Kodo Nishimura: Monk In Heels (*Note: Nishimura claims the title gender gifted and uses he/him pronouns.[i]) Styling fabulous makeup and heels, Kodo Nishimura quickly became one of Japan’s best-known new voices for LGBTQ+ acceptance. As a Buddhist monk and celebrity featured on Queer Eye: Japan, as well as being a lead makeup artist for Miss Universe, Nishimura built a platform to spread his message of sparkling equality and self-love. Equal parts humble and exquisite, the activist religious leader steps beyond traditional gender and encourages people to “look inward with clear compassion and love ourselves-- warts and all.”[ii] This is the message of Nishimura’s new book, first published in Japanese in 2020 and in English in 2022, This Monk Wears Heels. To get here, it took Nishimura moving past a strict set of cultural expectations (in youth), blossoming into a sense of deep self-acceptance and liberation (in young adulthood).
Born in a 520-year-old Buddhist temple to two monks in 1989, everyone expected Kodo Nishimura to one day become a monk himself. Yet, the luke-warm cultural climate toward LGBTQ+ people in Japan proved a psychological barrier for the first 24 years of Nishimura’s life. He didn’t want to be a monk, nor did he think he could.[iii] “When I was 3 years young,” he said, “I knew that I was not 100% male.”[iv] Growing up, he struggled with his sense of identity, beauty, and religious expectations. “People are often shackled with expectations,”[v] he said.
Expressing as both male and female as a young person, Nishimura connected with Disney princesses. Disney movies are big deal in Japan; thus, a smart activist, sharing this as part of his childhood lends him cultural credibility. He said, “The moment I had consciousness, I was drawn to — and was crazy about — Sailor Moon, Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Jasmine from ‘Aladdin.’ While I invited my guy friends to play Pokemon or wrestle, I also loved princess roleplaying with my female friends, tying my mother's furoshiki — the cloth used to wrap kimonos — around my head to mimic long, flowing hair.”[vi]
Yet, pressured to conform, he felt out of place in his own culture. In High School, people thought being LGBTQ+ was shameful. Eventually, Nishimura watched the movie The Princess Diaries which inspired him to visit the US, and eventually study abroad at Parsons School of Design in New York City. When he came to America, he admired the drag queens he met. He also felt more comfortable buying makeup. “It was a stark contrast to Tokyo,” he said, “where a clerk lady at a cosmetic counter asked me if I was looking for a gift for my mother or my girlfriend. In America, I started buying my own makeup, and was hooked.”[vii] At this point in his life, Nishimura began to fully accept and embrace a dual gender identity and calls himself gender gifted. He said, “I consider myself gender gifted because I think I’m both male and female. Although my body is male, I feel that soul doesn’t have a gender.”[viii] In true Buddhist form, he refers to his body as a “container.”[ix]
He found employment with NY Fashion Week and Miss Universe. Eventually, however, he felt drawn back home and to a life of deep faith. After reconciling with his own religious struggles and coming to a sense of self-love and acceptance, Nishimura decided to become a Buddhist monk to further his mission of sharing the self-love and acceptance he learned. He said, “Monks are respected in Japan, so I thought, ‘if I were to be a religious leader and talk about LGBTQ people being equally welcome and accepted, then wouldn't I change something?’”[x] As a young person, Nishimura saw women and queer people from different religious backgrounds “being silenced and taken advantage of. I wanted for everyone to feel like they’re powerful, and to have equal rights. I wanted to wake people up.”[xi]
This new spiritual activist life-vision led Nishimura to Pure Land School, a more conservative sect of Buddhism, and he eventually made headlines becoming its first transgender monk. Nishimura’s sect is one of the largest and most influential in Japan. The Jodo Shinshu Pure Land school of Buddhism believes that faith in the Buddha Amitabha (celestial Buddha) leads to freedom from suffering and the re-incarnation cycle. Rebirth in the Pure Land (a paradise much like heaven) is gained by reciting gratitude for Buddha’s compassion and Buddha’s vows to help all reach enlightenment.[xii] Though he questioned and struggled with it as a younger person, Nishimura now embraced his childhood faith as his own. “Training was hard,” he said. “I woke up at 5:30 every morning to clean the temple. The water was ice cold, and my hands would get red and itchy. There were hours and hours of classes, exams, prayers, and I would watch the second hand on the clock ticking . . . But my friends supported me, teaching me rituals and helping me learn the history. In return, I shaped their eyebrows after showertime.”[xiii]
