“When you think of LGBT people in anime or manga, ‘yaoi’ and ‘yuri’ come to mind—featuring gay people, but written for straight audiences!”“That’s Gay! Anime and Manga for the LGBT Audience” Panel Description at Anime NYC
This well-intentioned description inadvertently perpetuated some common misconceptions about the yuri genre. It understandably compares the genre to yaoi (BL). However, as BL is (incorrectly) perceived to be made by and for women, drawing this parallel perpetuates the false idea that yuri is created by and for men—a belief forwarded by the apparent prominence of men in doujinshi circles during the 1990s.
In 2012, Verena Maser found the misconception existed amongst many fans and even yuri manga editors: “Aren’t yuri manga the female version of the Japanese boys’ love genre? And since boys’ love is practically read only by women, I thought [that yuri] would be read by males.”
In reality, yuri has no homologous audience, and is not made primarily by or for men, women, straight people, queer people, or any other demographic. Throughout its 100-year history, the genre has uniquely evolved in and moved about multiple markets, often existing in many simultaneously. It is by and for a variety of people: men, women, heterosexuals, queer people, everyone!
Yuri, as we consider it, began 100 years ago with Yaneura no Nishojo (Two Virgins in the Attic), a pioneering Class-S work of same-sex love written by a lesbian, Yoshiya Nobuko. Such “S” works, which described intense but non-sexual relationships between girls, thrived in contemporary shoujo (girls’) markets and magazines. They were primarily written by women and popular among girls, many of whom formed their own adolescent same-sex relationships.
In the 1970s, the first yuri manga emerged, again targeted at young women and written by women. Some featured female-female relationships and attraction as a central element, such as Yamagishi Ryoko’s Shiroi Heya no Futari (The Couple in the White Room), the first yuri manga. However, most of the time, yuri was relegated to a smaller role in shoujo manga works exploring ideas of gender roles and identity, like Ikeda Riyoko’s The Rose of Versailles and Claudine.
During this era, the first shounen (boys’) comics with yuri elements began to appear sparsely, but the majority of these mocked and diminished lesbian love. However, even when presented seriously, the women in these shoujo and shounen works were unhappy and suffering because of their relationships, and thus they ended in tragedy, usually suicide.
It was not until the 1990s that yuri started to feature positive, or at least non-tragic, lesbian relationships that queer people could relate to and empathize with. Akisato Wakuni’s Jukkaime no Jukkai (The Thousandth Time Around) featured a lesbian couple that continued having a relationship after one of them was married, which, while not precisely ideal modern representation, is a significant improvement on death. The most prominent yuri relationship of the era was that of Michiru and Haruka in Sailor Moon, a positive portrayal of lesbians in love (or “cousins,” if the original English dub is to be believed).
Sailor Moon’s popularity led to the creation of pornographic doujinshi featuring erotic “lesbian” themes. The circles which created and distributed such works consisted mostly of men, but that began to change with yuri’s rising popularity, as plenty of women read and enjoyed the newer styles of softcore lesbian eroticism.
These pornographic works were the first to use the term “yuri” to describe female-female relationships in media. The term originated from Yurizoku no Heya (Lily Tribe’s Room), a lesbian column created by Ito Bungaku for Barazoku, a Japanese gay men’s magazine in the 1970s. 1990s doujinshi likely took the word from Nikkatsu Roman Porno films, many of which included “Yurizoku” in their titles.
Men were not the only ones enjoying these lewd depictions of lesbian acts. Mist, an erotic magazine aimed primarily at adult heterosexual women, sometimes featured lesbian-themed items, including ones with graphic sexual content. Notably, at this time, there were magazines created by and for lesbians, Phryné and Anise, although both were more focused on politics and feminism than sexual content.
During the 1990s, a variety of creators also made non-pornographic yuri content. In addition to female-authored titles like the aforementioned Sailor Moon and Jukkaime no Jukkai, this era saw creations such as Go Nagai’s Devilman Lady, an action/horror series by a man aimed at adult men. Be-Papas, an artist collective founded by Kunihiko Ikuhara (a man who had previously served as the series director for Sailor Moon), created Revolutionary Girl Utena. Be-Papas’ membership included a woman, Chiho Saito, who wrote and illustrated the Utena manga. As time wore on, the diversity of yuri creators only increased.
