Article Submission

"Boys' Love," Yaoi, and Art Education:
Issues of Power and Pedagogy

Brent Wilson
The Pennsylvania State University

Masami Toku
The California State University, Chico

*This is A chapter of a special issue book for Semiotics and Art/Visual Culture (Shank Ed.) which will be published by the NAEA (National Art Education Association) in 2003.

"Empire of Signs" was what Roland Barthes (1982) called Japan. In his introductory essay about this "faraway" nation he wrote:

Now it happens that in this country (Japan) the empire of signifiers is so immense, so in excess of speech, that the exchange of signs remains of a fascinating richness, mobility, and subtlety, despite the opacity of the language, sometimes even as a consequence of that opacity. The reason for this is that in Japan the body exists, acts, shows itself, gives itself, without hysteria, without narcissism, but according to a pure--though subtly discontinuous--erotic project (pp. 9-10).

In his readings of "the empire of signifiers" Barthes directed his attention to a stationery store, bowing, choptsticks, pachinko parlors, packages, the eyelid, and millions of bodies. It is to millions of bodies--graphic bodies--that we wish to direct our reading--an interpretation of a facet of Japan that appeared after Barthes completed the analyses of his "fictive Japan." In his reading of a fictive, and yet not-fictive Japan, Barthes assiduously avoided "vast regions of darkness (capitalist Japan, American acculturation, technological development)" (1982, p. 4). Indeed, it is to a vast region of darkness to which we will attend.

The region of bodies we wish to explore mimics the capitalist system of manga--comic books--which in Japan is indeed big business. Nearly forty-percent of all publications in Japan (Schodt, 1996, p. 19) are in one way or another connected to manga, versions of which are read by infants and their grandmothers in the Empire of Signs. But the comic book para-phenomenon we wish to explore exists primarily among teenagers and young adults. It has to do with art, narrative, and the exploration of gender, identity, and sex. It is an enterprise that points to a failure of art education--or is it a failure? When schools educate students to appreciate and create one form of art and then, when those students end up appreciating and creating quite another form of art, then is it a failure?

Dojinshi and the Comic Market

Most popular visual culture is "cooked-up" by profit-seeking adults and fed to hungry youth, but this is not always so in Japan. The semiannual COMICMARKET (also known as Comiket and Comike), which began in 1975, is a visual cultural phenomenon shaped almost entirely by youth; its meaning and its consequences are of global importance. Art educators need to understand what's happening in Asia, how it's spreading to the West, and its implications for art and visual cultural pedagogy.

COMICMARKET is now held in Tokyo Harbor at the Tokyo International Trade Center also known as Tokyo Big Sight. The center houses six enormous halls, 80,000 square meters of space devoted to the exhibition and sale of comic books (dojinshi) created by amateurs. During the comic market's three days, 35,000 groups, consisting of perhaps as many as 100,000 young creators of dojinshi manga, sell their magazines to approximately 420,000 otaku (fans). (The term dojinshi was originally applied to manga-like fanzines, the hobby magazines and comic books produced by amateurs. Dojin means folks who share the same taste and shi means magazine. The term dojinshi has come to refer to both a club or circle of high school or college students who create their own comic books, and to the comic books themselves. The term otaku which is applied to the purchasers of dojinshi and manga implies a passionate or even fanatic desire to collect artifacts and information related to manga, anime, video games, and, of course, dojinshi.) COMICMARKET and the 2,000 or so other dojinshi comic markets held in Japan each year are, we think, the most easily identified phenomena in a vast visual subculture created mostly by teenagers and young adults mainly for themselves. How did the phenomenon begin?


COMICMARKET 58, August, 2000

Figure 1: A Composite partial view of COMICMARKET 58, August, 2000. This semi-annual three-day comic market is held at the Tokyo International Trade Center also known as Tokyo Big Sight. The center houses six enormous halls where 80,000 square meters of space is devoted to the exhibition and sale of dojinshi.

In 1975 Yoshihiro Yonezawa--a critic, novelist, passionate supporter of popular visual culture, and current COMICMARKET president--and a small group of associates concluded that teenagers who were drawing and self-publishing their own manga-like dojinshi needed a venue in which to show and sell their works. Yonezawa (personal communication, August 17, 2000) explains that he and the other organizers wanted to create a non-profit venue where youth who love dojinshi could meet, and exchange ideas in a space where freedom of expression would prevail--in contrast to the control that the commercial manga publishers and editors exercised over manga artists (called mangaka).

