Thursday, September 28, 2017

seme, uke 攻め, 受け

NSFW : this article may contain words or images you'd rather not have your boss see.
You may have heard words seme and uke before, they're two related terms used to describe the roles of characters in gay fiction, mostly gay fanfics, with their gay ships. But what does seme and uke mean? What's the difference between a seme and an uke? And what does seme and uke mean in Japanese?


To begin with, seme and uke are, nothing more, nothing less, than words for "top" and "bottom" in gay fanfics, that is, the guy who penetrates and the one who's penetrated.
  • seme 攻め
  • uke 受け

This is the most basic, most widely accepted definition. When fans of yaoi やおい, shounen-ai 少年愛, BL, and other gay fiction say seme and uke, they most likely mean "top" and "bottom," nothing more, except things are a bit more complicated than that.

Sex vs. Sexless

If a fanfic or doujinshi 同人誌 is sexually explicit, pornographic, hentai 変態, and it features gay sex, then anyone with a pair of working eyes can tell who's "top" and who's "bottom" in it. However, the terms seme and uke are rarely used to talk about gay sex that happens. They are often used in shipping of characters who are not even canonically gay to begin with, so they can't be canonically top or bottom.

This means that fans of BL, specially fujoshi 腐女子, will take two heterosexual male characters from a manga or anime, form a gay couple of them, and fantasize which one is seme and and which one is uke based on what the character looks or behaves like. It has little basis on reality, it's pure perverted fantasy.

Extrapolating that, it's become common for people to erroneously call characters seme and uke based on just their looks. Remember: the terms seme and uke regard strictly what would happen in bed if something ever happened in bed. If you call a character uke, he must be the bottom. An uke top is an oxymoron. If he looks like an uke, but is a top, he's seme, that's just what the words mean. Conversely the most seme-looking guy who's a bottom is by definition an uke.

Since BL puts less emphasis on sex itself and more on the relationship between characters, one could say that which character is depicted as "top" or "bottom" in the sexual act merely reflects the dynamic of the relationship itself. That is, seme and uke in BL rarely considers the possibility of a character's sexual preference, and is instead is the logical assumption made by the shipper based on whether the character would be the "guy" or the "girl" of the gay couple.

Conversely, cases where the shipper just makes a couple of two characters and, well, one needs to be seme, one needs to be uke, what to do?! Also exist. So there are cases seme-uke are decided randomly and without thought, meaning they mean nothing.

Outside of BL

Although seme and uke are mostly used with gay ships, it can also be used for lesbian ships and even straight ships. I'll explain in detail later, for now let's focus on gay since it's the most common case.

Seme vs. Uke Characters

Generally speaking, the difference between seme and uke characters is as follows:
  • seme 攻め
    Assertive. Dominant. Protective.
    Brave. Strong. Resourceful. Knowledgeable.
    Taller. Older. Composed. Manly. Ikemen イケメン
    Takes the "man" role in the gay relationship.
  • uke 受け
    Passive. Submissive. Impressionable.
    Timid. Delicate. Troubled. Inexperienced.
    Shorter. Younger. Cute. Effeminate. Bishounen 美少年
    Takes the "woman" role in the gay relationship.

However, since most characters in manga and anime weren't created to be a textbook BL couple, they often lack some (or most) features to say for sure they're seme or uke, but fujoshi will ship them anyway.

That is to say, for one fan a character may be seme and for another fan the same character may be uke. Also, for the same fan, a character may be seme if he's paired with one character, but uke if he's paired with another character. I'm assuming the seme-est of the two ends up being seme, but who knows? There are also couples which can be reversed.

Couple Dynamics

In many cases ships are made of a childish uke character without resources (poor, abandoned by parents, lives on the streets, has to pay off an huge debt, no, wait, that's Hayate) or knowledge paired with more grown-up seme characters that are either rich or successful in their fields and can teach or financially aid the uke.

That is, the seme is often more powerful than the uke in pretty much every aspect and that translates in the romantic and sexual roles. The seme also usually takes protector roles or mentor roles. Although generally the idea is that the uke is the one in dire need of the seme's aid, in some cases it's the seme who needs attention or love, and the uke ends up being the one there to offer it.

Introversion and extroversion have little effect on seme and uke. There are cases where the extroverted uke looks naive and the introverted seme looks composed, and there are cases where the introverted uke looks shy, and the extroverted seme looks flirting. It often boils down to who puts most energy into making the relationship come to fruition, and that's usually the seme. Either by trying conquest or using his power to force it.

