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Analysis / Yuri Genre

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Japanese Liberalization and Mirroring Heterosexual Tropes in the Yuri genre

Analysis Essay by Gwennie-Chan - Written 09-14-2017

Historical Preface

When one considers "traditional" society, something Older Than Steam, often somewhere present in that culture is some from of Homophobia, whether subtle or virulent. Since people who like the same gender as them or both of the primary genders have been around for a long time, historians can often see clear separation between the rights and privileges of heterosexual couples versus queer romances.

In Asia, aggressive heteronormativity and virulent homophobia are the general package. While Western society has mostly moved to allow love-based partnerships and marriages, many Asian cultures are still very traditional. The Arranged Marriage is still not uncommon, and it is considered your societal duty to get married in heterosexual pairings, reproduce, and encourage your offspring to do the same, whether you want to or not.


Japan presents itself as a unique case study due to world history. It wasn't until 1868 that the Edo period, the last traditional Japanese historical period, ended and the country started modernizing in terms of technology. Society, however, still was very hardline and traditional. It wasn't until Japan's destruction, occupation, and reconstruction following the end of World War II in 1945 that social paradigm really changed. Traditional Japan had been blended with Western values, specifically American ones.

This societal change has lead to a great many civil rights and cultural changes. Things previously thought unthinkable and illegal, such as birth control pills, common citizen voting, and offspring choosing their own romantic and sexual partners, were legalized and removed from taboo status. In this way, Japanese society liberalized quickly over the 20th century and continues to do so. After WWII, Anime & Manga were developed combining earlier Japanese art with Western style comics.


The Development of Queer Romance in Japanese Media

Japanese Media, primarily anime. manga, and related works, have been at the cusp of Japanese social, cultural, and intellectual experimentation since their creation. As such, liberties were taken in this media that weren't generally accepted with modern society. Even today, the otaku is considered an outsider in the tradition-leaning Japanese society.

A decade after the US sexual and cultural revolutions of The '60s, yaoi and yuri began to appear in The '70s. Since their appearance, both genres have increasingly expanded, with specialized publications catering to fans of each and specific demographics of each genre emerging. However, this has not been without restrictions. As the majority of Japan was and is traditional, major publishers and animators were and are hesitant to stake their business on such a risky, controversial investment as a queer series. Smaller publishers and studios took the risk and succeeded at times. This helped establish the Traditional Formula for yuri.

Interesting Parallels

The Traditional Formula utilizes many tropes that draw curious and often obvious parallels to common societal assumptions about heterosexual couples. Due to anatomical differences resulting from sexual dimorphism, the average male and the average female appear different, and Traditional Formula tropes often exploit this as well. It's important to mention that traditional heterosexist dynamics imply a lot of sexism and traditional gender roles. These traditional roles originate from Asian cultures' general reliance on patriarchal dynamics: men are leaders, intellectuals, experienced, active, dominant, better with age, and sexually aggressive; women are followers, artisans, inexperienced, passive, submissive, better with youth, and sexually receptive.

Traditional Formula tropes utilize these roles to cast same-gender couples as heterosexual couples in the same way as the dreaded question most same-gender couples hear at some point "So which one of you is the man/woman?" Stereotypically, there's supposed to be a Butch Lesbian to fit the masculine role and a Lipstick Lesbian to fit the feminine role - a Tomboy and Girly Girl couple. Examples:

  • One Head Taller: For the "masculine" partner. Biologically, males tend to be taller on average than females.
  • Onee-sama: For the "masculine" partner. Not only are older adolescents generally taller on average (which invokes One Head Taller), they tend to be more experienced with life (which plays on the traditional male roles).
  • Seme/Uke: For the "masculine" partner and "feminine" partner respectively. Fitting neatly into gender roles.
  • Sempai/Kohai: For senpais, see Onee-sama above. For kohai, they are generally less experienced and shorter due to age, which plays on traditional feminine gender roles.
  • Bifauxnen: For the "masculine" partner. Allows for a more comprehensive illusion of a heterosexual couple. The only saving grace is while they may have heavily masculinized the appearance, they generally are shown to have feminine hearts.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: The teacher role is another position that invokes the same dynamics of One Head Taller, Onee-sama, and Seme. Generally the teacher is given the "masculine" role due to being older, more experienced, active, and dominant. The student role is usually given the "feminine" role because of youth, inexperience, inactivity, and submissiveness.

