Appropriating Yaoi and Boys Love in the Philippines

Conflict, Resistance and Imaginations Through and Beyond Japan

Tricia Abigail Santos Fermin, Osaka University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 3 (Article 13 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2013.


This article explores the ways cross-cultural appropriations of Japanese popular culture genres create new sites of conflict, tools for resistance and facilitate imaginations of contemporary Japanese society, using an ethnographic account of Filipino Yaoi and Boys Love (BL) fan practices as a case study. Using data from key informant interviews, participant observation in yaoi and BL fan activities in Manila, and Filipino fan fiction analysis, I argue that due to similar experiences of patriarchy in Japan and the Philippines, yaoi and BL act as alternative erotic media that help fans realise their sexual subjectivity and agency. However, differences in socio-cultural contexts result to differences in fan reception and production, namely: (1) a ready identification of yaoi and BL with issues of homosexuality, (2) sympathy towards LGBT social condition and causes, (3) the idealisation of male homoerotic relationships as a more intense kind of "ultimate love," and (4) the imagination and longing for a "Yaoi and BL Japan."

Keywords: Yaoi, Boys Love, globalisation of Japanese fan practices, women's sexuality, LGBT issues.

1. Introduction

Yaoi and Boys' Love (BL) are considered as some of the most curious Japanese popular culture genres. These are umbrella terms often used interchangeably to refer to romantic genres of manga, animation and text-based fiction, such as short stories and novels, whose storylines revolve mainly around love relationships between beautiful boys or bishōnen. There is still much debate within the fan community as to the precise definitions of these terms, but the main difference seems to be based on the question of original authorship. In the Japanese context, "yaoi" refers to fan-produced parodies or adaptations of original visual or text-based fiction, many of them taking the form of self-published amateur parody manga (yaoi dōjinshi) or novels. Fan artists and writers, in general, appropriate characters and settings from original mainstream works and imagine alternative scenes or reinterpretations of the official story. However, yaoi stories highlight two male characters that are not originally involved with each other romantically, but somehow share a strong bond (e.g. friendship, rivalry or even hatred). Fan writers use this strong connection as a basis for reinterpreting them as indulging in a homoerotic relationship. On the other hand, "BL" generally refers to original and oftentimes commercially-produced stories that can either be in visual (e.g. anime, live action drama series and movies) or text form (e.g. manga, novels).

Two particular characteristics make yaoi and BL particularly noteworthy genres. First, they have a largely female heterosexual authorship and audience. Rather than a gay genre, as most people would readily assume, yaoi and BL were developed by women, and to this day continues to be produced primarily for and by heterosexual women. Japanese literary critics and scholars assert that as an aesthetic expression, yaoi and BL were developed as a reaction to Japan's patriarchal restrictions on women's sexuality. The creation and/or consumption of romance between beautiful boys is one way Japanese women explore and negotiate the expression of female sexual desires within the values of a patriarchal society, whether be it in a manner complicit or resistant to the current gender and sexual order (Kaneda 2007).

However, despite its growing international fan community, these genres' draw and significance for non-Japanese audiences remain to be thoroughly discussed. Explanations on the Japanese case may not necessarily hold true for its overseas fans, for the expression, reception and interpretation of any story or cultural text vary depending on its context and medium. The use, interpretation, function and experiences of yaoi are all inextricable from its various audiences and their contexts, as they struggle to make sense of themselves and the world from their specific socio-historical positions. Furthermore, most studies on yaoi and BL's cross-cultural appropriations to date are mainly focused on the United States, Australia, Europe and East Asia. These overlook the flourishing yaoi fan activities and experiences in other areas of the world, especially Southeast Asia, where local yaoi fan meetings and active participation in online fan community sites likewise exist. What happens when yaoi and BL, which are genres and fan cultures born from the specific socio-cultural experiences of women in Japan, are circulated in global space, picked up and consumed by non-Japanese audiences?

I argue that as yaoi and BL are appropriated in various socio-cultural contexts, not only would they form spaces for common fantasies and reveal similar social experiences, but that they also open new subcultural forms and aspects of transgressions, conflict and resistance in other societies that would not be present in the Japanese context. Differences in the subcultural meaning(s) and significance(s) of yaoi and BL in a particular socio-cultural context would depend on how they are accessed, who appropriates them, and the existing hegemonic discourses on gender and sexuality that exist in the said context. An awareness of these will lend us a deeper understanding of the complex workings of a particular society quite different from Japan.

This article explores the ways cross-cultural appropriations of Japanese popular culture genres create new sites of conflict, tools for resistance and facilitate imaginations of contemporary Japanese society, using an ethnographic account of Filipino yaoi and BL fan practices as a case study. It will highlight the similarities and differences between the Japanese and Filipino fandoms. And with yaoi and BL fast becoming part of the images and practices circulated within the global mediascape, I will also discuss how Filipino Yaoi and BL eventually come to view Japan through the lenses of their fandom. In this article, I argue that due to similar experiences of patriarchy in Japan and the Philippines, yaoi and BL act as alternative erotic media that help fans realise their sexual subjectivity and agency. However, differences in socio-cultural contexts result to differences in fan reception and production, namely: (1) a ready identification of yaoi and BL with issues of homosexuality, (2) sympathy towards LGBT social condition and causes, (3) the idealisation of male homoerotic relationships as a more intense kind of "ultimate love," and (4) the imagination and longing for a "Yaoi and BL Japan."

Supporting data are derived from from three main sources. First is through fan fiction analysis, where I examined 82 yaoi short stories written by 12 active Filipino fan fiction writers. Second is from key informant interview of 27 self-ascribed yaoi fans. Lastly, data from participant observation in yaoi fan activities, such as the annual Lights Out Yaoi Fan Convention in Manila, were also used.

Yaoi and BL Generic Conventions

Yaoi and BL fan practices usually puzzle the uninitiated, for apart from its risqué themes and forms of expression, one has to navigate through its heavy in-group jargon and generic conventions. In this section, I will discuss some basic principles and terms necessary to properly analyse the discourses on gender and sexuality expressed in these genres.

