Meet the Buddhist Monk Who's Breaking Gender Barriers with Makeup

Cover star | Courtesy of Kodo Nishimura
Cover star | Courtesy of Kodo Nishimura
Photo of Dave Afshar
17 March 2017

Inside the monastery, Tokyo native Kodo Nishimura lives a humble life as a traditional Buddhist monk. Outside, he spends his time traveling between Tokyo and New York working as a renowned makeup artist. Culture Trip went to learn more about Japan’s first and only Buddhist monk / makeup artist to the stars.

Kodo’s Instagram account is loaded with photos of him working beauty pageants, dressing in drag, and posing for photos with industry people and models as well as close personal friends. His passion and skill in cosmetics have garnered him a large following both in Japan and internationally. While the glamorous world of fashion and drag may seem to clash with that of the Buddhist monk, Nishimura has found ways to build meaningful connections between the two.

How do you identify yourself?

I identify myself as just Kodo, I am a gender gifted being with unique elements and traits such as gentleness and braveness. I used to consider myself gay because I did not know that there are genders that are impossible to categorize. So I realized that terms and labels are not accurate to define myself.

Why did you choose to live in New York City?

I wanted to study Fine Art. I love the musical and art scene in New York. I graduated from Parsons School of Design and started my career as a makeup artist.

Courtesy of Kodo Nishimura

Do you plan to stay or do you have plans to move elsewhere?

I always want to keep traveling but my bases will be New York and Tokyo for a little while. I would love to try living in Thailand and explore different types of beauty and a healthy lifestyle. I visited there last year and fell in love with the place.

What first drew you to cosmetics?

I picked up cosmetics because I didn’t like my sharp eyes when I was younger. I wanted to make them look bigger, so I picked up an eyeliner and a mascara. Later, I did makeup for my best friend and she transformed so incredibly much. The happier my subjects become, the happier I become as well. I wanted to master foundation, eye shadow, and all the other techniques so that I can make the people I love shine brightest. Happiness creates a chain reaction and that is my joy and motivation.

Courtesy of Kodo Nishimura

Does your training as a Buddhist monk influence your work as a makeup artist?

Yes, I learned that both heart and skills are important. You have to be skilled to hold ceremonies and deliver the message of Buddha, but you have to be sincere and honest about these actions, otherwise the message won’t be delivered. Similarly, you have to have skills to apply makeup, but the clients’ smile shines brightest when I pour my love into the person.

Buddhism teaches us to reduce our attachment to the self. Does makeup help you to achieve that?

Yes, I have learned that too much of anything is not going to help us. Buddhism teaches us to find balance. Makeup is not something you need in your life at the end of the day, so I want to make sure that makeup does not make people feel inferior without it.

I saw people without makeup smiling and being happy in the countryside of Thailand when I visited. It almost felt vain to be working with makeup at that time. The most important thing is to be happy and share happiness, and makeup just provides an opportunity to boost your confidence.

Did you have to keep your sexuality/gender a secret while working at the monastery?

No, my school of Buddhism teaches that everybody is equal, even prisoners and prostitutes. I am proud of myself and my fellow monks are glad for me too. Even there are some rituals I do differently from my master, he told me to choose whichever I feel is proper at that moment.

Courtesy of Kodo Nishimura

Do you think that Buddhism is accepting towards LGBT minorities? What more could be done?

Yes, I know that Buddhism is very accepting of all people. What more can be done is that this message should spread. The main purpose of religion is to help and make people live happier in peace.

You have done makeup for your close friends as well as several models and celebrities. How do they react after you’ve done their makeup? How does that make you feel?

Makeup is temporal, yet the memory of that experience is eternal. They stay confidently beautiful even without it, knowing that the makeup is more like a secret weapon. So I have seen my friends change to be more outgoing, self-loving, and successful.

A post shared by Kodo Nishimura (@kodomakeup) on

Is there any friction between your life as a makeup artist which is very much about visual perception and your life as a Buddhist monk which is more about your internal subjective experience?

I do not see any friction, being a makeup artist and a monk are both about making other people feel happy. If you are happy with yourself, you can share happiness with others. I can be extra considerate of others when I am content. Plus, Buddhism is nothing old or outdated, it is something eternal and always evolving. I would like to use makeup and fashion to inspire modern people with Buddhist teachings.

What do you think is the Buddha’s most important message?

To be grateful.

Finish this sentence: My name is Kodo Nishimura, and I am

a messenger of freedom.

Courtesy of Kodo Nishimura

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