And kanji with manga
Thursday, September 21, 2017

yuri 百合

NSFW: this article may contain words or images you'd rather not have your boss see.
In the anime fandom, the term yuri 百合 is often used as a genre of manga and anime that's pornographic and contains homosexual relationships between female characters, or, in other words, yuri is drawn lesbian porn. But is that really what yuri means? What does the word yuri mean in Japanese? Is it the same as it does in the west?


In the west, yuri is a genre of lesbian fiction with explicit sex scenes. This includes lesbian drawn porn (hentai 変態). Fanfics about female characters from anime and manga having sex. Games, anime that include lesbian sex. Etc. It's also used to point at how characters seem to be lesbian, kissing other girls, for example, even if there's no actual sex involved, only sexual tendencies

In Japanese, the term yuri 百合 refers to fiction containing sexual relationships, romance, a strong emotional connection of friendship, platonic love, etc. between women in general. It isn't limited to pornography and sex at all. The Japanese yuri includes hardcore pornography, but it also includes romance fiction with some sex, romance with kissing but no sex, or even emotional drama where female characters become very close to each other, but never do anything that would be considered "lesbian."

So, in the west, yuri refers exclusively to the pornography or works that include sex of some sort. But what happens to works that in Japan would be considered yuri but wouldn't be considered so in the west because they're just girl x girl love and no sex?

Fiction containing girls loving each other romantically or friendly but nothing sexual get called shoujo-ai 少女愛 in the west instead, meaning "girls' love" in Japanese.

So in the west:
  • yuri 百合
    Contains lesbian sex or leans toward it.
  • shoujo-ai 少女愛
    Girl x girl love, no sex. Just pure love.

And in Japan:
  • yuri 百合
    Sex, love, etc. anything with two girls!

Lily Yuri 百合

The word yuri 百合 in Japanese also means "lily," a kind of flower. Why the yuri genre shares its name with a flower has a historical I'll explain later.

The important thing is, because yuri also means "lily," sometimes drawings of lilies are used to symbolize lesbian yuri.

Yuri 百合, "Lily" in Japanese, an image of a lesbian couple with lilies in the background from the manga Yuri Danshi 百合男子

(btw, the series Yuri Danshi 百合男子 discusses a lot about yuri from the viewpoint of a male fan)

Of course that just because it's yuri doesn't mean lilies are obligatory. Like many other romance manga, flowers, of whatever kind, are often drawn in the background.

Yuri vs. Lesbian

The term yuri is not synonymous with "lesbian," neither in Japanese, nor in the west. You can't call someone who is lesbian a "yuri." That doesn't make sense. The term yuri is exclusively for lesbian fiction, not for real people.*

(*doesn't apply to fans who can't differentiate reality from fantasy)

So you can't say "I am yuri," unless your name is Yuri, in Japanese. You have to use the Japanese word for lesbian for that. And, obviously, it doesn't work in English either.

Lesbian in Japanese

To say "lesbian" in Japanese there's the word rezubian レズビアン. This word often gets abbreviated in two different ways, with two different meanings, which is kind of weird if you think about.

First, rezu レズ, normally applies to "lesbian" as a concept, for example, as a genre, but not to people who are lesbian.

Second, bian ビアン, applies to lesbian people, but doesn't apply to anything else. Since this is an abbreviation we can safely assume it's a slang. When formality is required, the term douseiai-sha 同性愛者, "homosexual person," is used to refer to lesbian and gay people.

Also worth noting: rezu is derogatory, bian is not, so if you call a lesbian rezu they may be offended, but probably won't with the term bian. Yeah, I know it makes no fucking sense. It's just two different parts of the same word. If anything, both of them should be derogatory. Why only the first part is derogatory, but after the third syllable it's not derogatory anymore? How does this even happen?

Yuri Spectators

Another important thing is that manga, anime and fiction categorized as "lesbian," rezu レズ, is normally targeted at actual lesbians, while yuri 百合 manga is targeted at straight people.

I mean, it just makes sense. There are more non-lesbian people than there are lesbians.

