You’ve probably heard of Boys’ Love, or BL, a well-known genre in Japan that focuses on romantic relationships between male characters. But have you ever stopped to wonder where all the LGBTQ+ women are in Japanese media? I know I have. Luckily for all of us, believe it or not, there is a genre roughly equivalent to BL, called “yuri” (百合, literally “lily”).
Yuri features romantic/pseudo-romantic homosocial relationships between female characters. In this article, I’ll briefly cover the history of yuri, go over some yuri classics, and recommend some good anime/manga to start with. After reading, I hope you’ll spare a thought (and perhaps a dollar) for all the yuri you have yet to properly enjoy. Yuri’s not nearly as earth-shatteringly popular as BL, but with your moral and financial support, it could be!
…Not a fan of reading?
Or too tired from being a sexual minority in this world to get through this whole article? Listen to the podcast episode I recorded with Kanae instead. You can listen to it while feeding your cat, wearing a hat, or any number of other sapphic activities. How convenient! If you want to know more about yuri (and I know you do), either listen to the podcast episode or keep reading this article.
What is Yuri?
Yuri is often used to refer to manga, anime, and stories that showcase relationships between women.
You may be wondering what this “yuri” word I’m throwing around means in the first place. For starters, the word yuri (百合) literally means “lily” in Japanese. The word started being used to describe queer relationships between women in the 1970s. Barazoku (薔薇族, or “rose tribe”), the first commercial Japanese gay men’s magazine, is thought to have coined the term yurizoku (百合族, or “lily tribe”) for the lesbian community in Japan, in contrast to the male gay community, or “rose tribe.” This gave rise to the slang term yuri that we know and love today, often used to refer to manga, anime, and stories that showcase relationships between women.
But the exact definition of yuri depends on who you ask and whether they’re an anime marketer or not. Some people, including those marketers, define yuri as any story that mainly focuses on female characters, regardless of whether anything queer happens. This is how tales of “girls just having fun and not being gay” often get categorized as yuri, according to industry standards. This definition encompasses feelings of sentimental closeness, friendship, and/or “skinship” between women without necessarily defining it as LGBTQIA+ activity.
The exact definition of yuri depends on who you ask and whether they’re an anime marketer or not.
On the other hand, for some people, a work only qualifies as yuri if it’s actually got queer content that transcends subtext. Thus, the question “This may be yuri, but is it gay?” may plague you every time you roll the dice on a story marketed as yuri. Will it be a suspiciously intense friendship for the whole series, or will the characters aspire to something more than just gal pals? In true sapphic storytelling form, you might have to wait quite a long time to find out.
Ultimately, you can draw the line in the rainbow sand yourself when it comes to defining yuri. That said, Japanese stories are gradually becoming a bit bolder and more explicit these days. So the lines around the yuri genre might change one day!
History of Yuri
Now you know what yuri is, but how long has it been around? Not that long, at least in its modern form. Only within recent decades has yuri actually had enough material to become a full-fledged genre. Even then, a lot of yuri tends to splash around in the safe, shallow waters of “almost gay,” which makes it hard to pinpoint where all the actual queerness started.
Hard, but not impossible! From Takarazuka to Class S “romantic friendships” to the lesbians on Sailor Moon, yuri does have a rich history throughout the 1900s. So let’s get out our gay thumbtacks and try to pinpoint it, shall we?
Takarazuka: All-Women Theater Troupe (1910s)
In Takarazuka, women play all the roles — including the male ones.
First up in yuri history is the Takarazuka Revue, an all-women theater troupe in Japan that started in Hyōgo in 1913. In Takarazuka, women play all the roles — including the male ones, called otokoyaku (男役). Originally, it was founded by a man who wanted the members to “model” the ideal way to be a man and woman, so the otokoyaku would know what being a man is like and become better wives. Oof! Over time, though, Takarazuka became more empowering, showing how women can defy gender roles and cross societal barriers with their gender presentation.
Takarazuka tends to be more focused on empowerment than queerness.
