Yuri Fandom on the Internet

By Sabdha Charlton
Cultural Studies

Introducing Yuriko

Meet Yuriko, Yuricon’s mascot. Tall, blonde and debonair, you could be forgiven for thinking she was a boy, with her long, angular body and short hair flopping over one eye. There are numerous opportunities to get to know Yuriko better on the Yuricon website[i]—you can read an interview with her, look at pictures of her in a range of outfits and poses (from the boyish to the downright sexy) and read about her adventures in the bi-weekly serial ‘Shoujoai ni Bokuen: The Adventures of Yuriko’ by Yuriko’s creator and Yuricon founder, Erica Friedman. She is a Japanese teen idol, out lesbian, and self-confessed playgirl whose hobbies include listening to music, reading, and girl-watching. Currently she is in the middle of a sell-out tour, promoting her latest smash hit single. Like most anime characters, she leads a very eventful life.

Yuriko is pretty chuffed that she is the subject of an academic paper. She is well used to having numerous portraits of her posted by her fans in the Yuriko art gallery, not to mention having the more intimate details of her life posted to the Yuricon mailing list, and so the scrutiny does not bother her. Any publicity is good publicity, except if it slanders her friends, she says. She is used to having her sexuality splashed all over the media, so a queer academic treatment of her lesbianism is particularly welcome, because it takes her seriously rather than as the topic of mere scandal. Yuriko has kindly agreed to an interview, where hopefully she will explain some of the specific ways that yuri fans use the idea of the ‘lesbian’ to interpret their favourite anime and manga. Before such an interview will make much sense, though, I will try and explain what yuri is, who yuri fans are and what kind of fandom it is. Which is lucky, because Yuriko is late for a sound check right now. She waves and bows as she rushes off, trailed by her bodyguard and PA. ‘See you at the bar!’

‘Just what is this “yuri” we’re all so worked up about?’: definitions galore

At its simplest, yuri can be defined as ‘any kind of anime or manga or related material that involves love, be it graphic or not, between women’.[ii] This definition itself requires further definition: anime and manga are the Japanese terms for animation and comics respectively, and are widely used in English language writings, both fan and academic.[iii] ‘Related material’ here refers to a wide range of texts produced by fans, including fan fiction, fan art, websites and mailing lists. In the time that I have been monitoring this fandom (2000–2005), the volume of ‘related material’ has grown rapidly, as the initially obscure concept of yuri has become ever more popular.

Both fans and academics love to define and historicise, but in fine postmodern tradition yuri has proved stubbornly difficult to pin down. Yuri is the Japanese word for ‘lily’, and is also a Japanese girls given name; however, its etymology as a term in the lexicon of English language manga and anime fandom remains unclear. Some sources trace the link between the Japanese term and the fan usage through the girl’s name Yuri, claiming that the name ‘pays homage to the fact that in lots of … yuri stories, one of the active parties happened to be named that way’.[iv] It is also possible that this usage originated with Japanese publisher Ito Bungaku, who coined the words barazoku (rose tribe) and yurizoku (lily tribe) to refer to homosexual men and lesbians respectively.[v] However, these terms are rarely used in Japan and, as far as I can tell, they have only been in anime and manga fan usage since I cited Wim Lunsing’s article mentioning this fact on a yuri mailing list in 2000. Nevertheless, in 2005 this theory is fairly widespread.[vi] While the ‘real’ etymology of the term remains unclear, the need for theories and the speed with which they are spread are indicative of the central place that knowledge plays within contemporary media fandoms such as yuri.

Not only is yuri etymologically uncertain, it is also challenging to define. ‘Yuri’ is by no means the only term invoked at the node of comics, fans, Japan, and lesbian sexuality, and a consideration of the related Japanese anime terms shoujoaihentai and yaoi provides a more complex and nuanced picture—not only of the ways that the meaning of the term ‘yuri’ is created and challenged by fans but also of some of the ways yuri fans define themselves.

Shoujoai is perhaps the closest term to yuri in meaning, and the two are often used to define each other. For example, an early yuri fan site called Team Yuri stated that ‘yuri (or shoujoai, as it is also called) … [is] a slang term for female/female relationships; specifically, female/female relationships in anime.’[vii] The term shoujoai translates literally from the Japanese as ‘girl love’, and was probably coined in response to the slightly more official Japanese term shounenai (boy love), a wildly popular sub-genre of the Japanese publishing genre shoujo manga (comics for girls).