Fundamentally, this means that yuri fans read yuri as spectators. They root for lesbian relationships to set sail, they like watching the girl love happen, but they can't or don't want to put themselves in the shoes of the characters.

Yuri vs. Yaoi

In the west, the counterpart of yuri 百合, lesbian hentai, is yaoi やおい, gay hentai.

In Japan, that wouldn't be the case. For two reasons.

First, the word yaoi isn't really common in Japan. When fans of gay fiction, fujoshi 腐女子, refer to gay fiction, they often use the term BL instead.

Second, the original, historic counterpart of the yuri 百合 genre would be the bara 薔薇 genre. The word yuri means "lily," a flower, and the word bara means "rose," another flower. So in their names you can already see they're related.

However, note that bara is targeted at gay men, which is a minority of the population. So, in practice, the counterpart of yuri, in Japan, would really be BL, since its audience is larger.

Yuri vs. Shoujo-ai

The different between yuri and shoujo-ai 少女愛 is a pretty big one.

In the west, shoujo-ai is a genre of manga and anime. It refers to female homosexual romance. If there's some lesbian love going on, but no sex, it's called shoujo-ai. If there's sex, if it's pornographic, then it's called yuri. So in simple terms shoujo-ai is the non-porn version of yuri.

In Japanese, things get messy. For one, in the manga world, shoujo-ai is synonymous with yuri. This means that, unlike in the west, Japanese shoujo-ai may or may not be pornographic, since yuri also may or may not be pornographic, unlike yuri in the west.

However, in Japanese the term shoujo-ai is basically not used. The term yuri is preferred at all times. So shoujo-ai practically doesn't exist as a genre in Japanese. It's just an obscure synonym for yuri.


You really should avoid saying shoujo-ai if you talk to someone in Japanese.

Because shoujo-ai 少女愛 also means "love for (underage) girls." A shoujo-ai-sha 少女愛者 is literally a "pedophile" in Japanese. In this sense the term shoujo-ai is closer to lolicon ロリコン than to yuri.

So to avoid risking misunderstandings, it's better to say yuri, or GL, in Japanese.

Yuri vs. GL

In Japan, the term GL is often synonymous with yuri.

The word GL stands for "Girls' Love," or written with katakana gaaruzu rabu ガールズラブ. Translated to Japanese using actual Japanese words, "girls' love" would be shoujo ai 少女愛.

It seems that after the term BL, "Boys' Love," became popular, authors began using the term GL as a counterpart of BL. There are other abbreviations, such as ML, NL and TL, which can be found in the article about BL.

Some Say...

The difference between yuri and GL seems complicated at best.

For most, it seems to be the exact same thing, synonymous

But for some, GL is yuri targeted at men, since yuri was originally targeted at women. For some others GL is targeted at women, since yuri made for men have been becoming more and more common.

Some say that yuri includes themes like pornography, eroticism, while GL doesn't include them. Some say that yuri includes non-romantic relationships, that are just strongly emotional, while GL requires romance, "love."

Some say that yuri is closely tied to lesbians, so women who read it can identify themselves with the characters, while in GL they can only be spectators. Some say that GL is real romance while yuri is just constant flirting, and that somehow K-on!, the yonkoma manga, is yuri according to that definition.. so...

The takeaway here is people say a lot of things. Here's a Japanese thread with them saying it: 百合とGLの違い...!?

Despite some saying contradictory things and some saying their opinions and some guessing around, one thing that some say that can actually be taken for true is that: GL means "Girls' Love," in Japanese shoujo-ai 少女愛. The word shoujo 少女 refers to young, underage girls exclusively (mistake on their part, in English you can call an adult woman a "girl"). So some avoid using it because they want don't want to associate yuri with children.

Whether it makes sense or not ("girl" was misunderstood) doesn't matter. If some say they won't use the word because of this, then it's not "I think GL is...", a guess, it's factually "I won't say GL because..." A fact about themselves, and we can at least be sure they do know themselves, even if they don't know about GL. Anyway, it's a very annoying term.

Who Likes Yuri?

Historically, yuri was a genre made "for women," josei-muke 女性向け. Just like BL. The first yuri works were published in magazines targeted at women.

