsibilities often indulge in female romantic relationships. The influence of Taishō shōjos' homosocial S culture can be seen in many of the works included in Yurihime, in which girls' schools often constitute the setting for lesbian (or yuri) narratives. Japanese yuri narratives cannot be discussed without examining the sign of the girls' school as constituting the essential background for the shōjo-shōjo (homosocial and homosexual) correlation. In fact, the shōjo characters in Yurihime, who habitually refer to each other as sister, are reminiscent of similar shōjo characters depicted in Yoshiya Nobuko's Hana monogatari (Flower Tales), which describes shōjo-lesbian characters who inhabit girls' schools. One prerequisite for the shōjo-lesbian correlation, both in Yoshiya's works and in Yurihime manga, is the concept of the girls' school as a sequestered space which only shōjo can enter, either physically or psychologically. This closed and isolated space provides shōjo with solid ground on which to cultivate an independent shōjo culture, as well as homosocial/sexual S relationships.

Honda Masuko asserts that girls' schools provide a moratorium space, where girls can escape social expectations and are allowed to establish and enjoy their own tastes and culture for a limited period of time (1982:189). Yoshiya's Flower Tales and Two Virgins in the Attic also vividly describe shōjos' despair, anxiety, and anger regarding the fact that, after graduating from the closed and fantasmic space of girls' schools, shōjo must eventually abandon their S nature and become normal (heterosexual) women. Shōjos' pursuit of self-awareness concerning the complexity of homosexual desire and heterosexual obligation can also be seen in Yurihime manga characters, as the following quotes clearly indicate: 'After all, a lesbian relationship is no more than a mutual favor. After graduation, we'll forget it and start having real experiences in society, just as if we were awaking from a dream' ('Hatsukoi shimai' Vol. 11: 358); 'I don't want to confess my love to her so easily, even if we are in a girls' school. Do you think we (girls) could confess our love to each other easily, if we were in a co-ed?' ('Dream Drops' Vol. 9: 168); 'I feel so sad, thinking that my high school days (the prime time for yuri) will be over soon. I want to remain a shōjo forever' ('Readers' Pages' Vol. 3: 263). The story titled 'Kirin no kubi wa naze nagai' (Why is a Giraffe's Neck So Long?) depicts a girl who is in love with another girl, but nonetheless imagines her beloved having sex with a man. She remarks: 'She is always with me now. However, sooner or later, someone (a man) will steal her away from me. Her beautiful face, hands, voice, body—everything will be his' (Vol. 7: 163).

There is clearly a sense in which some yuri writers are alert to the formulaic qualities of the yuri genre, which is overwhelmingly occupied by stories set in girls' schools. Zaoh Taishi and Eiki Eiki assert that, if the yuri genre is to develop, not only stories set in girls' schools, but also the creation of other forms of yuri narrative will be necessary (Vol. 1: 129). One of their works, titled 'First Kiss,' features two adult women as protagonists; they first meet at a girls' school, and after graduation both start dating men, having felt obligated to live according to heterosexual standards. However, subsequently they engage in a corporeal relationship and realize that they are meant for each other. The authors provide the following comment about this work:

What we wanted to say in this work is 'don't mystify the term yuri by defining it exclusively as a phenomenon of adolescence.' We don't want people to view yuri merely as a form of fantasy confined to adolescent years. High school students are pretty young and live in an enclosed space, like being protected by a comfortable cocoon. However, things change when they become adults, as they are shackled to various kinds of obligations, norms, socially required vanity, and so forth (Vol. 1: 128).

However, if the study of Yurihime (or yuri manga per se) arises out of a more positive research project in terms of shōjos' subversive impulses, then the sign of the girls' school will not be narrowed down merely to a space in which girls can enjoy pseudo-romantic amatory relationships for a limited period of time. As indicated by several critics, such as John Treat (1993: 364), Tomoko Aoyama (2005: 53), and Sharalyn Orbaugh (2002: 458), the shōjo identity has a significant place in Japanese gender discourse, in that it appears to approach the notion of an asexual, kawaii being. Treat (1993) emphasizes that a distinction can be drawn between shōjo and women, precisely because the primary and unique signifier of shōjo identity depends on its representation in terms of a lack of sexual fecundity. Thus, since the concept of shōjo does not possess binary gender implications, it escapes complicity with any reaffirmation of the master social narrative of gender determination—e.g. the vaginal woman. In this regard, shōjo identity should be discussed as a specific form of cultural discourse, which presents the ideological possibility of escape from patriarchal heterosexual structures.

