Yaoi (/ˈjaʊi/; Japanese: やおい, [ja.o.i]), primarily known as Boys' Love (BL) (ボーイズ ラブ, bōizu rabu) in Japan, is a Japanese genre of fictional media focusing on romantic or sexual relationships between male characters, typically aimed at a female audience and usually created by female authors. Although yaoi is typically aimed at a female audience, the genre also attracts male readers; however, manga aimed at a gay male audience (bara) is considered a separate genre.
- History and general terminology
- Shnen ai
- Seme and uke
- Diminished female characters
- Gay equality
- English speaking countries
- Fan fiction
- Yaoi inspired works outside Japan
The main characters in yaoi usually conform to the formula of the seme (the "top", or dominant figure) who pursues the uke (the "bottom", or passive figure). Material classified as yaoi typically depicts gay relationships between male characters and may include homoerotic content. Although the yaoi genre is also called Boys' Love (commonly abbreviated as BL), the characters may be of any age above puberty, including adults. Works featuring prepubescent boys are labelled shotacon and seen as a distinct genre.
Yaoi derives from two sources; in the early 1970s, shōjo manga magazines published tanbi (aesthetic) stories, also known as shōnen ai (boy love), featuring platonic relationships between young boys. The other influence began in the dōjinshi (fan fiction) markets of Japan in the late 1970s as yaoi, a sexualized parody of popular shōnen manga and anime stories. In the late 1970s, shōjo magazines devoted to the new genre began to appear; and, in the 1990s, the wasei-eigo term Boys' Love or BL was invented for the genre, which replaced earlier terms such as tanbi, shōnen ai and Juné in Japanese usage.
In Japan, the term yaoi continues to refer mainly to parody dōjinshi; among Western fans, however, yaoi is used as a generic term for female-oriented manga, anime, dating sims, novels and fan fiction works featuring idealized gay male relationships. The genre has spread beyond Japan, and both translated and original yaoi works are now available in many countries and languages.
History and general terminology
The genre currently known as Boy's Love, BL, or yaoi derives from two sources. Female authors writing for shōjo (girl's) manga magazines in the early 1970s published stories featuring platonic relationships between young boys, which were known as tanbi (aesthetic) or shōnen ai (boy love). In the late 1970s going into the 1980s, women and girls in the dōjinshi (fan fiction) markets of Japan started to produce sexualized parodies of popular shōnen (boy's) anime and manga stories in which the male characters were recast as gay lovers. By the end of the 1970s, magazines devoted to the nascent genre started to appear, and in the 1990s the wasei-eigo term Boys' Love or BL was invented and eventually became the dominant term used for the genre in Japan. Although yaoi derives from girl's and women's manga and still targets the shōjo and josei demographics, it is currently considered a separate category.
Keiko Takemiya's manga serial Kaze to Ki no Uta, first published in 1976, was groundbreaking in its depictions of "openly sexual relationships" between men, spurring the development of the Boys' Love genre in shōjo manga, as well as the development of sexually explicit amateur comics. Another noted female manga author, Kaoru Kurimoto, wrote shōnen ai mono stories in the late 1970s that have been described as "the precursors of yaoi".
The term yaoi is an acronym created in the late 1970s by Yasuko Sakata and Akiko Hatsu from the words Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (山[場]なし、落ちなし、意味なし) "No peak (climax), no fall (punch line/denouement), no meaning". This phrase was first used as a "euphemism for the content" and refers to how yaoi, as opposed to the "difficult to understand" shōnen-ai being produced by the Year 24 Group female manga authors, focused on "the yummy parts". The phrase also parodies a classical style of plot structure. Kubota Mitsuyoshi says that Osamu Tezuka used yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi to dismiss poor quality manga, and this was appropriated by the early yaoi authors. As of 1998, the term yaoi was considered "common knowledge to manga fans". A joking alternative yaoi acronym among fujoshi (female yaoi fans) is Yamete, oshiri ga itai (やめて お尻が 痛い?, "Stop, my ass hurts!"). In the 1980s, the genre was presented in an anime format for the first time, including the works Patalliro! (1982) which showed a romance between two supporting characters, an adaptation of Kaze to Ki no Uta (1987) and Earthian (1989), released in the original video animation (home video) format.
