As a cutting-edge makeup artist who is active both in the United States and Japan, Kodo Nishimura has worked with a wide range of clients, including the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, but his skills are not limited to makeup artistry alone. He is also a Buddhist monk, a supporter for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, and an organizer of pro-LGBTQ programs, including “LGBTQ-friendly makeup workshops.” I had the opportunity to talk to Nishimura about what motivated him to pursue such a diverse range of activities after studying in the United States.
First encounter with America
Nishimura first became interested in the United States when he was a junior high school student. The movie “The Princess Diaries,” starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews, left a strong impression on him because it showed how an awkward teenager was able to transform herself into a dignified lady capable of articulating her own opinions.
Nishimura thought that being in the U.S. would allow him to be who he was and be accepted for his uniqueness. Back then, he was an introverted teenager who was unable to say what was on his mind. He was also struggling with his gender identity. He felt stifled and dreamed of going to a place where he could express himself freely. In addition, he was very interested in American music and fashion and wanted to experience them firsthand.
Studying art at Parsons
Nishimura began his liberal arts education at a private junior college in Boston. After that he transferred to Parsons School of Design in New York to study fine arts. At Parsons, students choose what subjects they want to study from a broad range of electives such as painting, sculpture, and video. The focus is on developing the ability to contextually express oneself through art rather than simply learning how to make visually pleasing art pieces. This stance has been the foundation of Nishimura’s career as a makeup artist. He always thinks about the meaning behind his work and what message he wants to convey rather than simply trying to make his clients look beautiful.
Learning to appreciate differences
When Nishimura first went to the United States, he was unable to be confident in his own skin. Comparing himself with brawny guys and angelic-looking girls with blonde hair and blue eyes, he had an inferiority complex about his physical appearance. He was unable to view his Japanese identity in a positive light.
When Riyo Mori was crowned Miss Universe in May 2007, Nishimura recalls being blown away by how exquisite she appeared. He was especially impressed with how her makeup accentuated the unique beauty of her Japanese features, such as her dark, elongated eyes. She stood alongside beauties with unique attributes from around the world, some resembling perfect Barbies, and proved to the world that she was the most beautiful of them all both inside and out. That gave Nishimura new inspiration. Although he had already started doing makeup work on his own, he decided at that point that he wanted to become an apprentice to Mori’s makeup artist. His formal training began when Mori’s makeup artist recognized his passion and hired him as an assistant.
Helping people express themselves through makeup
After learning about the importance of “creating art that has meaning” at Parsons, Nishimura began to feel that he wanted to use his skills to help LGBTQ individuals thrive. As a member of the LGBTQ community himself, he began using makeup as a way to help them feel more comfortable in their own skin. Particularly in Japan, he has been organizing “LGBTQ-friendly makeup workshops” where he offers his expertise for free as there is limited information on makeup for gender-diverse people in the country.
When he was growing up, he had difficulty comprehending and expressing his sexual identity and did not talk about it with his family or friends, but his experiences overseas have influenced him to be more accepting of his identity. He encountered people who embrace themselves for who they are, and witnessed huge crowds of LGBTQ individuals and those who support them participating in parades. Nishimura believes that all human beings are beautiful in ways that are not defined by gender.
The conventional view is that men should be brave, while women should be graceful and sensitive. Nishimura questions this stereotype by striving to bring out the unique beauty of each person using makeup without being influenced by gender. This is what impressed me the most when I first saw his work. The scale of his style is different from the soft femininity that Japanese fashion magazines tend to emphasize based on the assumption that this is what heterosexual men favor. Nishimura’s work seems beautiful in a striking and whimsical way that is almost androgynous.
His ideas about makeup are closely linked with how he perceives LGBTQ understanding. Nishimura feels that what is important is not to categorize people as “gay” or “lesbian,” but to respect how they perceive themselves. He had initially thought of himself as gay, but after meeting various people, he came to discover that he is uniquely “gender-gifted” with both male and female elements. He feels that categorization is like putting labels on people and inhibits them from developing feelings that go beyond a certain category.
In December 2015, Nishimura completed his apprenticeship as a Buddhist monk. His parents are monks, and he decided to learn what it is to become a monk. When I asked him if there are any similarities between makeup artists and monks, he said, “If we aren’t happy ourselves, we can’t make other people happy.”
It certainly wasn’t easy for him to make up his mind to pursue both of these careers at the same time. Monks are advised to live simple lives without lavishness such as jewelry and makeup. He knew that the two occupations were antithetical to each other. He wasn't sure if he could proceed with his career as a monk openly, especially because he could draw public attention as an androgynous makeup artist and that might offend other monks. However, his mentor advised him that projecting who he really is could help him deliver his message as a monk. This advice gave him the confidence to accept himself as a monk.
“I want all individuals to be able to show their true colors in order to make the world a beautiful kaleidoscope,” he says. As a makeup artist, a monk, and a Japanese citizen, he never stops moving forward.
Focusing on individuality
As I spoke to Nishimura, I began to realize that what makes him special as a makeup artist is not only his ability to make people look fashionable and beautiful, but also his sense of purpose in trying to make people happy and focusing on what makes each person unique. His makeup style is different from the conventional technique that emphasizes femininity or masculinity. Instead, he strives to bring out his clients’ individuality.
“Instead of categorizing, we should focus on and cherish the individual person,” said Nishimura. I think this statement could serve as a guideline for society to improve understanding of the LGBTQ community. His message was a strong reminder to me that to fully understand diversity, it is more important to respect people for who they truly are than to try to pigeonhole them into different categories.
Behind Nishimura’s seemingly conflicting roles as a makeup artist and a Buddhist monk is his quest to make people happy by helping them be true to themselves. His virtue lies in his ability to blend his different identities together and bring his own unique flair to everything he does.
Message on studying abroad
“Studying abroad changed my life immensely. Prior to my experiences in the United States, I felt that I was limited only to Japanese ways and values. Now I feel like I can see the world as a whole. Studying abroad was the crucial experience for me to gain knowledge and to understand and respect different values. I came to be confident about my uniqueness and ability. Realizing the diversity and the colors of the world is the key to discovering who you really are, making you happier than you could have ever imagined.”