On January 7, 2020, Professor James Welker of Kanagawa University presented “To Asia with (Boys) Love: BL Media and the Transfiguration of Gender and Sexuality” at The University of Tokyo as part of workshops held by the Media, Gender, and Sexuality Study Group. In this lecture, Professor Welker took a regional approach to Boys’ Love (BL) studies and gave an overview of the sociocultural impacts BL media has had in East, South, and Southeast Asia.
Professor Welker prefaced that in his choice of topics he did not intend to create a divide between the English-speaking or Asia-based BL fandoms since English used in Asia. BL fans throughout Asia and the world are connected and communicate with each other overcoming barriers like culture and language.
He clarified that his usage of queer aligns with the definition used in cultural studies. For Professor Welker, queer is defined as expressions and behaviors that topple society’s preconceived notions about gender and sexuality.
Professor Welker observed four themes in which the studies of BL media and fandom in Asia revolve, that: “1) BL is a transnational media phenomenon; 2) BL is a useful tool for unsettling gender and sexual norms; 3) BL cannot be separated from LGBTQ issues, including politics; and 4) BL is political.”
Boys’ Love as a Transnational Media Phenomenon
On BL breaking down national borders, Professor Welker noted that in Japan, BL has had a massive impact on the transformation of cultural norms. It started with the earliest incarnation of the BL, the shojo manga. This type of manga can be viewed as metempsychosis of the various coming of age films and European literature. Shojo manga made waves when they challenged the gender and sexual norms of the period and started to pave the way for women’s liberation.
Professor Welker discussed how BL spread throughout East Asia in the late 1980s.In the late 80s, there were homoerotic doujinshi of popular shonen titles like Saint Seiya. By the mid- to late 80s, the donginji (Korean for doujinshi) culture also started to take root in South Korea. Pirated translated copies of Minami Ozaki’s Zetsuai made its way to South Korea and caused a boom in the interest in BL.
He also described the consumption behavior of BL in the region. In Japan, connoisseurs of BL get their fix from manga while in China, the most popular form of danmei (genre of literature for male-male relationships) media would be novels.
Moving south, the most popular form of media in Vietnam was first manga from Japan but later changed to translated Chinese danmei media. BL first came to Thailand in the late 1980s through an unlicensed translation of Aoike Yasuko’s manga Eroica Yori Ai o Komete.
Professor Welker noted that BL concepts are constantly being broken down and remade into something more fitting to the unique nuances of each of the cultures. For instance, “slash” fiction was introduced in the 2000s, as in the case of Star Trek’s Kirk/Spock, with the symbol “/” replacing the “x” in BL couplings. The western concept of Alphas, Betas, and Omegas, on the other hand, has been adapted and proven to be a popular trope in various Asian BL contents.
Boys’ Love as a useful tool for unsettling gender and sexual norms
Professor Welker stated that in early 1970s Japan, BL, which was then termed as shonen-ai, was created to subvert the strict heteronormative standards of the male-artist dominated industry of the period; these works were meant to depict two characters that had sexual and social agency.
The popularity of these types of manga led to the creation of fanworks based on shonen manga where the fans “coupled” or “shipped” characters, making what was then male-oriented content into something that is more catered to women’s aesthetics.
“BL manga,” continued Professor Welker, “provides a means of exploring possibilities of gender expression and can be used to challenge pre-existing norms.” He gave the Philippines as an example, a country that is predominantly Catholic. There, the BL content has offered an alternative where young women could get a glimpse of a work that is less steeped in the conservatism of the typical relationships existing in the country.
Professor Welker referenced work by BL scholar Kazumi Nagaike, who hypothesized in her work on fudanshi in Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea that BL provides a reprieve for men who are constantly saddled with oppressive expectations of what it means to be masculine.
BL even has an impact on non-consumers. For example in 2010, internet users made up of large cisgender males turned a Cantonese homophobic slur into something more positive and by doing so, has allowed a space where those who engage in homosocial intimacy are not shunned.
Boys’ Love and LGBTQ issues
Professor Welker pointed out that in spite of Japan not have a dominating religion that is prohibitive to homosexuality, BL has been taboo because it depicts sexuality.
In other parts of Asia, religion plays a major role in the backlash against LGBTQ issues. BL fans from these countries are split into two: those who feel guilty about consuming BL and refuse to relate it with real-life LGBTQ issues, and those who try to bring awareness of LGBTQ issues in their behavior as fans.
Meanwhile, the awareness raised by exposure to BL has also inspired fans to engage in activism to show their support for members of the LGBTQ community. For example, BL fans in Thailand have successfully lobbied for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Boys’ Love is Political
Professor Welker moved to his final point: BL is political. He noted that BL was initially not meant to be used politically; it has been created as a means of liberating women from the confines of restrictive patriarchal norms by allowing them some control over their gender and sexuality. Regardless of the intention in its creation, there have been several BL-inspired political movements. Professor Welker quoted prominent BL scholar Akiko Mizoguchi, who argues that “BL is a progressive force for good.”
The Japanese BL fandom largely steers clear of politics, however, if politics does indeed concern fans of BL, said fans are more concerned about the potential impact of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) on their derivative works or laws restricting depictions of sexuality.
While BL in Japan does not largely figure into political discourse, this is not particularly true elsewhere. Professor Welker cited the South Korean case, where a lesbian subsection of the fujoshi has argued in an article that “texts on homosexuality are the only spaces for Korean women to have queer imagination and representation.”
He also shared that in South Korea, there seems to be a political drive to “leave BL” due to its unrealistic depiction of idealized gay relationships, which they deem as damaging. While others are convinced that being against such an idealized depiction is homophobic in itself. Despite the differences in interpretation, Professor Welker commented that both sides are pushing for something that they think could contribute to the betterment of the treatment of LGBTQ in media.
He also talked about the case in Hong Kong, where there has been BL content depicting the leaders of the 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” a response to the proposed revision to the Hong Kong electoral system. The response was a mild form of the subversion of the patriarchal issues in their country.
Professor Welker then concluded that BL can have varying effects on individuals. Each individual’s foray into BL is indeed unique and as such, it is personal. Professor Welker ended his lecture quoting the feminist aphorism, “the personal is political.”
Professor James Welker’s lecture gave us a glimpse of how BL has been functioning in Asia and how BL has been a transformative and progressive agent for good in the region. The lecture was a great introduction to the collection of essays BL ga hiraku tobira: Hen’yo suru Ajia no sekushuariti to jendā (BLが開く扉 ―変容するアジアのセクシュアリティとジェンダー, BL opening doors: Sexuality and gender transfigured in Asia; Seidōsha, 2019) edited by Professor Welker himself. The Japanese version is available on Amazon and has been reviewed by the Asahi Shimbun (in Japanese only). An English version of the book will be released soon.
About Professor James Welker
James Welker is a professor in the Department of Cross-Cultural Studies at Kanagawa University. His research examines gender and sexuality in postwar and contemporary Japan, with a focus on the lesbian community, radical feminism, and queer media consumption and production, as well as the global spread of Japanese media. He is the author of Transfigurations: Feminists, Lesbians, and Shōjo Manga Fans in Late Twentieth-Century Japan (Hawai‘i, forthcoming), editor of BL ga hiraku tobira: Hen’yo suru Ajia no sekushuariti to jendā (BL opening doors: Sexuality and gender transfigured in Asia; Seidōsha, 2019) and a related volume in progress, as well as co-editor of Rethinking Japanese Feminisms (Hawai‘i, 2018), Boys Love Manga and Beyond (Mississippi, 2015), and Queer Voices from Japan (Lexington, 2007).
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