Before yuri was a word, the term esu エス, from the English "S," were abbreviations of kurasu S クラスS, literally "class S," and these words all referred to fiction dealing with schoolgirls (hence "class" of classroom) who had deep emotional bonds with each other.

These works of fiction usually had a girls-only school setting, that is, no boys anywhere, which allowed those girl x girl relationships to flourish with ease. This setting is still common in modern yuri. Like most manga set on an all-girls school these works were targeted at "girls," they were shoujo 少女 manga. For example, they were like K-on!, a shoujo manga set in an all-girls school.

So even before yuri was a word, yuri was made for the female audience.

However, just because it's made for the female audience doesn't mean it's somehow invisible to the eyes of men. Apparently, men who like yuri have grown more and more common in Japan along the years. At first that must've been pretty hard, since the magazines which focused on yuri must've been alienating men in general, but once their male costumers grew, they were recognized.

The yuri magazines stopped trying to be female-only, thanks to that men who wouldn't buy them before because they looked like women stuff started buying them. And before anybody knows it, it looks like yuri is made for men.

Another thing to note is that male x male fiction, BL, is made for women. So if we were to mirror things, female x female fiction, yuri, ought to be made for men.

According to some online survey, most yuri consumers, male and female, don't really care who the main audience of yuri is.

Yuri Shipping

Fans of manga and anime, specially of the shoujo genre, will sometimes fantasize about female characters of a given series somehow falling in love with each other. Such practice is called "shipping."

These fantasies of lesbian ships give birth to derivative stories, known in the west as femslash fanfiction, featuring lesbian couples of practically always originally straight characters. And, of course, lesbian fanart, and pornographic lesbian fanart, also called hentai 変態.

In Japan literally the same stuff happen, because apparently shipping is an universal concept. The only thing that changes is that over there on top of drawing and stories of given characters, there are also many doujinshi 同人誌 featuring said characters.

In Japanese, a given ship, pairing or couple is called CP. It stands for "coupling." In Japanese it's also said as and kappuringu カップリング.

Seme-Uke in Yuri

Fans of yaoi and BL put ridiculous amounts of importance on seme 攻め and uke 受け in their ships, but the yuri fandom doesn't pay as much attention. Maybe because seme and uke are terms used to describe who's top and who's bottom in a gay relationship, and two women in a lesbian couple happen to be penis-less, so there's no way that should make sense.

But, however, in a yuri couple, the character which acts more like a "boyfriend" gets labeled as seme. This is often the one which takes a more assertive approach to flirting, but not necessarily. And, apparently, the appearance of the character can also be used to tell the reader who is seme and who is uke.

Quote about uke-seme from manga Yuri Danshi 百合男子: "No, I'm sure that to convey to the spectator who is seme and uke there's a need to use the color of the hair and hairstyle ot express that in a way that's easy to understand"

Like in the BL fandom, in yuri when describing couples the seme always comes first. So in A x B, A is seme. And in B x A, A is uke.

Note that, in the he Japanese LGBT world, in a lesbian couple, and, by extension, in a yuri couple, the seme and uke are actually called tachi タチ and neko ネコ. And these terms, tachi and neko, which were used exclusively for lesbian relationships, have recently come to be used in male gay relationships too.

In other words, tachi-neko is used in real life, while seme-uke are terms used in fiction, mostly by fujoshi with BL shipping.

The Pixiv dictionary entry on レズビアン notes that in the doujinshi world many yuri artists are not lesbians, but "straight" people, nonke ノンケ. Since they aren't LGBT, they don't know of the tachi-neko LGBT terms. Probably, the yuri fans and authors who do care about seme-uke in their yuri couples just sort of borrowed these words from the BL fandom because they didn't know of the tachi and neko terms the LGBT people would use.

Yuri Written with Kanji

The word yuri written in Japanese is 百合. It's exactly the same as the flower "lily," yuri 百合, since the yuri genre comes from that flower.

By the way, the flower "lily" is called yuri because, according to the most accepted story, the flower "swung" around with the wind. The verb "to swing" in Japanese is yuru 揺る, one of its conjugations is yuri 揺り, a noun for "swinging." So from that came the word yuri 揺り, "lily," which would later get different kanji.

