What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]

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Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]

Ever watch a show with two (or even more) male characters acting a little too buddy-buddy with each other? Wonder what the heck was going on? Better yet, have you ever seen suggestive fan art of two male characters from a squeaky-clean sports anime? You may have just seen what would fall under the Boys Love label, a genre of fiction depicting romantic relationships between two men directed at a presumed female audience.

Even for those who know Boys Love, the meaning of the term is confusing when considering other names associated with it, most notably yaoi and shounen ai. What's the deal with yaoi? Shounen’ai?? Aren’t they all the same??

To ease the confusion over these terms and the genre, we will define Boys Love and yaoi along with shounen ai. In doing so, we will also briefly touch on the history of the genre and introduce a few series that best represent it.

Now, without further ado, let’s yaoi it up!

First, it is important to note that the definitions of Boys Love, yaoi, and shounen ai outside of Japan are different than their meanings within Japan. In countries outside of Japan, the following is a breakdown of the meaning of these terms:

Boys Love (often shortened to BL):

A relatively new term used to indicate broadly manga, anime, or fan works depicting love between men for a presumed female audience. These relationships between men are often sexual and have determined and visually codified “top” and “bottom” positions. The “top,” also called the seme, “attacks” or rather gives love to the “bottom,” or in other words the uke. Throughout this article, I will mainly use Boys Love as an all-inclusive term for media depicting male/male couplings.


While yaoi is used like Boys Love to describe a genre with works focused on men loving men for a female audience, it has the additional connotation of depicting graphic sexual scenes. In typical advanced search options for anime and manga online, yaoi appears far more often than Boys Love, and is used in conjunction with shounen ai.

Shounen ai:

When used in opposition to yaoi, shounen ai means a boy/boy manga or anime without any explicit sexual scenes. It is often viewed as focusing more on story rather than hot and heavy action between two men.

In Japan, however, there are slightly different meanings to these words. This has much to due with the history of the Boys Love industry and the gradual development of the genre over the past forty years. The following is a brief overview of the history and meaning of the terms used in Japan:


Yaoi developed as a term used to describe non-commercial works depicting relationships between men for women during the boom of the Japanese noncommercial market centered on dōjinshi in the 1970s and 1980. Yaoi in these early years established many conventions that became common in the Boys Love genre, namely explicit sex scenes and the seme/uke framework (Mizoguchi, Akiko, “Reading and Living Yaoi : Male-Male Fantasy Narratives as Women’s Sexual Subculture in Japan,” 59-60, 64).

Etymologically, “yaoi” is an acronym meaning “no climax, no point, no meaning” (yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi) used originally by Osamu Tezuka to refer to manga he viewed as inferior. The usage of the yaoi began around the 1970s among the readers and writers of dōjinshi to self-deprecatingly refer to male-male love works viewed as having poor plot structure and many sexually explicit scenes (Suzuki, Kazuko. Boys love manga and beyond: history, culture, and community in Japan. 105-106).

Even Though this term began to describe non-commercial works, it has been also used to refer to both commercial and non-commercial as well. While it can be seen as another umbrella term used in conjunction with Boys Love, in recent years, BL has eclipsed yaoi in terms of usage.

Boys Love (BL):

Boys Love first appeared in the 1990s to indicate a commercially produced genre of media depicting relationships between men meant for women. While it primarily has the connotation of being commercial, it has increasingly been used as an umbrella term to mean all male-male romances, both commercial and non-commercial, for women. It is often used in opposition to yaoi, in this case more closely associated with noncommercial works like fan art, and bara, a genre of male-male love media directed at gay men (Sugiura, Yumiko. 2006. Otaku joshi kenkyu: fujoshi shiso taikei. 135).

Why commercialized male-male narrative for women became more widespread beginning in the 1990s had in large part to do with the economic situation facing Japan at the time. Following the burst of Japan’s bubble economy in 1990, manga publishers faced a crisis in creating new content in a depressed economy. Finding an already established fan base and creators in the yaoi sphere, publishers turned to yaoi as a lucrative means of generating sales. As such, Boys Love manga entered the market for specific capitalistic motivations and can be viewed as an extension of yaoi dōjinshi (Welker, James. Boys love manga and beyond: history, culture, and community in Japan. 63).

shounen ai:

While in placed like the United States shounen ai is used to indicate non-explicit material, in Japan the term is used to describe early manifestations of male-male romance in shōjo manga during the 1970s. These works did times contain sexually explicit content for its time and were largely written by a group of female mangaka now called the Fabulous Forty-Niners who established male-male love as an important trope in shōjo manga (Mizoguchi, Akiko, “Reading and Living Yaoi : Male-Male Fantasy Narratives as Women’s Sexual Subculture in Japan,” 59-60).

The first shōjo manga to depict male-male love was Takemiya Keiko’s “In the Sunroom” published in 1970 and was then followed by The Gymnasium in November 1971 and Heart of Thomas 1974 by Hagio Moto, and The Poem of Wind and Trees in 1976 by Takeyama (Ishida, Minori. Hisoyaka Na Kyōiku: Yaoi, Bōizu Rabu Zenshi, 21). Characteristics shared among shounen ai works are that they ends in tragedy, take place in Europe, depicts bishōnen (beautiful boys), occur in a school setting, and features a bildungsroman plot (Welker, James. “A Brief History of shounen ai, Yaoi, and Boys Love,” 44).

With these definitions in mind, let’s take a look at a few notable Boys Love anime.

