From Hiroshima to Hollywood

Hinako Nishiguchi is a makeup artist who has created sophisticated looks for celebrities such as Kaia Gerber, Kelly Marie Tran, Kaley Cuoco, Brandi Carlile, Kathryn Newton, Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast), Annie Clark (St.Vincent) and Yoko Ono. The Hiroshima native has worked with iconic Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami and contributes to publications such as Vogue China, Schön!, Rollacoaster, and Fader. She lives in LA with her husband and their daughter.


IROHA: What was your inspiration to become a makeup artist? How did your career path lead you to Los Angeles?  

Hinako: I was born in and grew up in Hiroshima, Japan. After graduating with a university degree in economics, I started working for a company named Tokyu Hands (a popular Japanese store) in 1998. It was a unique company where employees could manage, be the buyer for, and strategize sales of their own section. I did watches.

At that time, by law, women in Japan couldn't work after 10pm because women were considered “weaker” and should be “protected.” In spite of this law, companies pressured employees to stay well beyond, and I found myself working at least 70 hours a week. After two exhausting years I reevaluated my life. In my high school days, I loved doing makeup for my friends and the creative challenge, so I decided to move to Tokyo and enroll in beauty school.

Beauty school was very strict yet inspiring, and I found a mentor who guided me in the craft of makeup as well as how the industry works. Luckily, after graduation I began work and continued for over a decade doing television commercials, retail print ads, and fashion. It was exhausting but I loved it, and I loved working for myself.

While on vacation to Los Angeles, I met my now husband through a mutual friend. I never thought of leaving Tokyo and was happy with my career and friends, but adventure called. When I first arrived I needed to study English because while I could communicate and travel on my own, I couldn’t have easy conversations. I began assisting makeup artists without pay, since I only had a student visa, so life was tough! Luckily, my husband had many friends in the entertainment industry and I was able to visit sets and learn how things work here.

Once we got married, I was able to work legally and I began assisting celebrity makeup artists, something new to me. When I first moved here, I thought I’d be working as a makeup artist in six months, but no! [laughs] It was a long, tough climb, but my experience, skill, and Japanese work ethic helped so much. A famous makeup artist took me on as her assistant and was instrumental in getting me signed to a big agency. Since then, I began building my career.

IROHA: What is the process of working with celebrities like?

Hinako: Actresses have press junkets for new movies that are marathon interview sessions. Actresses often try new makeup artists for these, and that’s one way I can start a new working relationship. Also, actresses and musicians have publicists and/or managers who reach out to beauty agencies. Once we do a job together, and if they like working with me, I continue doing different jobs/projects with them. As I get more time with a certain actress or musician, I learn their face and can pinpoint how I think they would look their absolute best. I also like working with the wardrobe stylist and hair stylist, creating new looks as a team.

IROHA: What are some of the past projects that you've worked on that you're particularly proud of?

Hinako: I worked with the singer Brandi Carlile at last year’s Grammys, when she won for Best Rock Performance. That was a great experience, and she's always a pleasure to work with. I admire how professional and talented she is.

IROHA: What kind of projects are you currently working on? 

Hinako: I’m currently working on the awards season for the Oscars and Emmys. There are so many parties and events leading up to, on the day and after.

IROHA: What has been your experience with Asian hate?

Hinako: I remember the time when Asian hate incidents started in New York, particularly the old lady who got beat up in the street, and the security guy closed the door and didn't help. Around that time, I had to go to New York for work. Because of COVID, it was so quiet in the city and there weren’t many people were walking on the streets, so I was scared. These incidents made me think about so many “what ifs,” especially about my daughter and if she’s safe at school. Luckily I had a lot of support from family and non-Asian friends and co-workers during that time. These kinds of things don’t happen in Japan, so it was a new, scary experience.

IROHA: In terms of the Asian glass ceiling and your line of work, you have made strides in your career. What can you tell us about breaking through barriers?

Hinako: Luckily our industry is very Japanese-friendly. Many people think that Japan is a dream country, so I never felt that being Asian is a disadvantage for me. Japan has a reputation for craft and detail, which is important to me and has helped me stand out.

In my era, Japanese education taught me not to stand out, do the same as others and don’t do anything special. This makes it really hard for me to promote myself, which is necessary here to progress. In Japan, saying who you work with or what you’ve done is a big no-no. Here, it’s everything. Being Japanese, people think I’m too quiet and don’t have an opinion, that I’m not confident enough. In Japan I’m not thought of as quiet or without confidence, so it’s been difficult at times. But what I’ve learned is I can’t and won’t pretend to be something other than who I am. It may take longer to get to the next level, but I have to be true to myself and where I come from. 

IROHA: How important is it for you that you work with actresses like Karen Fukuhara and Ally Maki, who are Japanese Americans, and Stephanie Hsu, who is Asian American?

Hinako: It is important because I know how hard it is for them to make it here, so if I can help in any way to propel their career, I'm happy to do it. It's always fun to work with Karen because she speaks Japanese and we have similar interests. We know all of the Ghibli movies. That was actually a big deal that she voice acted for the Miyazaki film [The Boy and the Heron]. She was very excited, too.

IROHA: What advice would you give to younger people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Hinako: It’s good to learn to set boundaries for yourself early in your career. For example, with celebrities and clients I stay within a professional zone. I’m hired to do a job and I focus on doing that job to the very best of my ability. This way, I never overstep my boundaries. I try to be personal without being too personal. I research every person I work with, see what their past makeup has been, see what I think works best for their face and look and come up with a plan. I never ask them about anything too personal or sensitive. It’s also good to set boundaries for yourself with the mental part of this business. One important lesson I’ve learned is we can’t be for everyone. My makeup style and personality doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s okay. It’s easy to get down when this happens, but if you keep this in mind, it will help you on your journey. Nobody likes rejection or being criticized, but it is all part of this job. If you can work these negatives in a positive way, you’ll be way ahead. 

IROHA: Outside of work, what interests you the most right now? 

Hinako: Right now, if I have time, I like baking or cooking something. I did pandemic baking, and really love it. After the pandemic, since I’m working now, I got a shokupan maker. I just made anpan [buns with red bean paste]…well, the machine made the bread, but it’s still fun. 

IROHA: Are you happy that you're living in LA where there's a Japanese community and you have access to Japanese food?

Hinako: Yes, my husband and I talk sometimes like…imagine if this was the rural Midwest and you don't have access to anything Japanese. I don't know if I would still be here! I live five minutes away from Mitsuwa [Japanese grocery store], so I can go there anytime. My daughter goes to Japanese school on Saturdays, and they do things like mochi pounding and other Japanese events, which is amazing. I really like my daughter's summer camp because they do all kinds of fun Japanese stuff. They do taiko, they do bon odori, they make udon from scratch, and they make pickles from scratch. That would be nice if when I become a grandma I'll go there and teach kids how to make miso soup and stuff.

I didn't appreciate Japanese culture so much when I was in Japan, but after I came here, I do. At the Bon Odori, people think I know all the dances, but I have no idea; I don’t know any of it! I think the Japanese Americans today try to keep traditions much, much more than the young generation in Japan, and I think it’s amazing. You know how to make osechi, the New Year’s food. My generation in Japan doesn’t make or do much osechi. My husband has a big family here in the LA area, and people get together to make osechi. It's over 20 dishes, which is incredible. My relatives think I know all the recipes but I have to Google it. I have no idea!

written by Susan Miyagi McCormac

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