Japan: Fertile Ground for the Cultivation of Yuri
I was born in Shinjuku Ni-chome, a neighborhood of Tokyo known for its LGBTQ scene, but in 2008 I came to live in New York. I think the term “yuri” is used in rather different ways in Japan than it is abroad. So, in this essay, I will use “Yuri”1 to denote the Japanese understanding of the word, and “Yuri” for its usage abroad. This latter “Yuri” is primarily applied to manga and anime focusing on romantic relationships between women, encompassing anything from friendship up through sex.
You may be wondering why I decided to move from Japan to NYC. It was because, for me, New York represented the sort of place that Utena and Anthy went to find in their quest to revolutionize their world. Just as they left Ohtori Academy, I left the “academy” of Japan in order to live in the “real world.” I constantly felt suffocated when I was in Tokyo, like I was trapped with no way out. That feeling has faded now that I’m in New York. I suspect that the stifling atmosphere I experienced in Japan provides fertile ground for yuri to flourish there. I will expand on that thought in a bit.
Quite some time has passed since I came of age and graduated from the realm of girlhood. I’m no longer driven to read every manga and novel that touches on relationships between women, romantic or otherwise, that crosses my path. But there is never a shortage of young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, and I think the Yuri genre is a valuable resource for them and their families. It feels to me like a source of succor, like a school infirmary after classes have let out for the day. There are no wonder drugs to instantly solve their problems, only herbal remedies to gradually heal their hearts and minds.
I am continuing to create art here in NYC, including manga, which I have been drawing since 1995. Back then, I hungered for stories of lesbian relationships, so I searched high and low for them: in girls’ literature, naturally, but also in books aimed at men. I read everything I could get my hands on, and tried movies and other forms of media, too. But so many of those relationships were confined to the realm of fantasy, or a romanticized school environment, and more often than not, they ended in tragedy, so I got fed up with them. What I truly longed for was a lighthearted story about two women in love, just going about their ordinary lives together. And since nobody else had created one, I decided to do it myself. That was how I became a manga artist.
My first series, a work that remains my greatest manga to date, was called Rica ‘tte Kanji!? It took place in the club scene of Shinjuku Ni-chome, which offered events and information for LGBTQ people, but little in the way of genuine human connection. It was a story about a girl who liked girls, and how she came to be a part of the LGBTQ community.
I would like to emphasize here that I was motivated to create Rica because of how extremely grave the situation was in Japan at the time. I didn’t want to draw a manga full of cute girls who had to keep their feelings hidden, but rather to bring hope and laughter to readers anxious about their sexuality. Looking back on it over a decade later, I’ve realized that, in fact, I was doing it more for my past self, who had agonized over her sexuality from a young age, too. It was a way of telling her, “Don’t worry, you have so much to look forward to!”
This sentiment might sound familiar: it’s embodied by the “It Gets Better” campaign and the Trevor Project, which both work to combat the high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth in the US. If any readers pick up my manga and see themselves or members of their families reflected in its pages, if it shows them that there are places in the real world where they can belong, if it lessens the burden a bit for even one in a hundred of them, then I have succeeded. I am writing this very essay because I hope that yuri can offer salvation to someone out there.
An English edition of Rica was published in 2003. In the years since, anime and manga in the Yuri genre, sometimes known as “shoujo-ai” or “girls’ love,” seem to have exploded in popularity all over the globe. I think most American fans in junior high and above would be familiar with the term “Yuri.” The public libraries here generally offer a selection of manga in their Young Adult section, and I frequently hear about manga workshops, too. I can’t imagine that Strawberry Panic is sitting there on the library shelves next to Attack on Titan, but people interested in Yuri are able to read it online.