Eventually, he brought up the taboo topic, asked his master, and said, “Is it okay that I’m a homosexual? Can I still be welcomed in the Buddhist community? And my master said, in Buddhism, everybody can be equally liberated. Race, sexuality, disability, it doesn’t matter at all.”[xiv] Expressing the desire to share this amazing liberation, Nishimura said, “This is something that I would really love to introduce to the world, because I see people are not as welcomed or respected because of who they are.”[xv] Nishimura said, “Buddhism is accepting, and it doesn’t deny anybody based on their sexuality or color or ethnicity or sex or disability.”[xvi]
This desire to share Buddhist acceptance led Nishimura to an activist adventure spanning continents. He said, “So my mission now is to inspire leaders of the world to lift the laws and regulations against LGBTQ+ people and also women so that everybody can be equally respected . . . I am both religious and a trendy person so I can be a bridge.”[xvii] Interpreting the Infinite Life Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, he says, “Sublime virtue requires sublime appearance.”[xviii] Nishimura views his way of being, as a fully fashionably fabulous-- and not minimalistic-- activist monk, as a dharma gate-- a metaphor for a gateway that gives access to Buddha’s ways and teachings. “I feel that when people are surprised that I am a Buddhist monk who wears make-up and heels, first of all I think they question, can they wear make-up or heels? [It contrasts] Buddhism and make-up, [as] make-up can be very vain and Buddhism . . . very simplistic and minimalistic. But I feel that these are also stereotypical prejudices that people have, because make-up is merely paint—colors-- and it’s not really vain or pretentious or trying to be perfect, or obsession. It’s just colors.”[xix] Notably, Nishimura is also respected as an extremely capable artist, with gorgeous examples of make-up art on his website-- along with beautiful (and handsome) modeling pictures.[xx] Buddhist and activist to the core, a tagline on the website reads, “I am an artist who liberates people. The change in your heart is my art.”[xxi]
His view of Buddhism is both simple to understand and deep: “There are little precepts that we hear and learn,” he said. “But what I realized is that it’s just a series of life lessons. This is how the Universe works, this is how human beings feel and how we suffer, and how we can kind-of tame these struggles.”[xxii]
photo: kodonishimura.comAs Nishimura widely shared the wisdom of self-love, the fabulousness flowed as he claimed recognition on magazine covers, and in a special issue of Time Magazine. Time named Kodo Nishimura a Next Generation Leader in 2021.[xxiii] One way Nishimura represents strong leadership, is in his capacity and freedom to express openness and vulnerability-- a key trait of younger generations.[xxiv] “I want everybody to feel like they are worthy, and they are strong enough, and worthy enough to speak up and, you know, ask for their rights; so, therefore I’m kind of bold and kind of rebellious,”[xxv] he said. “I feel that, you know, we can choose to live in different forms, and, you know, we don’t have to stick to one gender or sex; and that’s a grand realization.”[xxvi] Nishimura puts himself out there, sharing openly struggles with beauty & identity, and then blossoming into a more aware being. Nishimura writes in his book, “each [lotus] flower shines with its own color.”[xxvii] His journey reflects adversity with self-image and then transformation, coming out a blooming lotus-- an enlightened being represented by beautiful emergence. “Whenever people are struggling to be themselves, trying to find the courage to express who they are authentically, I want to be a role model and I want to also change the society where people expect other people to be a certain way,”[xxviii] said Nishimura. “Everybody should have confidence in their existence,”[xxix].
Confident in his own existence, Nishimura is reaching the world so others can experience this liberation, too. So far, at a young age, this illustrious and humble leader has spoken at the United Nations Populations Fund, Yale University, and Stanford-- which got the attention of CNN and the BCC. Nishimura created a successful makeup artist career, studied and became a monk, and shares a beautiful modeling profile. He stands for equality and justice, travels throughout Japan as a leader in Pride events, wrote a book, and ended up on Queer Eye: Japan.[xxx] He began life with inner and outer struggle, not finding self-acceptance within or from others; but, over time and with travel, he found deeper clarity. This self-acceptance, so important to Nishimura, led him to become part of one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan, expressing faith and devotion as its celebrated first transgender monk. In this, he expresses himself in the world as a role model to follow. This is the picture of a leader, and this is surely what’s to come.
