A Discussion on the Definition of Yuri

And so I ask you this: what is yuri?

It’s a simple question. Beautifully phrased, too, if I do say so myself. This is a query that features three short words which are easy to clearly pronounce, properly enunciate, and accentuate. What is yuri? What is yuri?

The answer is straightforward, too. Yuri is a term that describes content and genre which depicts love between women. Traditionally, the phrase applies to anime, manga, and other such Japanese media (such as visual novels).

The problems arise when we attempt to discuss specifics. Some people will consider certain instances involving two girls to be yuri while others will dismiss such events only establish that the two girls are close, platonic friends or that said happenings belong in a separate yet related subgenre or category. Personal preferences run the gamut and universal understandings are few and far between here. But I want to dive in here and try to point out exactly why categorizing yuri is inherently messy while pointing out four grey areas.

Let’s return to the initial definition I provided. If you cut out the extra words, you would get a sentence that reads “yuri depicts love between women.” The key word here is love. Love comes in all shapes and forms – the Greeks believed that there were at least 4 types of love, in fact. At least, I think so. Different sources claim there were 7 or 8 types.

In any case, it seems mandatory to specify what sort of love between women “counts” as yuri. People may disagree with me, but I consider romantic or sexual love between women to be yuri. The two sorts of love are definitely distinct in my mind hence the wording. If we were to suppose that most people agree with my personal definition, “yuri depicts romantic or sexual love between women,” however, another problem (which happens to be the first grey area for yuri), arises.

The thin line between romance and friendship

That would be the definition of romantic love as well as the sort of behavior that constitutes as being romantic in nature. Different individuals believe in different definitions in this regard. In my opinion, the fact that romantic gestures bleed into and get mixed up with platonic acts of friendship is what agitates the situation. Lovers hold hands, for instance, but so do friends. Lovers kiss, but the French do greet friends and family with kisses (then again, lovers kiss on the lips whereas platonic friends kiss on the cheek). Be that as it may, individuality and personal preferences are what cause others to see a relationship between two girls be romantic in nature whereas others will claim that their relationship is platonic.

The first example that comes into mind would the relationship between Akemi Homura and Kaname Madoka. In my mind, their relationship is romantic. After all, Homura’s greatest priority is the protection of Madoka and her happiness. Furthermore, Homura desperately hugs Madoka before practically confessing her in episode 11 in which she says: “I just started going to your school so it’s not like you really know me. But I know you. I know you so well, you’re my…” Unfortunately, the final word gets cut off and the situation is left ambiguous. And in the final episode, Madoka and Homura are naked as they embrace. After Madoka ascends, Homura takes to wearing Madoka’s red hair ribbons, which can be interpreted to be symbols which represent the red string of fate that binds lovers.

However, there are some people who will disagree and insist that I’m overanalyzing and that the relationship between Madoka and Homura is platonic. Perhaps I’m being too soft, but while I disagree with their opinion, I do respect their beliefs and won’t insult them. Wild stuff, I know,  but such conduct unfortunately isn’t really standard protocol within some circles. This eternal disagreement in regards to the line between romantic and platonic behavior is frequently on my mind as a yuri fan.

There is much less confusion to be had in regards to sexual love, however. Sure, a few individuals may mistake sexual love with romantic love. But if I were to speak from personal experience, sexual love (or lust or desire) has more to do with physical appearance, intimate activities, and so on. While platonic friends can certainly compliment each other’s features, I immediately become a bit suspicious if a girl says another girl’s eyes are beautiful or that her lips are enticing. She, I think to myself, might be sexually attracted to the other girl! It’s a lot harder to dismiss that line of reasoning if the girls in question end up groping one another, passionately kissing one another, getting naked with one another, etc. But that brings me to the next grey area.