The significance of girls' schools lies in the fact that they constitute a firmly established setting which provides shōjo with opportunities to share the same value system, develop their individual characteristics, and nurture their emotional bond through the pursuit of common interests and ideals. Such a process is reminiscent of Honda Masuko's term, shōjo genso kyōdōtai (an imagined shōjo community) (1982:179). While initially applying this term in a discussion of girls' reading practices in the late Meiji period (1868-1912), Honda (1996) later notes that a shōjo fantasy world can also be created through the exchange of private diaries. By creating a unique shōjo culture which is available only to other shōjo (e.g. the exchange of private diaries), shōjo thus differentiate themselves from others and solidify their group consciousness. The common setting of Yurihime narratives demonstrates that girls are not female misogynists, involved in a patriarchal conspiracy, but instead are members of a shōjo kyōdōtai and share in a common spiritual identification with it. The story titled 'Butterfly 69,' published in Yurihime Vol. 9, features two high school students who are studying music. Ageha attempts to break up with Maria against her will, because her talented lover plans to renounce her life-long dream (of debuting in America) just to stay close to Ageha forever. Readers of this work partake in the romantic experience of the girls' developing a spiritual bond. The shōjo kyōdōtai of Yurihime manga, which was originally narrowly confined within the girls' school setting, should not be underestimated as merely an unrealistic, impractical girlish frivolity; instead, it provides a significant context in which shōjos' equal romantic partnership can flourish. Morinaga Miruku's work titled 'Chocolate Kiss and Kiss' features two high school student lovers, Nana and Hitomi, as its protagonists. Nana attends a different high school to Hitomi. Jealous of Hitomi's other schoolgirl friends, Nana remarks to her: 'If I had had the chance to attend the same school as you, I could have been your best friend, as I was when we were in junior high' (Vol. 3: 59). Nana's strong desire to become her lover's 'best friend' clearly reinforces the idea that such an emotional bond, based on the concept of shōjo kyōdōtai, should take priority over any sexual bond (as with a romantic couple).

The (Non)Corporeal Desires of Yuri Characters

Kakefuda Yūko, a Japanese lesbian activist, confesses that she discovered her lesbian identity through reading both heterosexual and lesbian pornographic material (1992: 66-67). As Miura Shiwon also asserts: 'The invisible impetus for the development of yuri manga cannot escape complicity with an inquiry into girls' romantic relationships in terms of their corporeal context' (Vol. 4: 106). Thus, lesbian identity (or identities) are politicized by issues surrounding sexual desire. As we have seen, the female lesbian characters in Yurihime rarely manifest a butch-femme dichotomy. In this regard, the stylized depiction of the characters in BL manga also requires discussion, due to the significant influence which this genre has had on conventions of depiction generally. These conventions consistently reinforce the binary opposition between penetrating seme (literally, to attack, connoting the male sexual role) characters and penetrated uke (literally to receive, connoting the female sexual role) characters, in ways that parallel the heterosexual orientation. While the seme characters in BL are depicted as tall, handsome and masculine, uke characters generally resemble kawaii shōjo, both physically and psychologically. Sometimes explicitly labeled as pornography directed at women, many BL manga contain sexually explicit scenes which usually climax with the characters engaging in anal intercourse (Nagaike 2003). On the other hand, yuri manga artists generally avoid the depiction of graphic sex scenes. The sex scenes in Yurihime are thus not as explicit as those in many BL works, which depict a variety of sexual techniques, including mutual masturbation, fellatio, digital penetration of the anus, and S&M. Instead, the sex scenes in yuri generally do not go beyond showing the characters kissing and touching each other's breasts (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Illustration by Sugimoto Farina. Yurihime, Vol. 5 (2006). Copyright: Ichijinsha.