Four conventions are considered to be yaoi and BL's foundational principles. Their main focus is a practice called "coupling." This refers to the appropriate pairing of two male characters from an original work and the position each of them assumes in the (sexual) relationship. Male characters are not just randomly paired with each other. Fans must first be able to prove that the bonds and behaviour between two male characters are strong enough to suggest some underlying sexual tension. Afterwards, each character in the coupling is classified either as a seme (the "attacking" side) or an uke (the "receiving" end), and is assigned certain attributes considered typical of his character type. While there are no strict rules on how a seme or uke should be depicted and much variation exists within character types, there are still several observable patterns. The seme often appears older and masculine, as well as serious and mature in behaviour and personality. They usually hold positions of power in society, and are aggressive in pursuing whatever they desire. On the other hand, the uke is oftentimes portrayed as sweet, childlike and with very feminine physical features. He usually occupies a lower social position compared to the seme, and assumes the passive role in the relationship, particularly in bed.

Second, their aesthetics is highly androgynous. The depiction of most male characters as beautiful young men is the most visually noticeable feature and serves as one of the genre's main attractions. Third, the genre has a feeling of detachment from reality. The majority of yaoi narratives are primarily centred on the coupling, with minimal involvement of other characters from the original stories. Furthermore, many yaoi works feature isolated or almost purely homosocial settings, with a notable absence of females in yaoi worlds. The line of sight of the genre is fixed solely on male characters, particularly their bodies (Hori 2009: 181). Lastly, should female characters exist, they are usually vilified and depicted as obstacles to the main couple's happiness. However, such a trend is beginning to change, and more female characters supportive of the main pairing have surfaced in recent years.

Filipino yaoi and BL fans, on the whole, follow these basic rules. Like their Japanese counterparts, they strictly adhere to the coupling convention, which is regarded as the genre's main source of pleasure. Being able to convince others why a coupling "works" is one of the standards by which a fan work is evaluated or critiqued within the fandom. Filipino fans also keep themselves updated with the current trends, popular titles and terminologies in the Japanese fandom through online fan sites.

Filipino Yaoi and BL Fan Activities

The main activity most Filipino yaoi and BL fans engage in is fan fiction reading and writing. As previously explained, fan fiction are stories written by fans that use the characters, settings from a pre-existing work (i.e. movies, TV series, manga) in order to create alternative narratives from the official ones. The majority of my informants said that they were first introduced to these genres through English-language yaoi fan fiction while they were surfing the Internet. Reading Japanese parody dōjinshi or reading original Japanese BL comics may be less common, for Japanese language proficiency and access to both original copies or free scanned translations on the Internet may be major restrictions.

Of considerable note here is the annual gathering of yaoi and BL fans held from 2003-2010 in Manila, known within the local Japanese popular culture fandom as the Lights Out Yaoi Convention. Lights Out is patterned after American-style comic, gaming and science fiction conventions, where participants are able to do the following activities: (1) view their favourite BL anime, and mainstream ones with "highly suggestive" scenes, with fellow fans as a community; (2) discuss Yaoi and BL-related topics, including their thoughts on being a Yaoi and BL fan in an open-forum setting; (3) peruse Japanese BL titles and yaoi dōjinshi, items which are not easily accessible for Filipino fans, through the Yaoi Library set up by convention organisers; (4) be able to experience for themselves fan subcultural experiences and trends in Japan without having to leave the country, such as cosplay, or the butler café. Lights Out can be considered as the primary communal celebration of these genres and the place where a Filipino yaoi and BL fan can experience various aspects of Japanese anime and manga fan culture practices. However, surprisingly, attendance at the annual convention is one of the activities with the lowest involvement rates within the entire Filipino yaoi and BL fan population, mainly due to the 120-people cap on convention participants.

General Profile of the Filipino Yaoi and BL Fan

Who exactly are these so-called Filipino yaoi and BL fans?

Filipino yaoi and BL audiences share several common characteristics. As in the case of Japan, they are also predominantly heterosexual females and fall within the 12-40 year old range. Many of them discover yaoi and BL early in their early teenage years, the period in which curiosity and interest towards sexuality and gender identity normally begins. In addition, they belong mainly from the affluent strata of Philippine society. I make this assertion based on the following three indicators used concretely to establish their social affluence. First is Filipino fans' unlimited access to the Internet, which until now remains a relatively expensive resource in the Philippines. The majority of my informants noted that they discovered yaoi and BL in cyberspace, as well as use the Internet regularly to participate in online fan activities. Another is the kind of educational institutions fans attended: private secondary schools and universities in large urban areas such as Manila and Cebu City, all of which charge above-average tuition fees. Among those who are working, all belong to skilled, relatively higher-paying occupations such as IT professionals, events officers, account executives, and even university lecturers. Lastly, Filipino fans have experienced a strong religious and homosocial upbringing. All of the Filipino yaoi fans I have encountered were brought up in the Christian religious tradition, with the majority affiliated with Roman Catholicism. The majority have at some point in time attended Catholic schools, most of which are single-sex educational institutions.

From here, we can see that while the age and gender composition of yaoi and BL fans in Japan and the Philippines are similar, Filipino fans are concentrated in the upper stratum of society. This is unlike the case of Japan, wherein fan composition is more heterogeneous in terms of educational background and kinds of occupation. Furthermore, education in Catholic and female homosocial environments is also considered as a distinctive characteristic of many Filipino fans.

However, while Filipino fans may be considered to be part of the socio-economic elite, they consider themselves marginalised as women in a patriarchal society, supported by the strong androcentric and heteronormative Catholic Christian ideals that pervade socio-cultural life in the Philippines. Many Filipino fans have explicitly expressed to me strong feelings of displeasure and discontent towards the modest, bashful and submissive model of femininity that they were expected to live by, as well as the objectifying nature of the male gaze towards women in local and foreign media. They all find the regimentations of middle-class female desire and sexuality very stifling. Yet, because of their long socialisation within such conservative norms, many of them have already internalised these. Thus, despite their critiques and problems with hegemonic notions of femininity, many still find it difficult to confront the complex issues surrounding their own sexuality and desires using the erotica and/or pornography that are currently available to them.