This official publishing genre of shounenai is supported by a huge fandom known as yaoi. Yuri is thus often defined as the other half of a binary pair with yaoi, as in one online glossary which states that yuri is ‘the lesbian version of yaoi’.[viii] Yaoi is a large, international fandom that concentrates on sexual and romantic relationships between male characters in anime and manga.[ix] Unlike yuri, yaoi is an acronym, which expands to the Japanese phrase ‘yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi’. This translates as ‘no build-up, no climax, no meaning’ and roughly corresponds to the English acronym PWP, or ‘Plot? What Plot?’, a term that originates in ‘slash’ fan cultures. [x] Both yaoi and PWP refer to the tendency of their content to jump straight into explicit sex, without bothering to situate it in a convincing narrative.

There are, then, two pairs of Japanese-derived terms: shoujoai (girl love) and shounenai (boy love), and yuri and yaoi, such that yuri and shoujoai are to some extent parallel terms. However, the relationship between yuri and shoujoai is far from clear, as the Wikipedia definition of yuri indicates: ‘the precise difference between “yuri” and “shojo-ai”—or even whether or not there is a precise difference, or any difference at all—can vary greatly depending on the speaker.’[xi] This is probably because both yuri and shoujoai are primarily fan phenomena. The lack of ‘official’ publishing genres and thus ‘official’ definitions of both yuri and shoujoai mean that ‘it is all fan usage’, as one fan has noted.[xii] Definitions of yuri and shoujoai are thus heavily dependent on who is using them and to what purpose.

The most common distinction drawn by yuri fans is directly related to sexuality: shoujoai is used to mark a difference from yuri in that it often refers to romantic love between girls, whereas yuri tends to be more closely associated with sexually explicit depictions of such relationships. ‘Team Yuri adheres to the romantic aspects—the ai in shoujoai ’ says Voidstar, founder of the now defunct Team Yuri site. And indeed for many fans it seems to be the notion of ‘love’ that is stressed when the term shoujoai is used.[xiii] Nonetheless, yuri is simultaneously used as a catch-all term within which shoujoai is subsumed.

Despite the common link made by fans between yuri and explicit sex, again, this relationship is not a simple one. Most fans distinguish yuri from pornography that fetishises same-sex sex between women. It is thus often described by what it is not: it is not hentai, that is, anime and manga created specifically for the purposes of sexual arousal (pornography). For example, Voidstar states, ‘we’re not talking lesbian porn here’,[xiv] and the Yahoogroups yuri mailing list warns its members that when posting to the list, ‘generally hentai is not such a good idea’.[xv]However, the explicit disavowal of hentai in fact reinforces the link between the two, and indeed the eponymous Yuri is usually said to have originated in hentai anime. At the same time, by disavowing hentai, yuri fans run the risk of appearing sex-negative (which they mostly are not), and so justifications for the enjoyment of explicit sex abound. These usually involve a typification of hentai fans as lacking in intelligence and romantic sentiment—for example, the Yuri ML claims that ‘we think sex is a wonderful pastime, but we like to involve our gray cells in it. Yuri fandom … tries to depict characters who fit each other in more ways than the only one hentai come up with.’[xvi]

Erica Friedman of Yuricon, rather than disavowing hentai all together, wants to reclaim it for lesbians. ‘Hot lesbo sex, i.e. yuri, is not just by guys for guys … some of us lesbians really, genuinely enjoy (it).’[xvii] There is an assumption here that the majority of yuri fans are male, and that their primary interest in it is as sexual titillation. Regardless of the truth or not of this claim, Yuricon’s website and mailing list include many self-identified lesbians who claim yuri anime and manga as a form of popular culture that has unique appeal for them. The word ‘lesbian’ as it is used by these fans is a specifically Western term that is often used across all yuri fandom; however, yuri does not equal lesbianism in any simple way. Yuriko’s website, Yuricon, for example, uses the term yuri liberally but does not bother to define it, once stating its topic area as ‘discussions of anime lesbians, lesbian-wannabees and lesbian oughtabes [sic]’.[xviii] It is often unclear whether the word ‘lesbian’ is used as an adjective to describe female/female romantic and sexual interactions, as a noun used to identify the female characters involved, or as an identification by anime fans—and it is often used as all three. As I will argue later in this article, the lesbian is inscribed into anime and manga by fans via a complex interaction between specific cultural and subcultural knowledge about the ‘lesbian’, and the characteristics of the texts themselves.