Granted, Takarazuka isn’t “explicitly” gay, in that its official, public-facing image in Japan tends to be more focused on female empowerment than female queerness. But it’s definitely influential to the yuri genre and deserves a mention, if only for the sheer amount of gay and gay-adjacent behavior that goes on around it. Audience members (often women) create whole fanclubs based on their devotion to each popular Takarazuka actor, and some of the actors actually have romantic partnerships with other women.
Plus, the inherent gender nonconformity of Takarazuka is pretty queer in itself! So if you’re interested in yuri and other women-loving women content, it’s definitely worth looking into.
Class S: Literature Movement Featuring Sisterhood at All-Girls Schools (1910s -)
But what about wlw fiction, you ask? Well, potentially the earliest influence on yuri was a literature group called Class S in the early 1900s, peaking in the 1930s.
The origins of yuri are largely steeped in “romantic friendships” between schoolgirls.
Especially before World War II, girls in Japan were often sent to all-girls schools. Can you guess how this world of no men influenced the yuri genre? That’s right, the origins of yuri are largely steeped in “romantic friendships?” between schoolgirls, mirroring the real-life closeness of girls in these all-female environments. The novel that started this was called Hanamonogatari (花物語) by popular writer Yoshiya Nobuko. Hanamonogatari is set in a girls’ dormitory and actually depicts both romantic and sexual bonding between the female students.
A lot of stories blurred the line between romance and friendship or sisterhood.
But a lot of stories in this era stuck with more pseudo-romantic friendships, senpai/kouhai mentor-like relationships, and “sisterly” (but not so sisterly) connections. This blurred the line between romance and friendship or sisterhood, and the effects of that reverberated right into yuri today. Even in modern yuri, it’s frequently unclear whether the characters actually like each other romantically or are just really chummy buddies who like to stare deeply into each other’s eyes for some totally heterosexual reason.
All in all, Class S literature did show gay relationships between women. However, they could be a bit ambiguous and were sometimes even treated as a “phase” that ended at graduation, when students would graduate from their homosexuality and marry men. Bleh! These doomed pseudo-romantic friendships between schoolgirls led into the next colorful step in yuri history, gay shōjo manga.
Year 24 Mangaka: Group of Female Manga Artists Born in the 24th Year of Shōwa (1970s)
We’ve briefly gone over queer women origins in Japanese theater and literature. Now, it’s finally time to get into manga, a highly fertile ground for yuri content today. But how did it get so fertile? History, baby!
These mangaka brought more complex themes into the shōjo manga space.
The Year 24 Group, or 24年組, was a generation of female manga artists all born around the 24th year of the reign of the Shōwa emperor in Japan. These mangaka brought more complex themes into the shōjo manga space, writing stories about politics, gender, and sexuality influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s. Year 24 manga peered into the internal psychology of their protagonists more deeply; incorporated elements of genres like horror, historical fiction, and science fiction; and most importantly (to you and me, I’ll bet), explored same-sex romance. Notably, they also featured genderqueer and androgynous characters, building a foundation for the modern BL and yuri genres.
They explored same-sex romance and featured genderqueer and androgynous characters.
Wanna take a peek? Try Rose of Versailles and Oniisama e by Riyoko Ikeda, or Shiroi Heya no Futari by Ryōko Yamagishi. The Class S influences are strong in these works, and they were super influential to early yuri.
But while the historical significance of these stories can’t be denied, often they have pretty tragic endings where things don’t go great for the LGBTQ+ characters. Par for the course when it comes to queer storytelling, to be honest, but still something to bear in mind if you go digging these up.
Classic Yuri Heroine Recommendations (1990s – 2000s)
Some pretty cool queer heroines came onto the yuri scene in the 1990s – 2000s.
Alright, now you know a little bit about how yuri blossomed into a beautiful lily-like genre. But I know the real question on your mind is: What gay stuff should you read/watch? You might want to start at the “modern” beginning, when some pretty cool queer heroines came onto the yuri scene in the 1990s – 2000s.