Yuri is viewed similarly to BL (“boys’ love”; sometimes called “Yaoi”) in the US, so I doubt many young readers here go into it looking for the same focus on platonic relationships as Japanese yuri fans. Rather, more explicit works about cute girls making out with each other are driving the popularity of the genre abroad. Among the over-21 crowd, I think there are a certain number of fans of yuri-like stories, in a broad sense. But there doesn’t seem to be much interest in creating yuri in the Japanese sense of the term. I don’t know of any foreign artists who specialize in that type of yuri.
In fact, after having lived in the United States for several years, I can say that I don’t think it’s a very fertile breeding ground for yuri. Americans are able to accept yuri because they see it as a product of Japanese culture, but yuri works created outside Japan would not receive the same reception. In a society that highly values diversity, stories that relegate their characters’ lesbian relationships to the realm of subtext may be viewed as exclusionary and discriminatory. And in countries where any sex with a minor could be considered statutory rape, sexually explicit works that feature childlike-looking characters, as in some Japanese art styles, are viewed with suspicion. So foreign Yuri creations feature characters who are clearly recognizable as adults.
I think that if I had been raised here in New York, I could not have written Rica. It would have turned out as an entirely different story: one that celebrated love between women rather than focusing on vague anxieties and unease. Over half of the states in the US now recognize marriage between two people of the same gender, there are support systems in place for at-risk LGBTQ youth, and the country prides itself on offering financial support to artists to encourage new talent and bolster diversity in comics. These artists even craft mission statements about how their work is necessary to society.
In contrast, Japan’s focus is on passing down traditional culture through generations. Manga and anime subcultures, including yuri, exist in their own spheres, evolving independently from the rest of Japanese society. Within the sphere of yuri, fans have a propensity for reading between the lines, picking up on subtle cues, and using their own imaginations to weave rich tapestries of meaning from small threads. This has created marvelously fertile soil for the genre to flourish. I believe it may spring from the delicate sensibility of the Japanese character, steeped in the culture of haiku poetry. Perhaps the secluded feeling I experienced there was the other side of the coin from this isolated cultural growth, where subcultures develop their own unique characteristics akin to the biological variation of the creatures of the Galápagos Islands.
I do not think such a breeding ground could develop in a country like the United States, where the predominating creative process involves a deliberate focus on incorporating diversity and is very structured and goal-focused. So when the Japanese lily, Yuri, is transplanted into American soil, perhaps it becomes a different flower altogether.
I cannot imagine Japanese yuri fans embracing a story in which fan favorites Haruka and Michiru, or Utena and Anthy, graduated from school and proceeded to strike out on their own as a couple: getting married, struggling to build better relationships with the rest of their newly-combined extended family, adopting a child from a different racial background, and inspiring people around them while working in solidarity with all sorts of other communities to truly revolutionize the world.
In closing, there are a few American works I would like to recommend, whose creators have been greatly influenced by manga and Japanese yuri culture. You may be able to find them floating around the Internet, but if you enjoy them, please support the artists by paying for their work.
• Ivan Velez Jr.’s masterpiece, Tales of the Closet (published in 1987; later reprinted by Planet Bronx; digital chapters currently available for rental through NetComics). I was particularly touched by the scene in which the African-American girl Ramona discovers that her sketchbook, which she uses to pour out her feelings in the form of poems and art, is the key to making a new friend.
• “Chop Suey” by Kris Dresen (published in the QU33R anthology from Northwest Press in 2013). It’s not so different from Japanese yuri manga about adults. The artist’s other works are excellent as well, done in a distinct style with pencil and colored pencil.
• Friends by Niki Smith (published on Filthy Figments in 2014; available for purchase as an eBook through Comic Orgy). A stylish erotic comic.
• 12 Days by June Kim (published by TokyoPop in 2006). A yuri manga drawn by a Korean-American artist. It’s similar in style to Japanese manga, so it would be a good introductory work for Japanese readers. Editor’s note: 12 Days is available digitally through Comixology.
1 In the original Japanese article, Takashima uses the kanji combination 「百合」 to denote the Japanese use of the term and the English word YURI to denote the western interpretation. We have chosen to use lower-case /upper-case to make the same distinction.