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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.

Yaoi also attracts male readers, but manga specifically marketed for a gay male audience (bara) is considered a separate genre.The tachi partner is conceptualized as the member of the relationship who pursues the more passive partner, the latter of whom is referred to as the neko.Seme and uke is similar but not identical to tachi and neko because the former refers primarily to sexual roles, whereas the latter describes personality.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.The genre has spread beyond Japan, and both translated and original yaoi works are now available in many countries and languages.

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