The most iconic of these heroines is almost certainly Revolutionary Girl Utena, a manga and anime that’s often lauded as one of the most seminal yuri stories of all time. Utena is a female student who’s always dreamed of being a prince instead of a princess, and her relationship with Anthy has loomed large in the minds of sapphics everywhere since the late ’90s.
And of course, we couldn’t speak of yuri classics without mentioning Sailor Moon, wherein there is an actual wlw couple to be found in Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune. Props to the Sailors for making their gayness basically canonical!
These yuri stories can help you understand where the roots of the yuri genre came from.
On the other hand, for a good representation of Class S romantic friendships, Maria-sama ga Miteru is another classic from this era. In this one, a bunch of elegant schoolgirls pick younger students to be their sœur, or “sister” in French, and proceed to have very intense “mentor” relationships with them. It’s not the most explicitly queer story, and you won’t find any famous heroines here. But if you’re looking for an unstated but overwhelming “lesbian tone,” you’ll certainly find it here. All three of these yuri stories are worth your time, especially to help you understand where the roots of the yuri genre came from.
Modern Yuri Recommendations for Beginners
Okay, I’ve briefly schooled you on the fruity works of past times. But what about the fruity works of these times?
These days, the easiest place to find yuri manga is an imprint of Ichijinsha called YuriHime (コミック百合姫), where you’ll be at no loss for wlw material of all flavors. Several of the following recommendations are from their wonderfully sapphic mini-shelves in Book-Off.
The best example of modern yuri I can think of might be Yagate Kimi ni Naru.
However, the best example of modern yuri I can think of might be Yagate Kimi ni Naru (やがて君になる, “Bloom Into You”) by Nio Nakatani. The manga/anime is about two female high school students, Touko Nanami and Yuu Koito. After both girls turn down confessions from boys, Touko unexpectedly confesses her feelings for Yuu, and Yuu isn’t sure how to respond. This story is dramatic, exploratory, and psychological as Yuu figures out her sexuality for the first time as a young person. It also touches on themes of aromanticism and asexuality, which is worth a note.
Conversely, if you’re looking for something more fluffy, Asagao to Kase-san (あさがおと加瀬さん。, “Kase-san and the Morning Glories”) and Sakura Trick deliver pure happiness and gay fun for the female characters involved. Additionally, two manga called Ano Ko ni Kisu to Shirayuri wo (あの娘にキスと白百合を, “Kiss and White Lily for My Dearest Girl”) and Sasayaku You ni Koi wo Utau (ささやくように恋を唄う, “Whisper Me a Love Song”) follow multiple wlw couples, providing some entertaining diversity in the reading experience.
Shimanami Tasogare is a revolutionary queer story about a group of characters living in rural Hiroshima.
But if there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s that you and all your friends need to read a manga series called Shimanami Tasogare (しまなみ誰そ彼, “Our Dreams at Dusk”) by Yuhki Kamatani. While it’s not specifically yuri, it is a revolutionary queer story about a group of characters living in rural Hiroshima. Each volume in this four-volume series focuses on a different character in the group, which makes for an impressively multifaceted depiction of many gender and sexual identities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Frankly, it’s hard to find a more authentic, nuanced, and sensitive portrayal of the queer community in Japan than this, so go read it!
Overall, manga and other written material still tends to be the best place to find yuri stories, as the genre still doesn’t have a ton of support in the anime/film sphere. That’s slowly changing with the anime serialization of Yagate Kimi ni Naru and others, though, so keep your homosexual eyes peeled!
Congratulations, You’re Gay
If you made it to the end of this article, congratulations on your newfound queerness! Welcome to the club; we’re always recruiting. 😉 Hopefully you’re now interested in reading or watching some yuri, or at least on your way to buy the full Shimanami Tasogare series for everyone you’ve ever met.
But whether you’re in the LGBTQIA+ community or not, there are some really genuine, fascinating, and important stories in the yuri genre that could use your appreciation and support. (FYI, buying e-books is an easy way to get your hands on yuri manga, even outside of Japan.) In fact, if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me — I’m running out of material to consume. Think of your local gays!