Lastly, there are certain couples of seme and uke that deliberately invert the power factor. Where the seme is timid or has lower status and the uke displays superiority and is the one trying to get in a relationship with the seme. (see types of seme and uke)

How Seme and Uke is Decided

Ultimately, which is the seme and uke in a given couple is mostly based on the shipper's intuition. The most ardent shippers may spend countless nights without sleep wondering which is which may have some trouble deciding which is which, as it's not something obvious for them.

Rika from the manga Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai 僕は友達が少ない wondering which is uke and which is seme.

A Japanese thread on "how to decide seme and uke?" seme-uke no kime-kata 受け攻めの決め方 had answers like these (and yes, I translated them right).

ago ga nagai hou ga seme tte kimatteru
It's obvious the one with the longer chin is the seme!

tan'ni shinchou ga takai hou ga seme, hikui ga uke
Simply put the one whose height is taller is seme, the shorter is uke

mae made "taikaku-sa" tte itteta kedo 195cm no kyokan otoko-mae uke ni mezameta
Until some time ago I said it was the "difference in physique (height)," but I my eyes were open [after seeing] a 195cm [tall] otoko-mae uke. (a type of uke that looks manly)

meshi wo tsukutteru hou ga seme de kuwasete moratteru hou ga uke desu
The one making food is the seme while the one that eats is the uke.

azatoi hou ga seme desu
The sly/cunning one is seme.

seme no tame ni inochi wo nagedaseru hou ga uke de futari de ikiyou to kangaeru no ga seme
The one who would throw out his life for the seme is the uke while the one thinking about living as a couple is the seme.

aite no subete wo ukeirete aisareru yori aishitai ha no hou ga uke desu
The one who would accept everything of his partner and would rather love than be loved is uke.

"idakasete kudasai" tte iwarete "shou ga nai na" tte kotaesou na hou ga uke ka na
The one that gets said "let me hug you" and seems to answer "if it can't be helped [then sure]" is the uke.

"uwa-me-dzukai sareta hou ga uke" de "miorosaretai no ga seme"
"the one who wants to be looked up to is uke," while "the one who wants to be looked down upon is seme." (probably physically, not figuratively)

tinko ga dekai hou ga seme
The one with the bigger dick is seme.

kimegata wa kabe don desu
The way to decide is kabe don (act of slapping a wall so the person you're talking to is between the wall, your arm, and the rest of you)

megane ga suru hou ga uke
The one wearing glasses is uke.

shiri no ana kara u-ko suru hou ga seme
The one that s#!ts from his butt hole is the seme.
(implying ukes don't poop, because ukes have a BL ana BL穴, an imaginary "BL hole" that allows for gay sex to happen without problems, and yes, that's actually a word.)

uke-seme no kime-kata wa koin-tosu janai no?
The way to decide uke and seme isn't coin toss?

Origin & Japanese Meaning

In Japanese, the word seme 攻め comes the verb semeru 攻める, which means "to attack." The word uke 受け comes from the verb ukeru 受ける, which means "to receive."
  • seme 攻め
    The offense. (or attacker)
  • uke 受け
    The receive. (or receiver)

In other words, seme is the one who "attacks" and uke is the one who "receives" such attack. Given this meaning, it probably originated from sports or martial arts, however, do note that the opposite of seme would normally be mamori 守り, "defense," and not uke.
  • "seme" no hantai wa? 「攻め」の反対は?
    What's the opposite of "offense"?
  • uke! 受け!
    Receive! (this is a fujoshi)
  • mamori! 守り!
    Defense! (this is a normal person)

In this sense, seme and uke are closer to the American gay baseball-related slangs "pitcher" and "catcher" than "top" and "bottom."

The verb semeru can mean to attack physically or verbally. It can also mean to advance troops or attack strategically. It can mean to make a move forward, even romantically. It can mean to blame someone for something, just or not. Etc.

The verb ukeru can mean to receive or accept things, feelings or even people. In anime, the common uketetatsu 受けて立つ, literally "receive and stand," means to accept a challenge for example, instead of running away from it.

Generally speaking, the seme is the character with a more assertive personality who takes the "man" role and takes lead in sex, while the uke is the character that's passive, takes the "woman" role, and is led in sex. So one is attacking (making advances), while the other is "receiving" those advances.

Japanese Usage

Just like in the west, in Japan the terms seme and uke are also used by Japanese fujoshi. But there are a couple notes about the usage.