Common Experiences of Patriarchy and Heteronormativity: Similar Attractions of Yaoi and BL in the Two Fandoms

Based on results of this study, Filipino fans share many similar motivations for engaging in Yaoi and BL fan activities, as well as the discourses they create within the subculture concerning female desire.

Studies asserting that yaoi and BL are, at times, used as a means to explore sexual desire in a non-threatening, non-objectifying manner have been echoed by Filipino fans. One significance of yaoi and BL in Japan is as erotic media that can function as a kind of "educational book" (kyōyōhon) on sex and love for women (Nagakubo 2007, p.147). In a society where sexual pleasure is deemed as something that is given or even forced on women rather than sought for by themselves (Hori 2009, p.196), there is a lack of media and other forms of expression that help women affirm their sexual desires and drive, very much unlike the case of men. Attempting actively to seek sexual pleasure for oneself is considered as an immoral act (Nagakubo 2007, p.147).

Filipino women also face a similar reality. While men are allowed more sexual freedom and there is greater tolerance for premarital sexual activity, on the other hand, females are expected to control and set limits on male sexuality. Philippine society continues to uphold the value of hiya or shame, and this strongly influences many aspects of female behaviour, especially in the sexual realm (Upadhyay, Hintin & Gultiano 2006, p.111). Furthermore, the Catholic teaching on the procreative and unitive purposes of sexual intercourse pervades discourse on sex and marriage; this provides a religious and moral basis for the social controls on female desire in the largely Christian Philippines. Women who actively seek sexual pleasure are particularly stigmatised as lustful: people who have a "disordered desire for, or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure," because sexual pleasure is deemed as "morally disordered when sought for itself and isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2351). Laws and policies concerning the definition of pornography and obscenity are also much stricter in the Philippines than Japan, where even depictions of foreplay, or even nudity, are prohibited for as long as the material, as a whole, appeals to prurient interest. Thus, in this way, traditional values, religion and the law all conflate to strictly control female sexuality in the Philippines.

And indeed, based on observations on fan talk among my informants, as well as during the Yaoi convention, yaoi and BL's primary function and significance for individual fans is as female erotica. It helps them affirm their sexual desires and explore their sexual fantasies through pairing their favourite male anime, manga or game characters, which is the main reason for their fandom. Filipino fans would interchangeably use the terms yaoi, BL, porn or, in fan parlance, "(gay) porn" to refer to these genres. The focus of many fan discussions on why Character A is said to be "so into" Character B, the discussions on what makes a scene "hot" and "sexy," and the "reality" (or lack thereof) in depictions of male-to-male sexual intercourse in yaoi and BL are very telling signs that point to the use of the genre as a form of female erotica.

However, why exactly does it necessarily have to be this particular kind of male-to-male, manga or animated erotica for these girls? Many theories illustrating the various trajectories of female desire that account for the Japanese case are also applicable to many Filipino fans' experiences. First, unlike heterosexual erotica or pornography where the focus is on the female body, and its portrayal is largely passive, yaoi and BL mostly use a bird's eye view or third person omniscient perspective (Hori 2009, p.182) and show not just the uke receiving pleasure, but also illustrate the face of the seme feeling pleasure as he gives it (Mori 2007, p.80). This is coupled with an androgynous aesthetic, in order to enable the reader or writer/artist to empathise with, project onto, and imagine herself, as she pleases, as either the passive or active side. Second, the genres' emphasis on narrativity and character development, the relative yet obvious lack of female images in many yaoi and BL stories, and, most of all, the inextricable link between the deep bonds of love and sexual intercourse between the couple, for many fans, does away with the problem and discomfort brought by female objectification in most heterosexual pornography.

These are also part of the attractions of yaoi and BL for most Filipino fans. More conservative informants expressed that they feel quite uncomfortable looking at live action pornography, both heterosexual and homosexual ones. I surmise that this is a result of their deep internalisation of the hegemonic feminine ideals of purity and sexual innocence in Philippine society. However, they claim that with yaoi and BL, at least the characters are "just drawings." In other words, in the minds of this particular type of fans, the imaginary and fictional nature of characters and stories somehow mitigates the supposed immorality of watching and/or reading such materials. In addition, the majority of more liberally-minded fans I have interviewed have professed a disdain and irritation for heterosexual erotica or pornography, mainly because of the "noisiness of female moaning noises" and how "sex seems to follow the same pattern every time and everywhere." All informants agreed that what is more important is the story and how the development of the characters and/or relationship is fleshed out in the narratives. Depictions of sexual intercourse between characters may add spice to the story and the relationship of the coupling, but they are not absolutely necessary. Everyone agreed that sexual intercourse should not be added into a story unless it is vital to the plot or to a character's development.

With these issues, it becomes quite apparent that many Filipino yaoi and BL fans seem to have problems with the passivity and objectification of female characters that abound in most heterosexual romances and pornography, but have found an alternative form of erotica in yaoi and BL.

Other kinds of female pleasures are being explored in yaoi and BL in these two societies, particularly those which do not fall neatly into the categories set forth by heteronormative standards. Lesbian and bisexual informants testify that yaoi and BL served as romantic fantasies that helped them affirm and develop their homosexual desires, as well as stories that they can relate to. Such assertions echo the themes of these genres as spaces for the development of queer, in particular lesbian, sexual identities as asserted by Welker (2006). For example, those with transgender desires, such as those who feel like they wish to imagine who it must feel like to violate or "top a man" have resonances among fans in both societies. There are also those who get aroused by male-on-male sexual activities, and most cases in the Philippines have shown this trend. As has been mentioned, this points to us the more complex nature of human desire: that the view in which one's biological gender should predetermine the gender of the subject/object of one's desire is essentialist, and militates a repressive vision of female sexuality as one that always culminate in heterosexual sex and sexual fantasies (Vincent 2007, p.72).

This should not be such a surprising result, since yaoi and BL are genres that were created as reactions towards patriarchy, as well as the pure and passive feminine ideals such a system engenders. Yaoi and BL do seem to be quite relevant as a genre and form of expression for women who experience similar patriarchal restrictions of gender and sexuality.

