Language and Yaoi

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Free! episode 4; available on Crunchyroll


I find human language to be a fascinating thing. In college, despite having studied linguistics, I didn’t really understand or care much about it. But in becoming a fan of anime and manga it is almost impossible to avoid giving consideration to the ways languages as different as English and Japanese can fuel one another.

For all of English’s faults (redundant vocabulary, inconsistent spelling and pronunciation rules), one thing it does very well is in its ability and more importantly willingness to not only borrow words from other languages, but make those words its own. In Pacific Rim the world didn’t have a sufficient word to describe the giant monsters now attacking it, so it convincingly adopted the Japanese word “kaiju” (and less convincingly the German “jaeger” for the giant mechas it then created). This is what English does. Other languages do this too, of course, but I will be focusing on English here. If a word does not exist in English to properly describe something and does exist in another language, rather than creating a new word in its own language, it more than willingly adopts the foreign word into the lexicon.

In particular we see this with food, the universal language of culture. “Sushi” is not just a Japanese word, it means something in English. As it happens, it means the same thing in English that it does in Japanese. This is not always the case, however.

It would be easy to dismiss the changing of a word’s meaning from one language to another as a mistake or a cultural political-incorrectness, but consider the word “anime.” In Japan this word describes animation as a whole (and itself comes from a foreign source), whether foreign or domestic. In the rest of the world it means “animation from Japan,” or as I attempted to argue a few entries ago, a specific style of animation. This is what it means to make a foreign word part of the vocabulary of a language. It can mean the same thing, but it doesn’t have to. More importantly it needs to mean something on which the speakers of that language as a whole agree.

This is all, however, complicated by the existence of the internet: a global forum within which people of different language origins can interact with one another. Not only that, they can also break off from the larger whole into separate communities, creating their own lexicons and idioms. These places in the case of popular culture are called fandoms and they can change and borrow words from the languages of their members and the source material of their media in a microcosm of the way that a larger language system or country might do it.

So, let’s talk about the subject of this entry, the word “yaoi” and to a lesser degree the terms “BL” and “shounen-ai.”

In the US, stories of male homosexual romance have their own unique, separate and concurrent history from the same type of stories produced in Japan. They didn’t begin to converge, really, until the internet age, and even now still exist as somewhat separate communities, even if they share many of the same members. This is important to note, specifically because both began around the same time (the 1970s) and in mostly the same ways (fan-created works of existing properties), however they only share limited lexicon, even today.

In the US fandom these fan-created works are called “slash.” In the Japanese fandom these fan-created works became known as “yaoi.” I will refrain from too much history lesson by avoiding an explanation of why these words were chosen; there is a wealth of information readily available online already. “Slash” is actually a term that is used outside of Western fiction, also used to describe pairings in Japanese properties by Western fans, but it is rare that the term “yaoi” will be used outside the context of Japanese works or Western-created fan works of Japanese properties. There is a very deliberate cultural distinction being made. Because there is already an English term to describe this concept, the Japanese term is used in a distinctive context within its fandom group.

However, that is not the most interesting aspect of the English use of the term “yaoi.” While in Japan the terms “yaoi,” “BL” and “shounen-ai” refer to specific types of content, in the US they have come to refer, arguably incorrectly, to degrees of sexual explicitness.

Let me step back and make clear these distinctions. I know I said I would try to avoid the history lesson, but for the sake of the argument I am making, I need to elaborate. I’ve already explained the definition of “yaoi,” but “BL” and “shounen-ai” have their own origins and meanings. “Shounen-ai” as a concept and term came first. It was used to describe a now-out-of-fashion genre of fiction within which pre-pubsecent and pubescent boys (shounen) had too-close platonic love (ai) relationships with one another. Close to the point of suggesting there was more to their relationship than simple friendship, but given their age and associated purity no overt sexual attraction. The closest concept to this in Western popular culture might be the “bromance,” but “bromance” is not constrained by the purity of youth as “shounen-ai” was. The popularity of the genre eventually waned and was replaced by romantic teen and adult romance, but the term, which literally translates as “boy(s)-love,” fell out of use for much the same reason that its English translation might be considered uncomfortable to us: it conjures up images of child predation. The genre that would replace “shounen-ai” would come to be known by the initials of its English translation, “BL.” This is now the official term used by publishers, not fan-creators, to describe original works published professionally. This is a fascinating idea: Japan using a foreign term to describe a concept to make it less uncomfortable for its consumers. It literally took the English translation of a concept for which it already had a term available and applied it to a new genre of fiction in order to make it more palatable.

In turn this same idea would later be appropriated by its Western fandom when those works made their cross over to the West. Instead of using the term “BL,” which might cause that same discomfort to the native speakers of its language of origin, Westerners appropriated the older, foreign term “shounen-ai” to describe these light, simple stories of gay romance, and “yaoi” to describe the heavier, more mature offerings coming out of Japan. The meanings of the two terms changed when they became adopted by their users in another language, but why distinguish them in this way?

As English speakers we already had a word for “slash” and we could use it just fine to describe fan-created works, wherever they originated. What we lacked were terms to describe the very unique nature of male homosexual romance coming from Japan. Japanese and Western fiction created predominantly by women and for women might have evolved concurrently, but they approached the subject differently. BL as a genre has a unique set of cliches, tropes and cultural influences that are very different from works created by Westerners. In particular, there seemed to be an almost jarring difference between works written for girls (shojo) and works aimed at an adult readership (josei). Some stories were light and never moved beyond confessions of love or chaste kissing, but others were more sexually explicit and/or mature in their subject matter. While the audience for both of these types of stories might have been the same in Japan in many cases, in the US it was less conceivable to market a certain degree of sexual explicitness to minors. In order to distinguish the stuff teens could read from the stuff that would be slapped with 18+ and M ratings, two terms were needed. The two ultimately chosen were “shonen-ai” and “yaoi.”

But culture does not exist in a vacuum. We have come to know the original meanings of these words and often on the internet and among English language publishers both definitions are used by people when choosing the terms. It can actually become quite confusing to determine which meaning what person is ascribing to content, but in general either meaning can be used in any context because the words have become so ubiqitous in fandom. Whenever one hears the terms “slash,” “yaoi,” “BL,” “shounen-ai,” “boys love,” “gay romance,” or others, it all conjures the same idea: content made predominantly by female creators, for predominantly female consumers concentrated around the romantic relationships of male characters.

That’s the whole function of language: to transmit ideas through words.