Yaoi refers almost exclusively to a particular type of doujinshi, fan-drawn parodies of popular anime and manga. Yaoi involves, by definition, male/male sexual encounters, usually between characters that, in their original series, would not (to say the least) be involved in such liaisons.

Ever wanted to see Mr. Satan ream Trunks up the back door? Welcome to the wide world of yaoi.

A joke has been made that yaoi is a short form of "Yamete kudasai, oshiri ga itai yo", but in reality it's an acronym: yama-nashi (no climax), ochi-nashi (no conclusion) and imi-nashi (no meaning).

It is distinguished from shounen ai by the fact that shounen ai has a point, real relationships are involved, hearts are broken, you know the drill. Yaoi is all about the nookie.

It should be noted that the vast majority of yaoi manga, doujinshi and fanfictions are written by women for other women (or girls, more often).

For the life of me, I can't see what they find so fascinationg about it, and I've had several discussions about it with yaoi fans.

Perhaps the best approach to explaining it was this: fantasizing about two gay males allows young girls to deal with their own developing sexuality, while at the same time allowing them to keep themselves detached from it. Fantasizing aobut themselves having sex would be too scary. Note how the genre is most popular in Japan, where women's sexuality is relatively repressed in general. Note also how all conventional yaoi couples consist of a distinctly male seme, while the uke shows very feminine features and behaviour (especially compared with the original, in the case of doujinshi), because (that's my theory) that makes it easier for the readers to identify with him, while his formal maleness still allows them to keep a distance.

An interesting property of the yaoi genre in Japan is that there are some very strong clichés cum traditions:

  • The seme/uke scenario: portraying the lovers as equals acting on mutual agreement is simply not done. At the very least the seme must push the relationship and the uke must resist it (at first).
  • The height rule: The seme must always and without fail be taller than the uke. If the heights and natures of the original characters don't fit, they are adjusted, e.g. a short agressive character is either made taller so that he can be seme, or his behaviour feminized to turn him into a proper uke.
  • The hair color rule: The uke has fair hair, the seme has dark hair. As with the height, adjustments are often made to make the charachters fit the rule, though it's not as strictly "enforced".

Note that what I wrote applies to the yaoi doujinshi scene in Japan. There, the fans seem to care little about plausibility or the distortion of characters, unlike (as Mishaela writes) the derived English-language yaoi fanfiction scene.

When two men love each other in yaoi setup, they can appreciate who their lover is while simultaneously wanting to have sex with them in every way possible. This is the simple answer to why female anime fans often appreciate this genre.

When a romance develops between a woman and a man, you always have to throw society into the mix. Society dictates that the man is usually the pursuer and the woman is the beautiful thing pursued. If the woman pursues, is she coming off too strong? If the man is submissive, is he not manly? Traditionally, women want men to show their feelings, and men want women to be interested in sex. This also raises questions: do men only say they love women because they want sex? Do women only have sex to feel loved?

Of course, none of the above should be taken into account in a real relationship, but in fiction such topics arise because it is very difficult to create (or represent in the case of fanfiction) a character that does not fit some sort of stereotype. And yaoi gives girls a release from feminine role confusion because both parties are guys, thus who is submissive and who is dominant has nothing to do with gender.

On a more general level, however, yaoi fans probably don't fancy looking at naked women and would rather see two people they are attracted to make love. This seems to be also true of men who like lesbians. It is interesting to note, however, that lesbian porn is more likely to be completely sexual, while yaoi tends to be strewn with love confessions and flower petals.

Yuri is a completely different creature that is popular with female and male anime fans, but to a much lesser degree.

Yaoi isn't just about sex. There is sex involved, yes, but that's not all there is. In fanfiction, there are different classifications of fics. Yaoi fanfiction can contain shonen-ai and, in several cases, does. Yaoi fanfiction can be plotless, read: smut, or it can have a beautiful storyline that shows the paired characters building a relationship over a course of time and experience.

Not all the pairings involved are completely unfounded. Take, for example, Gundam Wing and the relationship between Trowa Barton and Quatre Winner. During the series, they develop a close friendship based on similar simple pleasures (such as the love of music) and by getting to know each other. Of course, since the series was intended for young boys, there would not be anything that pointed to an outright homosexual relationship. It is situations like this that fuel the writers into doing what they do and, if you pay close attention, such things happen often enough in just about any anime to make it plausible.

By the same token, there are Japanese anime series that are centered around such relationships. Gravitation and Ai no Kusabi are examples of this. The former deals with the more romantic drawing together of the characters, while the later is a turbulent sexual relationship centered around the master/slave theme.

Typically, in yaoi anime and fanfiction, one can tell the difference between seme (top) and uke (bottom). The seme tends to have narrow shaped eyes while the uke's eyes are large and expressive, like an anime female or child. This isn't, however, exclusive to yaoi anime. Going back to my earlier example with Gundam Wing, Quatre Winner has "uke eyes" while Trowa Barton has "seme eyes". This is also something that one can find in Japanese based video games. Sephiroth of Final Fantasy VII fame has very much a "seme" appearance. In commonplace, non-yaoi syndication, the "seme eyes" tend to denote a villian or strong lead male character.

As for feminizing male characters, that is actually something that is not well received by a large portion of the yaoi fanfiction crowd. This sort of things tends to lead to extreme out-of-character (OOC) behavior which compounds on top of the already OOC inclinations towards homosexuality. To make such characters more feminine takes away an important part of their personality, which is one of the factors that attracts the writers to the characters. Most writers make the mistake of doing so at least once in their works and they are often called on it by the readers. To quote Spider Robinson's Lady Sally - "I like my bullshit plausible."

By my own experience, both as a writer of yaoi fanfiction and as a reader of it, I've found that the vast majority of fellow readers/writers are not young girls. Nearly half of them are over the ages of 25. By the same token, not all of the readers are female either. Nearly forty percent seem to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

The term yaoi has recently been misappropriated in American slang to apply to many areas of slash fan-fiction as well as shonen-ai. This is more prone to happen when the fanbase for a non-Japanese show or series draws a large number of fans from the anime/manga fanbase. This is starting to become common in American Comicbook slash fan-fiction, especially if the artist favors a Japanese type style. For instance, Harry Potter slash fan-fiction is sometimes labeled as yaoi despite its clearly British origins.

The term was expanded in the 90s to include anime/manga fan-fiction with similar themes as the original doujinshi genre. If this trend continues, yaoi and its sister term, yuri may eventually displace the term slash.

The prevalence for the term yaoi and the changing of its American meaning can be attributed to many things. People may simply want a shorter/easier word to use than shounen-ai, yet still want a term that is exclusive in meaning. The traditional American yaoi fanbase may have started becoming defensive and wanted to redeem the meaning simply because reading something that loosely means smut maybe unbecoming. The trend itself may have sparked in Japan and spread over, though my Japanese falls far too short to try and find out this avenue. Unfortunately, a wide spread study of fan-fiction connoisseurs has so far not been done and its nature makes it hard to document and keep track of.

Yaoi is increasingly becoming a formal genre on American shores. There is not the doujinshi divide here, as there is in Japan, so many people use yaoi in reference to any girl's comic that focus on homosexual relationships. While this sub-genre is typically referred to as shounen-ai in Japan, yaoi has become the operative word, leading to some issues of content as the more graphic manga can appear alongside it's less graphic cousin -- sometimes leading to the shock of some children.

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