‘The List’: yuri anime and manga texts

Yuri fans are list makers. Almost every general (as opposed to series specific) yuri, shoujoai and lesbian anime fan page has a list of ‘cool, butchy, cute anime and manga lesbians’, or a page of favourite character pairings.[xix] They are constantly seeking out new manga and anime to add to the pool of yuri texts, and lists of these can be found on yuri-related websites and in many posts to yuri mailing lists.[xx] Not surprisingly, many of the titles and characters in these lists overlap between sites, with Card Captor Sakura, Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena being perhaps the most popular yuri anime in the late 1990s and early 2000s (and still going strong, along with an ever-expanding list of new titles).

It is very difficult to delineate in any universalising way the characteristics of the yuri manga and anime that appear on these lists, apart from their common origin in Japan. As Jenkins states, ‘media fandom (is) a discursive logic that knits together interests across textual and generic boundaries’, and this is clear in yuri fandom’s attribution of yuri status to a wide range of manga texts.[xxi] Yuri did not start as a commercial genre with explicit storylines, and so for a long time fans had to look to other characteristics of the texts in order to judge whether they are ‘yuri fodder’ or not.[xxii] These characteristics tend to involve an aesthetics of style and narrative that is not restricted to any one genre. Yuri titles are thus broadly cross-generic and are found in a wide variety of genres, including hentai (sexually explicit anime and manga),mecha (stories with elaborate mechanical creations, often set in dystopic alternate universes), and shounen manga (comics for boys).

Nevertheless, yuri titles are most likely to belong to the official generic publishing category of shoujo manga (comics for girls), especially the so-called ‘magical girl’ titles (for example the three popular series cited above). As the genre of shoujo manga is known for its preoccupation with love and relationships, it is perhaps not surprising that many (though by no means all) yuri and shoujoai fan texts belong to this genre.[xxiii] Shoujo manga is particularly suited to the yuri treatment, as its main characters tend to be female, and strong, close friendships are often depicted (for example Sakura and Tomoyo in Card Captor Sakura, Utena and Anthy in Revolutionary Girl Utena, the Sailor Scouts in Sailor Moon, and so on). The depictions of these relationships are often somewhat ambiguous to a Western audience, unused to the open displays of affection common between Japanese schoolgirls.[xxiv]

A further source of ambiguity is in the translation of the Japanese word suki. Depending on the context in which is used, suki can mean either ‘like’ or ‘love’. In a classic scene in Card Captor Sakura that has been endlessly analysed by fans, Tomoyo says to her best friend, the naïve Sakura, ‘Tomoyo mo Sakura-chan ga daisuki desu wa’, which can be translated either as ‘I love you too, Sakura’ or ‘I really like you too, Sakura’. The work that yuri fans do, however, relies upon this kind of ambiguity. Popular cultural texts are always ambiguous—that is, they are polysemic, signifying many meanings, and as yuri fans, like all media fans, are adept at ‘raid(ing) mass culture, claiming its materials for their own use, reworking them as the basis for their own cultural creations and social interactions’, they read their desire into and through these popular anime and manga texts.[xxv] It is this desire that ultimately leads fans to seek out other fans, and thus form fan ‘communities’.

‘Join the Yuricon revolution!’: utopia and virtual community

Yuricon is one such fan community.[xxvi] In this context, ‘community’ refers to a loosely linked group of diverse people who post to the mailing list with differing degrees of frequency (from many times a day to not at all). The hub of all this activity is the Yuricon web site, www.yuricon.org. When it was first started by Erica Friedman and her friends, Yuricon styled itself as an online fan convention, complete with fan fiction and fan art competitions, special guests, stickers and essays, not to mention a mascot, the ever-charming Yuriko.[xxvii] Like most yuri fandom, it is primarily an online phenomenon. Fandom in general, of course, existed long before the Internet and personal computers came along, and these off-line forms of fandom, such as zines, conventions (or cons as they are known) and fan clubs are still primary loci of activity for many fans.[xxviii] Similarly, online yuri fandom is supplemented by a variety of real life activities such as panels on the different varieties of shoujoai, yuri and female/female slash (f/f) at anime and manga conventions; ‘cosplay’, or dressing up as a favourite anime character and taking part in competitions at conventions; the collection and sale of Japanese doujinshi (amateur manga) with yuri content; and, of course, the writing of fan fictions and drawing of fan art that many fans engage in. Now that Yuricon runs its own real life dedicated yuri conventions in America and Tokyo, the website operates as an online community hub, with an online shop, publishing and export business, event listings, and so on.

