Shounen-ai is one term used to describe male/male romantic fiction. From its start as a translation of a historical custom to a shoujo manga sub-genre that significantly deals with love between males and finally the term for a milder version of Boys’ Love (hereafter, BL), shounen-ai has evolved many times. Here, we will explore the evolution of the word “shounen-ai” throughout time.
Shounen-ai (少年愛) is written using the Japanese kanji 少年 (young adolescent boy) and 愛 (love). It can be simply translated as “boy’s love,” which sounds nearly the same as the contemporary “Boys’ Love” used today. Shounen-ai is also a Japanese translation for the word “pederasty” (English) or “Knabenliebe” (Greek), which refers to the historical Greek/Rome practice of sexual relationship between an adult man and an adolescent boy.
The historical connotation of shounen-ai remained in the word when it became the term a subgenre of shoujo manga in the 1970s. But the meaning of shounen-ai became more vague and varied. At that time, it could have been understood as “love between boys,” “someone who loves a boy,” “a boy who loves someone,” or all three at the same time.
The exportation of the term “shounen-ai” term to the English fan community along with the word “yaoi” in the 2000s complicated things further, and it came to describe male/male romance fiction with less sexual content.
One of the earlier uses of shounen-ai in modern Japan probably dated as far as 1968 when Taruho Inagaki released the book Shounenai no Bigaku (“The Aesthetic of Boy’s Loving”). This book talked about the eroticism of same-sex love involving an adolescent boy. His writing later significantly influenced “24-nen-gumi writer” Keiko Takemiya when she penned Kaze to ki no Uta (風と木の詩) in the 1970s. Although the influences might come from different sources, many other shoujo mangakas at the time, such as Hagio Moto and Ryoko Yamagishi, also wrote male/male romantic relationships in their work.
Although shounen-ai used in the context of shoujo manga is not just a mere translation of Knabenliebe, it still contains the presence of adult-boy relationship, which was also quite relevant in BL work in the 1990s. In the early 70s, shounen-ai in manga had three elements that stood out.
- First, the shounen protagonist was usually drawn as beautiful, effeminate, and psychologically fragile.
- Second, the shounen was loved by someone, typically an older beautiful male.
- Third, the shounen loves someone who can be the older male partner or another shounen.
It should be noted that the template of heterosexual romantic played a significant role in many shounen-ai manga and might be mixed in the second and third elements. Shounen-ai manga in this era put more importance on the idea of the shounen as the subject who gives and receives affection rather than the relationship itself.
In the late 80s and 90s, shounen-ai referred to works that we call BL now, no matter how explicit the content was. The BL bookshelf in the bookstore we see today might be named shounen-ai or other similar terms like JUNE and tanbi in the past. Shounen-ai became very popular, and countless magazines were serialized in the 90s. However, the “shounen as the subject of affection” concept and its pedophilic nuance, which permeated 70s shounen-ai manga, was slowly becoming less relevant. Some people in the industry then started to think for a more fitting and fresh term to replace shounen-ai, which reeked of the past, heavy with other baggage, and closely related to shoujo manga. There were so many contenders for the new word of the m/m romance genre during this transition time, but the final winner turned out to be BL.
In Japan, the term “shounen-ai” is rarely used anymore since BL took the throne in the 2000s. Shoujo manga from the 2000s with shounen-ai narratives were still regularly called shounen-ai manga, but it was not one of the official terms anymore. Even JUNE, a word born in the same era as shounen-ai, which is currently used to describe male/male romance doujinshi, is more prevalent than shounen-ai.
Meanwhile, shounen-ai outside Japan is usually used to describe male/male romance fiction with less sexual content as the opposite of yaoi, another Japanese term that was thought by the English-speaking audience as the more erotic one.
The English community usually does not take the manga target audience (e.g., shoujo manga, BL manga) into consideration as Japan does, and tends to use shounen-ai and yaoi depending on the amount of sexual content. However, with more discussion going on, it seems like many fans decided to rework their definition of shounen-ai so we might witness a new interesting result… soon.
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.
Nakajima Azusa (1987). Bishounengaku Nyuumon. Tokyo: Shueisha
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