Prior to the popularization of the term yaoi, material in the nascent genre was called june (ジュネ) (pronounced joo-ne), a name derived from June, a magazine that published male/male tanbi (耽美, "aesthetic") romances which took its name from the homoerotic stories of the French writer Jean Genet. In China, the term danmei is used, which is derived from tanbi. The term bishōnen manga was used in the 1970s, but fell from favour in the 1990s when manga in this genre began to feature a broader range of protagonists beyond the traditional adolescent boys. In Japan, the term June eventually died out in favour of Boys' Love, which remains the most common name in Japan. Mizoguchi suggests that publishers wishing to get a foothold in the June market coined "Boys' Love" to disassociate the genre from the publisher of June.
While yaoi has become an umbrella term in the West for women's manga or Japanese-influenced comics with male-male relationships, and it is the term preferentially used by American manga publishers for works of this kind, Japan uses the term yaoi to denote dōjinshi and works that focus on sex scenes. In both usages, yaoi / Boy's Love excludes gei comi (bara), a genre which also depicts gay male sexual relationships but is written for and mostly by gay men. In the West, the term hentai yaoi is sometimes used to denote the most explicit titles. The use of yaoi to denote those works with explicit scenes sometimes clashes with use of the word to describe the genre as a whole, creating confusion between Japanese and Western writers or between Western fans who insist on proper usage of the Japanese terms and those who use the Westernized versions. Yaoi can also be used by Western fans as a label for anime or manga-based slash fiction. In Japan, the term yaoi is occasionally written as 801, which can be read as yaoi through Japanese wordplay: the short reading of the number eight is "ya", zero can be read as "o" (a western influence), while the short reading for one is "i".
The term shōnen-ai (boy love) originally connoted ephebophilia or pederasty in Japan, but from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, was used to describe a new genre of shōjo manga, primarily produced by the Year 24 Group of women authors, about beautiful boys in love. Characteristics of shōnen-ai include exoticism, often taking place in Europe, and idealism. Jeffrey Angles particularly notes Moto Hagio's The Heart of Thomas (1974) and Keiko Takemiya's Kaze to Ki no Uta (1976-1984) as being groundbreaking, noting their portrayal of intense friendship between males, including jealousy and desire.
The origin of shonen-ai is thought to come through two pathways. Mizoguchi traces the tales back to the tanbi romances of Mori Mari. The term tanbi was used for stories written for and about the worship of beauty, and romance between older men and beautiful youths using particularly flowery language and unusual kanji (Chinese characters appropriated into Japanese script). Mori Mari in Koibito tachi no mori (恋人たちの森?, A Lovers' Forest), considered "the first work of [yaoi]", used such unusual kanji for her characters' names that she converted to spelling their names in katakana, a script used to transcribe foreign words. The word was originally used to describe an author's distinctive style, for example, the styles of Yukio Mishima and Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. Akiko Mizoguchi describes its application to male-male stories as "misleading", but notes "it was the most commonly used term in the early 1990s." According to James Welker, Minori Ishida shows that "early boys love narratives" were inspired by European fiction about "beautiful boys", and the writing of the male author Taruho Inagaki. Carola Bauer cites the bildungsroman genre as having influenced shonen-ai.
Kazuko Suzuki describes shōnen-ai as being "pedantic" and "difficult to understand", saying that they required "knowledge of classic literature, history and science" and were replete with "philosophical and abstract musings". Shōnen-ai challenged young readers, who were often only able to understand the references and deeper themes as they grew older and instead were initially drawn to the figure of the male protagonist. Galbraith defines shōnen ai as "original content that can approach serious literature in tone and theme", as opposed to a more light-hearted yaoi. By the late 1980s, the popularity of professionally published shōnen-ai was declining, and dōjinshi (self-published) yaoi was becoming more popular.
