Yuri anime — The feminist narrative

In the past few decades, American culture has slowly embraced the profound and significant Japanese art form of animation into their homes. In fact, many children born near the millennia steadily watch anime such as, Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Naruto, and many parents, pressured by their children, are buying merchandise such as trading cards, video games, and toys to appease their youngsters. As Susan Napier speculates in her book, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, a possible cause to the success of anime infiltrating American culture could be that “the medium is both different in a way that is appealing to a audience satiated on the predictabilities of American popular culture and also remarkably approachable in its universal themes and images” (Napier 9-10).

Yet, the majority of the American population is still quite unaware of the immensity and diversity within the media. Furthermore, scholarly research on the subject matter is scarce and typically follows the popular trend of American society. One particular subgroup of anime has been repeatedly overlooked by scholars and scientists alike, Yuri anime. Yuri anime, also known as shoujoai (Girls Love), explores the intense connection of platonic and/or romantic relationships between women.  Furthermore, it is apparent that the media presents feminist-centered narratives; specifically that many characters overcome internal/external oppression and become empowered.

Before discussing the origin and history of Yuri anime in Japan and its emergence in the West, it is important to discuss what the term, Yuri, means in regards to Japanese and Western Culture and how it will be defined in this paper. In a personal interview with Erica Freidman, founder of the Yuricon organization and activist for Yuri mediums, Erica explains the different perceptions of the term Yuri, “Because until 2000, when I created Yuricon and started to talk about it extensively, it wasn’t well know. Primarily, it was a word to describe girl x girl porn drawn by male doujinshi artists in Japan… a very small, not terribly scholarly-inclined percentage of a population. I named a genre after it and that word is used primarily in the west, not in Japan.” (Friedman, E-mail Interview).  Furthermore, Erica points out that other terms are also used in describing manga or anime with lesbian or pro-women narratives such as, Girls Love, Japan equivalent Shoujoai, Onna x Onna, or Girl-Girl; and that the classification of anime and manga as Yuri is dependent upon what the audience perceives as Yuri (Friedman, E-mail Interview).

Therefore, one could argue that since Yuri is not used as a universal concept to describe lesbian or pro-women narratives in manga and anime that its validity as a subgroup is questionable. Furthermore, how can one differentiate and assess what is considered Yuri and what is not if it is solely dependent upon the audiences’ perception? Just as is the case of all genres of any type, although may seem definitive in categorizing mediums, genre types have always been sinuous due to its dependency on the perception of the audience. Lastly, genre types are heavily influenced by the norms and values of a particular culture and because of that genre types will be diverse from culture to culture. However, the essay, “What are Yuri and Shoujai, anyway?” best describes the term Yuri and as a result is the description that defines Yuri in this paper, “Yuri can be used to describe any anime or manga series that shows intense emotional connection, romantic love, or physical desire between women” (Friedman, “What are Yuri”).

In order to completely understand and grasp the concept of Yuri in Japanese and American culture, one must look at the origin and history of the phenomena. As noted above, due to little interest of the media by scholars, the origin and record of Yuri is quite vague, almost to seem that its conception is quite recent. Yet, this prompt materialization could be speculated to be based on the modification of cultural norms in American culture and ultimately, the advancement of technological processes such as: the use of computers and the internet. In reality, the concepts of Yuri (emotional and sexual connections between women) have been a component of Japanese culture since the early twentieth century.  Evidence to support this statement can be found in a collection of stories written by Yoshiya Nobuko, collectively called Hanamonogatari, the English translation, Flower Tales (Dollase 724).

The collection, aimed at adolescent school girls, contains one particular story, “Kibara,” that explores the relationship between a teacher and student of the same sex (Dollase 745). Not surprisingly, Japanese society saw an emergence of the “S” (sister) relationship between adolescent girls (Dollase 743). In the article, “Early Twentieth Century Japanese Girls’ Magazine Stories: Examining Shojo Voice in Hananmonogatari (Flower Tales),” Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase speculates the cause of the proliferation of the “S” relationships to be tied to the Takarazuka, “Takarazuka (established in 1914) is a girls’ revue, in which women play the roles of men in adaptations of both western and oriental productions. School girls were thrilled with the mysterious sexuality of “danso no reijin” (Beauty in Male costume), and absorbed the stories’ “platonic love” and “romance” (743).  Dollase also speculates that American cultural influences, missionaries and English teachers, also enabled the proliferation of same-sex relationships (744).

