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English-language manga is one of the fastest growing segments of the American publishing industry. Sales of that category amounted to about $175 million in North America last year, around triple the sales in 2002, according to Milton Griepp, who tracks the manga and anime industries on his trade news Web site, www.icv2.com. National chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are scrambling to find more shelf space for these hot-ticket items, and are installing benches and couches at which readers can lounge. In that context, yaoi is the success story within the success story: According to Griepp, a light yaoi series called Loveless is No. 5 on his list of manga best-sellers in the United States.
Yaoi's success with its target audience has surprised even comic industry insiders. "When it was first presented to us, we were very skeptical," says Joshua Hayes, associate director of sales and marketing for Diamond Book Distributors of Maryland, the largest U.S. distributor of graphic novels. "Even though everyone told us that it was going to be sold to female consumers of a certain age level, we just couldn't believe that was true. I was looking at the first volume, untranslated, and thinking, 'There's no way; surely this would sell to a homosexual audience.'"
In fact, yaoi has collected only a small contingent of gay fans in America. "Here's a personal take on it: I don't think most gay men find yaoi very hot," says Justin Hall, who curated a show on queer comics for San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum earlier this year. "At least for me, I tend to like more masculine men. Most of the yaoi men are very androgynous, and just not hot," he says. Beyond the visual element, Hall says the stories don't resonate with many gay readers: While many queer comics deal with themes like gay identity and the struggle to come out, yaoi almost always ignores such knotty issues. "It's more about titillation and fantasy than about cultural context," says Hall.
Meanwhile, the girlish impulse to gaze at pretty boys is an old and powerful one. Within the yaoi tradition, the ideal bishounen is usually slender and pale, with a heart-shaped face and enormous eyes, like two fishponds. His smooth pectoral muscles are hairless, but his head is covered by a tousled and feminine mop, with strands that fall fetchingly across his face when he's feeling shy. The genre's appeal to women and girls isn't hard to fathom: Put two of these pretty boys together on the page, and it's double the fun. Plus, the female reader isn't forced to compare herself with some idealized girl or woman, because there are none. "I know what I look like naked," says one San Francisco fan, who goes by the name Betsy Tea (she preferred not to give her real name to protect her privacy). "I don't want to have competition. . . . I'd rather see a couple of beautiful boys." Yaoi, then, is the female equivalent of the girl-on-girl porn made for straight men.
If one does feel the need to psychoanalyze the phenomenon, however, academics have arrived at a standard interpretation. "It's a way for young women and girls to explore sexuality without it being too intimately connected to them," says Susan Napier, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Without a female character in the book, readers can choose which male character to identify with, instead of feeling forced into one role. "They can enjoy seeing sexual situations with handsome young men, and can play out different sexual scenarios without having to put themselves into it, so it's less intimidating or threatening," Napier says.
Publishers do release yaoi works without the graphic sex scenes, which are intended to be more appropriate for their younger readers. Those sweeter, fluffier books are generally classified in America as shounen-ai, or "boys love." At the Kinokuniya Bookstore in the Japantown mall, the yaoi books stacked under the "English Language Manga" sign run the gamut. There's Little Butterfly (published by June, out of Gardena, Calif.), in which the high school characters keep it clean on the page, sharing some passionate kisses and snuggles in bed, but leaving the rest to the imagination. One shelf over is the collection called ...But I'm Your Teacher, an offering from Kitty Media in New York City, which includes the title story about an aggressive 17-year-old who seduces his sexy substitute teacher, an affair shown in intimate detail: Orifices are probed, and juices fly.
Girls flitter into the bookstore after school hours, and hang out on the benches outside the store on weekends. Cellphones jangling, they compare notes on what they've heard about various titles, and sometimes stealthily strip the shrink-wrap off a book to thumb through the pages. The books are labeled in an effort to clarify who should and should not be reading them: Some use "parental advisory" stickers, like hip-hop albums, others put age ranges on the cover, and a few limit themselves to a discreet "mature content" label in a corner. Managers at the bookstore claim they check ID if the customer looks young, but the girls say it's not a hard-and-fast rule. "I just put my hair down and have my debit card out," says one girl, who claims to be 16. "I don't think they care that much about it."