THE MONK WHO TURNED TO MAKE-UP, AND NOW BALANCES BOTH WITH EQUAL FINESSE. KODO NISHIMURA’S CAP HAS NUMEROUS FEATHERS, THAT NOT ONLY MAKE HIM FAMOUS WORLDWIDE BUT ALSO AN INSPIRATION TO MANY WHO LOOK UP TO HIM.
Images sourced from the artist.
[Q] How were your growing up years in a temple like?
I grew up in a temple; so when my friends would come over to play at my house, they would be amazed by its size and the fact that it is a temple. Also, there is a graveyard next to the temple, so my friends often asked me if I saw any ghosts. (I never did!)
During the weekends, there were ceremonies held by my father who is a Buddhist priest. At one time I went to the ceremony hall where the Buddha statue is located, and I saw a corpse; it was shocking. There was going to be a funeral later that day. Jokes aside, although I was raised in a temple, my parents never forced me to be religious or faithful. I did nothing religious. They always told me to be whoever I wanted to be. They never forced me to become a monk either. They even said that they could relocate themselves to an apartment if I did not want to inherit the temple in the future.
[Q] From studying Ikebana to graduating from Parsons School of Design, how was the journey like?
I have always liked expressing myself artistically. I used to play dress-up, draw illustrations of Disney Princesses, and perform improvised musicals for my mother. Later, I started learning Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) and my master would tell my mother that “Kodo would become a great artist one day.” My mother told me about this though. He was a great teacher/ artist, and I deeply respected him. So, his words encouraged me to decide to study art in New York later. I studied Fine Arts at the Parsons School of Design.
[Q] How old were you when you realized that you wanted to make it big in the beauty industry? Was it always your dream to become a makeup artist?
I started to have a serious interest in the beauty industry at the age of 21 when I started assisting a make-up artist in New York. Until then, I thought a male person could never be related to makeup. That is the mindset that I had during my growing up days while living in Japan. For example, when I visited a cosmetic counter in Tokyo, the clerk lady would ask me “Are you looking for a gift for your mother or your girlfriend?”, and I could not say that it was for ME! It was very isolating to be unwelcomed to enjoy makeup.
Feeling limited to freely be myself in Japan, I decided to study abroad in Boston after graduating from high school. I wanted to express myself and be accepted for who I was. I spent two years studying Liberal Studies in Boston and moved to New York to study Fine Arts. In the U.S., I saw men wearing full makeup at cosmetic counters and parties, so I felt that “If they can do it, I should be able to do it too. Now that I am in the U.S., people wouldn’t raise eyebrows like they would in Japan.” Later, I started to assist a makeup artist in New York. I assisted her for five years there and became independent thereafter. Now that I am seen in The Peacock Magazine, I would like to advocate that makeup is for everybody. Makeup merely consists of pigment, oil, and water. We should not be biased about who should be able to wear it. I hope that all people can feel welcomed to utilize makeup.
[Q] What attracted you to this industry?
When I moved to Boston, I was surrounded by American students. I started to feel inferior about my ethnicity when comparing myself with others. I had narrower eyes and a smaller frame with shorter legs. I felt that Japanese people could never feel more beautiful than others. I blamed my inferiority on my ethnicity. However, there was big news that Miss Universe Japan won the Miss Universe title in 2007. The winner Riyo Mori gave me hope that ethnicity could not be an excuse to feel inferior to others. With her victory she proved that knowing how to express oneself is the key to attract people. She also rocked mysterious smokey eye makeup to accentuate her Asian eyes. That is why I started to have an interest in finally trying makeup on myself. So, that’s when I went to a drugstore and bought two items; Covergirl eyeliner and mascara. I started playing with them. It was eye-opening and mind-blowing.I felt that I could be whoever I wanted to be. Later, I had an opportunity to do makeup for my friend in Boston. My friend was going through some personal problems, so to encourage her, I decided to do her makeup one day. She looked so much prettier with the eyeliner and mascara. Watching her transformation was so surprising and touching. She not only shined on the outside but from within. She saw herself in the mirror and realized that she could look very pretty with makeup. What was interesting is that even when the makeup was washed away, her confidence was still there afterward. That is when I decided to learn makeup so that I could encourage many people who might feel inferior or neglected. I wanted to learn how to do makeup so that I could make people look and feel like a Miss Universe!
[Q] What’s your definition of beauty?
Beauty is something that moves my heart. I think beauty exists even within sadness or anger. I find beauty walking in nature with a sentiment of loneliness. I think it is beautiful to fight against injustice with anger. There is a saying in Buddhism, “The moon is beautiful, the flower is beautiful, but the heart itself that can find beauty in these is beautiful.”
[Q] Tell us about your life-changing experience that led you to become a Buddhist monk while still being a celebrated makeup expert.
Since young, I was always skeptical of Buddhism. Why do we have to believe? How can we be enlightened? What is it to become a Buddhist Monk? Although I was unwilling to study Buddhism–I had an option to inherit the temple or not–but I wanted to make sure that it is something that I definitely don’t want to do before saying a ‘no’. Partial knowledge can lead to prejudice; so I decided to become a monk myself. That is one of the big reasons why I joined the monk training.