However, by the end of the 1920’s, due to the rise of analysis of sexuality in the West, Japanese culture began to view same-sex affairs as corrupt and many girls’ schools began to prohibit “S” relationships (Dollase 744). As a result of this prohibition, there was a rise of suicide infiltrating the school systems. One incident in particular cites that a few school girls fell to their demise by jumping off the crater of Mount Mihara (Dollase 744).  However, regardless of the restrictions placed upon the “S” relationship, it continued until the beginning of the WWII (Dollase 745).

Unfortunately, very little information is known about what happened to the “S” relationships. It is safe to speculate that part of this is due to World War II and the reconstruction of Japan afterward. However, it is important to note the significance of the “S” relationships and its cultural patterns in regards to Yuri animation. Although Japanese culture has always viewed same sex sexuality and relationships far different from its Western counterpart, the “S” relationships established the main themes and settings that are sometimes used in the construction of Yuri manga and animation. As noted above, one of the influential factors of “S” relationships was the infiltration of missionaries and English teachers from abroad. Therefore it is of no coincidence, that one of the attributes to most Yuri anime is of a private school that is funded or established by Christian doctrine and that these private schools are exclusive only to women. Furthermore, the S, representing the English word, Sister, has always been a means of representing and defining the relationships between women in Yuri manga and anime.

RELATED POST:  Mecha and Animated Dolls

It was not until the 1970’s, that Yuri found its way back to the culture of Japan. Not surprisingly, Yuri reclaimed its voice by the success of its brotherly counterpart, Yaoi (boy/male love). As Susan Napier states in her book, From Impressionism to Anime, “Yaoi shares the conventions of shojo manga in that its characters are beautifully drawn (and beautifully physically), and its plots are romantic and complex. The crucial difference, however, is that the main characters are invariably male, and the main focus of the stories is on male/male sexuality” (140).  Indeed, the similarities of Shojo and Yaoi manga and anime are not coincidental. James Welker in his article, “Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: Boys’ Love’ as Girls’ Love in Shojo Manga,” suggests that the origins of Yaoi are derived from Shojo (young girls) manga, in particularly during 1970 when women artists began to obtain further control of the Shojo Market (841).

Although Yaoi is specifically about male/male relationship and sexuality, it allowed homosexual/heterosexual women the opportunity to be able to explore their sexuality to be able to find a connection between the narratives and in their own life ways (Welker 855).  In fact, James Welker radically argues that, “regardless of whether he is read as a boy or a girl, the beautiful boy can be read as a lesbian (865). However, James Welker’s argument possesses several problems with the most influential one being the re-emergence of Yuri narratives in the mid 1970’s. In fact, Welker makes reference to what most Yuri advocates would state as proof of re-emergence of Yuri concepts and most importantly the emergence of identifying lesbian or women sexuality with the term Yuri:

To be sure, the rose’s symbolic value was reinforced with the 1971 publication of the gay magazine Barazoku (Rose Tribe). “Lily Tribe’s Room” (Yurizoku no heya), a column in Barazoku beginning in 1976 that printed correspondence from women readers, attests to the presence of a female readership of the magazine and to the magazine’s role in popularizing the lily as a trope for the female-desiring female (864).

By distinguishing between gay/lesbian sexuality in the magazine, Barazoku, one could speculate that there was a need to separate gay male identity and lesbian identity. One would undoubtedly concur that this separation of identity marks the desire to express lesbian/women sexuality through women characters and also became a catalyst in fostering Yuri manga and anime.  Although, no one can deny that Yaoi was influential in aiding women to explore and express their sexuality, ultimately it can be said that some women could not find the association.

A final problem in James Welker’s argument is that in many types of research in regards to gender, there is a propensity to use women as an explanation for the purpose of a cause. Consequently, the effect of this phenomenon further silences women.  In her book, Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan, Sharon Chalmers coins this phenomenon as “lesbian blindness:”

While it is true that mainstream discourses play an instrumental role in limiting or excluding representations of female same-sex desire, other marginalized groups are also implicated in this “lesbian blindness.” There has been a tendency by male gay researchers to ignore, subsume, or at best (and usually by default) assign lesbian practices to the margins of their work. To some extent this phenomenon also reflects the androcentrism of most heterosexual social science disciplines, which tend also to subsume women under the generic ‘man’, or when difference does demand explanation, ‘add women and stir’ (31).

