Is Yuri Queer?

By: Erica Friedman June 7, 20190 Comments
A painting of two women kissing hard

Inevitably, when I do any kind of public talk about Yuri or LGBTQ comics, someone will express dissatisfaction at mild school life romances that seem to fill Yuri bookshelves, or I’ll be asked for recommendations for manga about “real” lesbians. Exactly why we don’t yet have a blockbuster lesbian action story is certainly a conversation we should and can have. But as we move through what is the 100th anniversary of the Yuri genre, it seems time to address this issue—not once and for all, as the genre is changing as rapidly as the languages that describe it, but for now.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter and ask what we’ve all wondered at some point:

Is Yuri Queer?

The answer—as you’d probably expect—is “yes” and “no” and “maybe, it really depends.”

A teen girl looks at an image on her phone of another girl kissing her cheek
Girl Friends

To get a grip on what, exactly, Yuri is, I want to begin with the intentionally broad umbrella definition we use at Yuricon. “What is Yuri” ends with this broad stroke:

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.

In short, Yuri is any story with lesbian themes.

Note the emphasized phrase. What you and I understand as “Yuri” may not be even remotely similar. I’ve famously joked that I seek out media with amoral psychotic lesbian characters, such as Yoshimurakana’s MURCIÉLAGO (Yen Press), whereas you might find that scandalous and prefer sedate tales of high school romance and drama like Bloom Into You (Seven Seas).

Neither of us are wrong. Both of those are “Yuri” as we understand it. There is room enough in this youngest genre of anime and manga that we can set the tent poles wherever we’d like. And we might as well make the tent as big as possible.

Under this huge tent, we have room for all fans. So let’s first look at the arguments for “Yes.

Kase kissing Yamada's cheek
Kase-san and…

Yes, Yuri is Queer

There is a school of thought that any representation (that is not actively inaccurate or damaging) is good representation. Any couple shown as loving and pair-bonded without ambiguity can be seen as a good representation of queer couples.

No one, upon seeing Haruka and Michiru in Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon (Kodansha Comics), could sensibly argue that they are not a queer couple. (Of course, there were those people who made that argument in the late 1990s and were shut down by the creator’s plain statement that they were, in fact, a couple.)

During the series’ 25th anniversary promotions, they have been repeatedly featured as a couple—there was even an entire series of goods designed to highlight their existence as such. This past Girls’ Day, Japanese figure-maker Megahouse released two sets of dolls, one with Usagi and Mamoru and one with Haruka and Michiru. The two romantic relationships of Sailor Moon were immortalized in plastic.

A photo of two figurines wearing Japanese imperial garb, Haruka wears formal men's robes and Michiru wears a multilayered women's robe.
Picture by E. Friedman, 2019

Most queer readers of Sailor Moon, or those of us who saw ourselves in Revolutionary Girl Utena’s (Viz Media) Arisugawa Juri, who felt conflicted feelings of desire for her best friend Shiori, can attest that these characters are queer. Thus Yuri, even when it’s not intentionally seeking to be queer, is queer.

So in that sense, Yuri is queer. It can tell our stories, even when it’s not intentionally seeking to. If we can see our queer experience reflected in Yuri, then Yuri is queer.

Two girls walking at a festival. One thinks "Does that mean I have a chance? Even though we're both girls..."
Hana and Hina After School

No, Yuri is Not Queer

On the other hand, I have a second—more personal—interpretation of the term Yuri on Okazu, my blog:

Yuri is lesbian content without lesbian identity.

By this definition, if a series recognizes itself as being about queer issues, it is a series about sexual, gender, and romantic minorities, something I put into the “LGBTQ” category on Okazu. Very little of the massive amounts of Yuri being published uses the word—or the concept—of “lesbian.”

It’s still rare to encounter a character who says even in an internal monologue that they, when they are looking for a sexual or romantic partner, look at their own gender—which makes Bloom Into You’s Saeki Sayaka uncommon. (That series also features a stable adult relationship as role model and confidant for Sayaka, which makes the series highly unique in a positive way for young queer readers.)

Two adult women kissing
Bloom Into You

Coming-out narratives, which are very common in western literature, are rare in Japanese literature. Instead, tropes of lesbian behavior are modeled on the heteronormative Takarazuka Revue with its strong butch/femme dynamic, or removed from the real world completely by being set in fantasy scenarios at impossibly rich girl’s schools, such as in Maria Watches Over Us (anime from RightStuf), Strawberry Panic! (anime from Media Blasters; manga from Seven Seas) or, more recently, Revue Starlight (anime from Sentai).