No. 6

Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]
  • Episodes: 11
  • Aired: July 2011 - September 2011

Truth be told, No. 6 is not exactly a BL anime per se since the relationship between the two main characters, Shion and Nezumi, is not outright romantic. However, No. 6 represents an important example of a type of anime that feeds the Boys Love fandom even if it is not precisely within the genre. This is in part due to the suggestive scenarios and actions between Shion and Nezumi that hint at the possibility of an intimate relationship, an element that often appears in anime that wants to attract a female audience. (See Tiger and Bunny, Samurai Flamenco, K, and a handful of Jump sports anime.) Rather than showing two guys hitting up the hot and heavy, No. 6 instead acts as an catalyst that produces fodder for derivative works such as dōjinshi, fan fiction, etc. that would fall under the Boys Love/yaoi category.

For those unfamiliar with this show, No. 6 is a futurist anime that followers the story of Shion, a young genius who has his world changed after encountering the rough and tumble Nezumi. With the help of Nezumi, Shion he discovers more about mysterious deaths that he has been wrongly accused of committing and the dark secrets within the “utopia” where he lives.

Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]

Sekaiichi Hatsukoi: First Season (World’s Greatest First Love)

Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]
  • Episodes: 12
  • Aired: April 2011 - June 2011

Based off the popular manga with the same name and a spin off of the infamous Junjou Romantica, Sekaiichi Hatsukoi is a Boys Love anime proper unlike No. 6. While these elements are a little more toned down in the anime when compared to the manga, Sekaiichi Hatsukoi has all of the classic elements stereotypically associated with the Boys Love/yaoi genre: rather large hands, an aggressive seme, and a smaller uke when compared to the seme. For those in search of a sampling of male-male couples, this anime will more than satisfy; rather than focusing on one couple, Sekaiichi Hatsukoi rotates from couple to couple within a 12-episode span in the first season. (This series also has a 12 episode second season for those who want the love to continue.)

While Sekaiichi Hatsukoi does feature other couples, the anime’s primary focus on the relationship between Onodera Ritsu, a young editor recently assigned to the shojo manga editorial division, and Takano Matsumune, the editor-in-chief and Ritsu’s long lost high school first love. After a misunderstanding that tore the couple apart during their high school days, Takano attempts to win back Onodera.

Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]

Love Stage

Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]
  • Episodes: 10
  • Aired: July 2014 - September 2014

Love Stage falls in line with Sekaiichi Hatsukoi, an anime based off the Boys Love manga series under the same name written by a mangaka still involved in the contemporary dōjinshi scene. While Sekaiichi Hatsukoi focuses on characters in the 20’s, Love Stage dwells on high school love antics. For those who want something a little more youthful (and at times off the wall), Love Stage might be for you.

Like Sekaiichi Hatsukoi, Love Stage follows the story of two boys, Izumi Sena and Ryoma Ichijo, who have been reunited after a long period of separation. However, Love Stage adds a twist; though Ryoma fell in love with Sena when they were children, he didn’t realize at the time that Sena was a boy. Upon encountering the now teenage, otaku Sena, Ryoma quickly reorients himself to love Sena even if he is a boy and labors away at winning him over.

Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]

Hopefully this helps “straighten out” the meaning of Boys Love and yaoi. This genre is also of high interest for academics as well. If you are interested in picking up some academic literature on the topic, the following is a short list of recommended reading. For the most part they are accessible and quite informative not just on Boys Love and yaoi but Japanese girls’ culture as well.
Happy reading and watching! If you have any questions, comments, complaints, or concerns, be sure to leave a message below!

Recommended Reading:

  • Aoyama, Tomoko. 1988. “Male Homosexuality as Treated by Japanese Women Writers.” In The Japanese Trajectory: A Modernization and beyond. Cambridge University Press.
  • Galbraith, Patrick W. 2011. “Fujoshi: Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy among ‘Rotten Girls’ in Contemporary Japan.” Signs 37 (1): 211–32. doi:10.1086/660182.
  • McLelland, Mark. 2000. Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan Cultural Myths and Social Realities. Richmond: Curzon.
  • McLelland, Mark J., Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker. 2015. Boys love manga and beyond: history, culture, and community in Japan.
  • Mizoguchi, Akiko. 2003. “Male-Male Romance by and for Women in Japan: A History and the Subgenres of Yaoi Fictions.” US-Japan Women’s Journal 25: 49–75.
  • Okabe, Daisuke, and Kimi Ishida. 2012. “Making Fujoshi Identity Visible and Invisible.” In Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World,207–24. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Saito, Kumiko. 2011. “Desire in Subtext: Gender, Fandom, and Women’s Male-Male Homoerotic Parodies in Contemporary Japan.” Mechademia 6 (1): 171–91. doi:10.1353/mec.2011.0000.
  • Suzuki, Kazuko. 1998. “Pornography or Therapy? Japanese Girls Creating the Yaoi Phenomenon.” Millennium Girls: Today’s Girls around the World, 243–67.
  • Welker, James. 2006. “Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: ‘Boys’ Love’ as Girls’ Love in Shôjo Manga.” Signs 31 (3): 841–70. doi:10.1086/signs.2006.31.issue-3.

Love-Stage-wallpaper What is BL/Yaoi/Shounen Ai? [Definition, Meaning]


Author: Emma

Emma is beginning her career as a writer and academic on anime, manga, and contemporary Japanese culture. After she finished her senior thesis on fujoshi, Boys Love manga, and media consumption, Emma is currently studying Japanese and conducting research in Japan. Beyond anime, her interests include podcast listening, cooking, and (attempts at) writing. Her favorite quote: “Boys, be ambitious!”

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