By generalizing that all Yaoi narratives can be explained through lesbian identity truly ignores and marginalizes lesbians. It devalues the attempts that were made to create lesbian/women narratives with women characters during that era and ultimately further sets the precedent that all lesbian narratives in regards to anime and manga can be lumped summed as Yaoi, when clearly there is a distinction between the two.

In the 1970s the two most influential manga series that aided in developing Yuri anime and manga is Shirol Heya no Futari and Rose de Versailles. In 1971, Yamagishi Ryohko, created the first manga that illustrated the relationship between two women called, Shirol Heya no Futari (Our White Room) (Brown 1).  Furthermore, Ikeda Riyoko, who is considered one of the revolutionaries in regards to Yuri manga, created the famous and well-known, Rose de Versailles, in 1972 (Brown 1), which focuses on the struggle of a girl, raised a man, coming to terms with the inequality of life (Izawa).

After the 1970’s, Yuri seems to become obsolete in the historical record. One would assume that Yuri manga and anime were influenced by hentai and doujinshi creators who exploited lesbian/women relationships for the use for pornographic works (Friedman, “What are Yuri”).  However, by the 1990’s, a proliferation of Yuri manga and anime begin to emerge. The most notable being, Sailor Moon, that contained a lesbian couple in the narrative and was aired on American television in 1995 (Friedman, “Women, Gender, Sexuality”). Also, CLAMP, an anime and manga company, exclusively operated by women, began to produce and release Yuri manga and anime (Friedman, “Women, Gender, Sexuality”). Finally, many magazines were published after the millennium with the central discussion being about Yuri manga and anime: Yuri Shimai, Comic Yuri Hime, and Comic Yuri (Friedman, “Women, Gender, Sexuality”).

Although Yuri has been an established subgroup of anime for over two decades, many scholars had overlooked the importance of Yuri. Instead, many turn their attention to Yaoi, Shojo (young girls), and even Hentai (pornography) to deduce information in regards to cultural practices, sexuality, and gender of Japan and on a global scale. Yet, it is apparent that by ignoring this subgroup of animation one is obviously silencing and repressing the voices of women. Therefore, what does Yuri anime have to offer in regards to the components stated above?  By looking at the animated series, Maria-sama Ga Miteru, one can see that the narrative contains feminist-centered concepts in particularly, characters overcome internal/external oppression.

RELATED POST:  School Rumble and its reflections of Japanese society

Maria-sama Ga Miteru, written by Oyuki Konno, follows the lives of several women attending an all-girl high school known as the Lillian Catholic School.  The school follows a soeur system, in which the girls from older classes mentor the girls from younger classes. The soeur system is finalized when an older girl gives her rosary to the girl she wishes to mentor.  It is obvious from the series that the “sister’ relationships are diverse in their form. In some cases the pairings are only platonic, yet still highly emotional; whereas, others are romantic pairings.

Furthermore, the Lillian Catholic School contains a Student Council, Yamayurikai, also known as Mount Lily Club, that oversees and organizes the school. The elected officials of the Yamayurikai are given the titles of different species of roses: Rosa Foetida, Rosa Chinensis, and Rosa Gigantea and in the school population are referred to by these names. Typically, the younger sister or referred as in the series, Rosa (name of the rose) en bouton or Rosa (name of the rose) en bouton petite soeur, are considered the next in line to take the Rose positions.  While the younger sisters do not hold an official position, they are still allowed to make decisions, vote during meetings, and usually aid their older sister in events or in managing the school.

Yumi Fukuzawa is the protagonist in the series and is the soeur of Sachiko Ogasawara who is in line to take over the Rosa Chinensis position. Yumi a shy, timid, yet comical first year student has feelings for Sachiko, a second year student, whose exterior portrays a stern, but elegant expression. From the beginning of the series, one can see the feminist concept of oppression at play in the narrative in regards to how Yumi ultimately becomes Sachiko’s soeur.

In Episode 1 of the first season, the narrator, Yumi, begins to tell her story of how she met Sachiko and ultimately became her soeur. She states, “It all started this morning” and the audience is then lead to Yumi praying in front of the Mother Mary statue in front of the school. While praying, Sachiko walks up to Yumi and expresses her disdain in Yumi’s job of tying the bow on her school uniform. Unbeknown to the two, a picture has been taken of them by one of the members of the Photography Club, Tsutako. After showing the picture to Yumi, Tsutako states that Yumi can have the picture on two conditions: that she will be allowed to use the photograph at the School Festival and that Yumi asks Sachiko for permission. To Yumi, an admirer of Sachiko, this seems like quite a daunting task, but soon realizes that she has no choice but to find Sachiko in order to have the picture.