First, seme 攻め and uke 受け are sometimes written only with the kanji, without the okurigana.
  • seme
  • uke

Second, it's often paired with the word kyara キャラ, meaning "character:"
  • seme-kyara 攻めキャラ,
    Character who is "top."
  • uke-kyara 受けキャラ.
    Character who is "bottom."

There's also a number of adjectives that are commonly used before the nouns seme and uke to create countless types of seme and uke.

Importance in Shipping

The main use of the terms seme and uke is in shipping. Specially BL shipping done by fujoshi 腐女子. In both western fanfics and Japanese doujinshi 同人誌 featuring gay couples of characters, often parodying some other work, the top of the gay ship is always called the seme, and the bottom uke.

In manga for gay men, the bara 薔薇 genre, consumers don't care much about who's top and who's bottom. There's no fixation with seme and uke. But in gay fiction made for women, BL, the thing is different. These female consumers do care about who's seme and who's uke. To an absurd level even.

Seme x Uke

If there's a ship of two characters, changing who's seme and who's uke is said to change the whole dynamic between two characters. Thus, if someone ships A seme with B uke, they don't necessarily ship A uke with B seme. And they don't consider the two ships to be the same.

Furthermore, just like some ships are pretty much canon and some ships are just wrongships, sometimes a character is clearly, obviously, naturally, seme (or uke) and any person who thinks otherwise is considered a fucking idiot.

The importance of seme and uke in yaoi and yuri shipping, as seen in manga Yuri Danshi 百合男子, where a character ships Ritsu x Mio and other Mio x Ritsu from the anime K-On!

Uke Is More Important Than Seme

The uke is often the most important side for shippers. This means most shippers will pick an uke character they like, then they figure out some seme to make a couple, and sometimes they don't really care who it is.

This means that if one character looks like he's extremely uke in a series, he'll be paired off with pretty much every other character in the same series, making every possible ship. But characters who lean to the seme side don't get the same level of attention.

This also means that a fujoshi's priority is to turn characters into bottoms. That's their main concern. Sometimes, this means they'll think all characters of an entire series are uke characters, and there isn't a single seme in it.

Pairing Name Order in Yaoi and BL

In Japan, pairing names of characters, or CP, "coupling," or kapuringu カプリング, sometimes shortened as kapu カプ coz why not, as seen on discussions in the internet, products such as doujinshi, and tags on fanfics, often feature a standard ordering of seme then uke which is.respected by pretty much anybody who knows about it. This means that, for example, in a ship between Naruto and Sasuke, we'd have this:
  • Naruto x Sasuke (NaruSasu)
    Naruto is top. Sasuke is bottom.
  • Sasuke x Naruto (SasuNaru)
    Sasuke is top. Naruto is Bottom.

So the seme, top, always comes before the uke, bottom, in a pairing name.

This is mostly true in yaoi. Few fans of yuri care about seme and uke or the ordering. Also, in very rare cases in straight ships the guy is uke and whoever is writing cares about the order, so the girl's name would come first, but don't count on it.

What's the X of Seme X Uke Called in Japanese?

The "x" in aseme x uke pairing is called kakeru かける in Japanese. For example: seme kakeru uke 攻め×受け. The word kakeru is a verb, by the way, which means "to multiply" (among other things.) This also has the implication that the x isn't a letter, but a multiplication symbol. (you know how "slash" is called "slash" because of the / character? Same thing.)

Types of Seme and Uke

Moved to its own post: Types of Seme and Uke.

Seme Uke in Yuri

Although the most basic and generally accepted definition of seme and uke is "who penetrates" and "who is penetrated," things get a bit complex when these words are used in lesbian fiction, yuri 百合, also called GL or "Girls' Love."

That's because women do not have penises. I repeat: women do not have penises. Okay, fine, let's be PC, some trans-women may have penises, but generally speaking women do not have penises. YOU GET THE IDEA.

So it wouldn't make much sense if seme and uke were used in lesbian fiction, as it doesn't fit the commonly accepted definition above. And Japanese lesbians don't use the terms seme and uke to talk about on themselves either (the terms they do use are written further below).

However, fans of yuri are not LGBT. They are mostly straight men and women. They don't know the terms lesbians would use because, well, they aren't lesbians. All they know is the terms the fandom uses for homosexual shipping, and those terms would be seme and uke used by yaoi fans.

Anyway, when yuri fans do use the terms seme and uke, they use it with an alternative, slightly more complicated meaning.

Behavioral Definition

The alternative definition, used both by yuri fans and some yaoi fans, is the following:
  • seme 攻め
    Takes lead in relationship.
    Makes the advances.
  • uke 受け
    Is led in a relationship.
    Gets advanced on.

