I read lots of serious books: books about Christian theology, spiritual direction, the history of mysticism, and the psychology of meditation… that sort of thing. I’m not complaining — I love pretty much everything I read (actually, at this point in my life and career, if I don’t love it, I quickly stop reading it, because there’s always something else clamoring for my attention).
Like most people, I don’t want to read heavy literature all the time, even if it’s concerning topics I love. So after spending an hour or two ploughing through insightful but demanding books like The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, Using the Bible in Spiritual Direction and Contemplative Prayer: A Theology for the 21st Century (to give just three examples of books I’m currently reading), I want to kick back and read something that is pleasurable, inspiring, and/or amusing.
Enter Saint Young Men — a Japanese seinan manga series about Jesus and Buddha, living incognito as roommates in modern-day Tokyo!
If you’re a white American boomer (like me), you may not be familiar with manga, which is basically the name for Japanese graphic novels. Manga is a hugely successful segment of the Japanese publishing industry, accounting for annual sales over 600 billion yen (over 4.6 billion US dollars) — in the USA alone, manga sales clock in at about $250 million per year. Manga is segmented into genres targeted at audiences by age and gender, such as shōnen manga (aimed at teen boys), shōjo manga (teen girls), seinen manga (adult men) and josei manga (adult women). Like comics and graphic novels published in America, manga titles are often published in serial format, so popular series can run for multiple volumes. They cover all the genres you might expect, such as romance, science fiction, fantasy, magic, adventure, martial arts, and more.
A couple of months ago, I posted something on social media about my interest in Christian-Buddhist interfaith dialogue, and a friend replied by asking if I were familiar with Saint Young Men. I told him I wasn’t, but the next time I visited my local bookstore, I would check it out.
When I combed through the sizable manga department in my local Books-a-Million, I came across almost an entire shelf devoted to the Saint Young Men series. The English-language editions of this series is published in attractive hardcover omnibus editions, each one containing about 15 chapters or episodes — reprinted from their original publication in monthly manga magazines in Japan. Eight of these English-language omnibus editions currently are in print, with three more coming over the next year.
I bought the first two volumes, took them home — and after reading them, ordered the entire series. And pre-ordered all the forthcoming ones.
“Why Do So Many Artists… Choose to Depict Me at my Fattest?!”
Jesus: “It cracks up the archangels every time!”
Buddha: “Because they have no taste in comedy!”
You have to be willing to suspend your disbelief and accept the basic backstory: up in heaven, Jesus and Buddha are buddies, and so they decide it might be fun to return to earth, only without drawing attention to themselves. So they find an apartment in Tokyo. But even though their intention is to fly under the radar, they can’t help but be themselves, which usually results in no shortage of unexpected and often downright funny scenarios. With his long hair and Johnny Depp goatee, everyone thinks Jesus is a hippie, while the Buddha is continually worrying about his waistline and fending off the attention of women who find his elongated earlobes surprisingly attractive. But it gets stranger than that. They walk through a hospital emergency room, where people think they are having a vision of these deities — and therefore must be on the verge of death. Jesus has an annoying habit of turning water into wine at the most awkward of moments, such as when they are about to get into a public bath. And both of them have to be on guard against “divine” hijinks like levitating, glowing, or receiving unexpected visits from angels and other heavenly beings.
Of course, in between trying to keep their divine status under wraps, these two holy guys still have to negotiate all the normal pressures of life in our time, from placating a difficult landlady to negotiating their shared (and limited) budget.
One time the Buddha comes down with a cold, and it turns out that Jesus is hopelessly inept when it comes to nursing him. Exasperated, the Buddha mutters “Do you mean to tell me you’ve never taken care of a sick person?” To which a straight-faced Jesus replies, “Actually, no. Sick people generally get better as soon as I get close to them.”
Much of the humor of the series is based on trivia from Christianity and Buddhism. As the two “saint young men” navigate their shared lives together, various details — from the mottos on their t-shirts to the banter they share with each other — are peppered with allusions to their teachings, their famous disciples, and folklore from either of the faiths that bear their names. Thankfully, at the end of each chapter footnotes are provided to help the casual reader catch the sometimes subtle references to the spiritualities that Jesus and Buddha represent.
As I read these books, I laughed at the humor, smiled at the banter, and marveled at how playfully loving both Christianity and Buddhism are depicted in these stories. Only someone with the most uptight of theologies would find these books anything other than a heartfelt tribute to how Christianity and Buddhism offer contrasting yet sympathetic ways of making sense of our strange and complex world. And for anyone (like me) who is genuinely interested in exploring how Buddhism and Christianity shed light on each other, this charming and amusing manga series offers endless food for thought.
Saint Young Men is created by Hikaru Nakamura; she is not to be confused with an American chess player with the same name. It’s hard to find much information about her online; she only has a brief entry in Wikipedia and pictures of her (or interviews in English) are pretty hard to come by. She is active on both Twitter and Instagram, but of course most of her posts are in Japanese. Here’s a recent Instagram post from her (and yes, she posts a “Happy Birthday Jesus” image on December 25!):
Saint Young Men is available wherever manga is sold. If you would like to support this blog, please use these links to buy your copies from Amazon (I’ll receive a small commission for each purchase made through these links):
Also available for your Kindle (see the complete series here).