The first market held on December 21, 1975 consisted of 32 dojinshi groups and about 600 visitors (Inokai, 2000b, p. 4). Yonezawa (personal communication, August 17, 2000) explains that he and his colleagues had no idea what they were unleashing; they didn't expect that the market would become so big, nor did they imagine how far-reaching and influential the dojinshi phenomenon would become. Indeed, we wish to argue that the growth of dojinshi is tied directly to the existence of comic markets.

Prior to the mid-seventies, most of the young people who participated in the comic markets belonged to high school or university manga clubs and they ceased to create dojinshi when they graduated. With the arrival of comic markets, however, these amateur artists had a growing number of options for presenting their dojinshi. Consequently, they continued as members of dojinshi groups after their graduation from high school or college. More importantly the markets provided an opportunity for any young person, whether in college or not, to present his or her dojinshi to an enthusiastic and growing audience of readers. The markets attracted fans, fans encouraged the production of dojinshi, and the number of dojinshi groups outside schools and colleges mushroomed. The markets also made it possible for individual artists, who called themselves dojinshi even if they were not members of groups, to participate in the comic markets (Yonezawa, personal communication, August 17, 2000). Now comic markets have spread from Japan to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and even the Chinese Mainland and the United States. Dojinshi is becoming an increasingly potent force whose consequences are little understood even by the creators and consumers of this unprecedented visual sub-culture.


The cover page of the catalogue

Page 119 from the catalogue
"COMICMARKET 58 catalogue (Summer 2000)"

Figure 2: Page 119 from the nearly 1400 page COMICMARKET 58 catalogue. A close look at these postage stamp sized dojinshi club advertisements for parodies of manga and anime characters hint at various aspects of M/M romance.

Boys' Love and Yaoi Emerge

It's not the market phenomenon itself, rather it's the content of dojinshi sold in comic markets in which the greatest significance is located. Dojinshi are collections of signs--curious signs that await interpretation. Among the most prominent signs are boys' love and yaoi, which on the surface appear as love between males--but is this so?

The origins of the twin phenomena yaoi and boys' love are fascinating. Of the dojinshi artists who sold their comic books at the first COMICMARKET, Yonezawa (personal communication, August 17, 2000) estimates that eighty-percent were females. In the 1980s increasing numbers of males began to participate, and now, our observation is that the ratio appears to favor females only slightly. In the seventies two major types of dojinshi dominated COMICMARKET. Groups of university students created dojinshi with original characters and plots; at the same time manga and anime fan clubs produced parodies of characters from commercial manga and animated cartoon characters. It was the parodies that set the stage for yaoi and boys' love. The term yaoi was coined in the late seventies by Kanazawa region dojinshi artists included Yasuko Sakata and Rinko Hatsu. Basing their dojinshi on popular media characters, they took the terms Yamanashi, Ochinashi, and Iminashi (no climax, no point, no meaning) to characterize Sakata's dojinsh Loveri. Yaoi is formed by the three terms. As used by Sakata and her group, yoai is an ironic subversion of a traditional Japanese narrative structure consisting of an introduction, development, transition, and conclusion (Natsume, personal communication, June 6, 2002). Yaoi emphasizes male/male (M/M) relationships which do not follow a traditional story structure, ki, syo, ten, and ketsu--introduction, development, transition, and conclusion which has its origin in Chinese poetry (Inokai, 2001, p. 10). In the eighties yaoi became synonymous with M/M--parodies of popular manga and animation characters in what appear to be gay relationships in which explicit and sometimes violent sex is shown. "Boys' love" termed Shounen ai in Japanese, refers to dojinshi featuring highly romantic gentle, loving, and cuddly male/male relationships in which explicit sex is seldom suggested. Both yaoi and boys' love are, according to their creators and consumers, forms of love "superior" to heterosexual varieties.

