What’s Yuri?

At YaYCon we pay attention to yaoi and yuri in both Japanese and Western pop culture. The term yuri describes Japanese media (e.g. anime, manga) that depicts lesbian love affairs or feelings. Unlike yaoi, yuri is hardly a fully developed genre as such. Rather, it can be seen as a trope that we can find in all kinds of Japanese fiction, notably in content aimed at teenage girls, so-called shoujo, or in the more erotic genre hentai. Western fans sometimes describe more emotional, non-erotic forms of yuri as shoujo-ai, inspired by the term shounen-ai that describes mild gay content. Yuri and shoujo-ai also correspond with the Western fan genre femmeslash, or lesbian-themed fanfiction.

Historically, the first pioneer of yuri was Nobuko Yoshiya (1896-1973), who wrote novels rather than comics, that described the love between school girls, often upper (senpai) and underclassmen (kohai). These novels were the start of what was later described as the Class S genre that is still popular today (e.g. Maria-sama ga Miteru; Strawberry Panic). This genre had ties to actual socio-political circumstances in Japan in the early twentieth century. The all-female revue group Takarazuka, founded in 1914, for instance, was an actual ‘Class S’ school in which female students were thought to be actors in colorful theatre plays. After a certain liberty to perform male roles (and obtain a different gender through this, even outside the classrooms) and engage in romantic fictional relationships with other girls, the graduated Takarazuka students were expected to become good, heterosexual, married women (see also Robertson, 1998).

The first manga that contained more or less explicit lesbian content were made in the seventies. Ryoko Yamagishi’s Shiroi Heya no Futari (1971) was the first notable yuri manga. Often this overlaps with transgender content, for instance in the groundbreaking The Rose of Versailles (1972) which tells the story of Oscar, raised as a boy, who becomes the royal guard of princess Marie-Antoinette. This story – arguably inspired by Takarazuka’s example of male-female actors (otokoyaku) – was later also appropriated by the same theater group into their most famous revue. In the eighties, yuri had a small impasse, after which it became increasingly popular in the nineties. Sailor Moon – a prominent series for yaoi as well – included the first openly lesbian couple in an anime. In a more surreal fashion, Shoujo Kakumei Utena played with transgender and magical girl themes. Class S series have been revived in the past years as well, notably because the popular Maria-sama ga Miteru gave the genre a boost.

Yuri inspires a variety of male and female fans that enjoy this content for different reasons. These motivations can range from sexual identification to enjoying more complicated love stories. Since yuri is spread across various genres, the content is accessible to many audiences. In fandoms, yuri is often explored through hentai doujinshi, while more sensitive, female targeted forms of yuri are still rare. The active yuri fan-scene seems to thrive on a more female audience, though, that hunts down the gems of Japanese pop-culture. The current scene also includes popular fan translators that make this content accessible (e.g. Lilicious) and thriving websites such as shoujoai.com.

In the almost mainstream popularity of yaoi, yuri is often overlooked. At YaYCon we actively put lesbian fiction on the agenda. YaYcon wants to motivate all those that draw, write and translate yuri. We also aim to make new Western audiences familiar with this content and introduce fans of Japanese fiction with Western initiatives such as femme-slash and lesbian literature. Thereby we also provide a platform that enables the exchange of worldwide (queer) fiction, both online and offline. Moreover, since anime and manga are related to youth culture in Western countries, we see it as our goal to provide convention attendees with information about gender and sexual identity, and offer them a safe platform to express themselves.

Special thanks to Nicolle Lamerichs for contributing this text.
Also special thanks to Ealynn for permitting to use her artwork.