The centrality of the Internet to yuri fandom means that the relationship of yuri fandom to real life fan practices is more complex than a simple ‘continuation of off-line practices’, as Clerc argues is true of other media fandoms.[xxix] Yuricon’s online convention, a web-based virtual space, acts as a (virtual) base from which Yuricon members have taken on the project of recruiting members at real life conventions that are not specifically aimed at yuri fans. For example, at Shoujocon 2001 (conference for fans of shoujo manga and anime), Yuricon members handed out stickers, hijacked panel discussions, and did all they could to increase the visibility of both Yuricon and lesbians in anime more generally.[xxx]

Yuri fans are usually anime fans before they are fans of yuri, introduced to anime through local screenings of Japanese anime on their televisions or through friends who have introduced them to the medium. They then bring their desire to see same-sex female relationships to their favourite medium, and this desire leads them to yuri fandom on the Internet. Not all yuri fans come by their object of fandom via the Internet—the assertive recruiting policy of Yuricon, for example, means that many new list members are introduced to the existence of the online community via real life introductions at conventions. It is, however, clear that the Internet plays a vital role in the promulgation and everyday life of yuri fandom, and anime fandom more generally relies heavily on the Internet as a convenient, fast way to search out information, self-publish fan fiction, and share information with fellow fans.

The relationship between yuri fans and the Internet is a complex one—while the Internet facilitates the fandom (and I suspect the fandom would not be as large as it is without it), it is not restricted to that medium only. The fact that this community is based on the Internet has ramifications for its structure and functioning. Factors such as language, access to computer technology and the skills required to operate it, are crucial in determining the characteristics of online communities. Interpreting backwards from the material conditions of the Internet and ICT technology generally, yuri fans, on the whole, are literate, well-educated and well-resourced.

Even though the conditions of the Internet indicate that these fans must possess certain levels of economic and informational capital, by identifying as fans they nevertheless ‘accept what has been labelled a subordinate position within the cultural hierarchy’.[xxxi] Their investment in the lesbian as an object of desire is a further subordination in the terms of the heteronormative Western culture that the fandom articulates itself in. Yet, as Fiske argues, ‘fandom can be a way for subordinated groups lacking in “official” cultural and economic capital to produce alternate forms of capital, and thus self-esteem.’[xxxii] Lesbian representation has, until the early 1990s at least, been scarce in popular culture, and by creating a culture in which capital in the form of information circulates through the online community, lesbian and bisexual anime fans can go some way to satisfying their specific desires to see themselves represented in their favourite form of popular culture, validating their lesbian desires in the process. In the period of my research, many women wrote in to the Yuricon and Yuri mailing lists about feeling isolated from their local communities—whether it be from the straight community because they are lesbian, or lesbian communities because as media fans they didn’t ‘fit in’.[xxxiii] These critiques of lesbian culture were often framed in such a way that existing lesbian communities were seen as restrictive in their politics and sense of style. For example, Erica Friedman, the founder of Yuricon, writes:

When I think of hanging out with other lesbians I find myself confronted with a choice—there are the majority, a seemingly endless sea of psychotic, sexless and fun-hating, political chant-shrieking women, or the small minority who happily discuss ‘hot lesbo sex’. I knew where I wanted to be. Plus I wanted to meet cute chicks. And so, Yuricon was born.[xxxiv]

Yuricon thus becomes a utopic space for some fans, a place where fans can celebrate ‘anime lesbianism, shoujoai , yuri, gender-bending, cool-butchy-powerful-beautiful women, etc’.[xxxv]In this sense, it lives up to Rheingold’s utopic dream of virtual communities linked by ‘human feeling’.[xxxvi]

In my discussion of Yuricon I have implied that it is some kind of ‘lesbian fandom’; however, yuri fandom in general cannot be characterised in this way. Even those sites and mailing lists that explicitly cater for lesbians, such as Yuricon, do not tend to restrict their membership to self-identified lesbians, or even to women. Yuricon’s Frequently Asked Questions page, for example, includes the question ‘Are guys/straight folks/bi folks welcome here—or will I be flamed to perdition for posting?’ The reply is ‘Heck yeah you’re welcome! More than welcome. Yuricon is about the celebration of girls in love—and we don’t care who brought the drinks.’ Nevertheless, ‘Yuricon is by and for women who like women. So while we are yaoi and straight anime and manga friendly, remember the aesthetic is really ours.’[xxxvii] Although it is impossible to get any hard statistics about the real life genders of participants in this Internet fandom, self-identifications on the mailing list imply that it is fairly evenly split between male fans and lesbians, with a healthy sprinkling of bisexual men and women and heterosexual women. As a result of this, an unusual alliance is formed between lesbians and straight men over their desire to see women together both romantically and sexually. This ‘seeing’ is not necessarily equivalent; however, I argue that, particularly in the Yuricon fan community, a range of fans mobilise discourses of ‘the lesbian’ in order to satisfy this scopic desire.

