Bishounen is a Japanese word referring to a young man possessing androgynous beauty. Unlike the Western ideal of masculinity, bishounen is more feminine, youthful, and angelic. A bishounen can either assume or reject gender roles. He can be assigned as the main protagonist, supporting character, rival, or antagonist. Female fans are enamored by their ambiguity and beauty regardless of their roles. They also relate to bishounen characters because of their sense of feminine aesthetics. Younger bishounen characters tend to have wider eyes and a child-like appearance. Older bishounen characters have narrow eyes with long eyelashes, as well as tall and slender bodies.
Japanese media and popular culture over the decades are filled with bishounen characters.
Some examples of series with bishounen characters are Fushigi Yuugi, Saint Seiya, Saiyuki, The Prince of Tennis, Vampire Knight, and Uta no Prince-sama.
Bishounen (美少年) comprises of two kanji: 美人 (bijin) or beautiful person, and 少年 (shounen) or young man. The original Japanese meaning of bishounen was “beautiful child” for both genders.
There are also words associated with bishounen, except each of them are categorized by age: 美正太 (bishouta) or beautiful pre-pubescent boy, 美青年 (biseinen) or beautiful man, and 美中年 (bichuunen) or beautiful middle-aged man.
A Brief History
According to Web Kanbun Taikei (Web漢文大系) or Web Chinese Literature, bishounen existed during the Tang Dynasty around 618 A.D. The poem (飮中八仙歌) Inchuuhassenka or Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup by Du Fu included bishounen in one of its lines (宗之瀟灑美少年) or roughly translated as “Zong Zhi is a dashing and beautiful young man.”
One of the earliest Japanese literary genres about bishounen was Chigo Monogatari (稚児物語) or Tales of Acolyte Children during the Muromachi Period around 1336. Those proses depicted a pederastic romance between a Buddhist monk and his youthful attendant. Chigo monogatari would either depict erotica or incite enlightenment under the guidance of Buddhism. Some of the occurring themes of Chigo Monogatari were tragic endings and forever youthful lads.
The cultural concept of bishounen appeared during the 17th Century. Wakashuu (若衆) or adolescent boys who portrayed women in kabuki are called onnagata (女形) or oyama. This was done to prevent prostitution and quarrels for the actresses’ affection. The ban against female kabuki actresses eventually failed to prevent social degradation. During the Meiji Period in 1867, the word wakashuu was replaced with shounen due to its perverse connotation.
There were also non-Japanese influences that could have affected the bishounen aesthetics. Some speculate that the glam rock genre in the 1970s inspired androgyny. Others believe that the Swedish actor Bjørn Andresen influenced contemporary bishounen aesthetics. His appearance in the 1971 film Death in Venice as an adolescent boy inspired shoujo artists like Takemiya Keiko of Hana no Nijūyo-nen Gumi (花の24年組).
When the word bishoujo appeared in the otaku community in the 1980s, it had a negative connotation. Fans of the loli genre would use bishoujo as insider jargon. Dictionaries refused to include bishoujo as part of the official Japanese language until the 1990s. On the other hand, the word’s usage as “beautiful child” stayed longer for a while.
The demand for appealing to a broader audience led artists to incorporate shoujo-inspired illustrations on mainstream media. Bishounen later gained attention to the masses as more manga, light novels, anime, and video games feature them as selling points.
Bishounen is exclusively used for beautiful boys in modern times. Its meaning changed through time as fans searched for a new word. A word that defined a different kind of male beauty standards. Fans can fantasize about a beauty incarnate in the form of an ideal male.
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