[History] Why we call it “Yuri”

In April, 2005, I found myself in a cafe with a number of popular or soon-to-be-popular yuri manga artists for Yuricon 2005 in Tokyo. The interviewer asked me, “What is yuri? How do you define it?” I smiled and said, “Of course, anything I like is yuri.” Everyone laughed.

“Yuri” is a complicated word and a complicated genre. Complicated, because words often change shape after they have been coined and exceed their roots, sometimes even completely changing their meaning to the opposite of their original intent. And complicating matters, yuri as a genre has disparate roots and factors that influence it. I wrote at length about those factors recently in an article “On defining yuri” for Transformative Works and Cultures.

Yuri, a genre of Japanese comics, animation, and related media focusing on lesbian themes and content, is unlike the four main demographically focused genres of Japanese media. Without a single, discrete source, yuri is the product of disparate creators and audiences with conflicting needs, tropes, and conventions of storytelling.

Why am I telling you this? Because as the term “yuri” shifts and changes, people lose sight of how we got to using that term and why it’s important.

A short-haired woman in glasses with another short-haired woman leaning on her shoulder. Text: "Yuricon '05 in Tokyo"

Back to that cafe in 2005. I looked around the room, which included an editor of a soon-to-be-launched yuri manga magazine and asked that “we,” those of us in the room, support and promote this newly conceived genre as a genre, not just as a trope of another genre. Everyone agreed. And later that year, Yuri Hime magazine was launched.

Yuri is not the first or only term we’ve had for women in romantic pairings in anime and manga. Because being a lesbian was, for Japanese society, a kind of political statement, romantic or sexual content between same-sex partners was not in and of itself considered “lesbian.” While lesbian social and political activism in the 1970s helped create a space for Yuri comics, there was little connection between the two in later years.

Common terms in the doujinshi world in the 1990s were “girl x girl” (女の子x 女の子) or “woman x woman” (女x 女) or the maddeningly vague “onna-doushi” (女同士). Lesbian creators eschewed using “rezu” (レズ)  for much the same reason western lesbians didn’t use “lesbo” when labeling their own work. Japanese lesbians, looking for a word of their own not tainted by straight men’s endless need for fetishized porn, took to calling their own work “bian” (ビアン). To confuse the issue even more, researchers sometimes felt the need to create their own words to distance their subject from its lesbian culture roots.

Japanese magazine cover. Two girls in school uniforms sit at a table in a library; the one on the left has her head on the table and the other is playing with her hair.

It’s well-documented that in the 1970s the gay men’s magazine Barazoku ran a column for lesbians called the “Yurizoku no Corner” (“Lily Tribe’s Corner”) where women could advertise events and make contact with one another. Barazoku, the “rose tribe,” was used at the time to indicate gay men. Nowadays in Japan, the word “bara” has taken on a negative connotation, expressing effeminacy, similar to the English phrase “nancy boy.” But in America, “bara” has been adopted by the bear community within comics. One cannot in confidence state that “bara” means bear, since in its homeland the word actually means the very opposite. In Japan, erotic comics starring beefy men are referred to simply as “gay comics” (ゲイ コミックス).

Confronted with a plethora of terminology and none that really suited lesbian-themed Japanese comics, I was among many who chose, as the century turned, to return to the phrase coined by Barazoku editor Ito: “Yurizoku.” A lily flower had been used for decades by then as a symbol of lesbian desire and love. Lilies are pretty, come in many varieties, and smell nice. What better word to describe a genre that had no word of its own? As the 21st century dawned, yuri became the official name when Yuri Shimai magazine began publication in Japan in 2003. (Incidentally, I’d been promoting the word for the genre for several years by then, Yuricon was officially named in 2001, and Okazu began in 2002. But Japanese researchers are unlikely to know this.)

