[Script] Industrialization, Girls’ Schools, and the Birth of the Yuri Genre

At this point, yuri is a well-established genre. Having seen unprecedented growth in 2017, it’s a genre that most any anime fan is aware of. With it comes a massive number of common tropes. All-girls’ schools, especially Catholic schools, are everywhere. Stories rarely go beyond high school and are often entirely non-sexual. Relationships are frequently between senpai and kohai. Sometimes you’ll see a “girl prince” character paired with a more femme character.

Most of these tropes don’t hold that much power anymore, but a decade or so ago they were the norm and their influence can still be felt today. So how did yuri gain these tropes in the first place? Well, to explain that, we have to go all the way back to the pre-war period, where the groundworks for yuri were first lain.

Pre-war Japan, particularly during the Taisho period, was a time of great upheaval and relatively increased freedom. Japan felt the need to catch up to Western countries in order to avoid being the victims of imperialism, pushing them to industrialize rapidly. To compete with the West, education was given significantly increased prominence. Japan was hardly an illiterate and uneducated society before industrialization but things still had to be improved. This was particularly true for girls and women, who had generally been denied access to education until this point.

While women were still not permitted entrance to many higher education schools, they were practically mandated to go to primary schools. At the same time, a number of secondary and post-secondary schools opened up in order to allow girls and women to continue their education. In many cases, these schools were run by Catholic organizations who believed that educating women was important to creating a strong generation of future wives and mothers in service of the Japanese state.

This all led to a group of Japanese young women who were increasingly interested in media targeted towards them. Because of this, magazines aimed at teenage girls, appropriately known as shoujo novels, became quite popular. At the same time, the Takarazuka Revue, a popular acting troupe, was being established. Takarazuka is known for their musicals which have female actors for both male and female roles. These actors were particularly popular among girls and women, who often developed crushes on them.

This combination of girls’ magazines and Takarazuka led to a genre and feeling known as Class S. Class S is about deeply intimate relationships between women, though it’s generally understood that these relationships are fleeting, something to be cherished but not stuck with. The ultimate outcome of these relationships is, of course, departure for heterosexual marriage. These relationships were seen as somewhat romantic but they were specifically not sexual. As long as they only existed to teach girls how to have ‘real relationships’ with men, they were encouraged but if they went any further they were shunned. Class S was a genre but also a very real experience for many Japanese girls and women from the 10s through the 30s.

Class S novels and stories were everywhere at the time but one author stands out as particularly popular: Yoshiya Nobuko. Yoshiya can perhaps be called the grandmother of yuri and shoujo manga as a whole. Her stories, particularly the ones in the popular Hana Monogatari anthology, are the reason many of yuri’s tropes are so long-lasting.

Yoshiya was herself a queer woman who openly lived with her partner and this comes through in her stories. A fair number of the relationships in Hana Monogatari are explicitly romantic, though they almost always end in death or permanent separation when that’s the case. A great example of this is Yellow Rose, one of the few translated works of hers, which eventually has one of the girls go off to marriage while the other leaves for America in despair.

The biggest exception to this is her novel, Yaneura no Nishojo. This novel not only portrays women who continue to love one another beyond school but has the ending actively declare that they’re going to try and make a life together in regular, non-academic society. From what I understand it’s not necessarily a happy ending but it’s at least a hopeful one. At the time, this was totally unheard of and nothing like this showed up in English literature for at least another two decades. Most of her other stories were lighter in the romantic department but her dominance over the Class S genre and her lasting influence on it can still be felt within yuri.

The Class S genre was put on hold in 1936 after being banned by the Japanese government. Eventually, people caught on to the fact that the genre was allowing girls and women to more freely express themselves, so the increasingly fascistic government was determined to put a stop to it. After all, while most women engaged in these relationships eventually left them for marriage, many declined that, opting instead to run away or, unfortunately, to commit suicide.

During the war, little attention was paid to girls’ magazines but once it ended they returned. Specifically, they returned with the new addition of manga. Shoujo manga was not the most respected art form at this point but it did exist. Works like Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight show an influence from Takarazuka and contributed to the future of shoujo manga, and by proxy, yuri.

Most interestingly we can look at Takahashi Makoto’s Sakura Namiki or, The Rows of Cherry Trees. This work is functionally a Class S novel brought to manga form and was released in 1957. Its beautiful opening art is strongly reminiscent of the pre-war drawings so common in Class S magazines and its story is along the same lines. It follows two students who are competing for the respect and love of their senpai who they call ‘onee-sama’. If you know anything about Class S-style yuri, this should all sound pretty normal to you.

