Kodo Nishimura's 'This Monk Wears Heels'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday August 16, 2022
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author Kodo Nishimura
author Kodo Nishimura

High heels, makeup, sparkly earrings, and an open declaration of being a member of the LGBTQ community are not the first associations that pop into your mind when contemplating Japanese Buddhist monks. But Kodo Nishimura, 33, who describes himself as both ancient and trendy, seems determined to upend any expectations or limits in his mission to promote Buddhist teachings while inspiring people with beauty and fashion.

"If I can be a monk wearing heels, you can be who you are," he says.

Selected by Time magazine as a Next Generation Leader, his 2020 Japanese book has recently been retitled and translated into English with added content to promote his message that diversity offers hope for the world. "This Monk Wears Heels" is part memoir and part guide to self-love and self-acceptance, proclaiming unapologetically one can be who one really is.

The book succeeds best with Nishimura's stories from his own compelling life. His father is a priest, so Nishimura grew up in a Tokyo Temple in the Pure Land Buddhist sect. As a child, he enjoyed princess role-play, as fairy godmother teaching his classmates how to pretend to be Cinderella.

At home, he'd put on a miniskirt, twirl around, proclaiming, "I'm a girl!" His favorite activity was to dance to the song "Bonjour" from the "Beauty and the Beast" movie.

Although he went to a private high school, classmates called him a "faggot."

"I was barely able to survive," he wrote. "I was constantly depressed and lost. I was not good at academic subjects and I was not able to make any friends. Nobody seemed to have similar interests to me."

He later entered Parsons School of Design in New York. Because so many of his peers were openly gay, he felt safe enough to come out. He started to work as an assistant makeup artist, with many models and celebrities as clients.


He considers himself gender-gifted, transcending the binary, "able to think and live beyond the expectations based on gender and provide new or alternative perspectives... perceiving yourself with an optimistic viewpoint."

He seeks to liberate people from living a stereotypical lifestyle.

Much sought after in his field, Nishimura is often asked to work at the annual Miss Universe beauty pageant, as well as join the Miss USA and New York Fashion Week makeup teams.

He reached the pinnacle of fame when he appeared in the Netflix series "Queer Eye: We're in Japan." As an LGBTQ activist, he's spoken at Yale and Stanford Universities as well as the United Nations Population Fund. He's also been profiled on CNN and BBC.

Despite being surrounded by glamour, Nishimura learned by meeting and listening to the stories of top models that "beauty and confidence do not always lead to happiness."

At age 24, he summoned the courage to come out to his parents. His father, also a professor of Buddhist Studies, told him to live the life he wants. Confronting his anxiety about his roots, he "imagined himself becoming stronger as a person by knowing Buddhism," that he needed to have some obstacles and challenges to become mentally mature.

He decided as a disciplined person to train as a monk, "doing something that only I can do on the world stage." He was ordained as a priest in 2015 and serves in his father's temple.

A well-respected Buddhist master informed him that "everybody can be equally liberated. Buddhism is accepting and it doesn't deny anybody based on their sexuality, color, ethnicity, sex, or disability."

Thus, Nishimura doesn't see any conflict between Buddhism and makeup, but rather two distinct mediums accomplishing the same goal. "Everybody should have confidence in their existence physically and mentally."

Kodo Nishimura  

Flip your dharma
One wishes the book was more memoir than self-help guide, because it is loaded with clichéd generic New Age bromides that have been repeated ad nauseum, such as the following section headers: "You are free to live your life however you decide," "Don't listen to what others say; listen to what your heart says," "You can't really change anybody else; the only person you can change is you," "Flip your weaknesses into strengths," "Every life has dark days," etc.

This isn't to say that some of this folk wisdom isn't sound advice, but it is written in a bland, uninspiring style. Norman Vincent Peale and Louise Hay are probably rolling over in their graves.

Nishimura intersperses quotes from Buddhist texts, but they're rarely commented on or integrated into his writing. He uses Buddhism in a similar cafeteria style that progressive Roman Catholics do with their religion: picking and choosing what teachings they want to believe. For example, one of the core concepts of Buddhism is that because everything is constantly changing, there is no permanent self or essence.

Yet Nishimura's book almost deifies the self, claiming Buddhism is about self-fulfillment, being who you really are.

It's also a bit jarring to read sections like 'How to apply makeup to bring symmetry to your face,' right after a Dhammapada quote on "how the scent of people with good virtue will defy wind and spread in all directions."

Taking the Buddhist teaching of precepts, which are rules of training as the foundation of ethics such as refraining from taking life or taking what is not given and then applying them to the five precepts of beautiful makeup (perfect foundation color and how eyeliner/mascara can change your life), though probably unintentional, risks trivializing core spiritual tenets.

Positively, Nishimura has become a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights, especially same-sex partnerships, in this culturally conservative nation. Also, he wants to prod politicians to change laws protecting queer people from discrimination, giving youth some hope societal attitudes will change. A significant number of Japanese believe homosexuality is caused by food additives corrupting the hormones.

Although we can't enthusiastically recommend the book, Nishimura's generic Buddhism-inspired wisdom —that there's no one like you and you should be your authentic self— will appeal to Gen Z millennial spiritual seekers and queer youth learning to feel comfortable freely expressing themselves, daring to be different.

'This Monk Wears Heels: Be Who You Are' by Kodo Nishimura. Watkins Publishing/Penguin-Random House $21.95 www.penguinrandomhouse.com


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