The distinction between shoujo-ai and yuri

Earlier, I said that I personally think that “yuri depicts romantic and sexual love.” However, a close friend of mine believes otherwise and insists that yuri only depicts sexual love (as in sexually explicit work). In her opinion, works that focuses more on romance and less on explicit relations (lighter, fluffier works) are to be considered “shoujo-ai.” Same goes for series which only depict friendships between girls that are at best romantically ambiguous (i.e. lots of ship tease and “subtext” but nothing concrete or canon).

Having such a distinction is nice – seeing a title being labeled shoujo-ai allows yuri fans to know right away that a title doesn’t feature sexually explicit content, for instance. However, I feel obligated to mention that the term is more of a Western invention since shoujo-ai in Japan tends to refer to explicit content involving an underage girl. That can cause quite the misunderstanding, but it’s hard to deny the convenience of two distinct labels since it saves you the added trouble of having to elaborate on the contents within a work. As a sidenote, the term “GL” (Girls’ Love) is apparently used in Japan, but I very rarely see it being used compared to BL. Perhaps the Western community is hesitant to use the term since it can easily be misunderstood as “Good Luck.”

A unrealistic depiction and overreliance on tropes

If we’re going to be brutally honest, yuri is often overly idealized and is not truly representative of actual lesbian people, culture, and experiences (like most depictions of romance in fiction). We can observe this in how many yuri works contains excessive amounts of fluff, how a lot of older yuri works featured tragic endings to adhere to heteronormativity (which is a leftover trend from Class S – thankfully more and more modern yuri works are shifting away from this particular aspect) and how a lot of yuri works seem to heavily rely on tropes. Think of all the yuri works that take place in an all-girls Catholic school, of the senpai x kouhai relationships, of the tomboy x femme relationships.

While the fact these pairings are often so heavily defined tropes is harmful in how they seem to pigeonhole characters into being mere templates or predictable clichés, a lot of fiction of all types of genres make use of tropes. This isn’t a yuri-exclusive problem. However, as stated earlier, it doesn’t accurately convey real lesbians. Furthermore, some of the more popular tropes can be made to subtly mirror heterosexual relationships, which serves to indirectly dismiss lesbian relationships.

For example, one girl in a paring is often portrayed as being more “masculine” while the other is portrayed as being more “feminine.” Couples that feature a senpai being with a kouhai usually has the senpai being taller and more experienced (which are typically “masculine” traits), for instance. In regards to teacher x student couples, the teacher is usually the one who assumes the “masculine” role as the teacher, like the senpai, is older, and more experienced. No explanation should be needed for the tomboy x femme relationships.

With that being said, there are many subversions for these tropes and one could say that these are instances of overthinking things. Once again, I will be leaving this to your opinion and will not insist that my line of thinking is the correct one – I merely wish to bring up the possibility as well as generate discussion.

As a slight tangent, apparently some Japanese yuri fans use the terms “bian” (which is short for lesbian; apparently les and lesbian are not highly-regarded terms in Japan), “Onna x Onna” (which means “women x women”) and “Onna-doushi” (“women together”) for works that are actually by and for lesbian women. Perhaps this isn’t too much of a tangent, on second thought, since it’s a nice transition into the fourth and final grey area I’ll be addressing in this post.

Yuri and demographics

I won’t actually make blanket statements regarding the demographics for yuri. I don’t have significant empirical evidence that shows or refutes the idea that heterosexual males are the primary consumers for yuri. Perhaps it’s lesbian females! At any rate, statisticians and the like will have to do that sort of sleuthing for me. EDIT: It just so happens that one of my esteemed peers released an editorial that addresses these questions and concerns on the same day that I published this essay (of sorts). Click here to see how yuri as a genre, contrary to popular belief, isn’t made for men !

No, what I wanted to touch upon how individual yuri works differ in thematics, presentation, etc due to their target audience. Yuri works that are aimed at girls are much different than yuri works aimed at men, for instance.

Yuri for girls (shoujo) usually idealizes feminity while exploring gender transgression (some works may feature genderbending or crossdressing as well as an androgynous girl who can be mistaken for a boy). Lesbian culture and identity, however, is usually not touched.

