Autoethnographic Invesitation: Japanese Yaoi Manga Part 2

Upon my reading of Fake, a classic form of Yaoi Japanese manga, a number of thoughts went through my head and I decided to delve further into them.

Upon reading the final volume of Fake, while I felt confronted and confused, I was also left feeling intrigued, with several thoughts passing through my head. The first thing I could not help but question was how did this genre develop and become popular in quite — what I thought was— a conservative Japanese society? Thus I felt the urge to explore the brief history of Yaoi and learn about the basic conventions of this genre.

Upon furthering my research, I learnt that Yaoi first appeared in the 1970s, out of a genre of Japanese women’s comics known as shōnen’ai. It emerged as a reaction against the contrived and formulaic heterosexual love stores marketed at a female audience at that time’ (McLelland 2005). Interestingly, this phallocentric phenomenon has largely been influenced by the the system of patriarchy. Through Yaoi, Japanese women have used patriarchy to empower themselves by adopting imagined male subjectivities instead of female subjectivities. This is because the exploration of inner sexual desires through boy-love was deemed safer and more liberating. Arguably, women had to resort to Yaoi because as women, they could not enjoy fantasies tailored to their desires if they were expressed through stories about heterosexual romance. As Akiko Hori (2013) writes ‘This claim is based on the idea that a fictional romantic relationship between equal partners is much more likely to appeal to, and be plausible to, female readers and creators if the relationship is between two men.’ Thus Yaoi enables women to challenge the gender binaries as their characters are not confined to such dual constructions.

This made me question how such a genre was popular amongst a heterosexual female audience. I found it interesting that such boy-love depictions were for women, not homosexual men. I personally struggled with trying to comprehend this because as a young woman myself who loves watching the classic rom-coms, I could not understand how this would appeal to women. A number of questions filled my head: What attracts Japanese women to yaoi? Is yaoi manga a form of empowerment for Japanese women? According to Mark McLelland, ‘as a fantasy trope for women, male homosexuality is understood to be a beautiful and pure form of romance’ in Japan (Wood 2006, p.395). This it is a fantasy which idealises men’s physical beauty and the romance two male partners can share.

Indeed, my exposure to Yaoi challenged my assumptions about Japanese society’s conservatism towards homosexuality. I simply assumed, because Japan is a non-western country, it would condone homosexuality. Even upon reading Fake, it did not cross my mind that perhaps Japan is more accepting of homosexuality. Instead, I assumed that the representation of homosexuality was only allowed as fiction for other symbolic purposes. However, to my surprise, I learnt that as the world’s only fully ‘modernised’ non-western culture, Japan does not have a history of hostility towards homosexuality, with majority of Japanese people in support of same-sex relationships. Nevertheless, homosexuality as a status of sexual orientation has not been widely embraced, and has merely been tolerated. Interestingly though, during the period of the Meiji Restoration, as a result of Western influences, Japan experienced more vocal criticisms towards homosexual behaviour. Apparently, ‘the Japanese elite experienced a desire to “absorb Western learning in order to obtain the respect of Western nations”’.  As homosexuality was considered ‘abnormal’, the homophobia of the West infiltrated Japanese society, and same-sex relationships came to be viewed as uncivilised. I thought it was quite interesting how Western values influenced Japanese values and made Japanese society more conservative. However, Yaoi manga demonstrates how Japan has progressed significantly since that period.

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