Discovering Yaoi: Japan's Porn Without Women

Discovering Yaoi: Japan’s Porn Without Women

Walking around the neon-saturated streets of Akihabara, Tokyo’s Electric Town, it doesn’t take you long to “accidentally” walk into a Hentai shop (anime porn). Innocent me was just searching for a cheap place to buy comics when suddenly, a sign appeared overhead. I read the hiragana script aloud: “Ma-n-ga.” Japanese comics! Smiling, I dragged my friends inside.

Well, the sign wasn’t wrong. There was plenty of manga inside; I was just unprepared for the assault of arse and tits donning the walls. Surrounded by voluptuous women that could only exist in the world of the male fantasy, we gave an awkward nod to the shop owner, who graciously greeted us at the door. After less than 10 minutes of seeing women in every position imaginable, we u-turned, hurrying out the door.

Who buys that stuff? was the question on all our minds. 40-year-old, sexually frustrated virgins, we figured, scrounging off their ageing parents. Considering the apparent age of the pre-pubescent girls, probably also paedophiles.

A week later, I was once again walking the streets of Tokyo’s Ikebukuro, stomach full of ramen, heading towards a huge anime store a few blocks away. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two schoolgirls decked out in their adorable red-bow uniforms. They were giggling behind their hands as they disappeared down a set of spiral steps into the bowels of an unknown shop. Like Alice, I followed down the rabbit hole, finding a translucent door illuminated inside by white LED lights.

It wasn’t obvious at first, but after a minute of gazing around the store aisles, I realised I was once again surrounded by porn. I would have felt a surge of déjà vu if it wasn’t for one strange difference. There were no women in this porn. It was all lovely, big-eyed muscular men; the anatomically incorrect erections were the same though. All the women were outside the comics, meandering through the shoulder-wide aisles. The schoolgirls were animatedly discussing a new issue shaking in their hands, whilst a middle-aged woman inspected the front cover of a raunchy magazine and, with a nod of approval, placed the comic in her shopping bag. You could have seen the same scene in a supermarket.

Was I in an alternate universe? Surrounded by women unafraid of sexual expression? I wasn’t completely naive to this concept. Being a long-time anime fan, I had come across this genre in the past. It’s called yaoi; Google it at your own risk. It’s a genre of homoerotic manga and anime with the primary target being women. In the West, the equivalent of this is slash fandom, which scholar Kazumi Nagaike describes as, “Pornography written 100% by women for a 100% female readership.”

Yaoi represents a niche economy in which the purchasing and production power is female dominated. There are also more opportunities for female manga artists in this economy then there are in the mainstream industry.

This is awesome! I thought while squeezing past a woman pulling out of the jam-packed shelf a racy comic of two bare-chested men embracing each other. How great that these women have the confidence to walk into an erotic store and buy what gets them off. You go girl! It also must be good for queer representation, right? Anime and manga is so progressive.

But wait – if it’s so progressive, where are the queer men celebrating in this evolution of social progression?

One important aspect to understanding how yaoi is problematic for queer representation is through the idea of “the gaze”. The male gaze is the dominant voice in porn, and describes the way that the camera eroticises the “other” sex and gender. This usually means objectifying the human behind the camera. Anime commonly depicts the gaze using the stereotype of a male character spouting out a comical nosebleed when they see an attractive female character, or in the soft-core porn approach of fanservice.

Similarly, what yaoi does is utilise the female gaze. Erotic genres in general tend to be patriarchy dominated, but to writer Uli Meyer, yaoi has elements of dissociation and projection. “When you look at a realistic drawing of a face, you see the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself,” she says. To Uli, although all erotic media utilizes the gaze, “comics and cartoons do not just show the human body as it appears, but as it is experienced or fantasised”.

In that underground store, it seemed clear that the majority of the patrons were female, with the only male in the shop being at the cash register. Yaoi heavily represents female fantasy, and is a way to experience a female fantasy without the baggage of actually being female. The characters represent a genderless Utopia, with many series including all-male casts, or a single fly-on-the-wall female who acts as a sit-in for the reader. Instead of being the focus of the gaze, women are removed entirely, and merely walk the aisle as the consumers.

One factor of the gaze is that it is never objective. It views its target as a fantasy, the perfection of art, but never as a human being. Although this genre may use gay men as performers, in no way does this represents them. In fact, many utilise heteronormative slogans, such as the “masculine” character being often referred to as the Seme, and the more feminine as the Uke.

It wouldn’t be right to say to everyone in that store that their taste is a misrepresentation and they should stop buying these manga. It’s not a bad thing for women to have a genre that expresses their sexuality. But artists and readers need to be more aware of the content being a representation of themselves and not someone else. Progressive attitudes should acknowledge all sides and not result in another group being misrepresented, such as what’s happening with this genre. I’m all for more LGBTQI+ representation in anime and manga in both mainstream and amateur titles, but there needs to be critical thinking by artists and readers when representing queer relationships. At the very least, they need to acknowledge that the portrayal has no connection to a queer relationship.

Cover by Sen Cross, insets from Welcome to the N.H.K., Soul Eater and Junjou Romantica