This aligns with "man" and "woman" roles since the stereotype is that it's men who go after women, who make the advances, who invite them do dance, to date, who kneel and propose marriage, etc. Obviously, this isn't true in reality, I'm just saying what the stereotype is, and the reason why seme and uke are what they are.

(By the way, "carnivore," nikushoku-kei 肉食系, and "herbivore," soushoku-kei 草食系, are Japanese slangs used to describe men and women who actively go after the other sex and those who don't, which would be like seme and uke. These slangs are based on predator and prey, probably.)

If you reverse this alternative meaning from lesbian fiction back into gay fiction, you can theoretically get a contradiction. Because if you have a male character who makes the advances but prefers to be "bottom," then he is both seme and uke at the same time. Schrodinger's gay! So you can see why the BL fandom keeps the definition strictly as "top" and "bottom" and not "assertive" "passive" the way the yuri fandom does.

Heterosexual Seme and Uke

Of course there had to be a section on this too. In heterosexual fiction, straight couples shipping, or as it's unbelievably called in Japan, NL, "Normal Love," the words seme and uke are also used, although rarely.

And there's a good reason for this. Saying who is seme and uke in male-female relationship is close to redundant, it's naturally the guy who is seme, and naturally the girl who is uke. But there is an exception: when the gender roles are reversed, the guy becomes uke, the girl becomes seme.

Depending on which definition of seme and uke you want to use this can mean two things. If you're talking sexual seme and uke, then the girl needs to penetrate the guy somehow to be seme, probably with some sort of sex toy. If you are talking about behavioral seme and uke, then the guy needs to be passive and the girl is assertive.

LGBT Criticism

Remember when I said that in BL people usually consider seme to be the "man" and uke the "woman"? Well, some homosexuals in Japan find this idea both sexist and homophobic.


Homophobic because instead of acknowledging it's a man-man or woman-woman relationship, it pretends it to be a man-woman relationship, which can be taken as heteronormative, promoting the idea that hetero must be normal. And sexist because it attempts to define what is the role of a man and a woman in a relationship.

However, I'd like to remind you that gay and lesbian fanfics, manga and anime are mostly produced by and consumed by straight people, not lesbians or gays, for fantasy entertainment, not for realism education. So while the criticism is valid, I think it's like a plumber saying the Mario franchise wrongly portrays his profession. Sure he's right, but nobody really cares.

Manga that's made for gays, not for straight people, tends not to care as much about seme and uke. These are usually classified as bara 薔薇 in Japan. A fan of BL is not necessarily, and is often not, a fan of the bara genre, and vice-versa is also true.

In other words, if countless fans of BL, who are mostly straight women, and vastly outnumber gays and lesbians, wanted to buy realistic, non-homophobic, non-sexist gay manga, then they would. And if they did, bara would be a bigger genre than BL, which it isn't.

So imho making this sort of criticism toward BL is like telling someone to not buy what they like, and instead buy what you like, and I don't see why any fujoshi or anyone else would buy stuff they don't like and don't want for themselves to please people they don't know nor will ever meet. It's their money, let them burn it however they want.

Tachi, Neko タチ, ネコ

The words seme and uke are very common in the fanfic and doujinshi world, but not outside of it. This is because those fans of yaoi and yuri are usually straight. They have no reason to use gay terms in the real world. In the real world, real gays and lesbians would use these instead:
  • tachi タチ
  • neko ネコ
  • riba リバ
    Versatile. (from "reversible")

The terms tachi, neko, and riba are used within the Japanese LGBT community. Apparently, they were first used exclusively by lesbians, but have since began being used by gays, too.

They're exclusively sexual. That is, tachi is just "top," or, sometimes, "butch." Likewise, neko is just "bottom." It isn't like seme and uke that has a mountain of secretive nuance embedded into them.

Also, in LGBT seme and uke are terms used with slightly different meanings from fiction. When they're used in such context, seme is the one taking lead (assertive), uke is the one being led (passive). This means that in that a tachi-uke (someone who's passive and "top") is possible according to the LGBT non-fiction definition. And a neko-seme would be like an osoi-uke in BL.


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  1. super great and thorough explanation! Thanks for explaining everything! I was really curious about this and feel a lot more informed.

  2. "Given this meaning, it probably originated from sports or martial arts, however, do note that the opposite of seme would normally be mamori 守り, "defense," and not uke"

    Actually in MA (aikido, judo) uke (受け) used - the one who "receives" the technique, and tori(取り) or nage (投げ) who applies the technique.