The training was extremely challenging, however, what I learned is that Buddhism can be a hope for many people. The best learning was that Buddhism is supportive of diverse people no matter the differences. I learned that as long as you are faithful, you can always be saved by Buddha. We can be saved equally.
Now it is my mission to tell the world that we should not be intimidated by power, status, race, gender, etc… We all deserve to be happy and we should all feel valuable. To me, makeup is a tool to let people experience that we are not limited to just one awareness of who we are. Makeup gives us hope to live limitlessly.
[Q] How do you practise being a monk along with your life as a makeup artist?
Every day my schedule is different, just like a freelancer. Some days I talk about Buddhism at temples. Some days I teach makeup; and some days I work backstage at Miss Universe. I might be doing different activities, but I do these with the same intention — to empower the smaller voices, and let them know that we are all equally worthy and beautiful.
[Q] Does being a monk help during stressful situations such as fashion shoots or fashion events?
Yes, I think my stress management came from my monk training. The training was unimaginably tough for me. I thought I would never be able to complete it, but I was able to complete the whole session with the support of my peers. I gained confidence that my imagination of how much I could achieve is not equal to what I can actually achieve. So, whenever I feel that a situation is intimidating, I tell myself that I can do it again!
[Q] You also advocate LGBTQ+ rights. How do you champion the cause?
By making it fun! In Japan, LGBTQ+ people can be seen as victims of discrimination. It is true to a certain extent, but how exciting is that to people who are newly learning about LGBTQ+ rights? Instead, I want to raise awareness about the LGBTQ+ community using positive and fun elements. I enjoy watching TV programs on Netflix, such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “POSE” and I talk about these series to others. I think these fun media can enjoyably convey the LGBTQ+ culture. If you have fun, you can learn anything without stress. Makeup and fashion are my weapons to promote equality and mutual respect. I also host LGBTQ-friendly makeup seminars where I invite people of all gender to learn makeup skills. There I talk about special makeup techniques for women who are born with male bodies, thus people can learn about the situations of others in the process of learning makeup.
[Q] Debunk the biggest myth you’ve heard about yourself.
People often ask me if I eat meat and drink alcohol. (I eat meat but I don’t drink alcohol, just because I don’t like its taste and the buzz feeling. Other Japanese monks do drink alcohol, though.)
What is not known about Japanese Buddist monks is that we are allowed to get married, eat meat, and have different jobs. At one point in Japanese history in the Meiji period, Buddhism was excluded by the government to protect Shinto (Japanese animist religion). During that time monks were told that they could get married and eat meat, and they still do today. Each religion develops and evolves in its own way to best suit its community. We cannot compare which is better or worse, because religion was originally made to help people.
[Q] What do you love most about what you do?
I consider myself an artist, so I love the process of getting better with my expressive techniques. Practicing makeup and discovering a new trick, being able to blend eyeshadow better, finding the best way to move the brushes, all these learnings are blissful discoveries to me.
Aside from that, I love it when I receive a message from supporters. One time a mother who has a son, who loves Disney Princesses (just like me) sent me a message. She said she used to be concerned about her son’s sexuality, but discovering me was so liberating because I was just like her son! I felt value in me that I was able to encourage somebody who struggled just as my mother did with my sexuality. I want to be a role model to let people know that LGBTQ+ people are nothing wrong. We all can thrive happily.
[Q] Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
The biggest influence in my life would be my monk master who told me that it is okay to dress up, as long as I can spread the Buddhist teaching of equality to others. He said the most important role of a Buddhist monk is to let people know that we can be equally saved regardless of any differences, and not for us to blindly follow the old precepts that do not apply today. It was liberation! I was freed to use my power to help people. I started focusing on the original reason why Buddhism exists and how I can utilize the teachings to guide people today.
[Q] You’re coming up with your autobiography. Could you tell us more about it?
I am publishing a book in English in early next year from Watkins Media in the UK. The book is going to talk about “living your true-self, confidently.” In it, I share stories of how I gained confidence in myself regardless of my sexuality, and how I learned to love myself with the help of makeup and Buddhism. I share my personal stories from childhood, my takeaways from the monk training, and experiences from working at Miss Universe pageants. I also share fun tips to evolve fashion styles, makeup, and “magical makeup” activities to achieve your goals.
[Q] How excited are you about 2021? What have you lined up for the year?
Unfortunately, we are fighting with the COVID-19 situation, yet I see this year as the beginning of an awakened era. People are more aware of various issues such as discrimination and sustainability. Personally, I have been given an opportunity to publish my book and I am happy to deliver my message to the world. Many exciting things are happening in my life. Recently, I have modeled for a fashion show of Kansai Yamamoto during Shibuya Fashion Week. I will also be speaking at events hosted by the United Nations Population Fund in Japan, so I am extremely humbled to experience these prestigious events.
[Q] What are your future plans?
I would like to star in a Netflix show. I am eager to travel globally, doing makeup, and keep learning about the world with the viewers. Learning different values and talking to different people will give us a deeper understanding of the world, so what I want to do at these places is to ask people personal questions about their backgrounds, values, and faiths, and makeup can be a fun icebreaker. Although we see a lot of conflicts in the world today, if we learn why people think in a certain way, we would be able to feel somewhat empathetic and resolved. As Michelle Obama said, “It’s hard to hate up-close.” I would like to approach people up-close, doing makeup and connecting the world.