And kanji with manga
Thursday, September 21, 2017

bara 薔薇

NSFW: this article may contain words or images you'd rather not have your boss see.
If you've been in anime forums too much, you might have encountered the word bara 薔薇 before. This word refers to a genre of gay drawn porn. But what does bara mean in Japanese? Where does the meaning of the word bara come from?


In the west, bara means a genre of hentai 変態, drawn, manga and anime porn, which is gay, includes sex scenes featuring guys, and which features strong-looking characters, with tons of muscle, sometimes, overweight characters, and sometimes hairy characters. That is, bara doesn't feature effeminate, androgynous-looking male characters that are more common around anime.

In Japan, bara 薔薇 means a genre of gay fiction which is made by gays for gays and often featuring gay sex.

We can see above that western bara is a lot more complex than Japanese bara, it takes some more text to describe, but that has a pretty good reason.

Since Japanese bara is by definition gay porn for gay men, it contains what those gay men would like to see in their gay porn, which is, guess what: men. So the characters of bara manga are automatically manly looking because that's what its audience wants.

The western meaning is basically that people looked at Japanese bara and were like: "oh, okay, bara is gay porn with manly men. I get it." So the original Japanese has the cause while the loaned term in English has only the effect.

Bara vs. Gay

Although bara refers to gay fiction, it doesn't mean "gay" itself. You can't call yourself a "bara" neither in English nor in Japanese if you want to say you're gay.

In Japanese, "gay" would be gei ゲイ. Another word for "gay" is homo ホモ, but this one can be considered offensive for some. The word douseiai-sha 同性愛者, "homosexual person," is used when some formality is required.

The word gei komikku ゲイコミック, "gay comics" (komikku is how you say manga in Japanese) is a term which would be synonymous with bara comics in Japan. Since bara is a rather old and obscure term, it's possible that calling stuff just gei instead of bara is becoming the norm.

Bara vs. Yaoi & BL

The word bara 薔薇 refers to gay drawn porn, that is, gay hentai 変態. But in the west gay hentai is normally called yaoi やおい, not bara. And in Japan gay fiction is normally called BL, not bara. So why does the word bara even exist? Why use it? What's the difference between bara and yaoi, and bara and BL?

It's actually very simple.

The bara genre is made "for gays," or, in Japanese, gei-muke ゲイ向け. Both yaoi and BL are genres made "for women," josei-muke 女性向け. That's essentially the cause of everything that differs between them.

First, the reason the words yaoi and BL are used more than bara, is because there are more women than there are gay men. Apparently, in UK about 1.5% of men are gay. Men are 50% of the population. So 1.5% × 50% = 0.75%. So it's 0.75% of the people which are gay men vs. 50% of the people which are women. You don't need anymore math than this to know why bara isn't popular.

Further, imagine this. One day you wake up and decide you'll start drawing gay porn for money. God only knows what happened to you to arrive this decision, but you take a look at the market and see: you could draw gay porn for gay men... or you could draw gay porn for women and get 50% ÷ 0.75% = 66.6 times the costumers you'd have otherwise. More customers = more money.

Obviously you'd want to draw BL and yaoi, not bara. Anything to have sweet, sweet slice of the demographic pie.

Effectively, BL and yaoi is the standard. Women prefer the androgynous bishounen 美少年 or the super-model ikemen イケメン character in their BL. Artists follow the demand. Actual gay consumers are not mainstream, actual gay is alternative gay.

So if bara is alternative, this means that everything in bara is the opposite of what BL, probably on purpose. For example:
  • BL has younger characters.
    Bara has older characters.
  • BL has androgynous characters.
    Bara es muy macho.
  • BL is obsessed with top and bottom, seme 攻め and uke 受け
    Bara has characters that switch.
  • BL has unrealistic gay ships fantasized by fujoshi 腐女子.
    Bara is slightly more realistic concerning gay relationships.
  • BL readers think of themselves as spectators.
    Bara readers can imagine themselves as the characters.

Since the consumers of bara are so few, the genre can only survive by offering the opposite of what BL does. Gay men which don't like BL because BL is what it is, end up liking bara because bara is what BL is not.

BL = Bara Mistake

Some Japanese people make the mistake of thinking that bara and BL / yaoi are synonymous. Hard to blame them, since both deal with gay fiction.

This happens because BL stands for "Boys' Love." In Japanese, "love" can be said as rabu ラブ. So BL ends up actually being BR, booizu rabu ボーイズラブ. And so people think bara = BaRa = BR = BL.

It's weird, but it goes to show how obscure the bara term is.

Rose Bara 薔薇

The word bara 薔薇 in Japanese means "rose," the flower. The flower "rose." That one with the thorns.

This is sort of important because, since bara is rather obscure as a genre of gay porn, most of the time in Japanese the word bara refers to the flower, not to the genre.

The word bara only refers to the genre when you're talking about doujinshi 同人誌 or manga. In pretty much every other context people will think about the flower.

Although bara can be written with kanji as 薔薇, those kanji are rather difficult and complex-looking, so a lot of times bara is written with katakana instead: bara バラ.

Why is Bara Called Bara? Origin of Bara & Yuri

The genre bara comes from word "rose" in Japanese, bara 薔薇. But why "rose"? Where does it come from?

Apparently, the first gay magazine published in Japan was called bara-zoku 薔薇族, "rose tribe." According to the then editor-in-chief, who happens to be a straight man to the surprise of many, in an interview with Nico Nico, the name of this magazine came from the Greek mythology, quoting the line: "under a rose men make love."

(I haven't been able to find what exactly of the Greek mythology says this, but if the guy who named it says it's that, it's that)

Update: apparently, in Greek mythology, King Laius was a man who was cursed somehow in such way that his son would end up killing him if he had one. So he avoided having children by not having sex with women. This made him turn to kidnapping and raping a boy and later (or earlier?) doing stuff under rose trees. Moral of story: a condom can prevent a lot of bad stuff from happening.

So that's where the word bara came from.

Also worth nothing: this same editor-in-chief created a column named yuri-zoku 百合族, "lily clan," which became the origin of the yuri genre.

Phrase from manga Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha. いなり、こんこん、恋いろは。 - maru-chan kaiteru hon mo bara ka yuri ya mon na - The books Maru-chan draws are bara or yuri


Slightly unrelated, a classic meme around the internet, both in Japan and in the west, is the one where you see a guy starting to take off his clothes on a bench and saying yaranaika? やらないか? From the same manga came what became known as yaranaika faces

Yaranaika? meme origin, a gay porn manga called Kuso Miso Technique くそみそテクニック

Both memes came from the manga Kuso Miso Technique くそみそテクニック. This manga was gay porn, bara, in case you still had any doubt, and it was published circa 1980 in the historic magazine bara-zoku 薔薇族 I mentioned above.

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