(Disclaimer: Review copies of Legal Drug and Drug & Drop vol. 1 and vol. 2 were supplied by Dark Horse. This essay also contains some light spoilers.)
First, a primer! If you’re familiar with boy’s love, girl’s love, yaoi, yuri, shonen-ai, or shojo-ai just go ahead and skip this paragraph. For those of you who aren’t, know that boy’s love (a.k.a. BL), yaoi, and shonen-ai all refer to manga featuring male-male romance and/or sex. Girl’s love, yuri, and shojo-ai refer to manga featuring female-female romance and/or sex. This article focuses primarily on boy’s love, but does mention girl’s love too. Of note is that boy’s love is primarily written by and for women.  Boy’s love comics directed toward gay men are considered a separate genre, sometimes called “Men’s Love.” Also, boy’s love is not strictly a comic genre, as it is also found in anime, games, and more.
Legal Drug is a product of CLAMP, a team of four woman manga creators: Nanase Ohkawa, Tsubaki Nekoi, Satsuki Igarashi, and Mokona. The story follows Kazahaya Kudo and Rikuo Himura, two young men without kith or kin who have found refuge at the Green Drugstore. Proprietor Kakei provides the two boys with jobs at the drugstore and a place to live above it—plus lucrative after-hours gigs. Kakei’s real business, it seems, is to retrieve supernatural items for mysterious customers. At one point, Rikuo refers to it as a “handyman shop.” We don’t know why or how he’s in this handyman business, nor do we know what Kakei’s tall, dark, and handsome lover Saiga does around the shop. These mysteries have yet to be revealed!
Kazahaya and Rikuo both happen to possess magical powers, so Kakei assigns them these supernatural tasks. There’s just one problem: Kazahaya hates Rikuo.
The two are practically opposites: Kazahaya is chipper, polite, curious, and loud. Rikuo is taciturn, blunt, gloomy, and quiet. The only thing they seem to have in common (other than the fact that, like all CLAMP characters, they’re drop dead gorgeous) is that they both have sister problems, but they don’t know that to begin with. Rikuo may find Kazahaya tiring, but Kazahaya can’t stand Rikuo. It starts when Rikuo rescues Kazahaya’s life, and it all goes downhill from there. However, as he reluctantly works with Rikuo to complete tricky supernatural assignments, Kazahaya begins to unravel the mystery that is his mostly silent partner.In spite of the whole disliking each other thing, there’s some definite magnetism between the two of them. Maybe it’s the way Rikuo leans into Kazahaya’s personal space so often, or how Kazahaya dreams of Rikuo’s bare, tattooed arms. Or maybe it’s just that their mouths end up in close proximity so often.
There are many things to enjoy about Legal Drug and its ongoing follow-up series Drug & Drop, although I am pretty disappointed that the series actually isn’t about marijuana. C’mon, there’s an MJ leaf in the series’ branding, and I really wanted to write about manga and legal pot—but okay, okay, fine, I’ll accept a metaphorical trip instead. It is interesting that Japanese slang for gay men is “okama” (お釜), which translates to “pot or kettle.” (If you’re wondering about the connection from pot to gay men, click the link.) I think it’s likely that CLAMP is punning us, here.
Anyway, the episodic stories are fun, ranging as they do from horror to suspense to whimsy. Also, the art is beautiful. I expect beautiful art from CLAMP, and I have yet to be disappointed. In fact, I am often delighted by the art, even beyond the attractive character designs. There’s a scene, for instance, in which Kazahaya steps into a house only to find himself in a wide open field, gazing upon a tree surrounded by flying carp. It’s lovely, and it takes me right to ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”), M.C. Escher, and psychedelic posters.
Legal Drug should be addictive. Lovely art, good storytelling, intriguing characters. Plus, it’s an honest-to-goodness boy’s love title from CLAMP. Recipe for success, right? There’s just one small detail that tastes awful to me, though: Kazahaya’s homophobic reactions.
I love CLAMP! Which is partly why I’m about to be pretty darn critical. You see, in Legal Drug, Kazahaya finds homosexuality disturbing. He freaks the heck out when any hint of closeness with Rikuo is implied. For instance, check out this exchange:
Kazahaya looks thoughtful and touches his lips while he’s thinking about the breakfast Rikuo made.