Divergences from the Japanese Fandom and Perceptions of Japanese Social Realities

I now turn our attention to how the subject of male homosexuality and support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights are perceived in Yaoi and BL among Filipino fans. "Homosexual" and "homosexuality" are contentious terms because they are understood and used differently not only across but also within social groups. It is in these varied ways of understanding that bring about divergences in attitudes towards male homosexuals and homosexuality between the Japanese and Filipino fandoms.

Yaoi and BL = Homosexuality and Gay Identity

One major distinguishing trait of the Filipino yaoi and BL fandom compared to their Japanese counterparts is the clear, direct and unequivocal association that the former makes between male homosexuality and the sexual couples featured in yaoi and BL works. Clearly absent in Filipino fan discourses and fan works are the often-heard and rather defensive assertions from Japanese fans that the characters are "not gay, but are individuals who love the other for who he is," or that the characters and the romance featured in such works are merely "fantasy." In other words, Japanese fans assert that they are different from "real gays": that their "homo (meaning, the characters) are not gay" (Ishida 2007b, p.114).

Most Filipino fans have difficulties comprehending this at first. They would agree that yaoi and BL are indeed romantic fantasies, but the "fantastic elements" for them lie in two things: first, the improbability of most of the situations presented in the stories to happen in real life, and second, the idealised depictions of homosexual acts and relationships. Nonetheless, none of my informants denied that these characters are gay in terms of sexual identity, or that the erotic relationship shared by yaoi and BL couples takes reference and points to male homosexuality in the real world.

The centrality of the term "gay" and the idea of "gayness" in Filipino fan discourse attest to this direct association. Many fans endearingly refer to the genres as "gay porn" or "gay love." While the works and fan fiction in themselves would rarely use the term "gay" to describe the characters, they would do so in their stories' descriptions and synopses, or when debating about certain couplings when engaging in fan talk: What makes them gay? What are the signs in which episodes or chapter of a work that makes you say that he is so into him? Even within Lights Out, the organised fandom and the unofficial authority on yaoi and BL in the Philippines, the term "gay" crops up not just in many of the convention titles (e.g. "You've Got Gay") but also in the way they discuss the couples they like in online forums.

The Evolution of LGBTQ Awareness in the Philippines and Filipino Fans' Notions of "Gayness"

In the realm of gender identity politics, to see and assert oneself as gay is "to adhere to a distinctly modern invention, namely the creation of an identity and a sense of community based on (homo)sexuality" (Altman, 1997: 423). Thus, when we speak of men with a "gay sexual identity," we mean men who have a consciousness and politics related to their same-sex desire. The formation of this kind of identity and eventually the establishment of a gay gender politics is weak in Japanese society. This is attributed to the absence of media images that realistically represents male homosexuality. Furthermore, Japanese society supposedly tolerates various sexual proclivities, homosexual acts included, for as long as they do not compromise the institutions of the state and family (McLelland 2000a, 2000b). The absence of the sort of hostility towards homosexuality found in Anglo-Saxon societies may also retard the development of gay political movements (Altman 1997, p.425-7) and by extension, I would argue, the establishment of distinct identities based on homosexual orientations.

On the other hand, the formation of gay subjectivities and the rise of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual/Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) organisations in the Philippines have been strongly influenced by Western philosophical and political thought. This can be seen from both the Philippines' colonial past, and in the movement of Western theoretical perspectives, ideas and theories of gender and sexuality into the country through the mediation of Filipino LGBTQ intellectuals and scholars who have had opportunity to study overseas, particularly in the United States.

The Philippines is often been considered as one of the most "gay-friendly" societies, mainly because of its seeming tolerance of flamboyant transvestites and effeminate, cross-dressing men in beauty parlours, TV variety shows and local town fiestas. It has also been commonly argued that the enduring existence of traditional spaces Philippine society provides for people who exhibit same-sex desire and engage in homosexual acts as categories of sexual identity, such as the bakla, bayot, bantut and agi (for examples, see Hart 1968, Johnson 1997, Garcia 2004 and 2009), would attest to this supposed tolerance of homosexuality and other non-heteronormative gender and sexual identities. However, despite this, these people are still considered as sexual minorities and continue to be ridiculed and stigmatised.

There are two main factors that greatly contribute to this situation. The first is that conservative Catholic sensibilities and what Garcia (2004) terms as the "Spanish brand of Mediterranean machismo," acquired through 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, are still deeply entrenched in Philippine society. Shocked at the "licentiousness" and "natural perverseness" of natives' sexual behaviour, Spanish conquistadores strictly enforced Western sexual norms through religious indoctrination, as well as by outlawing homosexual acts (Garcia 2009, p.168). Such rules were enforced with the aim of "liberating" the Philippine natives from their "unicivilised" and "unacceptable" sexual practices and proclivities (Batocabe 2011, p.21). The Catholic Church views homosexual acts as "acts of grave depravity," and has consistently declared them as "intrinsically disordered," for they run contrary to natural law and thus, "[u]nder no circumstances can they be approved" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2357). And with the Catholic Church greatly wielding its influence not only on the cultural, but also in its politico-legal spheres, such a view only gains strength as the ideal and norm that Filipinos are expected to live by. Second is the psychologically and socially-inspired sexological consciousness that was promoted during three decades under American colonial rule in the early 20th century. Rigid notions of masculinity and femininity were promoted, and acceptable sexual behaviour and practices were defined based on such binaries. They were then explicitly enforced into the daily lives of Filipinos. In such a gender and sexual discourse, homosexual acts are deemed as abnormal and should be avoided, and anti-homosexual notions were promoted through the widespread public education system that the American colonial government established (Batocabe 2011, p.21). These two factors continue to influence gender and sexual discourses and practices in contemporary Philippine society.

Thus, a great tension exists: while traditional categories of homosexuality remain to this day; they are tolerated only in certain instances and spaces but are never fully accepted. The existence of people who subscribe to non-heteronormative sexual desire and orientations will always be relegated to their margins because notions of their "abnormality" persist in the social consciousness of most Filipinos. While non-heteronormative sexual acts are no longer outlawed, as they had been in the colonial times, homophobia in the Philippines continues to exist: in its mildest forms through teasing, and at its worst through physical violence, which in some cases is so brutal that it results in death. Such conditions are deemed fertile for the formation of communities of people with a politically-driven identity based on non-heteronormative gender and sexual orientations and desires to fight for certain political rights and reform.