Therefore, Tsutako and Yumi, head to the Yamayurikai headquarters to find Sachiko. When they finally and are allowed into the headquarters, Yumi overhears Sachiko yelling in the meeting office. In a flash the door is slammed open and the audience sees Yumi’s eyes widen when she is confronted with what is at the door.

The scene is then directed to Yumi sitting at the table drinking tea with the Yamayurikai. Rosa Chinensis then states to Yumi to come by the headquarters as often as she likes since she is Sachiko’s soeur. After a brief conversation, the audience soon realizes that Sachiko only stated that Yumi was her soeur, in order to be reprieved from being Cinderella in the school play, due to the president of the Hanadera Academy (a boys’ school) playing the lead role of the prince. The audience is also then made aware that Sachiko despises men and if is confronted by a man usually runs away. Rosa Chinensis made the statement that if Sachiko had her own soeur that she would then have the right and privilege to be able to overturn the council’s decision.

Therefore, Sachiko’s yelling was due to her shouting, “Well then, all I have to do is find one right now!” Once Sachiko forcefully opened the door, she ran right into Yumi, causing both of them to fall. Once both were up Sachiko asked Yumi, “Do you have an Onee-sama? (sister)” Ultimately, the council refuses to accept Sachiko’s soeur. A final realization to the audience and to Yumi is that Sachiko does not remember tying Yumi’s bow earlier during the day.  In the end, Sachiko offers her rosary to Yumi anyway, due to her promise in front of the council and also, not to lose her own soeur, Rosa Chinensis.  Yumi, heartbroken and depressed, does not accept Sachiko’s rosary:

Yumi: My deepest apologies, but I can’t become Sachiko-sama’s soeur.
Sachiko: I at least have the right to ask why, don’t I?
Rosa Chinensis: Do you hate Sachiko after seeing her true character?
Yumi: I don’t hate her! I can’t explain it well, but only people who definitely want to do it should become soeurs. And because I’m her fan, I have a certain pride.
After the refusal, Rosa Gigantea decides to place a bet on Sachiko and Yumi. In order for Sachiko to be reprieved from playing Cinderella, she will have to get Yumi to accept her rosary. If Yumi accepts Sachiko’s rosary, Yumi will then have to play Cinderella.

As one can see, the first episode sets up an oppressive environment: Sachiko is oppressed in regards to her having to play the role of Cinderella and is also oppressed by her hatred for men, Yumi is oppressed in the realization that Sachiko only wanted her as her soeur for the sake of not having to play the role, and both are oppressed by the bet placed on them.

In the next episode, further oppression is placed on Yumi when she is forced to attend the play rehearsals with Sachiko, while feeling inadequate, incompetent and experiencing unrequited love:

RELATED POST:  Senior-junior relationships in Japan

Yumi: Because I have feelings for her…. Because I have feelings for her….. Sachiko-sama….It’s too much to suddenly be able to spend time with her like this. Why can’t Sachiko-sama understand that? I was happier just watching from afar. Then I wouldn’t have to act in ways that contradicted my feelings………….

During Episode 3, Yumi and Sachiko’s oppressive states climax. It is revealed that the president who plays the Prince is not only a cousin of Sachiko’s but also her fiancée. Both overcome their oppression in the Greenhouse:

Sachiko: Who’s there?
Yumi: It’s Yumi (sits down next to Sachiko)
Yumi: (states in her mind) It’s no good. I don’t know what to do. There’s nothing I can do for her. I should go get….
Yumi: Um… I
Sachiko: Stay. (Begins to weep)
Yumi: Sachiko-sama. Sachiko-sama, please give me your rosary.
Sachiko: No!
Yumi: Why?
Sachiko: Because I’ve changed my mind. Sugura-san doesn’t love me. But I’m the only daughter, and he has enough power to influence the Ogasawara Group. And my parents want us to marry, so he’s going to marry me. But I.
Yumi: It must be hard to marry the one you love…. When they don’t love you in return.
Sachiko: Thank you for listening… to my confession. It was hard because I couldn’t tell anyone about this before. So I’ll be okay now.
Yumi: But Sachiko-sama, please give me your rosary!
Sachiko: Let me stand up to him. I don’t want to run away anymore. (Stands up) Look. More than half the flowers here are roses. This is Rosa Chinensis. It’s a perennial. Remember this flower. Shall we dance?
Yumi: Okay.