Rikuo: Kazahaya … stop looking so sexy.
Kazahaya: I’M NOT SEXY!
Rikuo, while leaving the room abruptly: …Well, see you down at the store.
Kazahaya: Hey! I’m not sexy! YOU’RE JUST DEPRAVED! (page 337)
The critical among you (and I applaud you, critics!) may argue that Kazahaya is merely reacting to the fact that attraction to someone he finds horrid is what’s disturbing, not that homosexuality itself is disturbing. To which I say, “Wait, there’s more!”
To fulfill one “handyman” task, Kazahaya goes to a specific girls’ school to request a school uniform from a student. He’s self-conscious and exclaims, “I can’t go through with this! They’re gonna think I’m some kind of pervert!” He succeeds, however, and gets the uniform from another CLAMP character, Hinata Asahi. Hinata explains to her former teacher why she doesn’t have her uniform, and he yells, “No! It wasn’t sweet! He’s a dirty pervert!” (Yes, I know men creeping on high school girls is creepy, but stick with me here).
Kazahaya then has to wear the uniform and stand under a cherry tree. Of course he objects—and that’s not the issue. It’s completely fine if someone does not want to wear clothing they don’t enjoy, and they shouldn’t be forced into doing so. There are a lot of power dynamics and self-identity issues at play that shouldn’t be minimized. You probably know this already: clothing relates to gender, which relates to power perceived and held within society. Kazahaya has been (and will continue to be, as you’ll see) forced into a female/Onee role. In terms of yaoi tropes, this is the biggest one. By this point, it’s very clear that Kazahaya has been positioned as the stereotypical yaoi uke (“receiver”) and Rikuo as the seme (“attacker”). Typically, the seme connotes the “male” role and the uke connotes the “female” role . More on that in a bit.
Getting back to the scene: Rikuo comes along dressed in a different school uniform, and Kazahaya becomes possessed by the spirit of a high school girl, after which the two enact a scene of unrequited love. After Kazahaya has fainted, due to the use of his magical powers, Rikuo says, “This outfit isn’t as bad on you as you might think, Kazahaya.” When the two return to the shop, Saiga teases Kazahaya by saying he put himself “at risk of someone seeing you for the pervert you really are” and Rikuo calls him a “freak” when he escalates yet again.
Now, a bit of context. In Japan, popular media tends to conflate homosexuality with being transgender, which is conflated with cross-dressing  (although that term itself is problematic, as it implies that gender is binary, and I don’t enjoy using it). Sociologist Mark McLelland references the media portrayal of okama in his book Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan, and says:
“These stereotypical, partial representations of gender-nonconformist men in the Japanese media impact upon the lives of many Japanese homosexual men, particularly during the period when they are first becoming aware of their same-sex attraction. … Some were left with the impression that same-sex desire necessarily required cross-dressing or that the only way they could ‘be themselves’ in Japanese society was to work in a transvestite bar.” 
The term “Onee” (オネエ, or sometimes “one,” pronounced “o-nay”) is used to describe flamboyant gay television personalities. I asked author and translator Zack Davisson about オネエ, and he explained it as such:
“In a nutshell, オネエ (one) refers to what used to be called a ‘flaming queer’ in the US. A sort of feminized male gay stereotype played for laughs in movies and on TV. They use ‘women’s words,’ usually dress in drag, and are referred to by the pronoun ‘One-chan’ (older sister). If you know Japanese, you know how important pronouns are. They not only establish gender, but also social rank and status. Japanese has few swear words, so if I want to REALLY insult someone I would use the wrong pronoun. Alternately, if I wanted to REALLY honor someone I could do so with pronouns. Using one-chan as a pronoun isn’t meant for insult—it establishes their special place in Japanese society.
