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BL vs Yaoi vs Shounen-ai

Nowadays, you might have heard a lot of different terms used to explain male/male romantic fiction. They might be words such as Boys’ Love (hereafter BL), yaoi, shounen-ai, and many other terms emerging from different languages.

It is not unusual to encounter debates on how to use these terms correctly. Even the researchers still have varied opinions. What we should understand first is that language is always evolving, and, understandably, people from different times and regions might have different perceptions of the same word.

However, it is always better to understand the historical context and relationship between these words. This time, we are going to briefly go through the differences between shounen-ai, yaoi, and boys’ love, and how they are perceived both in Japan and in the English-speaking community.

 

Shounen-ai

In Japan

Shounen-ai literally means “the love of young boy.” The term was mainly used to refer to some works by 24-Nen-Gumi shoujo mangaka such as Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya in the 1970-80s Japan. Shounen-ai’s narration revolved around a shounen (in this context, a bishounen, a beautiful adolescent boy) protagonist and his struggles with ai (love). It was never really specified what kind of love it was, but it certainly was not limited to the mainstream heteronormative relationship at that time.

In the English-speaking community

Shounen-ai is heavily based on shoujo manga and was developed in the time where explicit sexual scenes were not the norm in girl-targeted work. Therefore, it is not surprising that many shounen-ai manga ended up not including erotic scenes like “yaoi” works. However, that does not mean shounen-ai was initially used as the term for milder male/male fiction. Initially, it was not even limited to male/male relationships as we commonly see “yaoi” being used among English-speaking fans now.

 

Yaoi

In Japan

Yaoi came from a slightly different environment as compared to shounen-ai and later, BL. In 1979, a doujinka group released an amateur anthology Rapori which used the “yaoi” term for the first time. Yaoi is an abbreviation of yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (no climax, no anti-climax, no meaning). This term basically means that there is no actual plot in the work and usually has two men getting together, mostly in an erotic manner. It should also be noted that in Japan, yaoi is not the term used for original commercial work, unlike its foreign counterpart.

In the English-speaking community

Both fan spaces and the commercial industry have used the word yaoi for decades after it was exported to the English speaking community. In the 2000s, “yaoi” could easily be found in English publishers and licensor’s websites, something that is uncommon in Japan. Although the word yaoi was probably one of the most conveniently used terms, it still strongly connotes something that is erotic, which puts other titles that have few sexual scenes in an awkward position. Such a thing is not a problem in Japan because they have been strictly using “BL” as the official category for commercial work.

 

Boys’ Love (BL)

In Japan

Boys’ Love or BL is a term coined during the male/male fiction bubble of the 1990s in Japan. At that time, there were so many terms to define male/male romantic fiction, and many titles were still categorized under shoujo manga instead of having their own category. It is believed that magazine Image was the first to use the word BL routinely, and since then, BL finally became the official term used to describe original commercial male/male fiction work.

In the English-speaking community

In the past, we might have seen “yaoi” as a more known term in the international community. However, in the past decade, there has been a significant emergence of the word BL in markets around the world, even in the non-English ones. Although, for some people, BL is simply the replacement word for any other term they have known before like yaoi, shounen-ai, or even slash. Therefore, we still find fans who use BL when referring to self-published work. Interestingly, this behavior is also starting to occur in Japan.

 

So, who wins?

Compared to the use of yaoi and shounen-ai, which underwent changes to their meaning and usage in Japan, the word BL has emerged as the more popular and synchronized term. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that it has already become the umbrella term for any male/male fiction out there. For fans now, the word BL is easier to use since it is short, in English, and lacks a specific context that could confuse people. However, that does not mean yaoi and shounen-ai are meaningless. Depending on who you talk to, these words might still be handy.

Additional Readings:

Mizoguchi, Akiko. BL Shinkaron: Boiizurabu ga Shakai wo Ugokasu. (Tokyo: Oota Shuppan, 2015)

Katsukura Henshubu, ed. Ano Koro No BL no Hanashi wo Shiyou. (Tokyo: Ownsha, 2016)

Mark McLelland, et al., eds. Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan. (Jackson, MS, 2015)

“futekiya Community Survey #1 Responses: Shounen Ai and Yaoi.” futekiya, 7 Oct 2019,https://futekiya.com/futekiya-community-survey-1-responses-shounen-ai-and-yaoi/

 

About futekiya: BL manga subscription

Boys' Love Manga Subscription Service futekiya promotional image

In 2018, futekiya began as a Boys’ Love manga news and culture website operated by FANTASISTA, INC., a CG/VR production studio based in Tokyo, Japan. futekiya transformed into a budding global distributor of officially licensed BL manga in 2019.

futekiya launched as an online subscription service for officially licensed BL manga on July 8, 2019. Determined to connect fans around the world with English-translated BL legally and conveniently, futekiya empowers readers to support creators and the manga industry.

Readers who subscribe to futekiya and pay a flat monthly fee of $6.99 will have access to our expanding library of English-language manga. To subscribe, please go to read.futekiya.com and create an account. More information is in our guide.

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