Boys’ Love (hereafter BL) is one of the most popular terms used to describe male/male romantic fiction technically aimed for female readers. However, the actual audience includes various gender and sexual identities. The word BL was born in 1990s Japan and reached international fans in the 2000s. In this article, we will explore the history of “Boys’ Love” and its modern usage.
Boys’ Love (ボーイズラブ) is written using the katakana for “bōizu rabu” and is usually shortened as “BL.” The general meaning is just as the English word says: “love between boys.” There is some variation on how BL is written, mostly varying between “boy’s love” and “boys’ love.” “Boys Love,” is the most regularly used spelling, though the issue of spelling has not been a debated issue since, in the end, all of them are shortened to “BL.” The pronunciation of BL also might vary between language speakers. It can be pronounced as “bi-el”, “bieru”, or “be-el.”
The magazine IMAGE is presumed to be the first publication to use the word regularly when they released the tagline “BOY’S LOVE COMIC” in 1991 for their first edition. Although some believe that BL came from the English translation of shounen-ai (young boy’s love), according to Ritsu Shimotsuki, the first Editor-in-Chief of IMAGE, they did not really care about the name’s meaning at that time with the comment that, “It just felt natural that a male/male romance is called BL.” They also thought that the other words such as “JUNE,” “tanbi,” and “yaoi” did not fit their magazine content, which emphasized the plot rather than the sexual elements. However, they did not think BL would become popular and even the official term used in the bookstores later.
BL appeared again in 1994 with the magazine Charade that described their content as “BOYS’ LOVE for GIRLS.” Puff magazine significantly more popularized BL the same year by using “BOY’S LOVE” for the name of their BL magazine manual rubric. Among many other terms in the 90s, “BL” became the general term in the next millennium for both domestic and international fans of BL with the exception of “tanbi,” which was adopted as “danmei” by Chinese audiences.
In modern Japan, “BL” is primarily used as the official category for original commercial work with male/male romance content. Meanwhile, “JUNE” is still being used for original self-published BL doujinshi and “yaoi” for referring to BL fan-doujinshi. But, the number of people who know what “JUNE” and “yaoi” means continues to decrease. In the early 2000s, BL was mainly used within the otaku community. With more mainstream media picking up more gay romance fiction that caters to a general audience, BL became more familiar to society.
Meanwhile, in the international community, BL has been casually used to refer to male/male romance regardless if it is self-published, original, or a fanwork. It also can be easily used for any male/male work not being produced in Japan or using “Japanese”-inspired style, unlike “Yaoi” which at some point in the past had a strong “Japanese” image. Korean BL, Thai BL, Chinese BL, and other countries/regions all use BL in the same way without taking or adding any specific meaning.
Many other reasons might have contributed to the success of “Boys’ Love” beyond the fact that BL is a convenient acronym that doesn’t need translation. One of those reasons is that BL embodies the spirit of its predecessors that had charmed for many generations. BL is all about men with boys’ hearts, the destined encounter, the struggling love, the beautiful romance, and the passionate intimacy.
Katsukura Henshubu, ed. (2016). Ano Koro No BL no Hanashi wo Shiyou. Tokyo: Ownsha.
James Welker (2015). A brief history of Shōnen’ai, Yaoi, and Boys Love. McLelland, Nagaike, Suganuma, and Welker, Boys Love Manga and Beyond, 42-75.
About futekiya: BL manga subscription
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.