And while the ‘flaming queer’ stereotype in the US is mostly considered derogatory nowadays, the TV ‘one-chans’ are anything but. They are (generally) treated with respect and considered valued social commentators. But like many things in Japan, they are expected to put on a costume and conform to social expectations of what a gay man looks like. Most people are aware that this is just a persona adopted for television—playing a ‘character’ on TV is very common in Japan. I have seen TV specials with prominent one-chans where they take off their costume and show people their day-to-day life, emphasizing that dressing in drag and acting feminine is something they only do for television. It’s a job and a role they play.”
According to a video by Japanese/American culture commentators Rachel & Jun, in Japan, “Onee” is also increasingly used to describe transgender women. They also say there is not a lot of general knowledge about the distinctions among LGBTQ individuals. One commenter in the video linked above states:
“You don’t see Onee people who wear clothes, talk, or express themselves emotionally in a way that’s considered to be heterosexually male. So, if I come out as gay, people will assume that I’m female on the inside, and they’ll assume that I’m interested in cross-dressing or a sex change … so gay people don’t come out, because if they do that storm of prejudice pours down on them.”
With the context of conflation in mind, I believe it’s fair to say that Kazahaya’s reactions to dressing in female clothing can be considered in line with his reactions to homosexuality. So, without further ado, a few more examples for you.
For instance, when Kazahaya becomes possessed by Rikuo’s desire for chocolate and accosts Rikuo to suggestively eat his chocolate bar, their subsequent exchange goes:
Kazahaya: …so! A tough guy like you gets all girly over chocolate, eh…?
Rikuo: Well, someone was getting girly over it. All over me, too.
Kazahaya: I wasn’t … it was only because of you … I mean, it wasn’t because of you … You have the dirtiest mind, you know that?! (page 346)
Kazahaya’s outrage reflexes get a work out when he and Rikuo are assigned to a boys’ school and he’s informed that romance among the students is common. “Wait a minute…!” he exclaims, “THIS IS A BOYS’ SCHOOL!!” Later, his friend Nayuki explains boy-boy romance to a confused Kazahaya as such:
“A completely closed environment of young men full of virile energy … and no girls whatsoever. It’s understandable. … Take male birds and female birds, and place them in separate cages. The female birds will remain indifferent to the situation, but the males eventually will begin to court each other. Gender doesn’t matter to boys when there’s no other choice. … Because boys are horny. Yes, things are hard here. Just imagine our situation, isolated up here in the mountains … imprisoned with our fellow, healthy young men.” (pages 383-384)
Subsequently, Kazahaya goes into shock when Nayuki discusses doing more than kissing Rikuo. Nayuki says, “We live in the modern world, Kudo. These things shouldn’t disturb you,” to which Kazahaya sweats and holds his head, moaning “Is Nayuki playing me…?” One page later, Kazahaya finds himself contemplating Rikuo’s attractiveness. “I’m sure girls want him. Maybe boys do too,” he thinks. “I wonder if we could actually … *gasp* What … the hell … am I thinking?! I’m being corrupted by this school!”
Corrupted? Yes, corrupted. Add that to some of the words used earlier: dirty, pervert, depraved, freak. You get the picture, I think: according to Legal Drug, LGBTQ states are not positive, and they’re far outside the norm.
Which is interesting, because homosexual tension is not uncommon in a lot of Japanese media. Japan also has some many well-known historical figures who had same-sex relationships . Again, Zack Davisson:
“… in my experience of living in Japan I found Japanese people take essentially a laissez faire attitude towards homosexuality, caring very little about it one way or the other. Like much of Japan, where the concepts of tatemae (public face) and honne (inner life) are so important, people care little about what you do in private so long as you maintain the social veneer. In fact, there is less pressure to ‘declare’ your sexual identity. People can have homosexual sex without needing that to be their identity. …I remember a gay American friend once lamenting about how Japan was a country where no one was gay and at the same time everyone was gay. It’s almost like Japan is an entire country of people comfortable sliding along the Kinsey scale without feeling the need to make a permanent stop.”
So homosexual acts may be more normalized than Kazahaya’s over-the-top reactions may suggest; identifying overtly as LGBTQ is what is mired in stereotypes and social stigma. For those to whom being LGBTQ is their identity, and who wish to live that identity in an overt way, things start to get difficult. (Again, more to come on that.)