Once again, we return to that cafe in Tokyo in 2005. Shortly after we all agreed that “yuri” was the genre we would be promoting, several publishers had an idea of their own. Since the “Boy’s Love” genre of manga was still selling strongly, they would call this new genre “Girl’s Love” as an analogous term.  This has been rejected by the yuri community for a number of reasons. First, it was created by publishers to make their lives easier. Feh on that. Secondly, and much more important to me, “GL” distances the genre from its lesbian history. We, the Yurizoku, embrace the history of the word “yuri,” laugh at the overblown Victorian symbolism of the flower, and enjoy stories that both genuinely reflect our experiences as well as those that are absurd flights of fantasy into lesbian stereotypes.

Collage of 3 manga covers. "After Hours": Two girls lay down, heads together, one with her finger to her lips. "Whispered Words": Two girls in school uniforms stand against a fence with space between them. "Kiss and White Lily": Two girls in long uniforms smile and hold hands.

In the 2010s, JManga became the first publisher to launch a “Yuri” category. Bookwalker Global has also embraced “Yuri” as a category and, most importantly, in the past few years we’ve seen “Yuri” sections in most of the large bookstores in Japan–including a Yuri section in the women-focused Ikebukuro flagship Animate store, which was launched with a huge “Yurimate” event.

In 2014, the Japanese literary magazine Eureka ran a special issue called “The Current State of Yuri Culture,” a volume that has put a pin in “yuri” as the defining word for the genre. What “yuri” means to everyone who creates, sells, and reads yuri will always be up for discussion, because linguistic drift and external influences cannot be controlled. As we say at Yuricon:

Yuri can describe any anime or manga series (or other derivative media, i.e., fan fiction, film, etc.) that shows intense emotional connection, romantic love, or physical desire between women. Yuri is not a genre confined by the gender or age of the audience, but by the perception of the audience.

For Further Perspectives on Yuri and Yuri Culture:

 

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Erica Friedman has lectured at MIT, University of Michigan. Harvard University, Kanagawa University and others. She has written about Yuri for Japanese journal Eureka and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. She also reviews Yuri anime, manga, and related media on her blog Okazu, which turns 15 years old in August 2017. Support her writing on Patreon!

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  • Thanks so much for giving me a chance to speak to this key point in genre development. So much time and effort has gone into legitimizing Yuri as a genre, it’s important to understand that we- the fans and creators, especially lesbian fans and creators – chose this term. It is ours because it recalls the lesbian culture ties of Yuri and isn’t just a bland marketing term. These are *our* stories.

  • I may be nonbinary/genderqueer, but I still feel connected with my lesbian identity. Ever since I found out that I liked women, I have been researching yuri anime and manga. It’s nice to be a part of something bigger than oneself.

    I’m just annoyed that a lot of yuri is oversexualized. I have some exceptions, but it would be a million times better if the things I liked were not sexualized so much. It’s extremely difficult to find a game where lesbians are portrayed in a way that is realistic.

    So many games like that assume the main player is a guy and it drives me nuts. It’s like I know I’m genderfluid, but I like to be in a mode where I feel comfortable. I don’t know gender is weird. I just know that I wouldn’t want to give up the part of me that’s gay. I love seeing my identity portrayed in media.

    • Yuri isn’t oversexualized per se, but individual stories may be when they are targeted at adult audiences. And remember, western morality and Japanese standards differ. Also, it is mostly men who buy and publish manga here – they license what they like.

      I recommend A Kiss and White Lily for my Dearest Girl and Bloom Into You…both out right now in English. Neither of them are even remotely sexualized.

  • Gilles Poitras

    Thank you again for an article that I am learning from. You have been an important source of information for me for several years now.

    • Thank you so much for your support Gilles! It means a lot to me. I’m still learning all the time.

  • alecksis

    Thank you so much for this! My first experience with the term “yuri” was when someone described it as “like a lesbian anime porn thing,” so recently, as I have started to delve into anime/manga, I’ve struggled with using the term. It’s nice to have a better context and history for it. <3

  • I’m very glad!Thanks for reading. ^_^

  • TheSojourner

    A very interesting article. I knew that “yuri” meant “lily”, but didn’t know the history of how it came to be the name associated with the genre. I was actually surprised to find out that the west had a hand in that.

    • It was bit like the Renaissance…right time, right place, lots of people all just in the same head set.