However, this does not mean that female sexual desire is effaced in Yurihime; indeed, some yuri artists attempt to pursue an inquiry into female sexual desire more explicitly. Both Zaoh Taishi and Eiki Eiki, for instance, view some criticism of the erotic aspects of yuri manga as an attempt to degrade the value of yuri manga per se: 'There are people who dislike reading yuri manga, due to their erotic nature. However, a strong counter-argument to this opinion asks the question: "What's wrong with women's enjoyment of erotic, sexual acts?"'(Vol. 1: 128-29). What Zaoh and Eiki seem to require is a vocabulary with which to express the concept (or philosophy) of female corporeal desire as another aspect of yuri manga's spiritual inquiry. As the girl protagonist of one of their works, titled 'Gyakushū no akazukin-chan' (Little Red Riding Hood's Counter Attack), says to her lover: 'I love you, and my love for you includes physical desire. That's natural. I want to know all about you, because I love you. I want to see your body, touch you, and get so close to you that we become one' (Vol. 7: 26). In CHI-RAN's 'Beginner's Luck,' the girl protagonist starts masturbating, holding the same kind of sweater that she and her female lover have both purchased. In relation to the eroticism of Yurihime, some readers have commented: 'I wouldn't mind, if Yurihime presented more erotic works' (Vol. 4: 315, Vol. 5: 264). As the Japanese S (and S-like) tradition has cultivated involvement in emotional and platonic female-female relationships, the relative avoidance of overt sexual depictions in yuri manga (especially those directed at adolescents) clearly derives from the importance which is placed on the spiritual female-female bond. However, this does not necessarily mean that all yuri manga within the genealogy of shōjo manga necessarily reflect the idea that female corporeal desires should be completely sublimated. In this regard, Yurihime manga provide another discursive space in which the contextualization of lesbian temptation and desire can be analyzed.

Beyond Compulsory Heterosexuality

Zaoh Taishi and Eiki Eiki believe that Yurihime (or the yuri genre per se) represents a liberating means of expressing opposition to totalizing male-oriented standards, especially in terms of increasing female autonomy from received gender orientations:

In fact, our goal [in creating yuri manga] is to denounce a society in which men always take the (sexual) initiative over women. We also wish to show our dissatisfaction toward men who don't understand women's natural sexual desires (Vol. 1: 127).

In discussing the subversive nature of yuri manga, we cannot ignore the fact that many yuri manga artists have previously established their status as successful creators of BL manga: e.g. Eiki Eiki, Zaoh Taishi, CHI-RAN, Takahashi Shimako, Mizuno Toko, Hiwa Sōya, among others. In this regard, James Welker argues for the intertextuality of lesbianism and BL narratives. As he says: 'young Japanese women-loving and transgender women carved out a space for themselves, literally and figuratively on the margins of a community of female fans of beautiful young men' (2008: 47). Thus, within the framework of gender studies, we need to consider what forms of subversion are assumed to exist in relation to this intertextuality between BL and GL manga.

The fact that GL manga artists also produce BL narratives can be discussed in terms of the challenge to established hetero-normative paradigms which has been developed in both manga genres. The overall goal of both BL and yuri/GL is, after all, escaping complicity with what Adrienne Rich calls 'compulsory heterosexism' through their marked tendency to focus on (non-heterosexual) perverted forms of sexuality (1980). Rich's concept of compulsory heterosexism implies that lesbianism should not be narrowly defined merely as a single sexual orientation, but rather viewed as part of a female-oriented continuum that reflects women's psychological experiences in bonding with other women. As the above discussion shows, the female characters in Yurihime apparently support this theory, as their pursuit of individual (and sexual) identity basically derives from their motivation to question the standards imposed by a hetero-normative society.

However, Yurihime characters are not lesbians in Monique Wittig's sense. Wittig radically pronounces that lesbians are not women and argues that lesbianism overthrows the political and sociological interpretation of women's identity (1992). This enables lesbians to transcend the compulsory heterosexual regime. Instead of effacing the female through the radical subversion represented by an assertion of lesbian identity, Yurihime characters attempt to embrace certain aspects of femaleness, especially in terms of the efforts which they make to play powerful and independent female roles. In playing such roles, they oppose the patriarchal subjugation of women and the limitations of their hetero-normative options. This kind of message is reflected in the story titled 'Sukinisasenaide' (Don't Make Me Love You!). Arguing against a discouraging comment made by her lover-to-be, the protagonist remarks:

You said it would be much better, if I were a man. But that's not true. It would mean nothing, if I were a man. I'm proud that I am a woman. As a woman, I want to love women and be loved by women (Vol. 8: 208-09).