The monk’s favorite movie is . . . The Devil Wears Prada.[xxxi]
(This biographical statement was a paper written by David M. Coleman for a Queer and Trans Theologies class at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Photo credits: kodonishimura.com)
[i] Bidaux, Markus. "Meet Kodo Nishimura: The Man, the Monk and the Make-Up Artist." Attitude, February 10, 2021. Accessed March 1, 2023. https://www.attitude.co.uk/uncategorised/meet-kodo-nishimura-the-man-the-monk-and-the-make-up-artist-404162/.
[ii] Leow, Florentyna. "‘This Monk Wears Heels’ is a thing of beauty." The Japan Times, May 15, 2022. Accessed on February 28, 2023. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2022/05/15/books/book-reviews/this-monk-wears-heel/.
[iii] Chen, Aria. "Kodo Nishimura Is One of TIME's Next Generation Leaders." Time, October 13, 2021. Accessed February 28, 2023. https://time.com/6103204/kodo-nishimura-next-generation-leaders/.
[iv] "Lion's Roar Podcast: The Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh and 'This Monk Wears Heels' with Kodo Nishimura." Lion's Roar. Podcast audio, 25:00. May 11, 2022. Accessed February 28, 2023. https://www.lionsroar.com/the-lions-roar-podcast-the-passing-of-thich-nhat-hanh-and-this-monk-wears-heels-with-kodo-nishimura/.
[v] "Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh" (LR Podcast), Lion's Roar, May 11, 2022.
[vi] Han, Yoonji. "Insider: I'm a Buddhist monk and a makeup artist. Here's how both my religion and makeup helped me discover myself." Insider, July 15, 2022, 11:23 AM. Accessed February 28, 2023. https://www.insider.com/kodo-nishimura-buddhist-monk-makeup-artist-lgbtq-advocate-2022-7.
[viii] "Using makeup, being a Buddhist monk talking about equality, they are both coming from the same spirit." Time Magazine Video, accessed February 28, 2023, https://time.com/6103204/kodo-nishimura-next-generation-leaders/.
[ix] "Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh" (LR Podcast), Lion's Roar, May 11, 2022.
[x] Han, "I'm a Buddhist Monk," Insider, Jul 15, 2022.
[xii] "Japanese Pure Land Buddhism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, Stanford University, 2021. Accessed March 1, 2023. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-pure-land/.
[xiii] Han, "I'm a Buddhist Monk," Insider, Jul 15, 2022.
[xiv] "Using makeup, being a Buddhist monk talking about equality, they are both coming from the same spirit." Time Magazine Video, accessed Feb 28, 2023.
[xvi] Chen, Aria. "Kodo Nishimura Is One of TIME's Next Generation Leaders," Time, October 13, 2021, accessed February 28, 2023, https://time.com/6103204/kodo-nishimura-next-generation-leaders/.
[xvii] "Using Makeup, Being a Buddhist Monk Talking About Equality, They Are Both Coming From the Same Spirit," Time Magazine Video, accessed February 28, 2023.
[xviii] Leow, Florentyna. "‘This Monk Wears Heels’ is a thing of beauty." The Japan Times, May 15, 2022, accessed Feb 28, 2023.
[xix] "Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh" (LR Podcast), Lion's Roar, May 11, 2022.
[xx] Kodo Nishimura. Accessed March 1, 2023. https://www.kodonishimura.com/.
[xxii] "Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh" (LR Podcast), Lion's Roar, May 11, 2022.
[xxiii] Chen, Aria. "Kodo Nishimura Is One of TIME's Next Generation Leaders," Time, October 13, 2021, accessed February 28, 2023, https://time.com/6103204/kodo-nishimura-next-generation-leaders/.
[xxiv] Leavitt, Keith, and Emily M. Wolf. "The Openness and Vulnerability of Generation Z: Implications for Leaders in a Digital World." Journal of Leadership Studies 13, no. 4 (2019): 62-70. Araújo, Ana, and Nuno Pereira. "Millennial Generation: Vulnerability and Openness." International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Research 7, no. 1 (2017): 60-67.
[xxv] "Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh" (LR Podcast), Lion's Roar, May 11, 2022.
[xxvii] Leow, Florentyna. "‘This Monk Wears Heels’ is a thing of beauty." The Japan Times, May 15, 2022, accessed Feb 28, 2023.
[xxviii] "Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh" (LR Podcast), Lion's Roar, May 11, 2022.
[xxix] Chen, Aria. "Kodo Nishimura Is One of TIME's Next Generation Leaders," Time, October 13, 2021, accessed February 28, 2023, https://time.com/6103204/kodo-nishimura-next-generation-leaders/.
[xxxi] "Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh" (LR Podcast), Lion's Roar, May 11, 2022.
Biography Date: March 2023