Saint Onii-san (聖☆おにいさん). Understanding the Japanese Strategy of Syncretism

When we work as anthropologists, especially we media archaeologists, it is central to question our own interpretations as biased at best. Still, there is work to do. Through our tireless dialogues and humdrum carrying-ons there remains the work of turning lead into gold. This alchemy is anthropology. Learning to see the world for what it is, not what we think it is, or have come to believe it is. We question our nature as humans and expand ourselves to lather native insights and paths.

What I’m getting at here is that I recently had the pleasure of encountering Saint☆Onii-san (聖☆おにいさん). If your haven’t yet I encourage your to at least give the series a chance. Otherwise, here’s a little debriefing:

Saint☆Onii-san (聖☆おにいさん) is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Hikaru Nakamura. The story follows the daily lives of Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha, who are living together in modern-day Japan as roommates. The manga has been adapted into an anime film and OVAs, and has gained a cult following in Japan and internationally. In this media theory analysis, I will explore the way Saint☆Onii-san navigates ontological syncretism, and how this reflects broader cultural trends in Japan.

Ontological syncretism refers to the blending or mixing of different religious or spiritual traditions. In the case of Saint☆Onii-san, the series combines the figures of Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha, two of the most important religious figures in Christianity and Buddhism, respectively. The series portrays them as friends and roommates who experience everyday life in Japan, such as visiting amusement parks and attending festivals.

One way that Saint☆Onii-san successfully navigates ontological syncretism is by using humor and satire. The series pokes fun at the religious beliefs and practices of both Christianity and Buddhism, as well as the cultural differences between Japan and the West. For example, in one chapter, Jesus and Buddha accidentally get lost in a Japanese red-light district and are mistaken for a gay couple. This type of humor allows the series to explore religious syncretism without taking itself too seriously.

Another way that Saint☆Onii-san navigates ontological syncretism is by emphasizing the similarities between Jesus and Buddha, rather than their differences. Both figures are portrayed as compassionate, wise, and approachable, and they share a mutual respect and understanding for each other’s beliefs. This emphasis on similarities helps to create a sense of unity between different religious traditions, rather than highlighting their divisions.

In terms of broader cultural trends in Japan, the success of Saint☆Onii-san reflects a growing interest in spirituality and religion, as well as a desire for new and innovative forms of expression. Japan has a long history of syncretism, dating back to the blending of Shinto and Buddhism in the 8th century, and this has continued in modern times with the incorporation of Western religious traditions such as Christianity. Saint☆Onii-san can be seen as a reflection of this ongoing cultural exchange and experimentation.

In conclusion, Saint☆Onii-san is a unique and innovative manga series that successfully navigates ontological syncretism through the use of humor, satire, and an emphasis on similarities between different religious traditions. The series reflects broader cultural trends in Japan towards spiritual exploration and syncretism, and provides a creative and entertaining way to explore these themes.

About Syncretism: Drinking the Kool-Aid, err vinegar

On Syncretism: or, Drinking the Kool-Aid, err vinegar. How japan infuses Hindu, Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religions. And, what the F is Shinto, anyway?

In addition to the syncretism between Christianity and Buddhism portrayed in Saint☆Onii-san, Japan also has a long history of incorporating elements from other religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and various folk religions. One notable example is the syncretic religion of Shinto, which has blended with Buddhism and Confucianism over time to create a unique religious landscape in Japan.

Shinto is a polytheistic religion that originated in Japan and centers around the worship of kami, or spirits, that are believed to inhabit natural phenomena such as mountains, rivers, and trees. Over time, Shinto has incorporated elements from Buddhism, such as the concept of reincarnation, as well as Confucianism, which emphasizes ethical behavior and social harmony.

Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in the 6th century CE, has also had a significant influence on Japanese culture and religion. Many Buddhist beliefs and practices, such as meditation and the concept of enlightenment, have been integrated into Japanese religious and philosophical traditions. Zen Buddhism, in particular, has had a profound impact on Japanese culture and has been influential in areas such as art, architecture, and martial arts.

Taoism, which originated in China, has also had an impact on Japanese culture and religion. The concept of yin and yang, which emphasizes the balance between opposing forces, has been incorporated into various aspects of Japanese culture, such as traditional medicine and feng shui.

Folk religions, which are often associated with animism and ancestor worship, have also played a significant role in Japanese religious and cultural traditions. These religions vary greatly depending on the region and often involve the worship of local deities and spirits.

In conclusion, Japan’s religious landscape is characterized by a rich history of syncretism and the incorporation of elements from a variety of religious traditions. Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, and various folk religions have all had a significant impact on Japanese culture and continue to shape the country’s religious and philosophical beliefs.


  • Hardacre, Helen. “Shinto and the State: 1868-1988.” Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • Kitagawa, Joseph. “Religion in Japanese History.” Columbia University Press, 2012.
  • Reader, Ian. “Religion in Contemporary Japan.” University of Hawaii Press, 1991.
  • Tamura, Yoshiro. “Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History.” Kosei Publishing Co., 2000.
  • Teeuwen, Mark, and Fabio Rambelli. “Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan: A Clash of Worldviews or a Coalescence of Cultures?” In “Buddhism and the Political Process,” edited by Hiroko Kawanami and Jonathan Silk, Routledge, 2016.

So what can learn as contemporary global societies merge? All aboard the so-called “JewBus?”

Jewish Buddhists, or ''JewBus.'' These individuals are people who have combined their ethnic Jewish identity and their Jewish religious practices with the philosophies and doctrines of Buddhism. While some Jews view JewBus as being unfaithful to their identity, Buddhists welcome them openly.

Rastafarianism is a combination of the Christian religion with pan-African identity and Caribbean slave religious practices.
Emily Sigalow on American JewBu

As contemporary global societies merge, there is much we can learn from the history of religious syncretism in Japan and other parts of the world. Syncretism, or the blending of different religious or cultural traditions, has been a common feature of many societies throughout history, and has often been driven by factors such as migration, trade, and colonialism.

One lesson we can learn from the history of syncretism is the importance of cultural exchange and dialogue. When different cultures and traditions come into contact, there is often a natural tendency to view one’s own beliefs and practices as superior. However, the process of syncretism can help to break down these barriers and foster a greater sense of understanding and tolerance between different groups.

Another lesson we can learn is the importance of flexibility and adaptability in the face of cultural change. As societies merge and cultures collide, there is often a need to adapt and incorporate new ideas and practices. This requires a willingness to let go of old ways of thinking and embrace new perspectives, which can be challenging but ultimately rewarding.

At the same time, it is important to be mindful of the power dynamics that often underlie processes of cultural exchange and syncretism. In many cases, the dominant culture or tradition may seek to assimilate or erase the beliefs and practices of minority groups. It is therefore important to be aware of these dynamics and work towards a more equitable and inclusive form of syncretism.

Further reading:

  • Ahuja, Ravi M. “Syncretism and Its Synonyms: Reflections on Cultural Mixture.” Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 4, 2004, pp. 625-638.
  • Asad, Talal. “The Idea of Syncretism in the Work of Ernst Troeltsch.” In “Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam,” Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
  • Bryden, John. “Syncretism and Religious Identity in West Africa: The Cases of Ghana and Senegal.” In “Syncretism in Religion: A Reader,” edited by Anita Maria Leopold and Jeppe Sinding Jensen, Routledge, 2004.
  • Landes, David S. “Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Times.” Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Masuzawa, Tomoko. “The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism.” University of Chicago Press, 2005



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