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Shounen-ai - Meaning in Japanese - 少年愛

Friday, September 29, 2017
In some websites that deal with manga and anime, you may find the category shounen-ai 少年愛. But what does shounen-ai mean? What's the difference between shounen-ai and shounen which is a lot more common? And does shounen-ai in the west mean the same thing as shounen-ai in Japan? In Japanese?

Genre Definition in West

When used as a genre or category in the west, shounen-ai 少年愛 refers exclusively to gay love (guy x guy) in manga and anime. This can be romantic love or sometimes platonic love too.

That is, there's your normal romance anime, with straight couples, and then there's gay romance anime, called shounen-ai, with male gay couples.

(personally, the only shounen-ai anime I've ever watched was called No. 6, and it was awful. Really awful. The writing was all over the place. The ending didn't make any sense at all. But, yeah, there was a gay couple in it. Sure.)

Shounen-Ai vs. Yaoi

Another word that's often used to talk about gay fiction in the west is yaoi やおい. The difference between shounen-ai and yaoi is very simple.
  • shounen-ai 少年愛
    Not porn.
  • yaoi やおい
    Porn.

Note that in Japan, in Japanese, these words don't work like this. But in the west the word shounen-ai is pretty much only used to distinguish between the pornographic hentai 変態 and the non-pornographic romance stories. So yaoi is hentai, shounen-ai is not hentai.

Kanji of Shounen-Ai

The word shounen-ai written with kanji would be 少年愛. The first part, shounen 少年, usually means "boy," and is written with the kanji for "few," sukunai 少ない, and "year," nen 年. So "few years," someone young, a boy. The ai 愛 kanji and word means "love" in Japanese.

Translation

So given the above, shounen-ai 少年愛 in Japanese literally means either of these two things:
  • Boys' love
  • Boy love

This is a bit tricky for two reasons.

First, Boys' Love, or BL, is actually another genre of gay fiction, separate from shounen-ai and yaoi, specially used by fujoshi 腐女子 in Japan. In English people say shounen-ai to mean on thing, in Japanese they say Boys' Love to mean another. Language is weird!

Second, the word shounen doesn't really mean "boy" the same way "boy" means "boy" in English. I'll explain this a bit later, but first...

Shounen-Ai vs. Shounen

So there's a genre of anime called shounen-ai, but there's also a genre of anime called shounen. So what's the difference between shounen and shounen-ai?

Well, for starters, shounen 少年 isn't really a genre. It's a demographic. The word shounen means "boys," so a shounen manga 少年漫画 is literally a "boys' manga," or, in other words, it's made "for boys," shounen-muke 少年向け.

So, adventure stories, with action, fighting, blasting, super powers, heroes, etc. are usually shounen-muke. Comedy, gag manga are usually shounen-muke. A lot of manga of a lot of genre are classified as shounen-muke. The only thing it needs to be a shounen manga or anime is to be aimed at boys.

In contrast, a shounen-ai manga is a manga that depicts love relationships between boys. And it is, most definitely, not aimed at boys. If anything it's aimed at girls, that is, a shounen-ai manga is usually a "girls' manga," shoujo manga 少女漫画, not a "boys'" manga, shounen.
  • shounen
    Story made for boys.
  • shounen-ai
    Story about boys, made for girls.

So that's why there are thousands of shounen anime but only very, very few shounen-ai anime. Because a shounen anime can be of any genre, but a shounen-ai anime is only ever a sub-genre of romance.

Shounen-ai Japanese Genre

So now we know what the shounen-ai genre is in the west. But what's the shounen-ai genre like in Japan, where Japanese is spoken, and where the word shounen-ai came from?

In a word: non-existent.

Although shounen-ai is a genre in the west, shounen-ai is not a genre in Japan. At least not recently.

Gay Genre History

In the long past, before 1980, there was a shounen-ai genre. It depicted, as one would expect, romantic and platonic relationships between boys, often in high-school, because that's pretty much the only place that exists in manga.

But those were dark times for gay fiction made for the female audience.

In those times, there were, seriously, at least four different genres of gay manga. There was shounen-ai, there was yaoi, there was bara 薔薇, and there was even a thing called JUNE ジュネ which was based on a french gay magazine. It was a confusing mess!

The sane people of the time, probably realizing they got themselves deep into classification bullshit, have gradually said "fuck that!" and devised a new term, the Japanese gay fiction messiah, the one true genre, that'd save (gay) anime: BL, or Boys' Love. it stuck because it was English and English looks cool if it's not your native language.