If this were released today, it would probably be considered a yuri work, but there was no sense of the genre at that point and it’s generally considered proto-yuri rather than yuri proper. Its also just an interesting work to look at if you like manga since it came before the standardization of modern panel layouts and other common features.

There are two stories that can meaningfully hold the claim to being ‘the first yuri manga’ and not just proto-yuri. The first of these is 1970’s Secret Love. Unfortunately, it’s almost totally unknown and scans of it don’t even exist as far as I’m aware. It focuses on a love triangle between two girls and a boy and was only a short chapter in length. Given that the feelings of romance were explicit, this would count as the first yuri manga, but its incredibly low profile generally leaves it out of the conversation.

The manga most often brought up as the first yuri is Yamagishi Ryouko’s 1971 story, Shiroi Heya no Futari. Yamagishi is usually considered part of the ‘Year 24 Group’ an absurdly influential group of female shoujo mangaka. The works of this somewhat vaguely defined group revolutionized shoujo manga, gave rise to both yuri and BL, and created works which were the impetus for starting Comiket.

Shiroi Heya focuses on Resine, a proper girl who comes to a Catholic boarding school in France and rooms with the disobedient Simone before they quickly fall in love with one another. Despite being set outside Japan, this fits all the tropes common to Class S. It has the senpai-kohai relationship, Resine is more femme while Simone is more butch and of course, the relationship ends in tragedy. By the end of the story, Resine leaves the boarding school and Simone dies.

This is obviously not a good outcome and I can’t honestly say that it’s a particularly good manga but it’s still a very important work. The feelings of these two are incredibly explicit, even to the point that they kiss twice. Norms at the time mean that they could not survive together, not in a story aimed at young girls, but this work was still quite revolutionary. It set the tone for yuri in the coming decade and while happier endings started to occur as time went on, its influence can easily be seen throughout the rest of the 20th century.

As soon as Shiroi Heya came out, the floodgates opened. A bunch of manga along the same lines released but one other mangaka at the time is notable for the development of the genre. This author is Ikeda Riyoko. Another member of the Year 24 Group, Ikeda quickly did a lot to establish the face of yuri. Her character Rosalie in 1972’s Rose of Versailles is explicitly in love with the main female character, Oscar. Furthermore, her 1975 manga Oniisama-e… is a yuri story through and through, though once again it ends in tragedy. Rose of Versailles is particularly important since Oscar’s Takarazuka and Princess Knight inspired design became the template for ‘girl princes’ and contributed to later yuri works like Revolutionary Girl Utena.

The history of yuri is vast and interesting. If you liked this video and want me to cover yuri history beyond the 70s, let me know. I have a real passion for the genre and making it more clear to beginners is one of my biggest goals. I hope I’ve done a good job at explaining how a number of elements from the pre-war period created the basis of the yuri genre that we know today, even if many elements have shifted over the years. If you want to know more, check out some of the sources I have linked in the description. For now, just keep enjoying yuri!


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7 thoughts on “[Script] Industrialization, Girls’ Schools, and the Birth of the Yuri Genre

  1. I wan’t to add some important information about the history of yuri that get’s left out of a lot western Yuri discourse. During the 1980’s there was a emergence of a genre of manga targeted towards adult women called Ladies Comics. Ladies Comic’s were the fore runner to what is now known as Josei but they were way more sexually graphic and Josei was created as a “classier” alternative to them. Lesbian romance was a feature of a lot of Ladies Comics. Some Ladies Comics magazines focused exclusively on Lesbian relationships. But even the ones that didn’t would feature some Lesbian stories in them because “straight” women were assumed to enjoy seeing stories about Lesbian relationships. These stories were way more explicit in there depiction of Lesbian relationships than a lot of traditional Yuri. The women often openly identify as Lesbian or Bisexual they date and enter long term relationships with other women and the stories usually have a happy ending. Unfortunately most of these stories aren’t likely to get western translations since the Ladies comics genre are largely unknown to western manga fans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was aware of them but didn’t know how widespread they were. They(and the widening presence of out lesbians in general) is definitely something I’ll be mentioning in part 2.


    2. Can you give some examples of Ladies’ Comics? Maybe Kyoko Ariyoshi’s “Applause” can be qualified as one of examples?


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