The kanji of yuri are a little weird. They are "one hundred," hyaku 百, and the kanji meaning combining things, gou 合. If it had a normal reading, it'd probably be read hyakugou 百合 instead of yuri 百合.

The reason yuri has these weird kanji is because those are the kanji used for the word "lily" in Chinese. So the Japanese imported how you write the whole word from China, but instead of using the Chinese word for "lily," they used their Japanese word (yuri). When something like this happens it's called a jukujikun.

As for why the Chinese chose kanji that mean "hundreds combined," it's because the scales in the bulbs of the lilies look like they are hundreds overlapping each other.

Why is Yuri Called Yuri? Origin of Yuri & Bara

As we already know, the genre yuri comes from the word for "lily" in Japanese, yuri 百合. But why? What does yuri have to do with lilies?!

Apparently, long, long ago, there was a gay magazine called bara-zoku 薔薇族, "rose tribe," which was targeted at male gays. The chief editor of this magazine, who gave it its name, decide he wanted to have a column for lesbians, so he created a the yuri-zoku no heya 百合族の部屋, "lily tribe's room."

So it was from this magazine that the genre yuri came to exist. This same magazine was also the origin of the gay genre bara 薔薇.

As for why he chose the word "lily" for his lesbian corner, it seems that it was "because lilies are the symbol of narcissism." Uh... sure, I think I get it, it's because it's women who like women, so... they like themselves? But the magazine main focus was men who like men, wouldn't they be narcissist too by this logic? Anyway, I'm just quoting what he said in an interview with Nico Nico.

By the way, remember when I said most artists and fans of yuri were straight? The chief editor of that LGBT magazine, which spawned not one, but two names of genres of homosexual fiction worldwide and was pretty much historic, was, also, straight.

Yuri Name

The word Yuri is also a name used for people, both men and women. It's common enough that I even know someone called "Yuri" in real life.

Notoriously in the western anime fandom, the anime Yuri!!! on Ice ユーリ!!! on ICE features a protagonist called Yuri ユーリ who, well, dances on ice. The anime isn't of the genre yuri. In fact, it probably spawned dozens of yaoi doujinshi 同人誌 instead.

Like other Japanese names, the name Yuri can be written with a number of different kanji. Also note that not all Yuri is ゆり. The guy on Yuri on ice is called yuuri 勇利, with a long u, and written with the kanji for "courage" and "benefit."

This happens because in romaji long vowels (yuu ユウ) which can be represented by prolonged sound mark ー (Yuuri ユーリ) should be transliterated by removing the second vowel and adding a macron instead (Yūri), but since nobody can even type these darn things it gets written as Yuri. So the name Yuri can be either Yuri ゆり or Yuuri ゆうり in Japanese.

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  1. " Fans of manga and anime, specially of the shoujo genre, will sometimes fantasize about female characters of a given series somehow falling in love with each other. Such practice is called "shipping."
    I would argue that shojo anime (beside magical girls and MariMite) is not the best way to develop femslash. I've read many 80's and 90's shojo.

    80’s shoujo manga had a major strike against it when it came to nurturing yuri the same way shounen manga nurtured BL. Not a lot of shoujo manga are about female relationships of any sort! In 80’s shoujo manga, it’s usually a heroine, her love interest, and/or a rival that are the main players. Guys might find a heroine cute–say Ranze from Tokimeki Tonight but it’s slim pickings when it comes to positive f/f interaction. In Saint Seiya you have guys crying and dying for one another. In 80’s shoujo, you have girls that start off at one another’s throats over a guy and slowly come to a tentative friendship. Even magical girl shows, which have become such a fertile playing ground for yuri fans, were mostly a solo operation back in the 80’s.

    Current shojo anime? Dude, good luck find more shojo like Sabagebu, and not reverse harem.

    If anything, shonen/seinen anime full of cute girls like Tohou, Love live, Madoka Magica, and Kemono Friends is the one where most femslash can be found. You're much more likely to find Madoka/Homura fanarts in pixiv rather than Haruka/Michiru.