The terms yaoi and shōnen-ai are sometimes used by Western fans to differentiate between two variants of the genre. In this case, yaoi is used to describe titles that primarily feature sexually explicit themes and sex scenes, while shōnen-ai is used to describe titles that focus primarily on romance and omit explicit sexual content, although sexual acts may be implied. According to this use of the terms, Gravitation would be considered shōnen-ai due to its focus on the characters' careers rather than their love life.
Seme and uke
The two participants in a yaoi relationship (and to a lesser extent in yuri) are often referred to as seme ("top") and uke ("bottom"). These terms originated in martial arts: seme derives from the ichidan verb "to attack", while uke is taken from the verb "to receive" and is used in Japanese gay slang to mean the receptive partner ("bottom") in anal sex. Aleardo Zanghellini suggests that the martial arts terms have special significance to a Japanese audience, as an archetype of the gay male relationship in Japan includes same-sex love between samurai and their companions. The seme and uke are often drawn in the bishōnen style and are "highly idealised", blending both masculine and feminine qualities.
Zanghellini suggests that the samurai archetype is responsible for "the 'hierarchical' structure and age difference" of some relationships portrayed in yaoi and boys' love. The seme is often depicted as the stereotypical male of anime and manga culture: restrained, physically powerful, and protective. The seme is generally older and taller, with a stronger chin, shorter hair, smaller eyes, and a more stereotypically masculine, and "macho" demeanour than the uke. The seme usually pursues the uke, who often has softer, androgynous, feminine features with bigger eyes and a smaller build, and is often physically weaker than the seme. Another way the seme and uke characters are shown is through who is dominant in the relationship - a character can take the uke role even if he is not presented as feminine, simply by being juxtaposed against and pursued by a more dominant, more masculine, character.
Although not the same, a yaoi construct similar to seme and uke is the concept of tachi and neko. This archetypal pairing is referenced more often in older yaoi volumes - in modern yaoi, this pairing is often seen as already encompassed by seme and uke or simply unnecessary to address. The tachi partner is conceptualized as the member of the relationship who pursues the more passive partner, the latter of whom is referred to as the neko. Seme and uke is similar but not identical to tachi and neko because the former refers primarily to sexual roles, whereas the latter describes personality. Although seme and uke roles are already used in some manga to describe which member of the relationship is more dominant and which member is more passive, there are just as many manga novels which subtly or overtly differentiate between the two. A gay male who asks out another male can initiate the relationship but also enjoy the sensation of being a bottom in anal sex.
Anal sex is a prevalent theme in yaoi, as nearly all stories feature it in some way. The storyline where an uke is reluctant to have anal sex with a seme is considered to be similar to the reader's reluctance to have sexual contact with someone for the first time. Zanghellini notes that illustrations of anal sex almost always position the characters to face each other, rather than in the 'doggy style.' Zanghellini also notes that the uke rarely fellates the seme, but instead receives the sexual and romantic attentions of the seme.
Though these tropes are common in yaoi, not all works adhere to them. Carola Bauer states that the "butch-femme" couple dynamic discussed above became essential in the commercially published fiction of the 1990s. McLelland says that authors are "interested in exploring, not repudiating" the dynamics between the seme and uke. The possibility of switching roles is often a source of playful teasing and sexual excitement for the characters, indicating an interest among many genre authors in exploring the "performative nature" of the roles. Sometimes the bottom character will be the aggressor in the relationship, or the pair will switch their sexual roles. Riba, リバ (a contraction of the English word "reversible") is used to describe a couple that yaoi fans think is still plausible when the partners switch their seme and uke roles. In another common mode of characters, the author will forgo the stylisations of the seme and uke, and will portray both lovers as "equally attractive handsome men." In this case, whichever of the two who is ordinarily in charge will take the passive role during sex.
Although sometimes conflated with yaoi by Western commentators, gay men's manga or gei comi, also called Men's Love (ML) in English and bara in Japan, caters to a gay male audience rather than a female one and tends to be produced primarily by gay and bisexual male artists (such as Gengoroh Tagame) and serialized in gay men's magazines. Bara is an even smaller niche genre in Japan than yaoi manga. Considered a subgenre of seijin (men's erotica) for gay males, bara more closely resembles comics for men (seinen) rather than comics written for female readers (shōjo/josei). Few titles have been licensed or scanlated for English-language markets.
