Religion: Saint Young Men

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 at 8:51 AM
In religion terms, Japan seems to enjoy a considerable degree of freedom when compared to other countries, especially those with monotheistic traditions. The fact of being a society based in animistic and polytheistic beliefs of Shinto, combined with such a flexible doctrine as Buddhism, has maybe made Japanese modern society more open minded and less dogmatic than countries with Christian or Islamic traditions, for example. Thus, the Japanese tendency to syncretism softened the taboos of mixing believes of different nature, and this is easily demonstrable by seeing how many Shinto shrines can be found inside Buddhist temples or by checking the hybrid wedding system that takes its aesthetics mainly from Christian tradition.

Even knowing this, I was amused when some time ago I saw in a Tsutaya shop a stand and several posters advertising a manga with a cover showing Buddha and Jesus Christ shoulder by shoulder, dressing in a casual way and behaving as tourists.

When thinking about the theme for this post I thought I could give it a chance and buy a copy to see what was it really about, and the result wasn't less amusing than my first impression. 聖☆おにいさん, or "Saint Young Men" by Nakamura Hikaru brings us a humoristic view of two of the most important religious figures of history changing all the context without any kind of reservation.

The initial plot is simple: Jesus and Buddha are tired of living so long in their respective paradises and decide to take a break by living in the modern Japan like two ordinary young men. They share an apartment, go shopping to the konbini, use the subway and ask themselves which cell phone should they buy among a lot of other "ordinary" activities. Their personalities are also very human and ordinary, and the only things that makes them different are they physical traits (crown of thorns, long hair and beard for Jesus, and big ear lobes, cranial protrusion and third eye). Jesus even seems proud for being mistaken for Johnny Depp by a group of schoolgirls, while some mistake Buddha's hairstyle for a punch perm. Typical traits attributed to these characters, like patience or generosity are also continuously parodied in this manga.

While such a harmless work would be probably criticized and condemned by a number of religious authorities for being blasphemic, in Japan it appears as one more product with no more aim than amusing the young readers who, like most of the Japanese, don't really care about religion. No one cares if the main character of a comedy manga is based on Jesus, Lenin, Schwarzenegger or Mickey Mouse, because all is about aesthetics. However, Japan's tendency to break taboos, even being more clear than in most of western countries, still finds difficulties in some national subjects like the Imperial Family, remaining still now as one of the more strong cultural taboos of contemporary Japan.

聖☆おにいさん is published by Kodansha under the label Morning KC with 4 volumes at the moment, enjoying a considerable popularity, having printed 13 editions of its first number since its publication in January 2008.

A scanned and translated version of the manga can be read here:


  1. R. A. Stern Says:

    Your prose here really brings to life this interesting manga, and it shows that you've spent more than a glancing moment with the subject. Bravo.

    I do wonder if your Japanese friends had any comment on the manga, as I agree that Japan is far less offended by such materials compared to many Western states. Something like this most certainly would not go over well in the United States, regardless of "free speech" doctrine. Which begs the question if Japan has a better grasp of the free speech spirit, as you seem to hint at. Though, with it's own "Japanese style" of course.

  2. Yes, another excellent post this week. While your focus is on the manga, you still have some interesting comments about Japanese religion in general. I am not so much into manga, but you almost make me want to go and check this one out.

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