But this single thread explaining the origin of yaoi and boys' love is far too simple a story; M/M had pre-yaoi manifestations. Just as it has innumerable exponents today, it had other originators, both identifiable and unidentifiable--a paradigm case of Barthes' "the death of the author" (Barthes, 1977). Before M/M acquired the name yaoi, boys' love had made appearances in commercial manga. One of the most important appearances was the 1976 publication of Keiko Takemiya's sensational manga Kaze toKi no Uta (A Poem of Wind and Trees), the story of the beautiful young French boarding school student Gilbert Cocteau who is continually falling into bed with other boys. Takemiya (personal communication, 14 August, 2000) explained how she struggled to convince her editor at Syogakukan, one of Japan's big-three manga publishers, to print her story in the weekly girls' manga Shojo Comic. Much to the publisher's surprise, the story was an instant success, it was serialized for many years, and introduced boys' love into the popular visual culture of adolescent girls. Comic Jun--which appeared in 1978 at roughly the same time that Sakata and her group coined the term yaoi--was the first commercial manga devoted entirely to M/M relationships. The erotic magazine for young women, which combines manga and short stories, within a few months evolved into the still popular June (Sagawa, personal communication, June 6, 2002).1 A third type of M/M narrative termed "slash" which refers to love stories based on live media characters such as, say Star Trek's Kirk and Spock, about which there is a considerable body of literature (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Creed, 1990; Jardine, 1985; Jenkins, 1992; Kotani, 1994; Lamb & Veith, McLelland, 2000; 1986; Penley, 1991; Russ, 1985). Slash exists primarily as a literary form since, if the live actors are drawn in cartoon form, they become like manga or cartoon characters, that is to say, they become dojinshi yaoi.

What are Yaoi and Boys' Love Characters and Stories Like?

The eighties was a time when the dojinshi sold at comic markets shifted from mostly original stories and characters to parodies of popular manga and animated cartoon characters (Yonezawa, personal communication, August 17, 2000). In 2002 parodies still prevail and yaoi is the predominant parody genre. The yaoi parody may be traced to 1983 when the animated TV cartoon Captain Tsubasa became enormously popular. Interestingly, the anime was based on a series from the weekly boy's magazine, Shonen Jump. The story is about how a soccer team led by protagonist Captain Tsubasa competes with one strong team after another to finally win a tournament. Yaoi parodies of Captain Tsubasa made an appearance in the winter 1985 COMICMARKET. In the stories, team members' I'd-die-for-you friendships are transformed into romances which represent M/M love considered superior to M/F love. By the summer of 1986, about 370 out of 3,900 groups exhibiting at the market created parodies of Captain Tsubasa (Inokai, 2000b, p. 26). During the nineties Yaoi artists started looking to commercial manga and anime for a great variety of interesting characters for their parodies. But it is too simple an explanation to claim that the parodies are just about the characters. Rather than merely beginning with a favorite character, dojinshi artists sometimes first focus their attention on drafting a love story and only then do they appropriate characters to fit their narratives. There is an endless stream of male characters to either match with a story of M/M coupling the yaoi artist has devised--or the other possibility, an endless stream of characters to suggest new narratives of M/M or boys' love coupling (Kinsella, 1998, McLelland, 2000). Every male character from the popular media becomes fair game. For example, the 2002 comic markets in Taiwan featured Harry Potter dojinshi, and it takes little imagination to visualize the various possibilities for romantic relationships between Harry and Malfoy.2

The implicit assumption underlying yaoi stories is that the love between males is superior to ordinary forms of love than exist between males and females. This assumption may result from young Japanese females' beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, about their male-dominated society in which many women believe that once married romance will disappear, replaced by the duties of wife, mother, and housekeeper. In thousands of ways mere male friendships, and sometimes improbable or taboo relationships--say between brothers, are transformed into romantic relationships. This ideal romantic love is never thwarted by little things such as petty jealousies. This supposed superior love, although ostensibly between males, displays distinctly feminine qualities. The characters in yaoi parodies, for example, combine delicate almost feminine physical features with physical strength. Indeed most of the males are slender, physically beautiful, fragile, sensitive, and in many instances they appear androgynous. Before yaoi emerged, female fans associated with June magazine were enamored with tanbi which implies refined aesthetic taste and an obsession for beautiful things (Sagawa, personal communication, June 6, 2002). This obsession pervades boys' love narratives. Curiously, even in the case of rape or rough sex, a gentleness characterizes many yaoi stories.