‘For those of you on the lookout for cool, butchy, cute anime and manga lesbians’: reading the lesbian

The concept of ‘community’ as it is invoked in writings on the Internet has often concentrated on the formal characteristics of online communities rather than their content, and while it would be possible to do a similar analysis of online yuri fan communities such as Yuricon, describing the use of mailing list and website technologies, I am more interested in considering the content of these fan communications, particularly the way in which they articulate a lesbian discourse through the mobilisation of familiar signifiers in cross-cultural texts.

Dick Hebdige’s classic study of punks argued that subcultures appropriate and resignify images from mainstream cultures, and yuri fans, located in the subordinated terms of fandom and the lesbian, occupy a subculture that nevertheless is intimately related to the dominant culture in which it exists.[xxxviii] That is to say, in their consumption of popular culture, yuri fans mobilise both popular and subcultural discourses of ‘the lesbian’. The word ‘lesbian’ can be, and is, deployed in a plethora of ways, but it is the discourse of ‘the lesbian’ as both subject and object of popular culture that bears directly on the ways that yuri fans consume anime and manga. As subject, the self-identified lesbian fan undertakes her readings of popular culture from a position that carries with it certain subcultural lesbian knowledges, and these knowledges, or subcultural capital, affect the meanings that she will create from anime texts, or her process of decoding, to use Stuart Hall’s term.

At the same time, popular discourses of ‘the lesbian’ as represented through the media also shape the fan’s understandings of what ‘lesbian’ can mean. These processes are simultaneous and mutually constitutive—there is no ‘pure’ subculture of lesbianism, untainted by the dominant culture, and the popular representation of ‘the lesbian’ does not proscribe nor bound what ‘lesbian’ can mean. There is, therefore, a distinction between ‘the lesbian’ as a figure in popular discourse (and I take this to include popular representation broadly—media and personal discourse), and the lesbian subject position that yuri fans take up. While these two concepts are not entirely unconnected—indeed it is my argument that the former both enables and is problematised by lesbian subjects’ viewing strategies—it is useful to keep some analytical distance between them. In order to theorise the process by which yuri fans find the lesbian in Japanese anime and manga, I will firstly suggest that the way the lesbian has been represented in popular culture actually enables, through a process of connotation, a reading practice that ‘fills in the gaps’ of anime and manga, both literally and metaphorically, making visible the invisible lesbian. By then, Yuriko ought to have finished her sound check, and perhaps we can retire to a bar somewhere to speculate with her about the specific discursive tools that yuri fans use to produce characters such as hers.

‘The lesbian’ in popular culture has been most widely theorised in relation to visual representation, particularly film.[xxxix] The lesbian as a figure in popular culture is as elusive as she is ubiquitous. She is often theorised as that which has to be read covertly. She comes into films ‘uninvited’, as the title of Patricia White’s book on lesbian visibility in classical Hollywood cinema states.[xl] There is no doubt that mainstream representation of lesbians has increased exponentially in the last ten years. However, more often than not, the lesbian is still invoked only to be denied.[xli] The only way that her lesbianism can escape disavowal or being made invisible is for it to never be made explicit—the classic example of this is the lesbian icon Xena the Warrior Princess. In the film industry, major Hollywood features with explicitly lesbian characters are still scarce. Such lesbian characters as there are either appear in independent cinema or, like Xena, have to be read into the spaces left by the text (for example Thelma and Louise, the Alien movies, especially Alien 4Fried Green Tomatoes). The only other option is the hyper-visible (in that her primary function is to be looked at), hyper-sexualised product of men’s fantasies (for example Basic Instinct).

Western fans who take a up a lesbian subject position from which to view popular texts thus come armed with a language of signification, and a familiarity with the strategies of disavowal and invisibility commonly used by hegemonic popular culture. As DA Miller has argued, this signification of ‘lesbian’ all occurs within the realm of connotation, for as soon as a lesbian is denotated (through an image of same-sex desire such as a kiss) she is disavowed, and so she can only exist in a connotative realm where signifiers such as dress, character traits, and the structure of relationships between female characters come to connote lesbian desire.[xlii]Indeed it would seem that the function of yuri fan fiction is to take these connotations into the realm of denotation by writing (and thus representing) the sex that is disavowed, and thus cannot be represented, by the hegemonic popular culture industry.

