This word is only now beginning to appear in general publications, though it has been around in its specialist area for some years.
It refers to a type of manga or anime, so originally Japanese, that focuses on male-to-male sexual relationships. Though it is therefore popular among gays, it has proved to be still more popular among women. So it has that in common with the — originally SF — genre of slash fiction, in which male stars of popular TV shows and films are portrayed as engaging in gay relationships, a genre also popular with and mostly written by women. (Slash because the original pair were Spock/Kirk from Star Trek, so written.)
Yaoi is said to be a Japanese acronym formed from the phrase yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, which has been translated into English as “no climax, no resolution, no meaning” and “no peak, no point, no problem”, though a recent article suggests it actually means “no story, just the good bits”, that is, mostly descriptions of the sex with the minimum of storyline. The pronunciation often confuses people. In Japanese, I’m told, it ought to be three syllables (roughly as “yah-oh-ee”), though it’s frequently heard as two, as often happens in rapid speech. In English it seems to be said mainly as “YOW-ee” (roughly the noise you make when your home team scores, or you do) but also as “YAY-oi”, the former being nearer the Japanese pronunciation.
From a linguistic point of view it’s interesting that, though the term and the genre are classically Japanese, the term itself isn’t so much used there. The preferred local name for it is BL, short for “boy love”.
If Jack London and A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice’s erotic avatar) had been commissioned to write a novel that would appeal simultaneously to lovers of yaoi (X-rated manga featuring gay men and favored by female readers) and to furries (fans in fur suits who enjoy pretending to be anthropomorphic animals), the result might very well have resembled A Companion to Wolves.
Washington Post, 27 Jan. 2008
One of the earliest examples of “yaoi” Shakespeare is Yasuko Aoike’s manga for girls, titled Ibu no musuko tachi (Sons of Eve, Tokyo, 1978), in which Shakespeare, Lear, Hamlet and Romeo appear as male gay characters.
Peter Holland, Shakespeare Survey 60, 2007