The elegance with which many of the dojinshi are designed and drawn is another dimension of beauty to which we must refer. Indeed it is impossible for yaoi artists to explore an obsession for beautiful bodies if the figures are crudely drawn. Yaoi and boys' love stories and characters are generally exquisitely designed; both the draftsmanship and composition of dojinshi far exceeds the work of amateur comic artists in the United States. We have provided possible explanations for the generally high level of graphic skill found among East Asian children and teenagers, factors such as the practiced perceptual skill and facility required to produce thousands of written Japanese or Chinese characters, the vast number of graphic manga and anime images upon which young people may model their own drawing, and, perhaps, also the national curricula in countries such as Japan and Taiwan where figure drawing is generally approached more systematically and rigorously than in the West (Toku, 2001b, Wilson, 1997a).

The elegantly depicted "ideal" love, seemingly between males, exists within a variety of narrative contexts--adventure, science fiction, sports, ordinary domestic settings, schools, spy intrigue--and the sex scenes are the most important part of the story. In the grossest varieties of yaoi, sex is all there is. Frequently sex scenes explode before even a sliver of narrative context is established; the transitions of ordinary fiction delay the action unnecessarily. The yaoi narratives appear pornographic, especially in the eyes of Western viewers. Pornography, however, implies depictions of situations that sexually arouse viewers. In yaoi, this is not necessarily the case. Until recently, yaoi was the very opposite of Shunga, the Japanese pornographic woodcut prints, in which sexual organs are exaggerated and no detail of the sexual act is left to the imagination. In yaoi, with all the sexual acrobatics, until recently genital areas were never shown. Now some yaoi have become explicitly graphic. They seem to be little more than stories of relationships between two males, but is what appears so obvious even about males? The movement toward specificity notwithstanding, for yaoi artists and fans alike, fantasy is still the operative word. Time and time again we heard this distinction: male pornography is about reality; yaoi is about fantasy. Some semiotic digging seems in order.

In yaoi narratives there is a seldom varying rule specifying two clearly defined "male" roles. One protagonist is seme and one is uke. Seme is a man whose attitudes and actions are "on top," aggressive, and affirmative, in other words it's the stereotypical role attributed to males. The aggressive role is contrasted with the "on the bottom," passive, and submissive uke stereotypical role attributed to females. Yaoi narratives feature endless variations of the rape of a uke type by a seme type who, despite his aggression, truly loves his passive uke partner (Nakajima, 1998, pp. 76-77). In boys' love dojinshi, relationships are gentler than those found in the more violent yaoi narratives. But gentle and smooth or violent and rough, these relationships, created by young females, take place between males. What do they mean?

So . . . of What is Yaoi a Sign, What does Boys' Love Signify?

Roland Barthes, the always-insightful reader of signs, might see in yaoi and boys' love a fascinating challenge in his project to decipher the "Empire of Signs." And we can imagine that his interpretations would be both brilliant and penetrating. But the interests of two art educators, one a Japanese female who has lived and taught in America for more than a decade and the other a male American with European ancestry, differ markedly from those of Barthes. We began our own semiotic process by doing a very un-Barthes-like thing; we asked dojinshi artists and fans "what does yaoi mean?," "what is the meaning of boys' love?" Of course, as we asked our questions, we were quite aware that we humans never fully understand the motives that underlie our actions and projects--indeed we often understand few of the deeper meanings that underlie our social undertakings. This is especially so in the case of a cultural rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, Wilson, 2003) consisting of freewheeling dojinshi fans and artists who absorb influences from manga, anime, video games, and who knows what else, in order to collaboratively create and consume texts as complex as yoai and boys' love. These texts are surrounded by an expanding tangle of intersecting interests, ideas, ideologies, and interpretations which are virtually impossible to diagram (Wilson, 2003). Nevertheless, it's fascinating to listen to dojinshi fans' and artists' explanations of what they're up to. This is the starting point for our discussion of yaoi and boys' love as signifiers.