Yuri for adult women (josei) often features less stereotypes and is relatively realistic. This is the type of yuri that is referred to as “bian,” “Onna x Onna,” and “Onna-doushi” as it earnestly confronts lesbian culture, politics, and identity, but it’s only makes up a small portion of yuri works as a whole.

Yuri for men (seinen) typically exaggerates sweetness, femininity, and moe. Female adolescence and childhood is often romanticized, as well. You shouldn’t expect long-term relationships, lesbian culture, or other such aspects to come up in such works. But you’d be surprised.

There are probably other demographics to be considered and all. However, these are just guidelines. I have to bold this in case goons come after me. Perhaps some seinen yuri can accurately depict what it means to be a lesbian. I doubt it, however. Whether a series is supposed to appeal to a particular demographic is definitely something subject to personal opinion, as well (and as usual).

Of course, there are always exceptions. Seinen yuri are no exception. If you want to see some examples, I talk about how Girlfriends, a seinen yuri series that is beloved, tackles the trite “girls can’t love girls” trope and how it isn’t out-of-place earlier this year. For some people, this is the reality and environment they have to deal with. Same goes for Octave, which is a seinen series that explores what it means to fail to achieve your own dreams and touches upon the seedy underside of the entertainment industry as well as what it means to have homophobic family members and friends. So to claim that all seinen yuri is just “fluff” is errorneous. But of course, it doesn’t matter if you try to placate others. People will always try to poke holes in your definitions and cite exceptions. That’s why no one can ever talk about things as a whole.

Anyways, the grey area appears when we try to decide if all of these types of yuri count as yuri. Should yuri written for men be put on the same “level” as yuri written for women or girls? I’m personally of the opinion that it should, but they should be labeled accordingly. This series is shoujo yuri while this series is seinen yuri and so on. But to be perfectly honest, I wish more yuri works were (accordingly to these guidelines) josei. Alas, this subgenre is only a minor player in the yuri world so us yuri fans have to take what we can get. Small wonder many yuri fans also appreciate yet settle for Cute Girls Doing Cute Things shows, then, as we hope for small hints for romantic love to appear. But then others will consider such titles to be shoujo-ai and then we’re starting from square one once again. The four grey areas will have us spinning in loops forever! But of course, I’ll be happy with seinen yuri series that defy these guidelines. Yuri is yuri, right?


At any rate, I hope this proved to be informative. Thank you for reading.

15 thoughts on “A Discussion on the Definition of Yuri

  1. Another brilliant article from you that talks about exactly the kinds of things I’m trying to think about for my soon-to-happen talk about Yuri, including also things that I might not have though about myself? What is this miracle?!

    I really, really appreciate these posts. They’re helping me think about all kinds of things I’ll need to mention eventually if I’m going to do any justice to Yuri as a genre when I talk about it, even if I only mention most things on a general level, probably, due to time constraints.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m glad that the timing of this article is working out to your advantage, yay!
      I do admit that I was wondering if you would find this useful as I wrote this up, so I’m really pleased to hear that it is!
      However, the post was mainly written so I can continue staying focused on yuri. At times I stray from yuri on the blog, you see, haha…

      I wish you the best of luck when you discuss yuri with your club!! Feel free to use any of the topics or concepts I’ve discussed if they actually make sense!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lol it’s mostly just people in the West being weirded out.

    Let’s get this one out of the way first — anime does indeed generally idealize romance as a whole, more so than just things surrounding yuri relationships.

    I have absolutely no problem at outright telling another dude that he’s one hella sexy human being. You’re a beacon of flame yourself, Remy!

    *insert I’d do you if I was a girl type quote here*

    And believe me or not; vast majority of women are the exact same in Asia.
    Come over to Thailand or even better, go to Japan and experience some serious yuri (or yaoi if you swing that way)—beyond almost everything we have seen in anime!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah man! Right from sweet words to skinship; even straights do it. Gay is a lot more than so and that’s probably why Japan has many layers of it, all of which are nicely labeled like you did here!

