(Trans) The Fusion of Japan and Korea in Thailand: When yaoi meets Korean idols

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Stars of the forthcoming series WHY R U (left Zee Pruk Panich; right Saint Suppapong Udomkaewkanjana)

Here is a translation of the second of a series of a Japanese articles on Thai BL written by journalist Mayumi Mori of the Asahi Shimbun. I collaborated with Mayumi along with other researchers on this series of articles and I am sharing loose English translations here. Here is article number 1! Here is article number 2!

I haven’t got permission to share the images in the original article and this translation is produced for the purposes of teaching and research under the relevant fair-use laws under which I operate in Australia.

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The Fusion of Japan and Korea in Thailand: When yaoi meets Korean idols

On the 12th October, Book Expo 2019 opened its doors in metropolitan Bangkok. In a 20,000 square meter hall, more than 300 publishers had set up around 888 booths for Southeast Asia’s largest annual book fair. In the midst of this prestigious festival, there was an especially lively corner.

One by one, young women in groups of two or three were grabbing books and throwing them into their shopping carts. The scene was like a competition. In a booth prepared by one popular publisher, a megastar author was holding an autograph session and a long line had developed. There were even quite a number of customers who had brought along suitcases so they could buy a large volume of books. The atmosphere at these booths was like a fan event in Japan such as Comic Market where dōjinshi are sold, although the publishers were not selling fan works but actual licensed books.

Plastered across the covers of the books displayed at the booths in this popular corner were male couples entangled together whilst longingly gazing at each other. All of these titles were Boys Love novels and comics. Whilst there were piles of translated Japanese manga, including quite a number of copies of Takenaga Himeko’s Bukiyō na Silent, the vast majority of the works were Thai originals.

“There are even fans who devote half the national average income”

“In order to come today, I took a plane. Because I’ve been saving my money, I can buy about 10,000 baht worth of books.” So said Ms P.P., an 18-year-old university student who had come from Chiang Mai (700km to the north of Bangkok).

According to Thai government statistics, the average expenditure of one household in Thailand is little over 20,000 baht. Ms P.P. planned to spend half of this, explaining that spending such an amount was fairly normal. She soon had about 20 books in her cart.

Ms P.P. first got into the genre depicting romances between men that is known in Thailand as “Y” when she was in high school. Becoming a fan after reading a novel on the popular youth-oriented online portal Dek-d, she stated that “from that moment on, no one could stop me!”

Her favourite novel is the mega-hit SOTUS, which was made into a popular drama in 2016. “I can’t really explain why I like it so much, but there is just something fun because it is between two men.” Holding the spoils of her shopping spree close to her chest, Ms P.P. planned to share the novels with her friends. She was returning to Chiang Mai that very evening.

Taking an overnight bus for 5 hours from the North-eastern province of Buriram, Ms. P.T. is also visiting the book festival. “I’ve been reading Y manga since I was in elementary school. In school everyone passed them around and no-one thought they were embarrassing or shameful.”

However, BL manga have only been sold publically in Thailand recently. “I’m so jealous that young people can find BL so easily. In the past it took a lot of effort to get your hands on them, it was like a secret society.” So explained Ms. Korkaew Vanhecke, the CEO of the BL speciality publisher “The Reading Room” which was exhibiting at the book festival.

It was during the 1990s that “yaoi” manga became popular in Thailand. It has been said that yaoi started to be sold by a certain publisher that specialised in pirated manga and which was located in Bangkok’s Siam Square neighbourhood. Around this area of Bangkok are a number of elite schools and yaoi became popular with the girls who attended these schools.

During the dawn of this new era, Ms Korkaew was a high school student living in a rural village 400km away from the capital. In a manga which she had borrowed from her friend’s older sister were pictures of men in love and Ms Korkaew thought they looked kind of cute. But getting her hands on BL manga in her conservative village was a next-to-impossible task.

Then one day while flipping through the pages of a manga magazine, her eyes fell on its readers’ corner. There were many people who had written in to say that they wanted to exchange letters with people who enjoyed romances between men. Ms Korkaew sent off a number of letters and made some pen friends. Although she couldn’t get her hands on Japanese manga, she was able to enjoy reading homemade BL comics that her penfriends would draw and send to her.

The invite-only secret society

Upon entering university in Bangkok, Ms. Korkaew was introduced to a group called “Echo” by these friends. As an invite-only “secret society” for those who loved BL, Echo had roughly 100 members in the 1990s. The main club activity was sharing around the precious BL manga that came into members’ possession. Each week, members would host a small meeting at a fast-food restaurant in Bangkok, with a larger general meeting held once a year in a hotel.

Among the members, many produced their own works and there were even people who were especially skilled at drawing manga and writing novels. Ms Korkaew, however, was a reading specialist. When she was a university student, she became particularly interested in a story written by a friend and asked them if she could turn it into a proper book. After having another friend draw some illustrations, they managed to produce 500 copies of the book in 2007.

With this experience under her belt, Ms. Korkaew decided to work as a publisher and founded her own company in 2014. They have been producing many popular works, including the extremely popular novel SOTUS, which was made into a TV show. Whilst a number of rival companies have appeared as a result of the expansion of BL fandom and managing the company is not always enjoyable, Ms Korkaew noted that “As for my life, whether it be friends, work or hobbies, everything has been created by Boys Love. It’s fair to say that BL is my life!”

There is influence from K-pop too

Ms Korkaew explained that the background for Thai BL was not just Japanese manga and that there was one more “seed” from which the culture grew. This seed is, of course, the popular culture of South Korea that has exploded in popularity and spread across Southeast Asia since the 2000s.

Within Korean male idol groups, there are many members with androgynous appearances and it is common for members to wear make-up. For the purposes of fan service, these members often perform “skinship” amongst each other and this stirs the imagination of female fans.

When the generation who had grown up reading Japanese yaoi manga began making their own works, it became usual for such male Korean idols to be used as character models. The popularity of Japanese yaoi and Korean idols thus synergized, giving birth to a “Korpanese” fusion of Japanese and Korean culture that expanded fandom enormously.

One of those who has been influenced by Korean idols is the 29-year-old author of the novel upon which the BL drama TharnType is based. The first work which she wrote herself when she was 18 was a fan fiction where the protagonists were members of the Korean idol group Super Junior.

“Including myself, fans of K-pop boy bands don’t want to see our beloved idols together with female partners. So I began to imagine about idols together in male couples and the first generation of Y novels was born.”

Becoming famous through such fan fictions, she took the penname MAME and began to upload novels on popular portal sites. Last year, her campus love story Love By Chance was adapted into a drama that became a massive hit. Due to the success of the drama, the original novel was finally published as a book, becoming a best seller with sales of over 15,000 units. For now, MAME has become “the Queen of Thai BL novels,” particularly because of her great skill at writing sex scenes.

According to MAME, “The popular culture of South Korea and the manga of Japan have merged together in my mind and even today I continue to receive influence from both. In Thailand, we have times when men can say ‘I love you’ to each other romantically and without fear. I wanted to add such Thai-style behaviours and mannerisms to this pop culture. When Thainess met the cultures of Japan and Korea, the result was the birth of the Thai BL world.”

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