Explanations from the Dojinshi Subculture and Its Interpreters

When we asked variations of the question, what does it mean when heterosexual females have a passion for creating and reading stories involving love between males?, it was often obvious that many of the answers we were given were what the participants in the dojinshi subculture tell themselves. The most frequently heard statements were versions of  "two men are better than one." Beneath this statement lies the possibility that women see themselves in relationship to--or is it in relationships with?--both the dominant seme male and the submissive uke male. We think that it is especially notable that respondents within the dojinshi subculture were invariably careful to draw a distinction between the genre of manga created for the gay male community. "Gay stuff is more real," explained a yaoi fan echoing other female informants who repeatedly told us that the genre of manga found in the gay community is "about reality" By reality, yaoi readers were referring to depictions of behaviors which actually occur between gay males. On the other hand, yaoi and boys' love dojinshi, which "are fantasy," are seen as the imagined relationships between males, which exist only in the minds of female yaoi creators and readers. These two types of depictions of human sexuality, to the unknowing viewer may appear virtually the same, but to the two sets of creators and interpreters--one predominantly gay male and the other predominantly heterosexual female--are signs whose meanings are a world apart.

Japanese females, as Yonezawa (personal communications, August 17, 2000 and September 5, 2001) explained, use yaoi characters to express their own longing. The male characters provide ways to symbolize romantic love that may seem absent from typical heterosexual relationships--especially from the anticipated "realities" of heterosexual marriage. Yonezawa also explained that taking two popular male media characters for whom a yoai creator has a fondness and putting them in a romantic relationship provides a "double-jolt" of improbability--of unreality.

Manga artist Takemia, whose influence on M/M has been profound has provided a subtle analysis of gender relationships explored in yaoi and boys' love (personal communication, January 22, 2003).  She explained that having boys play the roles of both males and females provides a way for exploring relationships between love and sex.

If the relationship between love and sex is expressed through the love of man and woman, gender is unavoidably emphasized. But it is possible to discuss the problem beyond the limitations of gender in boys' love. Also, in the case of man/woman love, it is difficult to talk about dual personalities since there are realities such as childbirth after the achievement of love. [By dual personalities, Takemia means the feminine and masculine dimensions of personality, which she thinks every human possesses].

Takemia's analysis is echoed by Fred Schodt, who has made extensive studies of manga (1983, 1996). He speculated that yaoi permits girls to experiment with love and lovemaking devoid of the usual anatomical encumbrances, "baggage" was the term he used: no breasts, no female plumbing, and especially no fear of pregnancy and babies (Schodt, personal communication, February 17, 2001). Schodt's explanation can be extended.  Is it possible that in yaoi young Japanese females seek symbolic escape from the social roles to which they are assigned? Romantic relationships without obligations, without encumbrances, without the usual problems is a dimension of meaning that yaoi artists and fans appear to accept intuitively when they characterize M/M as a superior form of love. This is a fantasy which was created by females who wish to dream, at least for a little while, of a life different from the one society seems prepared to give them.


Figure 3: an illustration from “Poem of Wind and Tree (Kaze to Ki no Uta)” depicted by Keiko Takemiya

There are more speculative and more pessimistic explanations of the meaning underlying. Two students from National Taiwan University who are sufficiently passionate otaku3 to have traveled from Taipei to COMICMARKET in Tokyo gave psychological explanations. Some fans, one said, are "depressed by men, they're dissatisfied with them." Yaoi permits females to construct males in the ways they'd like them to be. Yaoi also permits women to reconstruct themselves along masculine lines and to gain status, "some don't want to be women, they want to be a man!" "Women are physically weaker than men," and "there is discrimination against women." One of the Taiwanese otaku offered a having-it-both-ways explanation that elaborates upon the fantasy associated with yaoi: "to be a man and at the same time to be loved by a man." Is it possible that the female-as-male acquires, symbolically at least, the status of the male?

Sagawa, (personal communication, June 6, 2002) offers an even more extreme interpretation applied to the readers of the magazine he edits. "June is a place of therapeutic rehabilitation for those women who have experienced mental and physical abuse." Sagawa said that he couldn't ignore the fact that some readers "have never been loved by other people--parents, friends, the opposite sex." He thinks that M/M stories help "heal the wounds and struggles of woman who are not equal to men in this [Japanese] society." If what Sagawa claims is true for the women's magazine June, then perhaps there is also a faction within the dojinshi yaoi subculture to whom his interpretation also applies.

The explanations offered by dojinshi creators and fans, we think, should be taken seriously. Within them it is possible to see elements of plausibility. Intuitively, the inhabitants of the dojinshi subculture have sensed some, but perhaps not all, of what yaoi and boys' love signify. In our quest for signification we must dig more deeply.