When not trying to be as explicit about making these parallels or keep both characters more girly, they generally turn both partners into Betty and Veronica. Betty is the more traditional girly girl, while Veronica is a more wild, free (read: masculine) spirit. Examples:

These Parallels Are...Okay?

After all, heterosexual relationships are acceptable by nearly any society or culture. So the more similar a same-gender relationship is to heterosexual relationship, the more acceptable it should be, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Writers use various tropes as excuses to justify normally-taboo attraction:
  • Even the Girls Want Her: One of the most classic excuses. The "masculine" partner, often a bifauxnen, is very popular around the school because she looks and/or acts like a princely boy. If so many girls want her, it's not really that bad if our "femme" character to pursue her love interest, right?
  • Magic and Powers: Commonly used. One or both characters have some special power, ability, destiny, or whatever, so it's okay if they break social taboos because they're "special", sometimes phrased as they're "not human". It's essentially a way to write a justified If It's You, It's Okay trope.
  • One-Gender Race: There are no or very few boys alive. Maybe they never were? Maybe they died out? Doesn't matter. If there's no boys, naturally it's okay for girls to love and be in relationships with each other! It's probably a Feminist Fantasy by now!

Special Tolerances

Of course, these all pale in comparison to Japan's own culturally built-in tolerances for girl-girl relationships - the Gay Romantic Phase. This social institution says it's natural and allowable for girls to have "special" romantic relationships growing up, provided they don't get sexual, as long as they go back to Just Friends by adulthood. This is allowed in particular due to gender roles - specifically that girls aren't naturally experienced with romance or sexuality - thus, it's okay if they "practice" being in a relationship so they're better prepared for their heterosexual dating future. It is also encouraged because a "special" (read: fake) relationship between girls is better than allowing heterosexual dating to commence before parental approval.

It's also common to have a girl-girl couple push the boundaries of this tolerant allowance. Maybe they've already had sex. Maybe they kiss a lot. Maybe they've admited to each other that they're lesbian or bisexual. How can the author reel back the often-adverse Japanese populace? Simple, a Pinky Swear.

Japanese characters generally know what Japanese people are told they're supposed to do by society (See Preface). So the characters are written to make a Pinky Swear promise that despite loving each other and wanting to continue their relationship, they'll sink their own ship when they become adults. This deadline for this is usually high school (or sometimes college) graduation.

These promises become even more poignant within the Traditional Formula. Many of the girls-only Elaborate University High boarding academies prominent in traditional yuri are essentially Rich People housewife incubators for ojous that have heterosexual marriages lined up after graduation.


The downer ending is common for Traditional Formula yuri. Because of the deadline on socially-acceptable yuri (See previous section), either the couple ends it themselves or The Powers That Be generally decide to end it for them in more tragic means. Ensuing drama from couples that refuse to separate often results in forced outing, forced separation by parents, guardians, or overseers, and often death of one or both partners.

Sometimes both partners make a Suicide Pact because they'd rather be Together in Death than torn apart. Sometimes, to preserve their or both their lives, one of the partners will coldly sever the relationship that eventually results in one or both ending their lives. Other times, a partner will kill herself so hopefully her partner can find happiness in the future. Regardless, there's a lot of The Mourning After that can be found.

The pervasiveness of death or separation before allowing a happy same-gender relationship speaks to just how virulent Japan's homophobia can be, has been, and sometimes still is. However, things are changing, and more and more same-gender relationships in Japanese Media are given Happily Ever After. It's important to note that the fates of these characters are indicative of the Japanese populace's acceptance of Queer Romance, so we should watch closely in the future to see how things progress.