Back to Legal Drug. From the second Kazahaya arrives at the boys’ school, he is the target of much admiration. Not only does Rikuo compliment him (intimately, beneath a kissing tree), but the other boys do as well. In fact, Kazahaya wins the contest to become the school “bride” at their annual marriage ceremony. Here’s the explanation for that:
Nayuki: Every year, we at the Suriyo Festival cast lots to select the bride. It’s a cross between a beauty contest and a popularity contest. You know how they pick a campus Queen at college? It’s like that.
Kazahaya: But that’s … hold it!
Nayuki: I know, I know. We’re an all-boys school. But we still know how to have fun.
Kazahaya: But whyyyyy?
Nayuki: As I said, we have no girls.
The above exchanges are problematic in a number of ways. First, they posit that male-male romance is only normal within an all-male environment. Second, they say the same of drag (that’s how Kazahaya refers to dressing in female clothing, which he says he’ll never do again): that men dressing in female garb is only normal in a system absent of women.
Let me talk briefly about the overtly gay couple: Kakei and Saiga. They are often depicted touching, cuddling, and working together. Kakei, who is fine and delicate with flowing light-colored hair, has powers that enable him to see into the future; Saiga, who is tall and square and seemingly strong, always always wears sunglasses, resisting the question, what’s up with his eyes? The one small thing that breaks the implied masculine/feminine stereotypes is that Saiga does all of the cooking and sewing. (Kazahaya’s reaction to that? You guessed it: he’s shocked, repeatedly.) The two remain, however, an unrelatable mystery. Therefore, their relationship is not normal, either.To be fair, some of Kazahaya’s reactions are used to flesh out his habits and to develop his character. Given Kazahaya’s isolated upbringing and his loud, disruptive nature, his extreme reactions do make sense. Plus, his personal space and comfort zones are violated time and time again by Rikuo, Kakei, and Saiga. Titillating for readers, perhaps, but not cool for anyone to do to another person.
However, I believe all of these exchanges—not only Kazahaya’s reactions, but also the derogatory terms used by those around him—highlight how little the writer, Nanase Ohkawa, actually knew about LGBTQ+ individuals at the time she wrote it.
I say, “at the time she wrote it,” because the homophobic and transphobic commentary seen in Legal Drug drops off sharply in continuation Drug & Drop. The distinction may be because there’s a eight year time lapse between when Legal Drug was written and published (ending 2003) and when Drug & Drop began (2011). It could also be because at the start of Drug & Drop, Kazahaya and Rikuo have been living and working together for a year, and Kazahaya seems to have matured in that time. Regardless, although Kazahaya still has predictably loud and extreme reactions to implied feelings between himself and Rikuo, they are much fewer and farther between. Rather, Drug & Drop focuses on the surrounding circumstances that brought Rikuo and Kazahaya together, and it allows the two to grow together in a natural rather than a forced way.
Now, yaoi and boy’s love is not without its history of controversy. In 1992, gay activist Satō Masaki sparked a debate called the “Yaoi Ronsō” in which he attacked yaoi readers and creators and compared them to “dirty old men” watching female-female porn. Women fans and creators responded, of course. Takamatsu Hisako argued that boy’s love is liberating for women, as through this medium they can engage with more equal relationships than those of women to men.  Interestingly, nearly two decades later, a woman blogger called “William Shakespeare” echoed Takamatsu’s argument almost exactly.
That’s an intersectional debate, to be sure, and I’m not going to assign “right” or “wrong” to either side. Objectification in any form, regardless of which direction the gendered gaze is gazing, is ultimately alienating. However, I believe that the boys’ love and girls’ love genres play a role in normalizing LGBTQ individuals and relationships. If they’re done right.
And they can be done right. Take, for instance, another CLAMP title: Tokyo Babylon. In this story, also written by Nanase Ohkawa, young and pure seer Subaru Sumeragi falls in love with Seishirō Sakurazuka, an older man whom he believes to be a veterinarian. As it turns out, Seishirō is a cold-blooded psychopath assassin who turns on Subaru and tries to kill him. No, they do not have a healthy relationship, and the fetishization of violence is problematic at best. But you know what? Their relationship is not flawed because they’re both men. That aspect of their relationship is normalized and supported by Subaru’s twin sister Hokuto, who cheers on their love (although of course she regrets it later, because psychopath).