Figure 4: The cover page of the first issue of Jun(e) depicted by Keiko Takemiya

Reading Signs of Signs

Yaoi dojinshi are filled with thousands upon thousands of beautiful coupling male bodies. The interpreters of yaoi and boys' love are unanimous in their conclusion that the dojinshi narratives are not about gay relationships. Any interpretation of yaoi must begin with the premise that yaoi and boys' love graphic narratives are about females and, yes, about gender, identity, about the relationship of females to males, and perhaps about female/female relationships. The yaoi territory of the dojinshi subculture provides a site where females are free to experiment with the possibilities and the prospects for their own identities, to construct new notions of gender for themselves, and to rehearse potential romantic and sexual relationships. But these signs are signs of what? We must read even more deeply. 

Double Lives. Eda, one of Taiwan's most revered female dojinshi artists4 commented on the fact that many dojinshi artists and fans (who attend comic markets dressed as their favorite manga, anime, computer game, and movie characters) lead double lives (personal communication, May 8, 2002). Their parents are unaware of their immersion in the dojinshi subculture. For example, one of Taiwan's most well known dojinshi artists is an elementary school teacher; her students and school colleagues do not even know that she creates dojinshi; she believes that knowledge of her "other life" would harm her teaching career. Dojinshi groups take names such as Secret Society. The clandestine "double-life" which characterizes many members of the dojinshi subculture could be a metaphor for what yaoi and boys' love signify.

In dojinshi the body of the individual creator or reader is recontextualized in relationship to myriad other bodies and thus the boundaries of gender are deconstructed, recombined, and reconstructed symbolically. The symbolic bodies are not, however, one construct but an entire spectrum of bodies and ways of being. The aggressive female, the passive female, and the simultaneously passive and aggressive female become possibilities for being. The powerful female is envisioned, but power and less-power come in many tints, and hues. There exist within the yoai characters thousands of shades of domination and submission, which, interestingly, reinforce cultural stereotypes about the role of women, and on the other hand present new feminist possibilities. It is a broad spectrum of choices, some falling clearly within existing roles and some beyond them. Individual readers may seek their identity within current cultural prescriptions and others may experiment with the virtually unknown. It is the beyond-now which makes yaoi a site for the social reconstruction of gender roles.

The traditional binary forces of positive or negative, black or white, above or below, hard or soft may point to a deeper cultural phenomenon, Taoism and yin and yang. However, the coexisting spectrum of shades of gray, the-somewhere-between-positive-and-negative, and the either and neither-above-or-below point to instability, transition, reformulation, and change. Yaoi may signify a dissatisfaction, an uneasiness, with traditional female identities and the desire to experiment with new identities and new power relationships. Nevertheless, the precise character of the new conceptions of male and female, such as the "dual" feminine and masculine "personalities" posited by Takemiya (personal communication, January 22, 2003 are difficult if not impossible to fix. The perspectives, positions, tastes, and orientations seem to exist in a frightening rhizomatic flux. Yaoi appears to reinforce conservative gender roles while simultaneously providing models for liberating roles. The choices are there and the readers and writers may, consciously or unconsciously, choose this, or that, or the other model--or their combinations.

The yaoi/boys' love phenomenon is a spectrum of signification which is sometimes highly complicated. We are left to wonder about the consequences of creators and readers of yaoi and boys' love choosing multiple oppositional or contradictory identities from the spectrum of possibilities. What are the consequences of being double-minded, playing with double-edged-ness, possessing double-pleasures, double-troubles? Perhaps this is an instance about which Jacques Lacan writes--of "the incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier" (Lacan 1977, 154). He claimed that no anchoring of particular signifiers to particular signifieds is possible. Like Lacan, Derrida refers to the free-play of signifiers which point beyond themselves to other signifiers in an "indefinite referral of signifier to signified" (Derrida 1978, 25). We believe that the range of double-duty disengaged signifiers permit the creators and consumers of yaoi and boys' love to be as-I-am-now while symbolically having as-I-might-be identities posited by the "other" who just happens to appear in the form of others' [male] bodies. The slippery less-known [to the female] male body provides a nearly-blank slate on which to scrawl, scrub-out, and sometime even with an elegant line draw new forms of femininity.

