How Lesbian Social and Political Activism Helped Give Birth to Yuri Manga

May 21st, 2017

This was originally presented at the Queers & Comics conference, on April 14th, 2017 as part of the “History of Queer Manga” panel.

Here on Okazu, we’ve gone over the history of Yuri in previous essays, tracing the tropes developed in literary roots of “S” stories of early 20th century Japan, to mid-century exploration of sexuality and gender by the Magnificent 49ers.

But it’s worth reminding ourselves that, in the late 20th century, sexual and gender revolutions occurred on a scale that had never previously been seen in the social and political spheres. Anti-war protests and feminism all became part of public discourse and media coverage in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Japan, just as they were doing in America. Communities of intention were built by feminists, by lesbians both inside and outside of feminist groups and by radical feminists and lesbian separatists, looking to create a new kind of society. Today I want to briefly discuss the place lesbian communications had in the birth of what, 30 years later, would become a new genre of Japanese media.

In America, the oldest lesbian organization is known as the Daughters of Bilitis. Founded in 1955, the group was active through 1972. During that time, the founders collected many books and periodicals both about and by lesbians to assist them in their stated goals.  These publications included The Ladder, The Daughter of Bilitis’ own newsletter that included information, interviews, opinions, stories and news about lesbian life. Collections of these publications can be found at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in NYC and GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, if you’re interested in taking a look.

1971 was, for our discussion today, a significant moment. As feminism grew in importance, the first known formal lesbian community was established in Japan, Wakakusa no Kai (Fresh Green Club). This name was meant to literally represent the fact that it was a “grassroots” organization. Wakakusa no Kai did not disband completely until the mid-80s. 

1971 also saw the creation of Japan’s first commercial gay magazine, Barazoku. By 1976 , the editor, Itou Bungaku, included a page for lesbians, which provided information on how to get in touch with lesbian groups and printed letters by lesbians looking to meet other women. This page was called “Yurizoku no Heya” the “Lily Tribe’s Room”. This is generally credited as the origin of the term “Yuri” in regards to lesbian-themed media. 

In the days before the Internet, the most common way a lesbian had to meet other woman like herself was to go to a gay bar that allowed lesbians or, perhaps, a lesbian party night at a gay bar. If she lived near enough to a big enough city, there might even be a lesbian bar. A Japanese lesbian would find, as her American counterpart might, flyers for lesbian events or groups. Letter columns and personal ads in magazines like Gekkou or Barazoku could function as a lifeline, especially for more provincial lesbians, for whom the big city was both literally and figuratively far away. But a lesbian life was a fantasy that few could embrace. Manga of this period that included lesbians at all, tended to show one partner leaving to be married or dying, leaving the other with unfulfilled longing that could never be resolved. This image shows a flyer from 1981 that advertises a “marriage meeting” for gay men and lesbians who wished to marry to fulfill familial obligations. 

As lesbian groups developed and grew, it made sense to create newsletters to communicate with and among members and non-member readers.  In 1976 Subarashi Onnatachi, the first lesbian feminist newsletter was begun. It only lasted one issue, but others publications arose: Hikari Guruma and Za Daiku  in 1978. By 1982, “Lesbian Communications” by groups like Regumi Studio and mini-magazines were popular in the lesbian community for sharing information, interviews, opinions, stories and news about lesbian life. 

These newsletters and mini-magazines, somewhat naturally led to the creation of the first lesbian magazines in Japan.

In 1995, Japan’s first lesbian magazine, Phryne premiered.


While Phryne only lasted 2 issues, editor Hagiwara Mami went on to create Anise magazine in 1997. Like Phryne, and the lesbian “communications” of the 1980s, these magazines included interviews with lesbians, guides to women’s bars and lesbian parties,  comics, fiction, reviews of media and even horoscopes. 

At the same time, LOUD (Lesbians of Unusual Drive) was created as a sex-positive organization. They took their communications online, to a lesbian-focused BBS and, eventually a blog. Inevitably, these media would still provide space for sharing event information, personal ads, comics and interviews, opinions, stories and news about lesbian life. 

Among the comics creators being published in these magazines and on these websites were names that would go on to put out self-published works at the increasingly popular comic markets being held in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. These doujinshi could be informative publications about gay life or fan works pairing up characters from popular anime or manga series. Even well-known novelists got their start in these magazines, in which chapters, that would later be collected, were originally published.

Lesbian newsletters had morphed from typed and mimeographed creations to slick publications with color photos, original art and stories, but the core concepts – stories and news about lesbian life – remained at the center.

These lesbian newsletters provided an environment that fostered creativity by and for lesbians, covered issues of immediate interest to lesbians and made it possible for young artists to create lesbian work long before the word “lesbian” was something one uttered in public. Some of these artists moved on to mainstream publishers and left their lesbian roots behind them in order to reach a broader audience. Other artists went on to build a following by creating parody comics of popular series and evolving over time to creating original art that was picked up by magazine publishers.  Many of the most popular names in Yuri manga got their start this way, using the  springboard of lesbian communications to launch a career.

And, in this way, these lesbian communications – these newsletters, magazines and doujinshi – made room for an entire generation of lesbian artists to openly draw the stories they wanted to read, about the characters they wanted to read about, and helped to eventually give birth to the Yuri genre.

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16 Responses

  1. Will says:

    This is really fascinating history I’d never heard about! And somewhat ironic given how a lot of modern Yuri is explicitly apolitical and tries to avoid being associated with any sort of real world LGBT issues or movements.

    Thanks for the read.

  2. Jye Nicolson says:

    Thanks very much for this history, it’s interesting and important! I knew bits and pieces, and had seen some of Morishima Akiko’s older stuff, but I didn’t know the full story :)

    • This is just filling in a few of the dots…the full story is undoubtedly much more complicated. ^_^ But thanks for reading. I hope you’re doing well? I’m thinking of heading for Tokyo for the Kaigai Festa…any chance we’ll see you there?

      • Jye Nicolson says:

        Afraid not. My partner started a new job and has to accumulate leave the hard way, so I won’t get to Japan at all this year! Next year I’ll be back with a vengeance. Do let me know if you happen to end up in Melbourne though :)

  3. Zefiris says:

    Now that was an interesting essay :) Thanks a lot for sharing it.

  4. Marion Bea says:

    This is fascinating. I kinda want to reads those magazines now. Thanks for sharing!

  5. LM says:

    I love that Anise included “bisexual” right on the cover. Would be interested to know how terms for wlw vary historically in Japan, especially given the shift in “lesbian” being a catch-all in the 70s and 80s, to “lesbian and bisexual,” “women who love women,” “queer,” and “sapphic”; and if other magazines included bi issues/mentions.

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