And kanji with manga
Saturday, September 30, 2017

Shoujo-ai 少女愛

The shoujo-ai genre is a rather rare genre of manga and anime, there being few shoujo-ai works. But is shoujo-ai? What makes something a shoujo-ai? And what does shoujo-ai mean in Japanese, the language it came from?


In the west, shoujo-ai is a genre of girl x girl love fiction. Sometimes it's lesbian, romantic, sometimes it's friendship, platonic. It varies, but the general idea is that the shoujo-ai genre is one that classifies works featuring some sort love between girls, mostly some sort of deep emotional relationship.

Most of the time shoujo-ai classifies proper lesbian romance fiction, such as in the anime aoi hana 青い花. However, it can also be used to classify anime with excessive girl x girl snuggling and kissing that merely looks like they're lesbians, as is the case with yuru yuri ゆるゆり, a gag anime that uses the girl x girl relationships for comedy.

shoujo-ai examples yuru yuri ゆるゆり and aoi hana 青い花

Note that for a work of fiction to be considered shoujo-ai the idea of love between girls has to be prevalent. This is usually not the case in two scenarios.

First, anime with a full girl cast, such as K-on or Sabagebu, where the girls are all great friends and make tons of memories together, would not be considered shoujo-ai. This is because the girls don't try to get closer to each other than they already are. They are friends, and it stops there.

Second, some anime have random scenes of shoujo-ai happening in the background, and, because it's in the background, it doesn't make the whole anime shoujo-ai. For example, in Kimi no Na wa 君の名は there's a scene of a girl confessing her love for another girl, but that doesn't make the movie a shoujo-ai movie, simply because the movie isn't about shoujo-ai, the shoujo-ai part just sort of happened.

Shoujo-ai vs. Yuri

Related to shoujo-ai is the term yuri 百合, another genre featuring lesbian relationships. The difference between shoujo-ai and yuri in the west is very simple:
  • shoujo-ai 少女愛
    Not porn.
  • yuri 百合

Pretty much, all yuri is hentai 変態, porn, with explicit lesbian sexual scenes. And all shoujo-ai is not porn. You could even go as far as saying whether it has sex and is rated 18 becomes the difference between yuri and shoujo-ai.

Note that, in Japan, yuri also refers to non-pornographic works. That is, works that are classified as yuri and works that are classified as shoujo-ai in the west are both called yuri in Japan. It's one Japanese genre for two western genres.

(But then what does shoujo-ai mean in Japanese? I'll explain further below!)

Shoujo-Ai vs. Shoujo

In anime there's also a genre called just shoujo 少女, but it's not really a genre, just a demographic. It describes something that's shoujo-muke 少女向け, or made "for girls." For example, a shoujo manga 少女漫画 is a manga that targets a young female audience.

So the difference between shoujo and shoujo-ai is:
  • shoujo 少女
    Made for girls.
  • shoujo-ai 少女愛
    About love between girls.

Since shoujo isn't really a genre, a shoujo work can include any other actual genre. For example, there are comedy manga which are shoujo because they're made for girls. There are romance manga that are shoujo because they're made for girls. So a great number of different manga can be classified as shoujo, all it takes is that it's targeted at girls, and not boys, or adult men, women, etc.

Because of this, there are very few shoujo-ai manga, since it's a sub-genre of romance, while there are way many more shoujo manga, since it's a very loose category.

Also interesting to note is that most shoujo-ai manga are made for girls, too. So most shoujo-ai is also shoujo.

Shoujo-ai vs. Shounen-Ai

One last comparison is the difference of shoujo-ai and shounen-ai 少年愛. This one is pretty simple.
  • shoujo-ai 少女愛
    Love between girls.
  • shounen-ai 少年愛
    Love between boys.

So if shoujo-ai is lesbian, shounen-ai is gay. Also, in the west yuri is explicit shoujo-ai, the term for explicit shounen-ai would be yaoi やおい in the west.

Kanji of Shoujo-Ai

The word shoujo-ai is written with the kanji for "small," shou 少, "woman," jo 女 and "love," ai. Literally "small woman love," but shoujo 少女 actually means "girl," not literally a "small woman," so the translation of shoujo-ai would be:
  • shoujo-ai 少女愛
    Girls' love.
    Girl love.

Except this has a bit of a problem.

We call, in English, shoujo-ai something with, well, "girls' love." And we call it shoujo-ai because that's how you say "girls' love" in Japanese and Japanese sounds cool.

Ironically, in Japanese, GL, coming, yep, from "Girls' Love," is a term synonymous with yuri, which would include what we call shoujo-ai in Japan. They use the term GL or "Girls' Love" because it's in English and English sounds cool... to Japanese people.

(the male counterpart of GL is BL, so shoujo-ai, shounen-ai, yuri, yaoi, GL, BL)

Shoujo-ai Japanese Genre

Now that we know about what the shoujo-ai genre is like in the west, it's time to learn about the shoujo-ai genre in Japan.

The shoujo-ai genre in Japan is......... non-existent.

Yep. That's right. In Japan shoujo-ai isn't even a genre. People don't call anime shoujo-ai in Japan. Not at all.

So the term shoujo-ai used as a genre is an eisei-wago 英製和語, a Japanese word with a detached meaning in English.

