BANGKOK -- Gay love stories involving two impossibly pretty young men, a long-established literary genre in Japan known as yaoi, or "boys love," have become a pop culture phenomenon in Thailand. The adapted Japanese import has captured the imagination of women and girls in Thailand.
Social media company Line has created "Y Series," a group of boys love dramas produced in Thailand, winning over 20 million viewers in that country alone. The stories are also gaining fans elsewhere in Southeast Asia and China. "Y Series" stories are being imported back into Japan, creating a new ecosystem for the genre in East Asia.
Boys love stories are no longer a subculture, declared Norasit Sitivechvichit, chief commercial officer of Line's Thailand unit at an Oct. 8 meeting held to pitch the company's strategy to analysts and investors in Bangkok. "The [boys love] culture has recently become mainstream in Thailand, before spreading throughout Asia," Norasit said.
Line TV, a video streaming service operated by the Thai unit of Line, a Japanese social media company, is driving the pop culture craze. Norasit said he did not understand the phenomenon at first, but adds there is no doubt that it is becoming a global trend.
Of the estimated20 million Thai viewersof "Y Series," about 80% watch episodes via Line TV, according to Line's Thai subsidiary. The company has set up a market research team to analyze the "Y Series" ecosystem.
The series traces its roots to theyaoi gay male literary genre that originated in Japan in the 1970s. These underground, gay-themed novels, short stories and comics inspired counterparts in Thailand. The Y in "Y Series" comes from the Japanese word "yaoi."
The driving force behind popularity of series is the growth of video streaming services. Because the genre is regarded as too racy for TV in some countries, it is mostly distributed online.
Video streaming platforms can operate easily across borders, helping "Y Series" to win fans outside Thailand. It caught on in Japan during the state of emergency declared by the government in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, which kept many people stuck at home.
With all those homebound people desperate for distraction, GMMTV, a TV production unit of Thai entertainment conglomerate GMM Grammy, began distributing "2gether," a Thai boys love drama series on YouTube with English subtitles, making the episodes available for Japanese viewers. That triggered a "Y Series" boom in Japan, expanding the fan base dramatically.
The market for the stories, which was already sizable, is growing rapidly. "Y Series" generates several billion baht of sales in Thailand alone, according to Star Hunter Entertainment, a Thai movie studio (1 billion baht is worth around $32 million). Surging demand is fueling a production boom. More than 20 boys love dramas were made in 2019, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper.
Video streaming services are racing to cash in on the international popularity of "Y Series." In May, GagaOOLala, Taiwan's LGBT-focused streaming platform, announced it is expanding distribution of "Y Series" worldwide, with the exception of China and South Korea. In September, Line TV started distributing 40 "Y Series" dramas in 19 countries, including Southeast Asian and Latin American nations.
Many fans of the series are women keen to promote their favorite stories and actors, according to a study conducted by Line's Thai unit. Devotees spend much of their free time making point-of-purchase sales promotion tools or creating their own subtitles for the dramas.
These fans are also ardent buyers of merchandise and enthusiastically recommend brands and products advertised on the shows they watch.
Norasit of Line Thailand was amazed by the commitment of "Y Series" fans at first. "The power of fandom generates a thriving Y-economy on its own," he said.
Known as a country friendly to LGBT people, Thailand has much greater potential to become a center for boys love dramas that the more conservative majority-Muslim countries in region. It may not be long before Thai boys love movies and TV shows are a big part of Asia's wider pop culture scene.