Even with the current trend in Japan of Yuri anthologies focusing on adults, stories rarely acknowledge the social and political facts of homophobia, family pressure, employment and housing instability, medical care, and other real world issues of being queer, much less address them directly.

So in that sense: no, Yuri is not at all queer. You might call it “queer-adjacent.”

two side-by-side covers from Comic Yuri Hime
Yuri Hime manga magazines

Maybe, It Really Depends

About this point in the conversation, someone will bring up the argument that creator intent is even more important than fan perception.

I asked a number of Yuri manga artists in Japan “Is Yuri Queer?” Several of them have responded. (Their responses have been translated by me verbatim from emails I received, but they have asked to remain anonymous.

Artist 1:

My answer is yes!

In [my next published story in a Yuri anthology], the work contains a character who speaks about and uses the actual words for “Tachi,” “Boyish” (JP lesbian slang for dyke or butch), and “Transgender.”

There was no pushback from my editor at all.

I did not ask for or include a glossary for the reader.

Therefore my answer is “Yes.”

Artist 2:

I am not in a position to define the Yuri genre. It is not what the artist decides, but how a reader reads it. And I think that also as a reader of many kinds of Yuri.

In a very limited way when I am drawing a Yuri manga, when I am representing a sexual minority, I will comment:

“This manga is not intended as social commentary, but as entertainment for reading.”

“I do not know the sexuality of the reader, but I will take care to not offend anyone.”

That’s my position.

A magazine cover with Japanese text, featuring a close-up painting of two women kissing hard

Artist 3 (The response was sent to me in English):

Yes, because we can read it as a gay person and identify with it, but also no, because it does not reflect reality most of the time. Especially when, as you say it is fake-love or for sex.

Artist 4:

Yes and NO. It can be said to be or not to be.

The Yuri genre is, at the basic level, created with the single thought of being entertainment. In that sense, it is not related to the real world, because the life and problems of real LGBTQ people don’t exist [in the story]. It is another world that does not have obstacles.

I would not call it “queer.”

However, I think Yuri is also one of the ways of human interaction. In that case, Yuri is LGBTQ in the real world, especially to those who do not distinguish between them.

It is a means to exchange emotions and thoughts, so it cannot be said that it is not related at all to the life and problems of LGBTQ people.

Two young women, one holding a drink. They appear to be at a club.
After Hours

Clearly we cannot make any broad conclusions with a sample size of four, but it’s worth noting that two of the creators looked at yuri’s interpretation as a queer medium specifically from the reader’s perspective. This is especially the case when the author’s intent is to create entertainment that can be appreciated by a wide range of readers. Most creators understand, too, that once a work is on the shelves, interpretation is out of their hands.

Saying something “depends” always sounds like a cop-out. However, it’s not really wishy-washy at all. It’s an acknowledgement that some questions are subject to a great number of independent and variable criteria.

Two young women in matching uniforms stand close to each other, one winking and pointing at the other
Renai Joshika

Complex questions do not have simple answers. You and I likely do not agree on what counts as Yuri. Our experiences may be so vastly different that where I see an established lesbian couple—one of whom favors men’s clothes because I myself do—you might instead see a couple with a transgender man and a cis woman based on your experience.

And we may, therefore, forgive that poor soul who missed the Princess Knight (Vertical Publishing) reference where Michiru tells Usagi that Haruka has the heart of a man and a woman, and thus concludes Haruka in Sailor Moon was a man in a past life, because they really, really want Haruka and Michiru to be not-queer.

Haruka and Michiru in their school uniforms. Haruka's hand is on Michiru's shoulder.
Sailor Moon

People’s perception is a complicated system and when something like a genre is rapidly changing to accommodate new reader, creator, and publisher requirements all the time, that tent of what can be Yuri can get really full really fast. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But what we can tell is that Yuri, like so much of life, is about perspective. If you read a story in which Kase-san and Yamada (Kase-san series from Seven Seas) promise to be together, to go to Tokyo together, to walk by each other’s side, to live together one day, only you can decide if that’s queer enough for you.

Header image by Kiyo/Ching Nakamura, from the series GUNJO featured in Morning Two Magazine.

About the Author : Erica Friedman

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 turned 15 years old in August 2017. Support her writing on Patreon!

Read more articles from Erica Friedman

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