This Monk Wears Heels

Be Who You Are

Kodo Nishimura
Watkins Publishing ($21.95)

by Aditi Yadav                                

How does one process one’s life and identity? In pursuit of the answer to this question, humans have taken refuge in religion, philosophy, science, and art. As individuals, we desire to live a fulfilling life, and self-acceptance is the first, yet often toughest, step of that journey. This Monk Wears Heels charts one person’s courageous and inspiring journey towards finding fulfillment in identity, or as author Kodo Nishimura puts it, “from a timid life in colorless alleyways to walking true and proud in an ever-expanding Technicolor world!”

Nishimura is a Japanese monk, a make-up artist, and a proud member of a worldwide LGBTQ+ family. He shot into the limelight with the Netflix series “Queer Eye: We’re In Japan!” As a make-up artist he has worked for Miss Universe pageants and has earned worldwide appreciation for his charm, talent, and spiritual grace. TIME magazine featured him in its 2021 list of Next Generation Leaders. However, he admits that he hadn’t always been as confident as the world knows him today (although the Chinese characters in his name, ‘Ko’ and ‘do,’ stand for broadmindedness and confidence, respectively).

Born in Japan to a Buddhist priest, Nishimura was expected by most people to become a monk. As a child he loved dressing up like girls; seeing that his actions were different from other boys his age, he “felt as lonely as Cinderella, laughed at by her stepmother and stepsisters.” He spent his formative years in fear and shame, but found refuge in English language classes and gay chat rooms on the internet. Wishing to escape the close-minded parts of Japanese society, he went to the U.S. for language studies. However, there he felt inferior on account of his ethnicity.

Later, Nishimura enrolled at Parsons School of Design in New York City and attended a Pride parade, which were both life changing events for him. He realized that ‘normal’ is “only the measure of your experience.” Once self-conscious about his Asian features, Nishimura began to see himself in a different light when others complimented him, and he observed that “there is really no one type of ‘normal’ nor ‘conventional’ if you have traveled around the world and met many people.”

With his newfound confidence and professional success, Nishimura wanted to grow further, so at the age of twenty-four, he returned to Japan to undergo training to become a Buddhist monk. The training routine seemed “dreadful” to him, and he grappled with self-doubt on account of his sexuality and profession—was he “giving a bad name to Buddhist monks and damaging the image of Buddhism”? These fears were allayed by the guidance of one of his respected masters. He felt liberated by the discovery that a “monk is somebody who seeks to live in a balanced manner and who tries to make the world harmonious.”

The toughest phase of Nishimura’s life was coming out to his parents. He feared rejection and abandonment, but once he had confided in them, he “went warp speed from the Paleolithic to the 30th century. It was like in The Wizard of Oz when the world goes from gray to rainbow-colored.” His parents were supportive of him, and they reassured him that his happiness was all that mattered to them.

Nishimura considers himself “gender gifted” and feels that his soul does not have a gender. Putting on make-up, wearing heels, being a monk, and talking about equality—all these roles are not mutually exclusive, but rather a manifestation of the same spirit that shines inside.

This Monk Wears Heels is an especially delightful read because Nishimura does not preach here; rather, he converses like a friend, giving us insight into his evolution. While he is honest in sharing how discrimination damaged his self-respect, he has neither bitterness nor a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude toward those who inflicted this damage. His sagacious interpretation of human nature and the art of dealing with toxicity is worth learning and emulating.

As Nishimura switches gears between make-up advice and Buddhist philosophy, he writes not to profess or propagate his religion but to share his personal experience, and he interprets fashion as an art of self-examination, self-expression, and self-care. Training as a Buddhist monk disciplined him to reconcile the material and spiritual while being true to the essence of his unique identity. He has resolved “to help people realize that we are all equal no matter what.”

Today, Nishimura is actively involved in the LGBTQ+ rights movement in Japan. “Even if other people deny your light, don’t let the fire go out,” he advises. This Monk Wears Heels carries out this message, offering the reader healing, enlightenment, and friendship. It stays true to the spirit of its dedication note, which reads: “For anyone who has ever struggled to be honest with their heart.”

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