The bakla and tomboy gender identities are prevalent in Philippine society since the 1990s. These terms usually refer to individuals with same-sex desire, as well as cross-dress and project the physical attributes of the opposite sex. These gender identities are also limited in specific job-related positions, such as security guards, bus conductors and pimps for the tomboys, and beauticians, dress shop managers and artists for the bakla. However, Batocabe (2011) notes that formation of certain gender identities in the Philippines are also class-based: individuals who openly identified themselves as bakla or tomboy were often from the lower strata of society, are typically uneducated and come from the rural parts of the country. On the other hand, that men and women with same-sex desire who are more affluent and hold white-collar, professional occupations set themselves apart and went against the bakla and tomboy stereotypes. They differentiated and distanced themselves from the supposedly "crass" and "inferior" image of the bakla and tomboy by "acting straight" but inverting their sexuality through engagement in sexual acts with the same sex. They labeled themselves as "gay" and created spaces for themselves and their straight, wealthy friends in chic bars and clubs (Batocabe 2011, pp.22-23).

This divide between the lower-class bakla and tomboys and the upper-class gay men and women became more apparent in the organisations formed during the early years of LGBTQ activism in the country. Discourses and ideas from the 1970s Gay Rights Movement in America, Australia and Western Europe were adopted by middle-class Filipino gay activists, using these to find each other, as well as build an identity and community centered on similarities in sexual orientation that would fight for certain political ends. Middle-class Filipino gay men formed a group called Kakasarian (a Tagalog word that roughly translates to "of the same gender") in 1970, in an attempt to promote gay activism in the Philippines. However, many bakla and tomboy chose not to participate in the said organisation, claiming that it only catered to the interests and concerns of the rich and educated gay men and women. Thus, early attempts at launching gay activism in the 1970s eventually failed due to lack of membership and support of such groups (Batocabe 2011, p.23).

Despite this, LGBTQ individuals were able successfully to establish a number of gay and lesbian organisations that fought for gay rights and provided support for HIV prevention work in the 1990s. Leading Filipino LGBTQ activists, such as Prof. Danton Remoto, for example, looked to the case of LGBTQ social movement in the United States for lessons on how to address the concerns of a very diverse group of individuals as one unified community (Remoto 2010 in Batocabe 2011, p.23). This demonstrates that developments in LGBTQ social movements in the West provided the inspiration and influence in organising and uniting Filipino sexual minorities greatly divided by class differences.

The creation of such organisations led more LGBTQ Filipinos to become more involved in addressing major issues of concern and make their presence more visible in mainstream society through various forms of activism. For example, the annual Pride March (the first of its kind in Asia) is used by some LGBTQ individuals as both a symbolic platform to air their critiques and grievances against sexual discrimination in society, and as a celebration of sexual diversity in the Philippines. On the other hand, some LGBTQ have decided to use the legal apparatus of the state in order to address the problems and needs of the community. In 2007, a group of LGBTQ formed Ang Ladlad, a political party dedicated to fight for Filipino sexual minorities' constitutionally-mandated rights and voice out the community's concern s in the House of Representatives' legislative agenda. While to date, Ang Ladlad has yet to obtain a seat in the Philippine Congress through the Party List system, it continues to be one of the most vocal and visible political groups in the Philippines.

Many Filipino yaoi and BL fans, especially those who were born in the 1970s, grew up and matured in such a context and environment. They have been exposed not only to a wide variety of identities based on same-sex desire, but also to middle-class sexual political discourse that have equated a specific sexual orientation with a particularly lifestyle and "gay" identity. Hence, the love and desire that characterises the bond between two straight-looking and acting male characters, and the depictions of homosexual intercourse that they encounter in yaoi and BL have been perceived as unmistakably gay. And, some of my informants relate with dismay, even showing the slightest interest in homosexuality and homosexual relationships is in itself considered as indicative of a homosexual orientation. However, this exposure and attraction that they experienced with depictions of male-to-male love through yaoi and BL, all of my informants have related, have made them more curious and want to learn more about homosexuality in whatever way they can.

Friendly and Sympathetic Stance with the LGBTQ Community

This leads me to my next point. Another divergence I have noticed from the attitudes of the Japanese fandom is that Filipino fans generally have a friendlier and even sympathetic attitude towards homosexuals. Fans have related how the genre encouraged them to open their eyes towards homosexuality and remove their prejudices against it. As result, many of them reached out and are currently sharing very good friendships with gays in their school or places of work.

One exemplary example is Nelly, who shares that she was not very friendly towards homosexuals before. But after her encounter with yaoi and BL, she was moved by how these stories depicted what she thinks love truly is and should be-something that goes beyond human-imposed categories. She even shared that one of her closest friends right now is a gay co-worker. According to Nelly, theirs is one of her most fulfilling friendships and that she knows she would have missed out on such a great friendship if she still had her prejudices against homosexuals. They have helped build each other's confidence and would turn to each other when times are tough. For her, yaoi and BL taught her a very valuable lesson on human relationships:

This is what I've learned: The biological sex of the person you love is not of importance, whether it's male or female. What's more important is the person and what you feel for him or her. Right? Before, I used to laugh at homosexuals, but I don't anymore. Now I do not discriminate against them anymore. What they feel for each other is just natural. It's just natural to love other people, and in the case of homosexuals, they just happen to love someone of the same biological sex. (Personal Communication, March 15, 2009)

Some of them are open supporters of gay rights and do volunteer work for LGBT groups. Others use their fan fiction and other works to explore the emotional issues of having homosexual relationships in a homophobic society, or to defend homosexuality against moral arguments, such as the following excerpt from the author's note of a yaoi fan fiction written by a Filipino fan. She directly addresses the conflict between the ideas she just expressed about yaoi and homosexuality, the Catholic moral values imposed in society, and the stereotypes and prejudices existing against homosexuals.

