Buddhist monk and makeup artist Kodo Nishimura is full of surprises. Some days you’ll find him wearing traditional monk robes and sandals. Other times, he’ll be in glamorous makeup, dressed to the nines and sporting outrageously high heels.
An LGBTQ+ activist who describes himself as gender-gifted, Nishimura is remarkably candid about sexuality and discrimination. Friendly yet upfront, he speaks with ease in English about gender identity, self confidence, notions of beauty and the Buddhist tenet of equality.
“It sounds a little weird, but sometimes speaking in Japanese makes me feel a little too exposed. I feel like every word choice I make may be scrutinized because its usage can insinuate more than what is being said,” he says. “In English … I feel it’s a language that is simpler to use to express myself.”
The son of monks and raised at a temple in Tokyo, Nishimura remembers being a rebellious child. He was skeptical of Buddhism, preferred playing princess dress-up games and often kept to himself. His interest in English at high school stemmed from feeling unable to come out as homosexual in Japan, and being inspired by the songs of his favorite musicians — including Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson — to move to the U.S.
“They sang about discrimination and using your voice to stay strong against adversity,” he explains. “Their lyrics really resonated with me because I felt that, as a homosexual, I was being neglected in Japan. I thought that in the U.S., maybe I wouldn’t need to hide my true identity and I could be appreciated as my authentic self.”
After graduating from high school, Nishimura attended Dean College in Massachusetts before heading to New York to study fine arts at Parsons, a college renowned for its arts and design education. Surrounded by diversity, he met openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and teachers. His peers dyed their hair, had piercings and wore avant-garde clothing. One professor even taught classes while wearing S&M suspenders with a button-up shirt.
“I thought, ‘Wow! This is a place to show yourself off,’” he says. “And that’s when I began to feel comfortable wearing makeup and high heels in public.”
When Nishimura saw that a Japanese woman, Riyo Mori, won Miss Universe in 2007, he became fascinated by the way makeup could accentuate Asian features. He sought out Mori’s makeup artist in New York and began assisting her outside of school — a job that he kept for five years and describes as “a dream come true.”
Out as homosexual and on the rise in the U.S. as a makeup artist, Nishimura then made a surprising move. He went back to Japan and began the arduous training to become a Buddhist monk.
“I never intended to become a monk,” he says with a laugh. “But living in the U.S. made me realize that Buddhism was a part of my identity that I had been avoiding. Judging it without clarifying why I had questions and doubts just seemed prejudiced, so I joined the monk training.”
Ordained in 2015, Nishimura now uses English to help introduce Pure Land Buddhism to non-Japanese, reminding them that as a religion, it has historically advocated equality and can be relevant to all members of society, including the LGBTQ+ community. In February next year, his book This Monk Wears Heels — a celebration of diversity that follows his personal journey and its relationship to Buddhism — will be published in English.
“The book was originally written in Japanese, but for this version, I wrote additional text in English,” he says. “I write like I’m writing an email to my best friend, and it includes anecdotes and humor that only really work in English.”
As a makeup artist, he still travels to work with beauty queens and celebrities, and holds LGBTQ+-friendly makeup classes in Japan. Being gender-gifted, being a makeup artist and being a monk — these are all roles that can and do intersect, Nishimura says.
“If someone doesn’t know how to express themselves, I can teach them how to use makeup to do that. If they are unsure about their existence or their self-worth, I can talk to them about Buddhist teachings and help them realize that we are all valuable and equal,” he says. “What I do comes from the same spirit, I am just using different tools.”
Words to live by
西村 宏堂 （にしむら こうどう）
1989年東京生まれ。米パーソンズ美術大学卒。日本語、英語、スペイン語を操るメークアップアーティスト、僧侶、LGBTQ活動家。ミス･ユニバース世界大会などでメークを手掛け、NY国連本部、イェール大学などで講演。Netflixの番組「Queer Eye」にも出演。著書に『正々堂々 私が好きな私で生きていいんだ』（サンマーク出版）。来年には This Monk Wears Heelsを出版予定。