Other Yurihime manga also attempt to create a realm beyond sex and gender, blurring any clear borderline between male and female. Simoun takes place in a fantasy world where all human beings are born as women and then choose their sex when they reach the age of 15. The protagonist, Ariel, says: 'I wonder why we need to choose between male or female. I'm Ariel, regardless. My identity as Ariel has nothing to do with sex' (Vol. 4: 245-46). CHI-RAN's 'Kanojo no Hatsukoi' (Her First Love) features as its protagonist a woman who is disguised as a man. When her lover finds out the truth, she says: 'I love you. It doesn't matter whether you're a man or a woman' (Vol. 5: 75). Describing both its lesbian characters' sexual desires and their need for emotional unification, the yuri manga genre thus offers a number of possible ways by which femaleness may be transcended, without suggesting that female qualities per se should be entirely dismissed.


Yurihime manga are undoubtedly influenced by a variety of predecessors, such as Yoshiya Nobuko's shōjo/lesbian narratives, the S culture of the Taishō period, and the transvestite characters in shōjo manga. A consideration of the discursive space of the female yuri orientation in Japanese girls' manga raises a number of complex and controversial issues in relation to the formation of Japanese female identity and sexuality (including female corporeal desire). An overview of female-oriented narratives of Japanese lesbianism shows that yuri/lesbianism provides certain positive elements with which socially constructed femininity can be reconsidered. The female characters in these narratives attempt to construct a female-oriented continuum (or homosocial bond), and this provides a specific space within which female sexual desires and the ideological possibility of escape from patriarchal-heterosexual structures can be openly discussed. In this sense, in revealing narrative possibilities that transcend heterosexuality, Yurihime manga clearly represent women's subconscious desire to transcend the femaleness which has been imposed on them within the Japanese hetero-normative context. This analysis of lesbian sexuality/identity in contemporary Japan might well be enriched by examining the depiction of lesbian relationships in other kinds of manga and dōjinshi, for example the portrayal of lesbian characters as perverted 'others' in Japanese men's manga. Such a comparative analysis may make it possible to discern how, in the Japanese sociocultural context, femaleness per se can be elaborated and thereby liberated from the patriarchal strictures which have previously been imposed.

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[1] This figure was provided by the publisher.

[2] As some critics indicate (Mostow 2003: 53, McLelland 2004: 28), in pre-modern Japan (prior to 1868) in particular, sexual relationships between men (nanshoku, literally: male color) were not only acknowledged but were also often elevated to the level of a dō (way). On the contrary, female-female sexual relationships were publicly dismissed in pre-modern Japan, and there is no specific term available for those relationships. The term nyoshoku (female color) might seem to refer to female-female relationships as a binary opposite to nanshoku. However, this term actually refers to men's heterosexual relationships with women.

[3] These figures are cited from the publisher's website.

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About the Author

Kazumi Nagaike completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia in 2005; she is an Associate Professor at the Center for International Education and Research at Oita University in Japan. Her scholarly interests include the analysis of female acts of fantasizing male-male eroticism in literary works and popular culture materials. Her most recent research focus is a methodological analysis of how Japanese popular culture is treated in the educational institutions of foreign countries. Her publications include: 'Perverse Sexuality, Perversive Desires: Representations of Female Fantasies and Yaoi Manga as Pornography Directed at Women' (U.S.-Japan Women's Journal  25, 2003), 'L'homme fatal and (Dis)empowered Women in Mori Mari's Male Homosexual Trilogy' (Japanese Language and Literature: Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, 41, 2008), and 'Elegant Caucasians, Amorous Arabs, and Invisible Others: Signs and Images of Foreigners in Japanese BL Manga' (Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific  20, 2009).

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Copyright: Kazumi Nagaike.
This page was created on 30 September 2010.

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