Bara does not aim to recreate the heteronormative gender roles between the masculine seme and feminine uke types prominent in yaoi that is generally for a female audience. Gay men's manga is unlikely to contain scenes of "uncontrollable weeping or long introspective pauses", and is less likely than yaoi to "build up a strong sense of character" before sex scenes occur. The men in bara comics are more likely to be stereotypically masculine in behaviour and are illustrated as "hairy, very muscular, or [having] a few excess pounds" akin to beefcakes or bears in gay culture. While bara usually features gay romanticism and adult content, sometimes of a violent or exploitative nature, it often explores real-world or autobiographical themes and acknowledges the taboo nature of homosexuality in Japan.
The gachi muchi ("muscley-chubby") subgenre of Boys' Love, also termed bara among English-speaking fans, represents a crossover between bara and yaoi, with considerable overlap of writers, artists and art styles. This emergent Boys' Love subgenre, while still marketed primarily to women, depicts more masculine body types and is more likely to be written by gay male authors and artists; it is also thought to attract a large crossover gay male audience. Prior to the development of gachi muchi, the greatest overlap between yaoi and bara authors was in BDSM-themed publications such as Zettai Reido, a yaoi anthology magazine which had a number of openly male contributors. Several female yaoi authors who have done BDSM-themed yaoi have been recruited to contribute stories to BDSM-themed bara anthologies or special issues.
Diminished female characters
Female characters often have very minor roles in yaoi, or are absent altogether. Suzuki notes that mothers in particular are portrayed in a negative light, as in Zetsuai 1989 when the main character as a child witnesses his mother murdering his father. Suzuki suggests this is because the character and reader alike are seeking to substitute the absence of unconditional maternal love with the "forbidden" all-consuming love presented in yaoi. Nariko Enomoto, a yaoi author, states that when women are depicted in yaoi, "it can't help but become weirdly real". When fans produce yaoi from series that contain female characters, such as Gundam Wing, the female's role is typically either minimized or the character is killed off. Yukari Fujimoto (ja) states of shōnen manga series used as inspiration for yaoi that "it seems that yaoi readings and likeable female characters are mutually exclusive."
Early shōnen-ai and yaoi have been regarded as misogynistic, but Lunsing notes a decrease in misogynistic comments from characters and regards the development of the yuri genre as reflecting a reduction of internal misogyny. Alternatively, yaoi fandom is also viewed as a "refuge" from mainstream culture, which in this paradigm is viewed as inherently misogynistic. In recent years, it has become more popular to have a female character supporting the couple. Yaoi author Fumi Yoshinaga usually includes at least one sympathetic female character in her works. There are many female characters in Yaoi who are Fujoshi themselves.
Yaoi stories are often strongly homosocial, which gives the men freedom to bond with each other and to pursue shared goals together, as in dojinshi representations of Captain Tsubasa, or to rival each other, as in Haru wo Daiteita. This spiritual bond and equal partnership overcomes the male-female power hierarchy. To be together, many couples depicted in conventional yaoi stories must overcome obstacles that are often emotional or psychological rather than physical. The theme of the protagonists' victory in yaoi has been compared favourably to Western fairy tales, as the latter intends to enforce the status quo, but yaoi is "about desire" and seeks "to explore, not circumscribe, possibilities." Akiko Mizoguchi noted that while homosexuality is sometimes still depicted as "shameful" to heighten dramatic tension, yaoi has increasingly featured stories of coming out and the characters' gradual acceptance within the wider community, such as Brilliant Blue. Mizoguchi remarked that yaoi presents a far more gay-friendly depiction of Japanese society, which she contends is a form of activism among yaoi authors. Some longer-form stories, such as FAKE and Kizuna, depict the couple moving in together and adopting.
