The term describes an aesthetic that can be found in disparate areas in Asia: a young man whose beauty (and sexual appeal) transcends the boundary of sexual orientation. It has always shown the strongest manifestation in Japanese pop culture, but it has roots in ancient Japanese literature, the homosocial and homoerotic ideals of the medieval Chinese imperial court and intellectuals, and Indian aesthetic concepts carried over from Hinduism, imported with Buddhism to China.
Today, bishōnen are very popular among girls in Japan. Reasons for this social phenomenon may include the unique male and female social relationships found within the genre. Some have theorized that bishōnen provide a non-traditional outlet for gender relations. Moreover, it breaks down stereotypes surrounding feminine male characters. These are often depicted with very strong martial arts abilities, sports talent, high intelligence, or comedic flair, traits that are usually assigned to the hero/protagonist.
The bishōnen is typically slender, with clear skin, stylish hair, and distinctly feminine facial features (such as high cheekbones), but simultaneously retains a male body. This androgynous appearance is akin to the depiction of angels in Western renaissance art, with similar social roots for this aesthetic.
The aesthetic of the bishōnen was recorded in Lady Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji, written in about the year 1000 A.D. Genji concerns the exploits and romances of a young prince, the son of an emperor and beloved concubine, who is not in line to inherit the throne, and follows his intrigues through the court as he comes of age. The novel typifies the Heian age of Japanese history, a period of highly-stylized romance. Prince Genji's beauty is described as transcendental, so much so that "one could have wished him a woman", with a bewitching attraction that is acknowledged by men and women alike.
The aesthetic of the bishōnen began as an ideal of a young homosexual lover, likely arising from the effeminate male actors who played female characters in Kabuki theater. It is perpetuated today in anime and manga, especially shōjo manga and anime, shōnen-ai, and yaoi.
Bishōnen is also used to describe an anime or manga character who is drawn as if a female, but has male components. This would make it easier for the artist to create a feminine male, rather than drawing a male character regularly.
Scottish pop singer, Momus (aka Nick Currie) popularized the term with his song, "Bishonen" from the "Tender Pervert" album (released on Creation Records). Almost 8 minutes long, the song is an epic tale of a young boy raised to die young by an eccentric stepfather.
The enduring preference for bishōnen males can clearly be seen in Japan and throughout parts of East Asia to this day.
In particular, Japan's largest male talent agency, Johnny & Associates Entertainment Company specializes only in producing male tarento idols. Accepted into Johnny & Associates in their early teens, these boys, collectively known as 'Johnnys', are trained and promoted to become the next leading singing-acting-commercially successful hit sensations. Almost all can be classifed as bishōnen, exhibiting the same physically feminine features combined with a sometimes deliberately ambivalent sexuality or at the very least, a lack of any hint of a relationship in order to maintain their popular availability.
Current bishōnen examples from the same agency include Jin Akanishi and Kazuya Kamenashi of j-pop group KAT-TUN, Tomohisa Yamashita of NEWS and Jun Matsumoto of ARASHI, all of whom are phenomenally successful throughout East Asia by appealing to both younger and older women and whose widely praised, gender-incongruous physical beauty is often deliberately manipulated in terms of role-playing and, most commonly, fanservice.
Bishōjo is more commonly centered around young girls, and drawn in a cute, pretty style; bishōnen is centered around teenage boys, and drawn elegantly. Another common mistake is that the female characters in bishōnen are bishōjo, arising from the fact that 'shōnen' means boy, and 'shōjo' means girl. In truth, the female characters of bishōnen manga are very different from those in bishōjo. Bishōjo females are usually smaller and drawn in a more cute than beautiful way, whereas bishōnen females exhibit the long limbs and elegance of bishōnen.
Several cultural anthropologists and authors have raised the multifaceted aspect of what bishonen represents and what it is interpreted as, mostly to fit a particular external viewpoint.
For Sandra Buckley, bishōnen narratives champion “the imagined potentialities of alternative [gender] differentiations" James Welker describes the bishonen as being "queer", as the bishonen is an androgynous aesthete with a feminine soul "who lives and loves outside of the heteropatriarchal world".
Jonathan D. Mackintosh belives that the bishonen is a "traditional representation of youth", being "interstitial" between both childhood and adulthood and between being male and being female, regardless of the sexual issues.
Ishida Hitoshi makes the case that the image of the bishōnen is more about a grounding in sexuality than a transcendence of it, drawing on the idea of the image as being a refuge for alternative methods of looking at sexual natures, and sexual realities, at least since the 60's, rather than the elegiac aesthetics of usages in an earlier era.