Not all yuri fans are lesbians all the time, as I have already noted, and so it is too simplistic to speak of a singular ‘lesbian subject position’ that yuri fans take up, as this would imply a singular, universal lesbian identity. The ways in which different yuri fans engage with texts is inflected by the material conditions of their gender identification, and social and geographical locations. Nevertheless, in order to decode popular texts as ‘lesbian’ and thus as ‘yuri fodder’, any fan must immediately draw on a variety of discourses of lesbianism in order to find and interpret the signifiers of the text. Yuri fans, particularly those in the Yuricon community, may or may not self-identify as lesbian, but they certainly share an investment in the term. As Evans and Gamman argue, a queer gaze is not limited to those who define themselves as ‘queer’ or ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ but that everyone has their ‘queer moments’, and thus a theory of consumption by fans must allow for cross-sexuality identifications and investments.[xliii] The Yuricon community of fans in particular engages a ‘lesbian gaze’ in order to decode anime and manga as objects of yuri desire.

Yuri fans, then, have a knowledge of both popular and subcultural discourses of lesbianism which they bring with them when watching anime. In animation, the images presented on the screen have a longer conceptual distance between signifier and signified, in that the process of making meaning from animated images is more complex than with images that have a closer mimetic relationship to reality. Fantasy is thus integral to the medium, in that the viewer literally has to work to ‘fill in the gaps’ (animation usually has many fewer frames per second than live-action film, and this means that the viewer’s brain must invent the movement between frames in order for the picture to appear to move realistically). While this perceptual process is not unique to lesbian viewers, it could act as a kind of analogy for how lesbian viewers and other yuri fans ‘fill in the gaps’ of the anime they watch, making links between the signifiers of character development, sartorial codes, voice modulation and interactions with other characters in order to produce the coherent meaning of ‘lesbian’. This notion is, of course, strongly redolent of de Certeau’s (via Jenkins) theory that readers are textual poachers. However, rather than simply ‘raid(ing) mass culture’, in their consumption practices yuri fans produce and insert the lesbian into text in which she is disavowed—in other words, through their work of filling in the gaps they make the invisible lesbian character visible.[xliv]

This process involves a form of translation as well as fantasy, for the anime and manga that yuri fans are working with are not the products of the dominant Western popular culture that they are familiar with, but cultural products of Japan. Sabucco addresses this through a process that she calls ‘guided fan fiction’. She argues that:

This new reader-produced manga is more a Western text than a Japanese one. This recreated manga probably resonates with the reader at a social, cultural and personal level more than the manga that the fan would encounter if she knew how to read all its codes and cultural conventions. The decisions the characters take, their motivations, their inner thoughts, and the nature of their relationships, are more Western than Japanese, because they are ascribed to the characters by their Western readers.[xlv]

The lesbians that congregate at Yuricon are particularly attracted to this kind of viewing ‘work’, and, as I have argued, this may have something to do with their particular histories as lesbians in a fan culture (not to mention a whole society) where lesbian is usually either elided or produced as a fantasy for men. Jenkins cautions that: ‘[W]e must be careful to attend to the particularities of specific instances of critical reception, cultural appropriation, and popular pleasure—their precise historical context, their concrete social and cultural circumstances, for it is the specifics of lived experiences and not simply the abstractions of theory which illuminate the process of hegemonic struggle.’[xlvi] It is thus important to keep in mind the materialities of lesbian oppression when thinking about the attraction of anime to lesbians, and the attraction of the lesbian in anime.

‘Yuricon’s Sexy Mascot—Yuriko’: yuri aesthetics

So what are these discourses of lesbianism that make up the semiotic tool-kit of yuri fans? The best person to ask would be Yuriko, because as the collaborative creation of Yuricon yuri fans, she is the epitome of—ah, here she comes now, minus the entourage and dressed down in T-shirt and jeans. Let’s have a chat to her over a nice cold beer.

So, Yuriko, how can you tell if an anime or manga character is a lesbian or not?

Well, more often than not it’s a matter of aesthetics. Look at me for example—even though some people might think I am a boy, it’s pretty obvious that I’m a lesbian if you know what to look out for. The very fact that I am a girl who dresses like a boy is the first thing. Utena from Shoujo Kakumei Utena and Haruka from Sailor Moon are the same—they wear boy’s clothes, they hang out with one special female friend a lot …

Is it the way you look, then, or who you spend time with … ?

It’s a bit of both. In the Utena TV series, for example, you never see Utena and Anthy kiss, but there are all these shot-reverse-shot sequences where they are looking into each other’s eyes, and we are so used to that being used between characters that are in love that it is easy to fill in the missing kisses ourselves!

What about characters who don’t look like boys? Jury from Utena, for example, is one of the most popular yuri characters, but she has long curly hair—she hardly looks like a boy …

Well, sometimes it is the narrative that gives it away. Jury’s secret love was a girl called Shiori, and she wears a locket with Shiori’s picture in it, so she must be a lesbian.