Although gay male characters are empowered in yaoi manga, yaoi manga rarely explicitly addresses the reality of homophobia in Japanese society. According to Hisako Miyoshi, vice editor-in-chief for Libre Publishing, while earlier yaoi focused "more on the homosexual way of life from a realistic perspective", over time the genre has become less realistic and more comedic, and the stories are "simply for entertainment". Yaoi manga often have fantastical, historical or futuristic settings, and many fans consider the genre to be an "escapist fantasy". Homophobia, when it is presented as an issue at all, is used as a plot device to "heighten the drama", or to show the purity of the leads' love. Matt Thorn has suggested that readers of the yaoi genre, which primarily features romantic narratives, may be turned off by strong political themes such as homophobia. Makoto Tateno stated her scepticism that a focus on real gay issues will "[become] a trend, because girls like fiction more than realism." Alan Williams argues that the lack of a gay identity in yaoi is due to yaoi being postmodernist.
Rape fantasy is a theme commonly found in yaoi manga. Anal intercourse is understood as a means of expressing commitment to a partner, and in yaoi, the "apparent violence" of rape is transformed into a "measure of passion". While Japanese society often shuns or looks down upon women who are raped in reality, the yaoi genre depicts men who are raped as still "imbued with innocence" and are typically still loved by their rapists after the act, a trope that may have originated with Kaze to Ki no Uta. Rape scenes in yaoi are rarely presented as crimes with an assaulter and a victim: scenes where a seme rapes an uke are not depicted as symptomatic of the "disruptive sexual/violent desires" of the seme, but instead are a signifier of the "uncontrollable love" felt by a seme for an uke. Such scenes are often a plot device used to make the uke see the seme as more than just a good friend and typically result in the uke falling in love with the seme. Rape fantasy themes explore the protagonist's lack of responsibility in sex, leading to the narrative climax of the story, where "the protagonist takes responsibility for his own sexuality".
The 2003–2005 Under Grand Hotel, set in a men's prison, has been praised for showing a more realistic depiction of rape. Authors such as Fusanosuke Inariya (of Maiden Rose fame) utilize rape not as the traditional romantic catalyst, but as a tragic dramatic plot element, rendering her stories a subversion of contemporary tropes that reinforce and reflect older tropes such as the prevalence of romantic tragedy themes. Other yaoi tend to depict a relationship that begins as non-consensual and evolves into a consensual relationship. However, Fusanosuke's stories are ones where the characters' relationship begins as consensual and devolves into non-consensual, often due to external societal pressures that label the character's gay relationship as deviant. Her stories are still characterized by fantasy, yet they do brutally and realistically illustrate scenes of sexual assault between characters.
June stories with suicide endings were popular, as was "watching men suffer". Matt Thorn theorizes that depicting abuse in yaoi is a way for some readers of yaoi to "come to terms with their own experiences of abuse". By the mid-1990s the fashion was for happy endings. When tragic endings are shown, the cause is not infidelity, but "the cruel and intrusive demands of an uncompromising outside world."
As of 1990, seven Japanese publishers included BL content in their offerings - which kickstarted the commercial publishing market of the genre. By 2003, 3.8% of weekly manga magazines were dedicated to BL. A 2008 assessment estimated that the Japanese commercial yaoi market grossed approximately 12 billion yen annually, with novel sales generating 250 million yen per month, manga generating 400 million yen per month, CDs generating 180 million yen per month, and video games generating 160 million yen per month. As of this time, magazines for BL included BE-BOY, GUSH, CHARA and CIEL. A 2010 report estimated that the yaoi market was worth approximately 21.3 billion yen in both 2009 and 2010.
Yaoi manga are sold to English-speaking countries by companies that translate and print them in English. Companies such as Digital Manga Publishing with their imprints 801 Media (for explicit yaoi) and June (for "romantic and sweet" yaoi), as well as Kitty Media, and Viz Media under their imprint SuBLime. Companies that formerly published yaoi manga but are now defunct include DramaQueen, Central Park Media's Be Beautiful, Tokyopop under their imprint BLU, Broccoli under their Boysenberry imprint, and Aurora Publishing under their imprint Deux Press. Yaoi Press, based in Las Vegas and specializing in yaoi that is not of Japanese origin, remains active. According to McLelland, the earliest officially translated English-language yaoi manga was printed in 2003, and as of 2006 there were about 130 English-translated works commercially available. In March 2007, Media Blasters stopped selling shōnen manga and increased their yaoi lines in anticipation of publishing one or two titles per month that year.