What should be noted from this passage is the similarity between Yumi and Sachiko’s feelings in regards to loving someone. By Yumi sympathizing to Sachiko’s feelings of unrequited love, Yumi is allowed to express how she feels about her own love for Sachiko. This not only allows validation, but also makes her realize that she is not incompetent or inadequate in regards to aiding Sachiko. Ultimately, Yumi gains strength and is able to overcome and ultimately, becomes empowered.

The same is also for Sachiko. By being able to release her frustration in regards to her oppression, she is able to stand up to Segura, even to the fact of purposely stepping on his feet while dancing in the play. Furthermore, Sachiko realizes how much she needs and is in love with Yumi:

Sachiko: It’s thanks to you that I can laugh like this now.
Yumi: I didn’t do anything….
Sachiko: Would you come with me for a bit?  May I place this around your neck? (the rosary) It’s not because of a bet, or out of pity. This is a sacred ritual.
Yumi: I…. accept…… The night I became Rosa Chinensis en bouton’s petite souer, only the moon and Maria-sama were watching us.

In Roberta Trites book, Waking Sleeping Beauty Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels, she states that what defines a feminist narrative is the act of “self-discovery” (3). Indeed, Yumi and Sachiko did internally find that what they needed was each other. By aiding each other, the two were both able to overcome their oppression and become empowered.  Furthermore, Roberta Trites also states in regards to feminist children’s novels, “the character who uses introspection to overcome her oppression almost always overcomes at least part of what is oppressing her” (3).

This concept can not only been applied to feminist children novels, but also can be applied to Yumi and Sachiko’s case. Unconsciously, Yumi and Sachiko were acting as mirrors, reflecting the other’s misfortunes and doubts, causing both to acknowledge personal weaknesses and strengths and both sought empowerment through each other. Furthermore, the two should be viewed not as two girls independent and external from the others motives or inclinations, but as one single entity. Indeed by the end of the series, Yumi and Sachiko become heavily dependent upon each other for validation, expression, and unconditional love.

Not only can Yuri anime be an enlightening experience to its audience, but can also be an enlightening experience to researchers and scholars. It is enriched with narratives that could give further insight to gender, language, and sexuality. In fact, its significance is quite incalculable to feminist and gender studies. However, what should be of up most importance is not only further study of Yuri, but of recovery and reawakening the voices of this subgroup that have been so far silenced. Consequently, if scholars do not take action, then academia is just as much at fault for enabling and hindering the voices of this art form.


Brown, Rebecca. An Introduction to Yuri Manga and Anime. 8 Aug. 2005. 10 Apr. 2008 <http://www.afterellen.com/archive/ellen/Print/2005/8/yuri.html>.
Chalmers, Sharon. Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan. London, England: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
Dollase, Hiromi Tsuchiya. “Early Twentieth Century Japanese Girls’ Magazine Stories: Examining Shōjo Voice in Hanamonogatari (Flower Tales).” Journal of Popular Culture 36.4 (Spring 2003): 724. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Joyner Library, Greenville, N.C. 11 Apr. 2008 <http://jproxy.lib.ecu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9697878&site=ehost-live>.
Friedman, Erica. E-mail interview. 21 Apr. 2008.
What Are Yuri and Shoujoai, Anyway? 23 Mar. 2008 <http://www.yuricon.org/essays/whatisyuri.html>.
Women, Gender, Sexuality and Sex, in Anime and Manga. 24 Feb. 2003. 23 Mar. 2008 <http://www.yuricon.org/essays/ericamit.html>.
Izawa, Eri. The Rose of Versailles. 30 Apr. 2008 <http://www.ex.org/4.3/36-manga_versailles.html>.

Maria-sama Ga Miteru. Dir. Yukihiro Matsushita, Writ. Oyuki Konno. TV Tokyo, Animax. 4 July 2004 – 26 Sept. 2004.
Napier, Susan J. Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke. New York, New York: PALGRAVE, 2000.
From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West. New York, New York: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2007.
Trites, Roberta S. Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
Welker, James. “Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: “Boys’ Love” as Girls’ Love in Shojo Manga. Signs 31.3 (2006): 841-870, 893. Research Library Core. ProQuest. Joyner Library, Greenville, N.C. 26 Mar. 2008 <http://jproxy.lib.ecu/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com.jproxy.lib.ecu.edu/pqdweb?did=1044076621&Fmt=7&clientId=15121&RQT=309&VName=PQD>.

Sign up for updates

About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

Keep Reading

Leave a Comment