The Japanese Buddhist monk and make-up artist Kodo Nishimura blends spirituality with fashion
Photographs by JUNE CANEDO
Styling by TESS HERBERT
Hair by SEAN BENNETT
Words by CONOR MCBRIDE
Make-up by KODO
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES — Kodo Nishimura, a Japanese Buddhist monk, looked out of place on an industrial Brooklyn backstreet. He was wearing his “visiting robes” (kairyo fuku). Immaculately dressed, and having wiped away the make-up from previous looks, Kodo looked magnificently monastic. The photography team were racing to get the last shot before the light faded. With robes wrapped tightly around him and wearing clunky woven sandals (setta), Kodo struggled to keep up. He explained how, while training to become a monk in Japan, he had to learn how to walk in sync with the other monks. The practice, called ikken roku tampo, requires monks to lay their tatami mats next to each other and slowly walk toe to heel, back and forth, for hours on end. This diligent practice seemed a world away as Kodo, decked in his pristine robes, ran to cross a dirty Metropolitan Avenue.
Kodo is no stranger to photoshoots, or New York. He spent most of his twenties working professionally as a make-up artist in the city. Recently, however, Kodo returned home to become a monk. Spirituality and fashion don’t usually go together, but Kodo serves monastic realness with ease. Softly-spoken but direct, slight but commanding, tonsured and fabulous, he is an unassuming bridge between these alternate universes.
Kodo grew up in a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in the centre of Tokyo. His parents often hosted ceremonies and events, but Kodo shied away from the public attention, hiding in the corners of the temple to avoid interacting with the devotees. After the guests had left he would reclaim the space and do gymnastics in the vast, empty hall. His father, who inherited the temple from his parents, is a Mahayana Buddhist monk and a scholar. (Buddhism in Japan is more liberal than in other parts of Asia, so monks can also have lay careers.) As an only child, Kodo was in line to take over the temple but when he became an adult, his father assured him: “You do what you want to do.”
Ikebana is an ancient Japanese form of flower arranging that Kodo learnt from the age of eight in a nearby temple. It is a disciplined creative expression where beauty is crafted from colour combinations and graceful lines. “That’s where I built my foundation and visual eye. You find beauty in the flow and the balance.” His teacher encouraged his artistic talents and he later moved to the US, where he studied at Dean College, Massachusetts, and then at the Parsons School of Design, in New York. Although he was drawn to the diversity in the US, Kodo found the reality of living there quite startling. Ten years later, he says: “It still is a culture shock.” But this new world had its advantages. “Self expression, creativity, diversity — I really respect that about America. It really helped me to know who I am.”
As a child, Kodo loved to play with dolls and dress up in costumes. His mother was a fan of Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music, and Kodo would get lost in the fantasy world of musicals. He would craft a tail out of some loose garbage, sculpt it around his legs and pretend to be Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Or he would steal some of his mother’s wrapping fabric, tie it around his head and, twirling around the temple, imagine that he was Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
As a teenager in conservative Japan, Kodo was unsure how to deal with his sexuality. “I think I was the one to blame for feeling lonely and isolated. I was unaware that being gay was OK. I was afraid to tell people.” Travelling in Europe and attending university in the US helped Kodo realise his true self. He found encouragement from friends and later colleagues, such as his mentor Yuko Takahashi, another Japanese make-up artist, who told him: “You only live once. Do what you want.”
Kodo also looked up to out celebrities like Marc Jacobs and RuPaul: “They identify as gay and are thriving in their industry, so why do I have to be ashamed or hide who I am?” This network of support helped Kodo come out to his parents, who were supportive; encouraging him to only be himself. “Now I’m out and people treat me the same, or even better, because I’m open and can be myself. Before I was scared to expose myself because I was afraid that people could figure out I liked men from how I act. So I was always hiding to disguise myself.”
Make-up is his weapon. When Kodo was younger he would sneak into his mom’s room and play with her collection. He recalls how one day, while studying in Boston, he picked up an eyeliner and mascara. “Being Japanese, I wanted to accentuate my eyes to make it one of my fortes. That’s where I started.” Kodo became his own muse. He would experiment with different techniques on himself and on his friends, always thinking make-up was merely a fun tool to feel more self-assured. At university, Kodo studied painting, performance and other arts subjects. After taking a fashion photo class, he realised that make-up could be his art form. His talent and drive helped him rise quickly in the industry after graduating. Today he travels the world working on adverts, TV shows and events, including Miss USA. Although Kodo doesn’t wear make-up every day any more, he still uses his face as an experimenting palette. “I don’t go out in drag. It’s just a make-up skill. It’s for fun.” His Instagram account (@kodomakeup) shows a selection of fierce looks applied to himself or friends: an accentuated Fu Manchu moustache, anime eyes or a geisha face.