Among the 135 yaoi manga published in North America between 2003 and 2006, 14% were rated for readers aged 13 years or over, 39% were rated for readers aged 15 or older, and 47% were rated for readers age 18 and up. Although American booksellers were increasingly stocking yaoi titles in 2008, their restrictions led publishers to label books conservatively, often rating books originally intended for a mid-teen readership as 18+ and distributing them in shrinkwrap. Diamond Comic Distributors valued the sales of yaoi manga in the United States at approximately $US six million in 2007. By December 2007, there were over 10 publishers in North America offering yaoi materials.
The Japanese fan fiction (dōjinshi) subculture emerged contemporaneously with its English equivalent in the 1970s. Characteristic similarities of fan fiction in both countries include non-adherence to a standard "narrative structure" and a particular popularity of science fiction themes. The early yaoi dōjinshi were amateur publications not controlled by media restrictions. The stories were written by teenagers for an adolescent audience and were generally based on manga or anime characters who were likewise in their teens or early twenties. Most dōjinshi are created by amateurs who often work in "circles". The group CLAMP began as an amateur dōjinshi circle who worked together to create Saint Seiya parodies. Certain professional artists such as Kodaka Kazuma also create dōjinshi. Some publishing companies reviewed dōjinshi manga published in the 1980s to identify talented amateurs, leading to the discovery of Youka Nitta and numerous other artists. This practice lessened in the 1990s, but was still used to find Shungiku Nakamura.
Typical yaoi dōjinshi features male-male pairings from non-romantic manga and anime. Much of the material derives from male-oriented shōnen and seinen works which contain close male-male friendships and are perceived by fans to imply elements of homoeroticism, such as with Captain Tsubasa and Saint Seiya, two titles which popularized yaoi in the 1980s. Weekly Shonen Jump is known to have a large female readership who engage in yaoi readings. Publishers of shōnen manga may create "homoerotic-themed" merchandise as fan service to their BL fans. Comiket's co-founder Yoshihiro Yonezawa described dōjinshi as akin to "girls playing with dolls"; yaoi fans may ship any male-male pairing, sometimes pairing off a favourite character, or creating a story about two original male characters and incorporating established characters into the story. Any male character may become the subject of a yaoi dōjinshi, including characters from non-manga titles such as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, video games such as Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy, or real people such as politicians. Amateur authors may also create characters out of personifications of abstract concepts (such as the personification of countries in Hetalia: Axis Powers) or complementary objects like salt and pepper. In Japan, the labelling of dōjinshi yaoi manga is typically composed of the two lead characters' names, separated by a multiplication sign, with the seme being first and the uke being second.
Yaoi-inspired works outside Japan
As yaoi gained popularity in the United States, a few American artists began creating original English-language manga for female readers featuring male-male couples referred to as "American yaoi." The first known original English-language yaoi comic is Sexual Espionage #1 by Daria McGrain, published in May 2002. Since approximately 2004, what started as a small subculture in North America has become a burgeoning market, as new publishers began producing female-oriented male/male erotic comics and manga from creators outside Japan. Because creators from all parts of the globe are published in these works, the term American yaoi fell out of use and were replaced by terms like "Original English Language yaoi" and "Global Yaoi".
The term global yaoi was coined by creators and newsgroups that wanted to distinguish the Asian specific content known as yaoi, from the original English content. Global BL was shortened by comics author Tina Anderson in interviews and on her blog to the acronym GloBL. High-Volume North American publishers of 'Global BL' are Yaoi Press, which continues to release illustrated fiction written by the companies CEO, Yamila Abraham under the imprint Yaoi Prose. Prior publishers include DramaQueen, which debuted its 'Global BL' quarterly anthology RUSH in 2006, and Iris Print, both ceased publishing due to financial issues.