7. "It's sodomy. Sin." Sometimes, it gets me thinking. Is love really a sin? I've read up on homosexuality and it seems that early natives saw nothing wrong with it, hell, they even openly practiced it in some cultures. And then the Catholics came and, well. Got grossed out you could say. To the point that they hanged people. Thankfully, times are changing. I hate the stigma they place on gay people. Being attracted to a specific gender is not wrong. It's like a girl being attracted to boys but it doesn't make her a slut, does it? She just has a preference. I mean, you just won't randomly get it on with somebody who happens to fall under your inclination, right? I mean, I like boys with dark hair but I won't throw myself to the first one I meet. Get me?

I suppose that because fans feel a certain bond with homosexuals in terms of having a desire to liberate themselves from the strict, male-centred discourses of morality and sexual propriety in mainstream Filipino society, that they feel a great deal of sympathy and at times, identification with them. As we can see, this is quite a different case in Japan, wherein particular queer studies scholars criticize many of its fans as very much detached and disinterested, even sometimes homophobic (Ishida 2007a, 2007b). Some Filipino fans I have interviewed are aware of this situation in the Japanese yaoi and BL fandom and expressed their disappointment about the general attitudes towards "real homosexuals." One such example is Ophelia, who expressed the following while she was discussing with me how projection can be considered as one of the reasons why some girls like yaoi and BL:

… So that's projection. [They're] not actually thinking about it as two gay guys, but [girls] in the shoes of the uke or the seme, with a partner who acknowledges [them] as an eqPual. Not that it applies to everyone, but it's an interesting way of looking at it. Like some people have proven that a lot of Japanese mangaka (manga artist) actually feel that way, in one sense…I hate to say this because [we're all] so happy right now in our discussion, but there are actually some BL fans who don't actually like real gay men. It's a very, very, very weird contradiction, right? You read BL manga, you celebrate BL manga, but when it comes to real homosexual issues, you don't swallow it. (Personal Communication, April 24, 2010)

Of course, this is not to say that none of the Filipino fans out there subscribe to the "I'm not gay, I just like you" mentality that seems to pervade Japanese yaoi and BL fan discourse, or that none of them make homophobic remarks or show tendencies towards homophobia. In fact, in my encounters with Filipino yaoi fans during my fieldwork, there was one who did mention that she subscribed to the said way of thinking, and that being an open bisexual herself, she thinks that gender labels are moot. I also met another who spoke negatively against the raucousness and gossip culture that she sees as characteristic of bakla culture among her co-workers, in an attempt to describe the differences of homosexuality portrayed in the world of yaoi and BL, as opposed to the real world. However, such people are very few in proportion to the rest of the Filipino yaoi and BL fan population, and are the exceptions rather than the rule. Filipinos fans' constant differentiations between the bakla and their gay yaoi and BL couples and at times putting the former in a negative light should not be simply interpreted as homophobia. I argue that rather than homophobia or a fundamental discomfort towards non-heteronormative sexual and identities, such an attitude is possibly more indicative of some Filipino yaoi and BL fans' middle-class prejudice against the seemingly less-sophisticated bakla gender identity.

An Acute Form of "Ultimate Love"

For the Japanese, yaoi and BL are deemed as an "Ultimate Love Fantasy," a place where its largely heterosexual audiences seek and find for themselves stories of pure and ideal love relationships (Fujimoto, 2007: 64). Illouz (1997) asserts that romantic love in general has always been observed as a subversive force. The various figures that haunt people's romantic imagination "affirm the inalienable rights of passion, defy the normal arrangements and divisions by gender, class or national loyalties"; it has always been imbued with the aura of transgression while being elevated to the status of supreme value (Illouz, 1997: 8).

In the case of yaoi and BL, we could see that the stories of love shared by its male protagonists challenge current ideas and rules of kinship, which are considered as essential regulatory mechanisms in any social group. By presenting narratives about men pursuing romantic and sexual relationships with other men, yaoi and BL questions the assumption that socially-sanctioned sexual love and union necessarily has to be heterosexual. It also questions the biological basis and moral ideologies that support the structure deemed essential in order to sustain the continued existence of a group. In other words, indulgence in or merely the consumption of romantic love narratives exposes the artificialities of the rules that govern a group. They also push the limits of such rules that maintain a particular society. The imagination and engagement in romantic love, thus, could be said as evidence of an individual's agency and free choice vis-à-vis social control and expectations. And in yaoi and BL discourse, the relationships imagined here do away with many structural inequalities and show us both literally and metaphorically that it is possible to choose a lover for all he or she is and can be regarded as an equal.

Yaoi and BL stories written by Filipino fan writers and the pleasures that come in the consumption of both Japanese and non-Japanese yaoi works are also in line with the "Ultimate Love Fantasy" discourse. However, I would suggest that the longing for supreme love among Filipino fans are more intense, if we look at the two related themes that frequently come up in these girls' fantasies than their Japanese counterpart.

First of these is the sub-theme of sacrifice and "going the distance." While, of course, this is not to say that these do not come up in Japanese yaoi and BL stories, Filipino fujoshi narratives centring on such themes mainly depict couples fighting for their love within a heteronormative setting. Yaoi and BL works in Japan mostly situate their couples in environments in rather isolated settings, mostly in settings where their homoerotic affairs, if made public, are generally left unquestioned.

While many Filipino stories also follow this convention, what I find striking is that if and when the couples are situated in settings that include other people, the protagonists often express anxiety, at the very least, about the prospect of being found out that they are romantically interested or involved not just with this particular person, but with another man. If the story is based on the perspective of another character outside of the couple, more often than not, there are expressions of disbelief or disconcertedness if the character is male, or a deep curiosity in homosexual relationships typical of Filipino yaoi and BL fans if the character is female. Of course, the outcome would be different depending on whether the author has set the story in a gender-open environment or not. However, the point I am suggesting is that such anxieties expressed by the characters is a reflection of a strong and open homophobia that exists in the environment of the author and that which she seeks to struggle against. And given such settings, the couple usually has to respond in a manner which they expresses that they should be willing to face possible public embarrassment or homophobic persecution and make sacrifices in order to express their love for each other. I argue that this specific trait and difference is brought about by Filipino fans' easy association between yaoi and BL couples' relationships with homosexuality, and their acute awareness of the moral stigma and homophobia that they need to hurdle in order to consummate their love.