Other titles that have done it right include: Yurikuma Arashi, a yuri anime about love between a girl and a female bear; What Did You Eat Yesterday?, a slice-of-life boy’s love manga that humanizes gay men and openly discusses some of the challenges they face; Rutta to Kodama, which also features male/female friendship; and Only Serious About You, which falls into some of the yaoi tropes, but is strong because the young daughter of one of the protagonists is fully accepting of his new male partner.
It should be noted that there are strong undercurrents of gender fluidity in yaoi. From the depiction of men who embody “feminine” traits (long hair, delicate bone structure, big eyes, etc.), to the statement above from Takamatsu Hisako about female readers identifying with men in male-male romantic partnerships, to the interplay between the seme and uke roles (which does not always conform to stereotypical “dominant male” and “subordinate female” sexual power dynamics)…yeah, that’s pretty darn fluid. Want more? Check out this article on female to male crossdreamers, then tell me that yaoi doesn’t play within the liminal areas of gender and sexual identity.
Hey, and what about the queer women who read yaoi (such as myself)? Where do we fit into this picture? Well, we’re here too! For me, personally, I like yaoi just as much as I like yuri (although yaoi is much more available) because it’s important to me to see same-sex romance. Fellow WWAC staffer Al Rosenberg describes it this way, “While I was worrying over my sexuality and identity as a young woman, I found how easy and sexy it was to escape into the pages of yaoi manga. …Beautiful, feminine young men falling in love was almost as good as beautiful, masculine young women falling in love to my mind, and I could not get enough.”
There are plenty (PLENTY) of yaoi and yuri that sexualize and objectify same-sex relationships, just as there are plenty of manga that sexualize and objectify women and opposite-sex relationships. I’ve read and reviewed enough of these titles to feel slightly scarred, so I’m not going to bring up bad memories by listing some of them here. Just take my word for it. Or do the research yourself.
Let’s get back to the heart of the matter: Legal Drug. Why is its representation of LGBTQ individuals problematic, you ask? Gay men are not the target audience for boy’s love or yaoi manga, after all. Women (primarily heterosexual women) are. Legal Drug was written by an all-female collective for female fans using cues and socialized gender roles that may not be applicable to or even apparent to gay men.
First, although the target BL audience in Japan is women, more than just women are reading it. According to Leyla Aker of VIZ Media, an average of 15% to 20%—and up to 50% on certain titles—of the readers on SuBLime Manga, an English-language BL manga publisher, are male. (By the way, you should totally read that article if you’re interested in learning more about gay male manga. It’s great!)
The big problem is that representations like those in Legal Drug skew readers’ perceptions of what “gay” is, just as the broad use of the term “Onee” does. It perpetuates misunderstandings and stereotyping of LGBTQ individuals (an argument akin to that made by Satō Masaki) and reinforces the impression that being LGBTQ is not “normal.” And that’s harmful.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, an American mental health organization, reports:
“The LGBTQ community [in America]is at a higher risk for suicide because we lack peer support and face harassment, mental health conditions and substance abuse. For LGBTQ people aged 10–24, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely and questioning youth are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harm than straight people. Between 38-65% of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation. Family support plays a particularly important role in affecting the likelihood of suicide. Someone who faced rejection after coming out to their families were more than 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide than someone who was accepted by their family after revealing their sexual orientation.”
In Japan (although not only in Japan), there is a strong societal incentive not to be different. Further into the video I linked to above, there are quite a few comments that highlight this. Here are a few:
- “Japanese culture puts a lot of pressure on assimilating, so I imagine that even if you’re a little bit different, it’s difficult.”
- “To me, if it’s a gay foreigner I don’t mind at all. But if it’s another Japanese person it makes me a little uncomfortable. Compared to us Europe is relatively open when it comes to that sort of personal nature and love, so I think it’s easy to accept foreigners who are gay. But in Japan we’re still somewhat conservative and closed, so I think accepting gay Japanese people is difficult.”