In the first few years of university, Kodo never went outside without make-up. He felt vulnerable without it. Make-up was the crutch that helped him to expose his new self to the world. But then one day he stopped. “One time I needed make-up. Now I don’t care.” He realised that the power of make-up remains after it washes off. “People don’t need make-up to feel beautiful. Even if I’m not wearing make-up I can remain confident. It’s like a secret weapon that is eternal.”
As a make-up artist, Kodo enhances his subjects’ natural beauty. “Many people are very beautiful internally, but don’t know how to do the same externally. Some Japanese people use colour contacts, tape on the eye or tons of dolly lashes. It’s trying to be something they are not. They are aiming for western ideals. If it’s fake, it degrades the person. If it enhances elegance, that’s what I like.” Recently Kodo was featured in Out in Japan, a photo series to raise LGBTQ awareness. On the shoot, Kodo met a number of trans people from around the country, many of whom didn’t have confidence in their make-up skills. Kodo realised that his artistry could be an asset to people who were shaping their new identity, and now gives free make-up seminars for Japan’s transgender community.
After eight years in the US, he felt like he needed to reconnect with home. “I was living in a materialistic world in New York.” Kodo decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and study to become a monk. “I wanted to know the answer to the universal questions. Why do we have to be good and be nice to others? What is so fun about competing and being better than others?” The lifestyle change was drastic. Kodo went from the 24-hour, fast-paced world of Manhattan to the hushed walls of a temple in Kyoto. The training required him to remove himself from all distractions of the modern world, including smartphones, social media, television and even watches. In the temple, Kodo immersed himself in meditative Buddhist ceremonies where he chanted Buddha’s name repeatedly for hours on end. “First you’re thinking, ‘When is this going to end, I’m hungry, what should I do after?’ Then you think, ‘Why am I here, what’s going to make me happy?’” Kodo quotes RuPaul: “Emotions are like a river. Meditating helps you to be on top of that mountain and see how you’re feeling and balance it.”
Kodo never felt his identity aligned completely with that of a gay man. “People consider elegance, sensitivity or gentleness with femininity. Wildness, strength and leadership are some of the traits people associate with men. I think I have both of them. I thought I was gay, but I don’t know if I’m a woman inside.” One day, on a photoshoot, a colleague told Kodo about a third sex in Native American culture that is neither male nor female. The idea of a third gender, something greater and different from traditional gender definitions, struck a chord with Kodo. He felt a lightbulb go off. “In Native American tribes when there is a third sex it is considered good luck for the family. They are considered holy. I can feel what women feel and I live life as a man. It’s like living two lives at once. I feel like it’s a power.”
Kodo prioritises individual values over cultural ones. “Ethnicity or culture doesn’t matter. Our hearts are beating at the same time. In all societies everybody has a good virtue as long as they’re living honestly. I think it’s very hopeful that different sexualities and races are explained and respected.” Kodo doesn’t dwell on terminology when it comes to gender identity. “I identify myself as Kodo. I am gender-gifted.” This is an original and spiritual gender term that softly challenges cis norms. Kodo doesn’t have a preferred pronoun. “There are not enough words to define everybody. Straight, gay, lesbian… I don’t think it’s accurate every time. What’s more important is individual values.”
The process of becoming a monk changed Kodo. “One of the sins is to lie to yourself. If you’re not honest to your heart, that’s a bad thing. I was lying to myself. I started following what my heart would say. I started to correct things I was doing that I knew were wrong.” Kodo continues explaining his revelation in RuPaul-esque terms: “It’s hard to love yourself sometimes. But if you do small things to make yourself feel better, you will feel better. Even if no one’s watching, you are watching.” Eastern spirituality and Western gay culture don’t seem so distant after all — the duality in Kodo’s life is more like a marriage.
Kodo is headstrong, focused and rejoicing in discovering himself. “I like what I like. I don’t care about what other people say. I have my own opinions. I’m not shaken by others.” He has found an unlikely equilibrium between his two lives. “I am very content and happy. My goal is to stay healthy and happy. I know if I achieve bigger things I don’t want to be greedy. I want to refine my health and artistry. Happiness is the most important thing for me. It’s not about competing with other people, but about competing with yourself. That keeps me at peace.” Can I get an Amen up in here?