As I've said before in this article, the word yuri is used more loosely in Japan and it includes non-pornographic fiction featuring girl x girl love. So the equivalent of shoujo-ai in Japanese would be yuri. It's weird and confusing because in the west yuri is exclusively pornographic, but that's just how it is.

Also, GL, or Girls' Love, is synonymous with yuri in Japan. So the shoujo-ai genre is called either GL or yuri in Japanese.

But why does the west use shoujo-ai as a genre if Japan does not? How did this happen? Well, I'll explain this a bit later, but first...

Shoujo-ai Meaning in Japanese

If shoujo-ai isn't a genre in Japanese, then what in the world does it mean? For one, shoujo-ai doesn't even actually mean "girls' love" in Japanese Japanese like it does in loaned-Japanese English. It means something else.
  • shoujo-ai 少女愛
    Love for (underage) girls.
    (a.k.a.) pedophilia.

Whoa. What the...?! Pedophilia? You gotta be kidding me!

But, yeah, that's right. In Japanese, shoujo-ai is closer to lolicon ロリコン than it is to yuri. In fact, the word has little to do with lesbians at all. A shoujo-ai-sha 少女愛者, literally "person who loves girls," even means "pedophile" in Japanese.

Now, I'm pretty sure things just got real weird for you and me. You've been hearing about shoujo-ai around the internet, I've been writing the word shoujo-ai a lot in this article, and now, suddenly, we've come to learn this word doesn't really have to do with girl x girl love but something else entirely. We might not ever be able to look at the word shoujo-ai the same way again. But one question remains:


I mean, how does shoujo-ai, which means "pedophilia" in Japanese, becomes "lesbian" romance in English? What had to happen for this level of word-butchering to happen? This is a pretty long jump, you know? It's like sushi being used to refer to "rice." A very, very long slip through the slippery slope, plus a turbine, would be required to make that jump and create such gap in meaning.

Origin of Shoujo-Ai

Ok, so here's what happened. The truth is, shoujo-ai, as it's used in the west, has a completely different meaning from shoujo-ai in Japanese, because western shoujo-ai is actually an English word.

Does that make sense for you? No? Let me elaborate.

In Japanese, there was the word shounen-ai (not shoujo, shounen), which meant "pederasty," "love for (underage) boys," similar to how shoujo-ai is for girls.

So what?

Well, when gay manga started being made, before 1980, shounen-ai was a genre. It was a genre featuring platonic love between underage boys, often in high-school, just like the yuri genre of the time mostly featured high-school girls in love with each other. Note that, shounen-ai was genre, but shoujo-ai was not.

So, then, probably what happened, is that the west loaned the term shounen-ai, along with other terms for genres used at the time, such as yaoi, yuri, and bara 薔薇, and these terms changed slightly in the west through the years until they got to these modern western definitions, which were different from the original meanings in Japanese:
  • yaoi
    Gay porn.
    (in Japan it's BL without plot)
  • yuri
    Lesbian porn.
    (in Japan it's lesbian fiction in general)
  • shounen-ai
    Gay romance.
    (in Japan it stopped being used, BL is used instead)
  • ???
    Lesbian romance?
    (in Japan this would be yuri)

Because of this there was a problem in the commercialization of anime in the west. Think of it, the industry began selling manga and anime porn in the west under the label of hentai, so consumers started thinking hentai meant porn in Japanese, which it does not. Then, they started selling lesbian porn under the label of yuri, and gay porn under the label of yaoi. The consumers, the fandom, reacted by assuming that yuri always meant lesbian porn and yaoi always meant gay porn.

Then the industry tries to sell non-porn gay fiction. If they said it was yaoi, the consumers would be mad. Because for the consumers yaoi was porn, and they'd feel lied to. Also, yaoi is always porn in Japanese. So they really had to use a different term, and chose shounen-ai, and that was fine, because shounen-ai was actually a genre in Japan.

But then the industry tried to sell non-porn lesbian fiction, and there was a problem. Because everybody in the west thought yuri was exclusively porn just like yaoi, even though in Japan yuri included non-porn too. So the industry couldn't sell Japanese yuri under the genre of yuri in the west. They needed another term.


All Japanese yuri was categorized as just yuri. The counterpart of shounen-ai, if any, would've been "class S," or just S, a term that existed before yuri used for yuri manga taking place in classrooms. But "class S" wouldn't make any sense in English. Another term, GL, became popular later, and was being synonymous with yuri. But maybe it wasn't used when the industry started selling non-porn yuri in the west.

So, anyway, they needed a name. So they made up one. You heard it right. They made up one. They took shounen-ai, which was used towards non-pornographic gay fiction, and replaced the shounen that meant "boy" with shoujo that meant "girl," and that's how the shoujo-ai term came to be. A Japanese word made in the west. One of the greatest fandom term messes of all time.

GL & Girls' Love

By the way, remember when I said GL, or Girls' Love, was used in Japan just like shoujo-ai was used outside of Japan? Well, the rabbit hole goes down further.

Because just like shoujo-ai was made up from shounen-ai, the term GL and Girls' Love was made up from BL and Boys' Love, which was a far more popular genre in Japan. The same pattern also spawned the genres ML, NL and TL. (meanings were explained in the article about BL).

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