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In the late 1970s, shōjo magazines devoted to the new genre began to appear; and, in the 1990s, the term boys' love or BL was invented for the genre, which replaced earlier terms such as tanbi, shōnen ai and juné in Japanese usage.

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Shōnen-ai challenged young readers, who were often only able to understand the references and deeper themes as they grew older and instead were initially drawn to the figure of the male protagonist.

The terms yaoi and shōnen-ai are sometimes used by Western fans to differentiate between two variants of the genre.

By the end of the 1970s, magazines devoted to the nascent genre started to appear, and in the 1990s the term boys' love or BL would be invented and would become the dominant term used for the genre in Japan.

Although yaoi derives from girl's and women's manga and still targets the shōjo and josei demographics, it is currently considered a separate category.

The word was originally used to describe an author's distinctive style, for example, the styles of Yukio Mishima and Jun'ichirō Tanizaki.

Akiko Mizoguchi describes its application to male-male stories as "misleading", but notes "it was the most commonly used term in the early 1990s." and were replete with "philosophical and abstract musings".

Although the yaoi genre is also called Boys' Love (commonly abbreviated as BL), the characters may be of any age above puberty, including adults.

Works featuring prepubescent boys are labelled shotacon and seen as a distinct genre.

The term shōnen-ai (boy love) originally connoted ephebophilia or pederasty in Japan, but from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, was used to describe a new genre of shōjo manga, primarily produced by the Year 24 Group of women authors, about beautiful boys in love.

Characteristics of shōnen-ai include exoticism, often taking place in Europe, Jeffrey Angles particularly notes Moto Hagio's The Heart of Thomas (1974) and Keiko Takemiya's Kaze to Ki no Uta (1976–1984) as being groundbreaking, noting their portrayal of intense friendship between males, including jealousy and desire.

Anal sex is a prevalent theme in yaoi, as nearly all stories feature it in some way.

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