So 30~40 years pass by, from before 1980 we come to before 2020, today, and now most of the old terms for gay fiction aren't used anymore in Japan. But since the west loaned those terms and began using them in parallel, their usage outside of Japan has become greater than their usage inside of Japan.
  • Shounen-ai
    Not used in Japan, used in west.
  • Yaoi
    Uncommon in Japan, common in west.
  • Bara
    Uncommon in both.
  • June
    Vanished from Japan, note sure if was ever used in the west.
  • BL
    Popular in Japan now, also becoming common in the west.

Basically, in Japan the word BL has pretty much become an umbrella term for gay fiction. Even things that were called shounen-ai in the past would be called BL now. So the shounen-ai genre is practically gone from Japan, as everyone calls it BL instead.

Genre Disparity in The World

So, Japan has no shounen-ai, but the west has shounen-ai. Problem: what do you call a shounen-ai anime in Japan?

Answer: it depends.

Anything with gay relationships as focus is classified as BL in Japan, even western yaoi is classified as BL in Japan, but sometimes stuff that's classified as shounen-ai in the west is not classified as BL in Japan. Why? Because BL is more strict as a genre and only applies when the thing is actually entirely BL, and not when it's just kinda gay.

For example, Loveless ラブレス is classified as shounen-ai in some anime databases in the west. But in Japanese sites, it's classified as romance, "bromance" ブロマンス (yes, seriously), and mostly as sci-fi, or SF. But it's not classified as BL.

Loveless Shounen-Ai anime first episode and its non Shounen-Ai parts

In contrast, Junjou Romantica 純情ロマンチカ is classified as shounen-ai in the west and is also classified as a proper BL in Japan. Clearly Junjou Romantica has something Loveless doesn't have (love, perhaps?), so it's fits into Boys' Love genre.

Shounen-Ai Japanese Meaning

One last thing to consider, and this is pretty important, is that shounen-ai isn't used as a genre anymore in Japan, but the word also has another meaning. A meaning that was used before it was a genre, and is still valid today.
  • shounen-ai 少年愛
    Pederasty. (it's like pedophilia)

Now I'm pretty sure you're like: "wtf." And I guess that's to be expected, but in hindsight this should have been obvious!

The reason this might have been unexpected is due to dozens of confusions that were born from a number of translation problems. Let me elaborate.

Shounen isn't "boy"

First, shounen is usually translated as "boy," but the word doesn't mean exactly that. As the kanji says, shounen means "few years." Literally implies someone young. In the medieval ages, a shounen was someone under 30. Today, a shounen is someone under 20. Essentially, shounen is synonymous with underage.

For law purposes, the word shounen really means a young person of either genre. The shounen-hou 少年法, for example, is the "juvenile law" of Japan. It's not the "boy law." It's the "juvenile law." But outside of legality, shounen is pretty much only used toward boys, male, and shoujo is used toward girls, female.

So it's only natural that shounen gets translated as "boy" in English, but there's a bit of a problem in that.

First, shounen isn't even the normal word to say "boy" in Japanese. That'd be danshi 男子 or otoko no ko 男の子. For a "girl," instead of shoujo, the normal word would be joshi 女子 or onna no ko 女の子.

Second, you can call someone "boy" in English without meaning they're actually underage, they just need to be young. Someone in their mid-20s can get called a "boy."

So another reason shounen-ai isn't a genre in Japanese anymore but BL is, is because some BL anime have characters which wouldn't be considered shounen anymore.

For example, Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi 世界一初恋 features a 25 year old protagonist. Junjou Romantica 純情ロマンチカ features an 18 year old protagonist that becomes 22 years old along the story or at least that's what Wikipedia says. These are not children anymore, they're adults, therefore they can't be called shounen.

A reminder: the now-gone shounen-ai genre of ages past featured underage boys in platonic relationships exclusively. Pretty much, they were gay fiction happening in a high-school, because any character in a high-school would be a shounen. It was easy to classify high-school BL as shounen-ai. There also used to be a genre called Class S which was pretty much the same thing but with girls.

Shounen-ai vs. Shoujo-ai

Lastly, the difference between shounen-ai and shoujo-ai 少女愛 is an obvious and simple one.

Shounen-ai features gay relationships between boys, shoujo-ai features lesbian relationships between girls.

Neither word is a genre in Japan. They are western genres that use Japanese words.

In the west, both are exclusively non-pornographic, and just like yaoi is the explicit version of shounen-ai, yuri 百合 is the explicit version of shoujo-ai.

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