A monk by day and a makeup artist by night who’s made up Miss Universe and celebrities, Kodo Nishimura wants to break Japan’s silence on LGBT+ issues with the power of his makeup brushes and his religion.
“The first time I put on makeup, I was playing with my mum’s Chanel eyeshadow. I’d become a clown, but I didn’t want her to know I’d been playing with it, so I’d dab the surface flat again,” laughs 30-year-old Kodo Nishimura. An LGBT activist who has given a speech at United Nations Population Fund Headquarters, painted the faces of Miss Universe, and worked with the likes of pop stars and brands such as L’Oreal, he lives two lives: one as a well-known makeup artist and one as a Buddhist monk. “I’ve been through that stage when I’d felt worthless. As a monk and a makeup artist, I want to help LGBT+ people find it meaningful to be alive. They may be two different ways of helping people, but they both come from the same place – my heart,” he says. He talked Hive Life through his painful journey coming out in socially conservative Japan and explained how he plans to use his makeup skills to help gender minorities reconcile their identities in the country.
Photo Credit: Leslie Kee
Considering himself “gender-gifted,” Kodo grew up with a fluid view of gender. “My body is physically male, yet my mind is neither male or female. I can be both in many ways,” he wrote in his blog. However, as he grew older, his liberal views became his deepest fears. “I was afraid that if I shared my feelings, I’d be isolated,” he says of his life as a closeted teen living in a Buddhist monastery in Tokyo. “I couldn’t make any friends. I couldn’t trust anybody. I was worried that my parents would find out that I was interested in boys,” he remembers.
Kodo is not the only person to wrestle with and hide his gender identity in Japan. While the country has relatively liberal LGBT+ laws in comparison to many other Asian locales, being openly gay or transgender still remains largely taboo in a country where there’s a lack of systems or laws that provide protection against discrimination or harassment. “I was told I was a fag, a she-male, a hormonal corruption,” Kodo once wrote.
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In search of a safe space where he could be himself, he moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design when he was 18. It was an adventure that proved difficult. “When I went to the US, I felt inferior being an Asian and Japanese. I couldn’t find my beauty,” Kodo recalls. As a sensitive teenager in a foreign country, he sought solace in his childhood interest, and it was then his passion for beauty truly blossomed. “I’m interested in not only what’s on our skin, but what stays even after we shower. It’s the feeling of being someone else, being stronger. It’s the experience and the memory that stays in our brain. That’s the most magical part of makeup.”
After his graduation, Kodo forayed into the makeup industry in the US, but at 24, he returned to Japan to train as a Buddhist monk only to find himself caught in yet another struggle between his identity and his religion. “I didn’t want the impression of other monks being degraded because of me,” Kodo says of the conflict he felt at the time. It wasn’t until he sought guidance from his teacher that he realised he needn’t worry. “He said, ‘If being who you are and wearing makeup and jewels helps you deliver the message in Buddhism that everybody is equal, I don’t see that as a problem,’” Kodo recalls of what his Buddhist master told him.
Photo Credit: Yoko Miyazaki
Today, this life-changing remark still rings loud in his ears, inspiring him to open up about his life’s journey as a way of amplifying the conversation about LGBT+ rights and speeding up Japan’s slow march toward equality. And it’s a story that’s resonated far beyond his homeland, garnering headlines from Vogue, The New York Style Magazine, Cosmopolitan and more.
“When I was young, it was so hard for me to be ok with my sexuality, but now, almost every day, I read about LGBT rights in the newspaper. There are books and there are TV shows,” says Kodo. As he sees it, while Japan may be lagging behind other countries on these issues, it is slowly becoming more progressive as new generations come into play. “Some schools now allow the mix and match of uniforms, where girls can choose trousers and a tie. Some female-only universities have started to accept trans women,” he explains. “Time is only going to move forward. Our generation is learning so LGBT issues are only going to get better. It’s only going to open more doors.”
Photo Credit: to Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images
To spread his message, Kodo gives speeches – he recently gave one at Yale University – and holds makeup seminars every weekend for people of all sexual orientations. More than just typical classes, they serve as counselling sessions through which Kodo hopes to inspire people to accept who they are. “It might be hard to find people to understand you right now, but I think your sexuality exists for a good and meaningful reason. I hope you can hold on to this as your candle light, get to know yourself, and maybe someday you can help somebody else.”
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