Even though we never see Jury and Shiori kiss, and even though Jury never refers to herself as a lesbian?

But even though Jury has long hair, she is still a strong character, not feminine in the same way that, say, Nanami is, and she is in love with a girl—all the evidence adds up …

So are there feminine lesbian anime characters, like Haruka’s girlfriend Michiru, and Utena’s Anthy?

Yes, I suppose they are lesbians too, but they don’t get as much attention as the cool, butchy characters—

Like you, I suppose—

(laughs) Well…

And what about you?

What about me?

Where do you fit in?

I’m a collaborative creation of Yuricon yuri fans, and so you could say that I am the archetypal yuri character. I’m everything they want a lesbian anime character to be. Why do you think my name is Yuri-ko? (grins)

Ah yes, -ko being a Japanese suffix for girls’ names—that makes you child of yuri, does it not? And you are not unaware of your own attractions, either, I see!

Speaking of which, I’ve got a date with the last journalist I did an interview for, so I’d better rush off—but are you free on Saturday?

Um, we can talk about that later. Have fun tonight, Yuriko, and thanks for your help in explaining just how yuri fans can tell when a character is a lesbian.

The pleasure was mine.


As Yuriko has so elegantly explained to us, yuri fans rely on a complex series of engagements with popular and subcultural discourses about ‘the lesbian’ and her aesthetic in order to decode their favourite anime and manga as objects of yuri desire; that is, the desire to see animated women together romantically and sexually. Their readings of certain characters as ‘lesbian’ thus have more to do with a specifically Western discourse of what a lesbian is than a Japanese one, even though they are decoding texts that originate in Japan. Luckily for yuri fans, Japanese anime and manga are particularly semiotically open to this kind of interpretation: strong relationships between women abound, and the translation of language and cultural codes allows for a variety of semiotic slips and openings in which desire can be inscribed. The lack of any ‘true’ history or etymology allows yuri fans to create their own competing and complex ways of engaging with this gaze, while still creating a strong sense of virtual community. The Yuricon fan community is thus a kind of utopia, one of the few places in which a lesbian gaze is engaged by a wide range of different kinds of people, drawn together by their love of ‘animated’ women.

[i] Viewed June 2000–February 2005, http://www.yuricon.org. All quotes in headings taken from various incarnations of the Yuricon website unless otherwise noted. Note that not all links to Yuricon cited in this article are still active, as the research for this paper was conducted between 2000 and 2005.

[ii] Yuri moderator, yuri_owner@yahoogroups.com, ‘Welcome to Yuri’, generic email welcome message, 20 June, 2000.

[iii] Note that this article treats English language yuri fandom only. Fan sites and mailing lists in languages such as Italian and German do exist; however, at the time of researching for this article the only Japanese site I was able to locate that used the word ‘yuri’ in relation to same-sex relations between women in manga and anime was a site that translated fan fictions from English into Japanese!

[iv] Voidstar, 31 March 1999, viewed 13 July, 2001, http://voidstar.tripod.com/yuri/yuri.html.

[v] Wim Lunsing, ‘Japanese gay magazines and marriage advertisements’, Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services vol.3, no.3, 1995, 75.

[vi] For examples of both these theories, see ‘Yuri’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri. The Wikipedia is an online free-content encyclopedia that can be contributed to and edited by anybody with the requisite knowledge.

[vii] Voidstar, ‘Just what is this “yuri” we’re all so worked up about?’, 31 March, 1999, viewed 13 July 2001, http://voidstar.tripod.com/yuri/yuri.html.

[viii] ‘Josei ni: A resource and guide to homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism inanime’, viewed 13 July 2001, http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/university/5/josei_ni/glossary.htm#yuri.

[ix] While secondary commentary on yuri (and indeed lesbianism in general) in manga and anime is still quite rare, yaoi and shounenai on the other hand are extensively documented both in academia and fandom. See, for example, Mark McLelland, ‘Male homosexuality and popular culture in modern Japan’, Intersections, no.3, 2000; Veruska Sabucco, ‘Guided fan fictions: Western “readings”of Japanese homosexual-themed texts’, in Chris Berry, Fran Martin and Audrey Yue (eds), Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia, Duke University Press, Durham, 2002, 70–86; and Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000.