In 2009, Germany saw a period of GloBL releases, with a handful of original German titles gaining popularity for being set in Asia. Some publishers of German GloBL were traditional manga publishers like Carlsen Manga, and small press publishers specializing in GloBL like The Wild Side and Fireangels Verlag.
Other successful series in GloBL include web comics Teahouse, Starfighter, Purpurea Noxa, and In These Words from artist Jo Chen's studio Guilt Pleasure, all three of which are also being promoted by Digital Manga Publishing.
In 2015, "Tweek x Craig", a season 19 episode of the American animation series South Park, centered upon the eponymous characters objecting to being depicted by their female schoolmates in Yaoi-themed illustrations.
Most yaoi fans are either teenage girls or young women. In Thailand, female readership of yaoi works is estimated at 80%, and the membership of Yaoi-Con, a yaoi convention in San Francisco, is 85% female. It is usually assumed that all female fans are heterosexual, but in Japan there is a presence of lesbian manga authors and lesbian, bisexual or questioning female readers. Recent online surveys of English-speaking readers of yaoi indicate that 50-60% of female readers self-identify as heterosexual.
Although the genre is marketed at girls and women, there is a gay, bisexual, and heterosexual male readership as well. A survey of yaoi readers among patrons of a United States library found about one quarter of respondents were male; two online surveys found approximately ten percent of the broader Anglophone yaoi readership were male.
Lunsing suggests that younger Japanese gay men who are offended by "pornographic" content in gay men's magazines may prefer to read yaoi instead. Some gay men, however, are put off by the feminine art style or unrealistic depictions of LGBT culture in Japan and instead prefer gei comi, which some perceive to be more realistic. Lunsing notes that some of the yaoi narrative elements criticized by homosexual men, such as rape fantasies, misogyny, and characters' non-identification as gay, are also present in gei comi.
In the mid-1990s, estimates of the size of the Japanese yaoi fandom ranged from 100,000 to 500,000 people. At around that time, June magazine had a circulation of between 80,000 and 100,000, twice the circulation of the best selling gay lifestyle magazine Badi. As of April 2005, a search for non-Japanese websites resulted in 785,000 English, 49,000 Spanish, 22,400 Korean, 11,900 Italian and 6,900 Chinese sites. In January 2007, there were approximately five million hits for yaoi.
A large portion of Western fans choose to pirate yaoi material because they are unable or unwilling to obtain it through sanctioned methods. For example, fans may lack a credit card for payment, or they may want to keep their yaoi private because of the dual stigma of seeking sexually explicit material which is also gay. Scanlations and other fan translation efforts are common. In addition to commercially published Japanese works, amateur dojinshi may be scanlated into English.
Boys' Love manga has received considerable critical attention, especially after translations of BL became commercially available outside Japan in the 21st century. Different critics and commentators have had very different views of BL. In 1983, Frederik L. Schodt, an American manga writer and translator, has observed that portrayals of gay male relationships had used and further developed bisexual themes already in existence in shoujo manga to appeal to their female audience. Japanese critics have viewed boys' love as a genre that permits their audience to avoid adult female sexuality by distancing sex from their own bodies, as well as to create fluidity in perceptions of gender and sexuality and rejects "socially mandated" gender roles as a "first step toward feminism." Kazuko Suzuki, for example, believes that the audience's aversion to or contempt for masculine heterosexism is something which has consciously emerged as a result of the genre's popularity.
Mizoguchi, writing in 2003, feels that BL is a "female-gendered space," as the writers, readers, artists and most of the editors of BL are female. BL has been compared to romance novels by English-speaking librarians. Parallels have also been noted in the popularity of lesbianism in pornography, and yaoi has been called a form of "female fetishism". Mariko Ōhara, a science fiction writer, has said that she wrote yaoi Kirk/Spock fiction as a teen because she could not enjoy "conventional pornography, which had been made for men", and that she had found a "limitless freedom" in yaoi, much like in science fiction.