- “It’s still taboo in Japan. I think you need a considerable amount of courage to come out. But personally I think there are a lot in hiding so I’m not too surprised. Anyway, I think it’s easy for gay foreigners to be accepted. People just view it as a difference in culture.”
- “In recent years yaoi and yuri genre manga have also started becoming known, so I think understanding Japanese people accept LGBT people (if they’re foreigner.)”
You can read the transcript of the video, including all of the translated comments, here. There are also a lot of comments that reflect what Davisson said above: people who believe they don’t know any gay people, or they don’t think about gay people, or they don’t necessarily care about it one way or another. Live and let live, as it were—as long as you’re not loud about it.
Remember Davisson’s comment about his gay American friend from above? Pair that with several of these comments, and it’s pretty clear that while gay foreigners may be okay, it’s much harder to be a gay Japanese person.
Which makes me wonder: what role models do LGBTQ individuals have in Japan? It sounds like, beyond Onee individuals, not many. Gengoroh Tagame, an out, gay manga artist, says, “For the gay audience, I want them to see that I’m obviously out. Everybody knows I’m gay and do comics as a gay artist. I want gays, especially young gay people, to see that it is possible to be published in a straight magazine, be completely out and unafraid. I want them to gain a little courage out of this.” The Out in Japan project calls LGBTQ individuals “an invisible minority” and is trying to change that by showcasing 10,000 portraits of LBGT-identified individuals over five years.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the hidden nature of LGBTQ Japan, a 2014 study on the lives of LGBT (their term) in Japan reported in the Japan Times showed that 68% of respondents experienced bullying. 32% thought of committing suicide, and 22% reported that they had injured themselves. It’s true that bullying is a big problem in Japan, and the country’s suicide rate is among the highest in the world. The most recently released study from the World Health Organization shows that in 2012, 18.5 out of every 100,000, less than 0.02%, people committed suicide (by comparison, the UK is 6.2, the US is 12.1, Canada is 9.8). Thinking about suicide is still a far cry from actually committing it, true, but regardless, those are some pretty severe consequences to the endemic “othering” of LGBTQ individuals.
The narrative of homosexuality and (conflated with it) being transgender as other and deviant in Legal Drug is too strong to be countered by its more minor narratives (seen just a few times in the series, even in less reactive Drug & Drop) of homosexuality and being transgender as normal and accepted. Mystery, danger, and uncertainty all add great spice to a romance, and the storytellers of CLAMP are particularly proficient chefs in this regard. Othering and phobia, however, sour the entire recipe.
Legal Drug Omnibus
Planning & presented by: CLAMP
Nanase Ohkawa (W); Tsubaki Nekoi (A); Satsuki Igarashi & Mokona (Art Assistants)
Dark Horse; September 10, 2014
Drug & Drop Vol. 1
Planning & presented by: CLAMP
Nanase Ohkawa (W); Tsubaki Nekoi (A); Satsuki Igarashi & Mokona (Art Assistants)
Dark Horse; January 7, 2015
Drug & Drop Vol. 2
Planning & presented by: CLAMP
Nanase Ohkawa (W); Tsubaki Nekoi (A); Satsuki Igarashi & Mokona (Art Assistants)
Dark Horse; May 13, 2015
 Page 394. Wood, Andrea. “” Straight” Women, Queer Texts: Boy-Love Manga and the Rise of a Global Counterpublic.” Women’s Studies Quarterly (2006): 394-414.
 McLelland, Mark, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker, eds. Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2015.
 p. 39. McLelland, Mark J. Male homosexuality in modern Japan: Cultural myths and social realities. Routledge, 2005.
 p. 45. McLelland, Mark J. Male homosexuality in modern Japan: Cultural myths and social realities. Routledge, 2005.
 p. 52. Leupp, Gary P. Male colors: The construction of homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. Univ of California Press, 1995.
 Lunsing, Wim. “Yaoi Ronsō: Discussing Depictions of Male Homosexuality in Japanese Girls’ Comics, Gay Comics and Gay Pornography.” Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context 12, no. online (2006).
Editorial comment: an earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the original publication dates of Legal Drug and Drug & Drop, and it has since been updated to include the correct dates.