The 2000s were a hectic and revolutionary time for yuri. The demographics of the genre during this period were even more varied and diverse than before. Oyuki Konno’s highly influential light novel series Maria Watches Over Us adopted many themes and tropes of early twentieth century Class-S works. Like many of these S stories, Maria Watches Over Us was a shoujo written by a woman.
Because of the series’ popularity, S tropes were revived and found their way into new audiences and creators. Shounen comics by men like Kaishaku’s Kannazuki no Miko: Destiny of the Shrine Maiden combined elements of Class-S fiction with action. However, there are plenty of examples where the genders of the creators and readers differed, such as Strawberry Panic! Although written by a woman, Kimino Sakurako, the series exaggerated the revived tropes to tell a melodramatic story in an attempt to appeal to the readership of Dengeki G’s Magazine, a seinen (adult men’s) publication, in which it was serialized.
During this decade, the first magazines dedicated entirely to yuri manga were founded. Yuri Shimai was a quarterly yuri josei (adult women’s) magazine that ran from Summer 2003 to Fall 2004. It featured yuri stories aimed at mature women, like Mako Komao’s First Love Sisters, which became the publication’s flagship series and adorned the cover of multiple issues. The magazine also found some success with male readers, who made up approximately 30% of its readership.
Yuri Shimai’s editor, Nakamura Seitarō, went on to create Yuri Hime in 2005 after Yuri Shimai ended publication. By 2008, Yuri Hime had a 73% female readership, according to a self-reported survey in Sugino Yosuke’s 2008 guidebook, Yuri Sakuhin Fairu (Yuri Production File). In 2007, a sister magazine was launched called Yuri Hime S, which primarily targeted a male demographic and featured works with a moe style like female author Amano Sakuya’s Konohana-tei Kitan (now Konohana Kitan) and male author Kurogane Ken’s Konohana Link. According to Yuri Sakuhin Fairu, 62% of its readers were men.
Works in Yuri Hime and Yuri Hime S were tonally varied as well, with some focusing on intense emotional relationships like Nawoko’s Voiceful, others on comedy such as Namori’s YuruYuri, and still others on romantic school stories like Morinaga Milk’s Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink. However, a small percentage of the stories were about adult women in grounded queer relationships, such as Minamoto Hisanari’s Fu~Fu (Wife and Wife).
Not only did several contemporary titles feature adult lesbians, a rarity for the genre, but some were also actually written by queer women and detailed aspects of lesbian sexuality and identity. Examples include Yamaji Ebine’s Love My Life, which highlights queer people’s ever-changing experience and their interactions with society; Takashima Rica’s Tokyo Love ~ Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, a narrative about a college student finding affirmation in LGBT spaces; and Morishima Akiko’s The Conditions of Paradise, an exploration of boundaries and compromise in same-sex relationships.
The 2010s saw two new yuri publications come onto the market: Tsubomi and Pure Yuri Anthology Hirari. This new competition forced Yuri Hime and Yuri Hime S to merge into one publication, Comic Yuri Hime, to remain a force in the niche market.
However, marketing was not the only reason the two merged. According to Sato Junpei in a 2011 special edition of Megami Magazine titled Megami Lily, Nakamura recognized that yuri manga crossed gender lines. He believed that he could create a new yuri magazine that appealed to all “yurijin” (literally “yuri people,” an inclusive term used for fans of the yuri genre). The audiences of both magazines read the new collection, as it serialized a variety of series.
Today, Comic Yuri Hime features a mixture of works, some of which are akin to josei, such as female author Oosawa Yayoi’s 2DK, G Pen, Mezamashi Tokei (2DK, G-Pen, Alarm Clock), a tame slow-burn romance; while others are closer to seinen or shounen, like Merryhachi’s lewd and fast-paced comedy Love To-LIE-Angle. However, the magazine does not label or advertise itself, nor any of the works contained within it, to gendered demographics.
Tsubomi and Hirari ended publication in 2012 and 2014, respectively, but new works came to fill their place. Galette, a crowdfunded and creator-owned magazine featuring many of the names from Tsubomi, launched in 2017. Like the relaunched Comic Yuri Hime, it does not target any single gendered demographic, but rather all fans of the genre.
Yuri works that remain targeted to a single demographic continued to vary in audience and creator. For example, in 2015, a man, Nishio Yuhta, created After Hours, which ran in seinen publications; while Bloom Into You by Nakatani Nio, a woman, began serialization in a shounen magazine.