Yaoi, Boys' Love, and Art Education

As art educators, we were drawn to the dojinshi subculture because we saw the profound influence manga had on the drawings of Japanese young people. Once we glimpsed the subculture we were astonished by its size, depth, complexity, and importance to the lives of an enormous number of Asian and a growing number of American teenagers. Here is an enormous chunk of visual culture created and controlled almost entirely by young people for their own purposes. Even more importantly, those purposes involved, among other things, their drawing, redrawing, and erasing the lines of gender and identity, and in the process, probably changing society in unpredictable ways. We were even more surprised that few art educators in Asia or America are even taking note of what is happening.

The content of yaoi and boys' love are signs to which we have attached meaning. Our initial interpretations notwithstanding, we have engaged in a semiotic process for which there is no foreseeable end. From one instance of signification emerges more signifiers in an ongoing chain of meanings--a manifestation unlimited semiosis which Eco (1992) examines with such insight. If we were to shift attention from the significance that yaoi may hold for young Japanese females and Japanese society in general to the significance that M/M, dojinshi, and youth-generated popular culture hold for art education, we enter another realm of semiotic possibility. Yaoi, and boys' love are signs of teenage power within the realm of visual cultural. They represent the power of young peoples' artworks in which art teachers play virtually no role. We art teachers should examine these manifestations of power residing within the visual culture of youth in relationship to the visual cultural power represented by formal art education curricula.

Foucault (1984) viewed power in relationship to knowledge, seeing a mutually constituting relationship between power and knowledge. We may view art education curricula and instruction as well intentioned efforts by the educational establishment and art teachers to educate students through the processes of art-making and acquisition of knowledge relating to the history, philosophy, and interpretation of art and artworks. Encouraged by society, through our instruction we art teachers provide students with art knowledge assumed to contribute to their intellectual, social, cultural, and aesthetic wellbeing. Bourdieu would see art education as an effort to provide students with the advantages that come from possessing certain forms of educational and cultural capital (1984, pp. 53-54). The knowledge associated with cultural capital is, however, conveyed within formal contexts--school classrooms--where adults have enormous power over what students will "learn" about "art." Modernist art educators, for example, believe that students should learn to view artworks from the standpoint of formal qualities--the elements and principles of design--subject matter is of lesser importance. Early proponents of discipline-based art education saw art history, criticism, aesthetics, and art-production, not artworks, as the primary content of art education (Wilson, 1997b, pp. 88-89). Thus, formal art knowledge is formed within relationships where adult-sanctioned power is exercised. This knowledge, when willingly accepted by students, contributes to the development and proliferation of new power relationships--this is certainly the case when an art student is inspired by his or her teacher and subsequently succeeds, say, in having artworks purchased by a prestigious art museum. Students, however, do not always accept the art knowledge offered them by teachers. They may see it as irrelevant, as having little worth. While ignoring the content of formal art instruction, students may prize other forms of visual culture such as comics, anime, video games, and music videos, which are still denigrated by some art teachers.

In the relationship between the school art curricula and the dojinshi subculture in Japan we have a paradigm case in which youth visual cultural power is in competition with the visual cultural power represented by the art curricula. (This situation, we might note, is not unique to Japan or to Asia.) It's not so much that these two forms of visual culture are in open conflict, rather they exist apart in separate territories within the vast visual cultural realm. Nevertheless, it is ironic, on the one hand, that teachers expend great effort to make art a part of students' lives, and yet we know virtually nothing about whether or not art instruction changes the lives of general education students. On the other hand, those same students, with little or no encouragement from adults--and frequently with adult disapproval, make dojinshi creation and consumption a central component of their lives. Is this a problem for art education? Should these two clusters of power within art education be treated as hopelessly antagonistic and irreconcilable?

Foucault has a useful response to this type of question. He refers to "a new economy of power relations." "In order to understand what power relationships are about," Foucault suggests, "perhaps we should investigate what is happening in" and then he gives as an example, "the field of insanity" (Foucault, 1984, p. 419). He argues for the investigation of forms of resistance, taking as a starting point a series of oppositions--things such as the power of men over women, parents over children, of psychiatry over the mentally ill, of medicine over the population, to which we might add teachers over students, and in the case of dojinshi and other forms of visual culture, power that some youth exercise over others, and a power that the dojinshi creators apparently have to diminish the importance of art instruction in the eyes of students. Foucault claims "it is not enough to say that these are anti-authority struggles; we must try to define more precisely what they have in common" (Foucault, 1984, p.419). Indeed, we believe that art education could benefit enormously for a discussion of what art curricula and dojinshi have in common.