Other commentators have suggested that more radical gender-political issues underlie BL. In 1998, Shihomi Sakakibara argued that yaoi fans, including himself, were gay female-to-male transsexuals. Sandra Buckley believes that bishounen narratives champion "the imagined potentialities of alternative [gender] differentiations", while James Welker described the bishounen character as "queer", commenting that manga critic Akiko Mizoguchi saw shōnen-ai as playing a role in how she herself had become a lesbian. Dru Pagliassotti sees this and the yaoi ronsō as indicating that for Japanese gay and lesbian readers, BL is not as far removed from reality as heterosexual female readers like to claim. Welker has also written that boys love titles liberate the female audience "not just from patriarchy, but from gender dualism and heteronormativity."
Some gay and lesbian commentators have criticized how gay identity is portrayed in BL, most notably in the yaoi ronsō or "yaoi debate" of 1992–1997. A trope of yaoi that has attracted criticism is male protagonists who do not identify as gay, but are rather simply in love with each other. This is said to heighten the theme of all-conquering love, but is also condemned for avoiding the need to address prejudices against people who state that they were born gay, lesbian or bisexual. Yaoi stories (such as 1987's Tomoi and 1996-1998's New York, New York (ja)) have increasingly featured characters that identify as gay. Criticism of the stereotypically "girly" behaviour of the uke has also been prominent.
Japanese gay activist Satou Masaki criticized yaoi fans and artists in an open letter to the feminist zine Choisir in May 1992, writing that the genre was lacking in any accurate information about gay men and conveniently avoided the very real prejudice and discrimination that gay men faced as a part of society. More significantly, its portrayal of gay men as wealthy, handsome and well-educated was simply a vehicle for heterosexual female masturbation fantasies. An extensive debate ensued, with yaoi fans and artists arguing that yaoi is entertainment for women, not education for gay men, and that yaoi characters are not meant to represent "real gay men." As internet resources for gay men developed in the 1990s, the yaoi debate waned but occasionally resurfaced; for example, when Mizoguchi in 2003 characterized stereotypes in modern BL as being "unrealistic and homophobic".
There has been similar criticism to the Japanese yaoi debate in the English-speaking fandom. In 1993 and 2004, Matt Thorn pointed to the complexity of these phenomena, and suggested that yaoi and slash fiction fans are discontented with "the standards of femininity to which they are expected to adhere and a social environment that does not validate or sympathize with that discontent."
In China, BL became very popular in the late 1990s, attracting media attention, which became negative, focusing on the challenge it posed to "heterosexual hegemony." Publishing and distributing BL is illegal in mainland China. Zanghellini notes that due to the "characteristics of the yaoi/BL genre" of showing characters who are often underage engaging in romantic and sexual situations, child pornography laws in Australia and Canada "may lend themselves to targeting yaoi/BL work". He notes that in the UK, cartoons are exempt from child pornography laws unless they are used for child grooming.
In 2001, a controversy erupted in Thailand regarding gay male comics. Television reports labelled the comics as negative influences, while a newspaper falsely stated that most of the comics were not copyrighted as the publishers feared arrest for posting the content; in reality most of the titles were likely illegally published without permission from the original Japanese publishers. The shōnen ai comics provided profits for the comic shops, which sold between 30 and 50 such comics per day. The moral panic regarding the gay male comics subsided. The Thai girls felt too embarrassed to read heterosexual stories, so they read gay male-themed josei and shōjo stories, which they saw as "unthreatening."
Youka Nitta has said that "even in Japan, reading boys' love isn't something that parents encourage" and encouraged any parents who had concerns about her works to read them. Although in Japan, concern about manga has been mostly directed to shōnen manga, in 2006, an email campaign was launched against the availability of BL manga in Sakai City's public library. In August 2008, the library decided to stop buying more BL, and to keep its existing BL in a collection restricted to adult readers. That November, the library was contacted by people who protested against the removal, regarding it as "a form of sexual discrimination". The Japanese media ran stories on how much BL was in public libraries, and emphasised that this sexual material had been loaned out to minors. Debate ensued on Mixi, a Japanese social networking site, and eventually the library returned its BL to the public collection. Mark McLelland suggests that BL may become "a major battlefront for proponents and detractors of 'gender free' policies in employment, education and elsewhere."