Second is that Filipino yaoi and BL fantasies at times defy some of the conventions originally set by the Japanese fandom, particularly those pertaining to faithful depictions of character personalities and settings. Unlike yaoi dōjinshi in Japan, which interpret the practice of coupling as presenting their own theories as to why they chose the pairing based on the personalities and setting in which the original author had created the characters (Azuma 2009), a good number of Filipino fans would at times present their stories by placing couples in a different setting and by so doing show that no matter what in which point in space and/or time they are, that the coupling would work; how the "essence" of their characters and that their love is so pure that they would always be meant for each other despite changes in setting. It is for this reason that many of the Alternate Universe (AU), Reincarnation Stories and Crossover fan fiction were made or discussed during "fangirling sessions" among Filipinos as one of the ways they could imagine the timelessness of their coupling's love relationship. A possible explanation for this is that Filipino fujoshi have picked up and followed English-language fan fiction writing conventions, which includes such categories. If Japanese fans take the metaphor of carnal relations (nikutai kankei) as the consummation or highest level of love between two people, then we could say that Filipinos take the idealisation a further step by showing how it is through space and time.

Yaoi Organised Fandom as a Simulation and Longing for a "Gender-Open Japan"

Apart from the content and reception of yaoi and BL works, there are also considerable differences in ways fans organise themselves, and the significance of their activities in relation to Japanese and Philippine society.

An important point here is that if we are to consider female homosociality as one of the prevalent desires that characterise the yaoi and BL fan community, the formation and growth of the genre is greatly influenced by the gender segregation that is insidious in many aspects of Japanese social life. Ueno observes that yaoi and BL are the sexual fantasies of highly gender-differentiated societies, and predicts that the genre, along with the rest of the otaku culture, would be widespread and popular in societies with the same background (Ueno 2009: 35).

However, the Philippine case poses several questions to such theories. For one, while sex-based segregation does exist in the Philippines, especially in terms of occupational and wage differentials, such kind of segregation does not translate to exclusion from participation in the public sphere, which is said to be one of the main contributors to weak female homosocial bonds. In fact, in terms of quantitative indicators of female educational, labour and political participation such as the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index, the Philippines far outranks Japan in terms of equality in public sphere participation. However, yaoi and BL fan fantasies and communities still exist in such a society.

Furthermore, the yaoi and BL events in the Philippines, while still largely female, are not fully and intentionally homosocial gatherings. It also does not exclude possibilities of heterosexuality. In fact, it greatly welcomes heterosexual male participants, whether as an observer or active participant, for as long as they respect the interests of the rest of the female participant within the play frame. Another significant example here would be the participation of several heterosexual, romantically-involved couples in the Pairs Cosplay competition. Yaoi and BL fans events in the Philippines actually seek to encourage understanding and bonding between heterosexual couples by giving men the opportunity to learn more about the interests of the woman that he is interested in. Thus, given such community experiences alone, it would be quite difficult to apply Azuma's theory and assume that female desire for male homosocial type of bonding would also be a primary form of desire that characterises Filipino yaoi and BL desire and the fan community.

Rather than examining from the point of homosocial desire, I suppose that it would be more profitable if we were to examine the yaoi and BL fandom in the Philippines as part of global otaku culture and derive the meanings Filipino fans attach to Japanese culture. Anime and manga have been introduced and marketed in the Philippines as "Japanese" since the 1990s, and have heightened the curiosity and imaginations of many young people who became its fans about the country that generated these media products. Appadurai (2000) clearly points out the significance and influences images circulated in global mediascapes have in the way people perceive and construct their ideas of self and others, the way they relate to the world around them and lead their lives:

Mediascapes, whether produced by private or state interests, tend to be image-centred, narrative-based accounts of strips of reality, and what they offer to those who experience and transform them is a series of elements (such as characters, plots and textual forms) out of which scripts can be formed of imagined selves, their own as well as those of other living in other places. These scripts can and do get disaggregated into complex/sets of metaphors by which people live… as they help to constitute narratives of Other and protonarratives of possible lives, fantasies that could become he prolegomena to the desire for acquisition and movement. (Appadurai, 2000: 35-6)

In my encounters with Filipino yaoi and BL fans, and even as I reflect on my own experiences and feelings as a follower of these genres and otaku culture in the Philippines, I have observed that Filipinos in general imagine Japan as an exotic, "gender-open" and radical society and culture. In my key informant interviews and participant-observation in yaoi and BL fan activities, I have observed that most of my informants spoke of a Japan that they perceive as an "open" and rather liberal society, particularly in terms its gender and sexual norms. All of my informants relate to me that one impression they get about Japanese society and culture is that homosexuality is openly practiced in Japan as depicted in yaoi and BL. The following is only a sampling of the thoughts they expressed regarding this:

I would think Japanese people and society are ore open [to homosexuality]as depicted in yaoi and BL. (Sue, Personal Communication, March 20, 2009)

I guess they would be more open (about homosexuality) if there are many people interested in yaoi, and that they would be open to such situations. (Vanessa, Personal Communication, March 12, 2009; Translation and explanation mine)

I think Japan has a very interesting culture, because they are open to such relationships (as seen in yaoi and BL). Also, you get to see in anime their culture, technology, Kyoto, as well as old traditions. So I think Japan is really interesting and unique. (Marie, Personal Communication, March 12, 2009; Translation mine)

It's so interesting to see how Japan managed to make 'gayness' as a selling point, especially in terms of fan-servicing. You know, like the one of the J-Boys, where they show themselves playing around during their private moments together. (Irene, Personal Communication, March 20, 2009)

Those whose interest in anime and manga spurred their interest to study more about Japanese society learned that in reality, gender norms are actually quite different from what they first thought. Four of my informants who were able have opportunities to travel to Japan for studies or work were also able to see for themselves how different reality was from the images suggested by yaoi and BL media, such as Joanna:

Watching yaoi would make you think that Japan is tolerant of homosexuality, but when I took Gender Studies (during her one-year exchange program in Tokyo University), I realized that they are not open and that yaoi is a subculture, rather than popular culture. (Joanna, Personal Communication, March 18, 2009)

What is worth noting here is the assumption these Filipino fans made about Japan being "open," or having a generally liberal attitude towards the construction of queer sexual identities, based primarily on the existence of a massive industry of media products containing levels of violence, sexual activity and gender-bending levels not seen in their own country. They interpret Japan as open and radical towards such issues, among others, when its abundance and easy access of sexually explicit, violent or supposedly "morally objectionable" material is juxtaposed with the strict regulations and access Philippine law and society imposes on such media. And based on this, I suggest that by their active consumption and participation in yaoi and BL fan activities, Filipino fans attempt to construct and eventually do construct a simulacrum of Japan based on its global mediscapes and appropriated otaku fan practices. In this sexually and gender-open Japan, they are able to freely experiment on their sexuality and be able to express their feelings and convictions with people who think and feel the same way as they do. Thus, we could see here too that one of the desires that are present among the Filipino fandom is a desire of a "Yaoi and BL Japan," a Mecca-like world of beautiful gender bending and colorful transgression that they hope to take part in at least once in their lives, a thing that in the meantime the fandom strives to simulate and provide refuge for its fans until they are able to act out this dream.

The issue of authenticity of many practices and fan resources in the fandom, thus, comes to play an important role. In order to make their constructed and imagined Japan as real as possible, those who have the fan knowledge, material and resources that originate from the Japanese fandom are considered as valuable people and possible leaders in the community. Because of this, those who are proficient in the Japanese language, who can read and write in the original Japanese yaoi and BL works, those who can access the latest information regarding the fandom and those who own actual Yaoi dōjinshi or BL manga in the original Japanese are well-respected within the community. However, on the other hand, it also at times becomes a point of contention as well as source of in-group subordination among the fans.


This paper compared the similarities and differences of the Yaoi and BL fandoms in Japan and the Philippines, and considered the distinct characteristics that the Philippine fandom has. In my discussion, I have shown that due to similar experiences of patriarchy in terms of enforcing an ideology of an essentially passive and reproductive female sexuality, these genres act as erotic media and masturbatory fantasies for women. However, because of having a more open and slowly politicising LGBT community in the Philippines compared to Japan, Filipino fans more readily identify Yaoi and BL with issues of homosexuality and generally tend to sympathise with the LGBT social condition and causes. As such, they also bring this strong background of homophobia into their reading and writing of Yaoi, and through their borrowed conventions from Western fan fiction reading, idealise male homoerotic relationships as a more intense, ultimate kind of love than in the Japanese imagination: one in which they could go through the distance and make sacrifices for amidst all odds, and through time and space. Furthermore, I have argued that analysing Yaoi and BL as a cultural import and part of the otaku culture that has been greatly promoted as of late by the Japanese government in the Philippines is of particular importance in understanding its significance in Philippines society. Yaoi and BL create impressions and a longing for a "gender-open" Japan, with not just fans but Filipinos in general interpreting the proliferation of gender-bending and commercial accessibility of various erotic media as an indication of Japanese society's receptiveness to many constructions of gender. This attraction and desire for a "yaoi and BL Japan" enable these women to create simulations that can closely approximate this "authentic" Japan, based on information they have learned from these images and have done through their own research or formal studies. The yaoi and BL fandom in the Philippines is in itself an embodiment of a part of their impressions and knowledge of Japanese society, as well as the desire to take part in a world they have come to admire very much.

From the preceding arguments presented and discussions made, I conclude that the Filipino yaoi and BL fandom, like its Japanese counterpart, is significant in Philippine society for it gave them the means for women to explore and develop themselves as sexual agents amidst their situatedness in a patriarchal social system. It provides the tools and spaces through which women from both societies can temporarily remove themselves from androcentric society's regimentation of their sexuality and be free to confront, explore and realise their desires in a non-threatening and distanced manner. It also allows them to re-imagine ways of constructing gender through the various experimentations they make in the fan fiction, dōjinshi, fan talk, cosplay and other gender-bending activities that they engage in. However, because of the open existence of LGBTQs and their subsequent politicisation in the Philippines, the yaoi and BL genre was immediately connected to homosexuality and homosexual issues. From here, another significance of the said fandom that differs from the Japanese case is its largely sympathetic and supportive stance to LGBTQ issues, as well as a more acute idealisation of male homoerotic romance: a love against all odds, a "more supreme" or "more ultimate" than the Japanese notions of "ultimate love" in yaoi and BL. Lastly, the yaoi and BL fandom in the Philippines, when viewed from the context of the global Japanese popular culture fandom, is said to form images of and simulate a "gender-open Japan," a world which many of these fans long for and work towards to see for themselves.

So what exactly happens when a genre such as yaoi and BL, which emerged from a specific socio-historical context, is circulated in global space, and picked up by a non-Japanese audience? My research largely confirms the point McLelland made in his comparison of Japanese and English-language yaoi and BL websites: we will witness many groups of women around the world sharing similar sexual fantasies, yet the rhetorical space they occupy in their transgressions could never be more different. Definitely, such is the case, as audiences bring in their socio-cultural resources and baggage with them in their reading and interpretation of other cultural texts. However, I suggest that future considerations of the globalisation of yaoi and BL phenomenon should include the genre's contextualisation in the larger Japanese popular culture fandom from which it stems from. Doing so will lend us a more nuanced understanding as to the other kind of desires that exist in this genre, especially in reference to an exoticised Other. And as the case of the Filipino yaoi and BL fan reveals to us, one of such desires is to be part of a very attractive, and supposedly "gender-open" and "permissive" Japan.


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About the Author

Tricia Abigail Santos Fermin is a doctoral student majoring in Sociology at the Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University. Her main research interests include the globalization of Japanese popular culture and fan practices, sexuality and sexual politics in Japan and Southeast Asia, as well as the sociological analyses of story-telling practices. She is currently writing her dissertation on the socio-political significance of Yaoi and BL fan appropriations in Southeast Asia, specifically in Manila, Jakarta and Singapore.

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