The rise of internet use and the proliferation of art sharing websites such as Pixiv have allowed creators to share their work directly with a broader audience than ever before. Yuri mangaka on these sites did not have to worry about the input of editors or trying to conform their creations to specific markets; they just created and shared.
Some independent yuri titles have been picked up for official publishing, like Kurukuruhime’s anthology series Yuri Life. Yuri Life follows adult women in relationships living together, a story infrequently seen in serialized yuri series. Due to the framework’s rarity, the series may never have been serialized or published if not for the opportunities and audience provided by the internet.
Others creations enjoyed success online and at doujinshi conventions. Recently, Lilyka Manga has licensed some independent yuri works for digital English release, such as Sono’s science fiction series SHWD and Hazuki Ruri’s Saturday. Lilyka does not market their licensed doujinshi to any gender, but instead are “very interested in planting as many doujin yuri seeds in the US soil and stimulat[ing] a nerve of all doujin yuri creators who are being confined within Japan,” as Sasahara Hikaru, President of the imprint’s parent, Digital Manga Inc. tells me.
While Pixiv and similar sites helped many fictional yuri works to thrive, they also provided an avenue for more LGBTQ+ creators to share stories, including their own. Hiranishi Mieri’s comic essay, The Moment I Realized I Wasn’t Straight, tells a semi-autobiographical narrative of her time at college dealing with a one-sided crush and her struggles being an androgynous woman who likes butch women. While comic essays are relatively common in josei markets, these works appeal to a queer readership, rather than one based on gender.
Perhaps the most significant yuri comic essay, and certainly the most celebrated, is Nagata Kabi’s landmark autobiography, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, which details her struggles with sexuality and mental illness. Although it and many other comic essays do not contain fantastic and dramatic romance or temporary schoolgirl love, they still focus on lesbian themes and identity and thus retain the designation “yuri.” Yet despite sharing a label, these works are unlike the fanciful yuri stories which came before. They are honest accounts of real queer experiences for consumption by other queer people.
Yuri is made for a diverse audience by an equally varied group of creators. However, even yuri titles designed for and targeted to specific audiences may find success outside of their publication’s demographic. Maria Watches Over Us, Kase-san, and Bloom Into You, all of which are or were serialized in publications with specific demographics (shoujo, shoujo, and shounen, in that order) are favorites among yuri fans of varying gender and sexual identities.
The modern yuri audience is extremely varied, and no single group within it (except for yurijin) has a consistent majority. As of 2017, the largest yuri manga publication, Comic Yuri Hime, boasts a readership consisting of approximately 60% men and 40% women.
Other data in this market comes from Maser’s survey of Japanese yuri readership. She found that, among 1,352 respondents, 52.4% identified as female, 46.1% were male, and 1.6% were “other.” She also surveyed their sexuality by asking respondents for the preferred gender of their lover (koibito), which she notes may not accurately portray their actual sexuality. When these data sets were combined, the results were 30% “non-heterosexual” females, 15.2% “heterosexual” females, 4.7% “non-heterosexual” males, 39.5% “heterosexual” males, and 1.2% “other” (9.4% of data did not apply to these categories).
Other groups and individuals have conducted similar elective surveys to determine the demographics of Western (or, more specifically, English-speaking) yuri audiences. Yuri blogger Zeria’s 2017 survey found that, among 695 respondents, 47.2% were female, 44.32% were male, and 8.5% were non-binary or “other.” 96% of women responded with a sexuality other than heterosexual, whereas 23.4% of male respondents answered as such. In total, only 35.8% of all respondents were heterosexual.
Each of these surveys has slightly different results. Still, they found that yuri is enjoyed almost equally by men and women, has a sizable queer readership, and is not consumed by any single group more than others (although it is worth noting that non-heterosexual men were consistently a proportionately smaller selection of respondents).
While all of this history or data is worth examining, it should not have an impact on anyone’s decision to consume media. The misconception that yuri is created by and for straight men is understandable, and concerns about opportunities for queer authorship are legitimate. However, the evidence demonstrates that yuri is created by, marketed towards, and enjoyed by a wide variety of people with different gender and sexual identities.But even if it was not, demographic factors should not determine whether someone can read, watch, or play a work of any genre.
Although it is still important to prioritize the voices of those with the experiences and identities depicted in a work (especially when their opinions are too often marginalized), all people should be encouraged to consume and comment on whatever they enjoy—titles that excite them, that inspire them, and that challenge them. Media benefits when a multitude of diverse voices experience and explore it. Barring any group or person from participation ends up hurting everyone else.