“Seme,” “uke,” and “riba” are terms referring to a character’s role in a male/male sexual relationship mostly used in the Boys’ Love (BL) genre community. “Seme” refers to the character who is the more dominant half and usually takes the lead in the relationship. In contrast, “uke” refers to the character who is less dominant or follows the lead in the relationship. You can roughly say that it’s the equivalent of top and bottom as sexual positions in English. “Riba,” on the other hand, describes a relationship in which the characters’ roles are not strictly unchanged, and they can switch roles between seme and uke. It also indicates a character who can switch and do both seme and uke roles.
“Seme” (攻め) is written with the kanji that means “to attack” (攻める), while “uke” (受け) is written with the kanji that means “to receive” (受ける). These terms were initially used in martial arts to describe the person who pursues the attack of their opponent, and the person who receives the attack. But, these terms were later appropriated by the doujinshi community to describe characters’ sexual roles in a male/male relationship.
“Riba”（リバ）is written in katakana as it is shorthand of “reversible” (リバーシブル), to indicate that the couple’s sexual roles are not strictly defined. Interestingly, unlike “seme” and “uke,” “riba” is actually quite popularly used in the gay community in Japan.
No one seems to know when the terms seme and uke exactly began to be used widely. According to a former editor of JUNE, a magazine that publishes tanbi, stories depicting platonic love between beautiful boys, the terms seme and uke emerge after the JUNE era. The famous Year 24 Group, hailed to be the origin of male/male relationships portrayed in manga, never strictly categorized roles in their works into seme and uke. The emergence of seme and uke was perhaps what turned tanbi into the BL genre as we know it today.
Compared to seme and uke, riba is a more recent concept. While the BL manga industry has a lot more works portraying reversible relationships recently, it is more commonly found in the doujinshi (self-published works) community. A lot of people are very strict about their taste and preference, and for some, finding riba in the works they’re reading is a huge turn-off. This is the reason doujinshi works that portray a riba relationship usually come with warnings.
Seme/Uke/Riba: Modern Usage
While the terms seme and uke are still widely used by the BL genre industry and male/male doujinshi community in Japan, a lot more fans begin to use other terms to describe characters’ roles in a relationship. Some use the terms “tachi” (タチ) and “neko” (ネコ), and in recent years a lot more fans begin to use words such as “hidari”（左）and “migi”（右）to refer to the non-sexual roles of the characters in the relationship as well. Riba is still more often found in the doujinshi community nowadays, but it’s also become one of the BL subgenres which you can easily find sold in stores.
This varied usage preference similarly happens to English-speaking fan communities as well, though notably, people seem to be more inclined in using seme and uke when talking about original BL manga instead of transformative works. The not-strictly defined and switchable riba relationship appears to be less of an issue within the English-speaking fandom compared to the Japanese one. If you want to know more about this, do take your time to check out the result of futekiya’s survey on the usage of seme and uke in English-speaking BL fans community here!
“Tanbi” kara “boys love” e! “JUNE”kei to wa nandatta no ka「耽美」から「ボーイズラブ」へ！ 「JUNE」系とは何だったのか
Gei no position to banira sekkusu ゲイのポジションとバニラセックス
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.
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