Art teachers value students who draw well, who are good designers, whose works deal with important social issues, say, such as matters of identity, who make discriminating aesthetic judgments, students who have a passion for art--well certain kinds of art. We have just described the hundreds of thousands of youth--it's probably millions of youth--who inhabit the dojinshi subculture.

Should the dojinshi subculture be brought into that curriculum? The new Japanese middle school art textbooks do devote two or three pages to manga, suggesting that this aspect of popular culture should become a component of the curriculum. 1n 1998, Japanese Ministry of Education adopted the study of manga as a part of the national art educational curriculum for eighth and ninth grades. The new textbook were implemented in April, 2002 (Toku, 2001a). In the United States art educators are calling for the inclusion of visual culture in art curricula (Duncum, 2001; Duncum & Bracey, 2001; Freedman, 2000a, Freedman, 2000b, Tavin, 2000) . Some would go so far as to transform art education into visual culture education.

Herein lies the problem. Dojinshi and its yoai and boys' love components flourish because they are subversive, beyond control, and because they stand in opposition to conventional societal norms. To put these forms of youth visual culture in schools would probably rob teens of the pleasures that surround their creation and consumption: when we require students to do and make what they themselves have elected to do on their own becomes no longer their own. Moreover, when the subversive is sanctioned it loses its social transformative functions. Surely, schools should not be in the business of assisting students to create dojinshi. They don't need help.

This does not mean, however, that art and visual culture curricula should ignore dojinshi. To do so leaves an intolerable critical void. Surely teenagers must learn to read semiotically and interpret critically the visual culture they create. Surely they must be taught to question things such as the forms of gender identity that are constructed within yaoi. Herein lies another problem; the content of boys' love and especially yaoi would be deemed by most educators and adults as inappropriate content for discussion in art classrooms. The same could be said for other forms of visual culture that have great appeal to teenagers--music videos, ads for clothing, cinema. The visual cultural content youth consumes, often uncritically, cannot be broached in schools. How ironic!

Boys' love, yaoi, and the dojinshi in which they are found are potent sign in Barthes' Empire of Signs. They are also a sign of disputed power in the realm of art education and youth visual culture. They are signs of the larger global visual culture of youth which art educators and youth both share and do not share. If pedagogy is the sharing of power by students and teachers--and we think it should be--then shouldn't forms of visual culture studied in school should be a topic for negotiation among educational authorities, teachers, and students? Indeed, we believe that this is one of the most important issues for students and teachers in countries throughout the world to negotiate and resolve. The problematic, subversive, forbidden, and unsanctioned yaoi will probably not be permitted inside the art classroom. Might it be the case, however, that the less problematic forms of visual culture created by youth might stand in for the unacceptable types? If boys' love provides the means for females to explore gender roles, then perhaps sanctioned forms of visual culture might provide the vehicle through which students could practice reading signs in the unsanctioned forms of youth culture which exist beyond schools.


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End Notes

1 It is interesting to note that Keiko Takemiya, whose M/M stories stimulated countless Japanese girls and women to create their own yaoi and boys' love stories still works as an instructor in a manga correspondence school operated by June.

2 The Harry Potter phenomenon illustrates the enormous range of dojinshi. In 2002, one ten-member Taiwanese dojinshi group, for example, produced in just a few months a 144 page volume featuring eleven different Harry Potter stories. None of the stories is yaoi and while boys' love is hinted at most of the stories are heterosexual in character.

3 In Taiwan, yaoi fans dislike the label otaku because of its negative connotations. In Taiwan, even more than in Japan, otaku are viewed as strange individuals living on the margins of society. Nevertheless, this particular interviewee agreed that she was "maybe sixty-percent otaku."

4 Eda began her career in Taipei as a professional manga artist at age 16. Because she was dissatisfied with low expectations and inadequate editorial guidance she received from her publisher in the just-developing Taiwanese manga industry, and because she sought more freedom, she returned to dojinshi. Her powerful psychological narratives deal with personality development, suicide, and "crime without punishment," but not with M/M. Her career exemplifies how readily some artists move between commercial manga and "amateur" dojinshi.