        I feel like I’m stepping into a territory I don’t belong…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article, as always.
    On the point of tropes, tropes don’t always have to be a bad thing either. I’ve had people ask me before whether they need to worry because their writing has a few tropes that are quite clear, and I always say the same thing: my personal thinking is that it doesn’t have to matter. If the writing is strong, tropes can be fine. The key is not playing up too much on the negative stereotypes.
    I would agree that I’d like to see more josei yuri too, especially when it comes to translations. Honestly, the biggest issues for me with yuri are the ‘it’s just a phase’ stuff and that I can never find many that feature two adult females.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Okay I think I have said this quite a few times now, but I am a firm believer that some things just can’t be said enough. You have always such incredible informative posts besides reviews. I seriously mean it. I have learned quite a lot from reading a few of your posts, and that is something I highly appreciate.
    I am (or at least I feel) sometimes still like a noob when watching anime, so I can never learn to much I guess.
    Thanks for this very insightful and awesome post. I do agree with Auri though: you must get some rest 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, raistlin! I always feel like I should stress that a lot of my posts are heavily opinionated, but I’m really glad you think they’re informative.

      Don’t worry, I slept pretty solidly afterwards. But now I’m getting up around the same time I fell asleep yesterday…

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m a fan of yuri, not just because I find it exciting and immensely appealing from a primal, red-blooded male perspective (as someone on Twitter put it, if you had the opportunity to either have a chocolate bar or put another chocolate bar on your chocolate bar, why wouldn’t you do the latter?) but also because I generally find female characters in anime, manga, video games and visual novels to be more appealing and relatable for some reason — perhaps because in the stuff I enjoy it tends to be the female casts that have the most care and attention lavished upon them.

    I do find it amusing when some people get aggressively homophobic about works that clearly have underlying yuri themes. My favourite is the Neptunia series, which has been obviously as gay as a window since its inception, yet some people still get frighteningly upset if you point this out. With each new installment it gets harder for them to argue their case, however. Nepgear x Uni OTP forever.

    One interesting aspect about yuri content in general is that it doesn’t seem to get acknowledged in the West as inherently progressive in the same way that male-on-male content does. Perhaps it’s to do with what you describe above, where yuri content often reinforces heteronormative conventions despite involving two girls (though as you say, notably subversive exceptions exist). Or perhaps (more likely?) it’s because yuri also appeals to heterosexual men and is thus Evil and Bad.

    I know a good few gay women out there who get a lot out of something like Senran Kagura (particularly the explicitly gay characters in that such as Katsuragi), and are as annoyed as I am when some jerk who plays it for ten minutes writes it off as mindless fanservice. (SK has amazing characterisation and incredibly sensitive handling of all manner of relationship-related issues, and I will rant about it for hours to anyone who will listen.)

    In fact, one of my favourite games I played and wrote about this year was exceedingly up-front about its lesbian main characters. Did it get any column inches in the publications who are keen to try and prove how progressive they are at every opportunity? Did it hell. https://moegamer.net/all-games/nights-of-azure/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s quite debatable if you consider female love interests in harem romcoms or in most shounen stories, but development for female casts in yuri works do seem to stand out (also that’s a nifty metaphor).

      Yeah, Neptunia is definitely gay. All of them are gay. It’s a little weird people are in denial about it, but they’re entitled to their own opinions, I guess. I like Neptunia x Noire!

      You bring up some good points about yuri not being properly acknowledged as progressive. I wish I did a better job in that regard. Perhaps the factors we’ve discussed are the reasons why this is the case.

      I wish I could easily play that game. They messed up the keyboard controls for that game when it was exported. Nights of Azure 2 is already out, too…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, Nights of Azure is on my “To-Play” list. It’s one I want to write about at length, though, so it may be a month or two before I get to it! Looking forward to it, though; big fan of Gust’s work generally.

        Liked by 2 people

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