Homosexuality is a taboo subject in Japan. But in the huge manga industry, stories about love between boys or men have been thriving for years. These, in turn, are mainly read by women. Because gender also creates alternative archetypes of masculinity.
When Chika Tsuda saw one of these manga for the first time, she was shocked. The history teacher still remembers it vividly today: “I was thirteen years old and in the afternoon I was browsing through a magazine with all kinds of stories. Suddenly there were two characters of semi-naked men kissing!” At the time, the 41-year-old barely knew anything about sex. “Then two more boys!”
The story that embarrassed teen Chika went something like this: two teenage boys with round eyes and cute faces typical of Japanese comics play baseball. But then they found their bodies more exciting than a bat and a ball and suddenly a spectacle of touch began. Bare skin, sexually aroused, in an innocent natural mood.
BL is not child sexual abuse
What was somewhat obscure three decades ago and had no known name in the mainstream is now a popular genre in the massive anime and manga market. It’s called BL, short for Anglicism for “boys’ love”: the subject does not consider children’s inclinations because the characters are drawn and their age is often difficult to determine. And this type of literature is now so popular in Japan that anyone who visits a well-stocked bookstore will almost always find a shelf with these two Latin letters: “BL”.
Similar works have appeared in China, Taiwan, and South Korea for some time. German publisher Fire Angels specializes in BL manga for German-speaking countries. And in Thailand, which has been heavily influenced by Japanese pop culture, the TV series “2gether” about two teenagers who fall in love has become so popular at the start of the epidemic that it is now also shown on Japanese television.
What is the magic when male characters develop a sexual interest in each other? This question arises in Japan in particular. Japan has practically no exit culture. When the Olympics rose in Tokyo last summer, gay athletes competed more than ever. However, there was not a single Japanese among the approximately 200 athletes.
“Our society really doesn’t appreciate homosexuality,” Chika Tsuda says after working in her apartment in Kobe, western Japan. “We are a male-dominated society.” By which you mean: a society in which the well-established notion of masculinity is still clearly defined today: strong men who work in a company until late into the evening and have a wife at home who runs the house.
In Japanese reality, there is hardly any room for alternatives. Japan is also the only G7 country that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Anyone who does not bow down is considered an intruder quickly.
It can relax the situation. “I think fewer and fewer people identify themselves in this traditional image,” says Tsuda, looking into the nursery where her son, who is just starting puberty, is sleeping. “When you are exposed to different images of gender roles and masculinity, you also become open to more lifestyles,” says the teacher.
This is how Chika Tsuda has become an occasional reader of BL stories over the years. “If stories are more romantic than sexual, I love them!”
In Japan, it is not surprising that a woman like Chika Tsuda uses BL. Japan scholar Katharina Holsmann, who researches manga culture at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, knows this. “The audience consists mainly of women in their twenties, thirties, forties, or even fifties. Whether they are gay or whether gay men are part of their erotic fantasies doesn’t play a major role at first,” says Hülsmann. “Manhood is so configured that it can be soft and allow vulnerability.”
The culture surrounding boys’ love can also be understood as a reaction to the fact that many of the most successful manga were aimed at a male audience. “It emerged in the 1970s from the fan scene where readers were enthusiastic about the mostly male popular manga heroes,” explains Katharina Hollsman. While the original stories hardly contain any sexual content, female fans created this space by drawing their sexual and love-oriented acts around their heroes.
However, women rarely appeared in the stories. Partly out of fear of feeling competitive, and partly out of shyness about displaying female eroticism, many amateur painters avoided using female heroines. This is how fantasies of ardent fans became erotic romance stories between handsome men. “We readers know we can’t get the beautiful heroes out of stories anyway,” Chika Tsuda says. “They’re just fantasy. And if you have two heroes like that, that’s even better.”
What is masculine what is feminine?
Four years ago, the TV series “Love of Osan” spread across the country. The plot revolves around an office worker who is desired by his boss and colleague. A year after the surprising success of Ossan’s Love, Yuki Naito has signed Bisco Kida, who was previously an amateur animator for BL Comics. Naito loved the curvilinear style of drawing and the intense sense of masculinity and femininity that 32-year-old Bisko brought into her work. Her characters are often androgynous. The question of what is masculine and what is feminine is not even openly asked.
“I want people to ask themselves how outdated our traditional ideas of sex, sexuality, and beauty sometimes are,” says Pesko Kedah herself. And in a Zoom chat, she brought up her latest work, which was published in March: “Hoshizora o mitsumeta sono ato de” (“After I stared at the starry sky”). “The book wasn’t my idea, it was Ms. Naito’s book. She wanted to take the diversity issue one step further.”
The book is about star photographer Tojo and a wheelchair designer named Subaru. The sex scenes are followed by tender scenes as Tougu lifts Subaru from a wheelchair under the starry sky. The two protagonists, who were not gay until then, suffer no mental confusion as to what it means to love a man.
Does the progressive world of manga often reshape notions of masculinity in Japan? In Kobe, Chika Tsuda thinks for a long time. “It is true that everyone has come into contact with BL at some point these days. But it is still read almost exclusively by women.” This, in turn, can indirectly lead to mores that see real men not only in strong men. “If boys realize that more female types are also attractive, that could have an effect.”