[x] Slash is a well-established fandom that originated when (primarily female) fans of Star Trek started to write stories and draw pictures of Kirk and Spock as lovers. The name comes from the slash between the names of the paired characters, and has come to refer to pairings across a wide range of media fandoms; for example, Buffy/Faith, Xena/Gabrielle, and so on. While slash originated with female fans creating gay male relationships, usually in science fiction television series, the concept has now broadened to encompass any same-sex pairing that is not canonical (that is, not explicitly written into the text). Female/female slash, or f/f as it is known, has a wide fandom of its own, and yuri is sometimes seen as a subgenre of this fandom. See Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge, New York, 1992, for one of the first academic discussions of slash.

[xi] ‘Yuri’, Wikipedia.

[xii] Johann Chua, ‘Re: [Yuricon_2001] DBZ Yuri fic’, in Yuricon_2001, Aug 20 2001, archived at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Yuricon_2001/message/3359.

[xiii] Voidstar.

[xiv] Voidstar.

[xv] Yuri moderator.

[xvi] Yuri moderator.

[xvii] Erica Friedman, ‘A Phoenix from the Ashes: An essay on yuri and shoujoai as a focus for post-modern lesbians’, viewed 28 January, 2005, http://www.yuricon.org/essays/phoenix.html.

[xviii] Erica Friedman, ‘Yuricon celebrates shoujoai and yuri’, viewed 29 June, 2001, http://Yuricon.shoujoai.com/.

[xix] Erica Friedman, ‘Shoujoai and yuri anime and manga celebration—Yuricon,’ viewed 31 August, 2001, http://Yuricon.shoujoai.com/update.htm.

[xx] The most comprehensive of these would have to be Kishiji Bando’s ‘Shoujo YuriManga Guide version 1.2,’ in Yuri, June 16, 2001, archived at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/yuri/message/2775.

[xxi] Jenkins, 40.

[xxii] As yuri becomes more popular, various commercial strategies are being employed, both by fans and by anime and manga artists. This is particularly evident on the Yuricon site, which even has its own online shop!

[xxiii] Frederick Schodt, Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1983, 88.

[xxiv] Jennifer Robertson, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.

[xxv] Jenkins, 18.

[xxvi] ‘Community’ is a contentious term that brings with it a range of discourses from the utopic to the postmodern. Rather than debate the meaning of community here, I adopt the word following Yuricon’s own terminology for the nature of the communications between fans on the Yuricon mailing list.

[xxvii] Yuricon was originally known as ‘AniLesboCon’, taking the first syllables of ‘Anime Lesbians Convention’ and, as its name suggests, it is highly invested in the term ‘lesbian’. This focus on the lesbian in yuri is not restricted to Yuricon; however, since its foundation in 2000 it has rapidly become a large lesbian-focused yuri community on the Internet, and to my knowledge it was the first yuri fan site that explicitly catered for women who self-identify as lesbians.

[xxviii] Susan Clerc, ‘Estrogen brigades and “big tits” threads: media fandom online and off’, in David Bell and Barbara M Kennedy (eds), The Cybercultures Reader, London, Routledge, 217.

[xxix] Clerc, 216.

[xxx] Erica Friedman, ‘Thanks to all and Shoujocon Report’, in Yuricon_2001, July 17, 2001, archived at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Yuricon_2001/message/1603.

[xxxi] Jenkins, 23.

[xxxii] John Fiske, ‘The Cultural economy of fandom’, in Lisa A Lewis (ed.), The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Routledge, London, 1992, 33.

[xxxiii] As media fandom and the lesbian presence in popular media both become more visible, this has possibly changed since the early 2000s.

[xxxiv] Friedman, ‘Phoenix’.

[xxxv] Erica Friedman, ‘True History of Yuricon’, viewed 29 July, 2001, http://Yuricon.shoujoai.com/history.htm.

[xxxvi] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Addison-Wesley, Reading, 1993, 5.

[xxxvii] Erica Friedman, ‘Join the Yuricon Community, celebrating shoujoai and yuri in anime and manga’, viewed 23 August, 2001, http://Yuricon.shoujoai.com/faq.htm#whois.

[xxxviii] Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Routledge, London, 1991.

[xxxix] This is partly because of the debt that gay and lesbian studies, and queer theory, have to film theory.

[xl] Patricia White, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1999.

[xli] Tamsin Wilton, Immortal, Invisible: Lesbians and the Moving Image, Routledge, London, 1995.

[xlii] DA Miller, ‘Anal rope’, in Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, Routledge, New York, 1991, 119–41.

[xliii] Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman, ‘The gaze revisited, or reviewing queer viewing’, in Paul Burston and Colin Richardson (eds), A Queer Romance: Lesbians, Gay Men and Popular Culture, Routledge, London, 1995, 13–56.

[xliv] Jenkins, 18.

[xlv] Sabucco, 324.

[xlvi] Jenkins, 35.


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