Fly me to the moon, says Japanese billionaire

Self-made fashion tycoon buys out SpaceX seats, will be first private citizen to make trip

Japan's 18th richest man is a college dropout turned self-made billionaire fashion tycoon who, if all goes to plan, will in 2023 become the first private citizen in the world to go to the moon.

Mr Yusaku Maezawa, the founder and chief executive of Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, has bought all the seats on board the Big Falcon Rocket, which is the centrepiece of US entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX venture.

As part of his passion project #dearMoon, the maverick arts patron wants to take with him six to eight international artists on the six-day odyssey, hailing from fields that may include music, dance, film, painting, photography or fashion design, so as to inspire them to create artwork that can be shared with the world.

"I love art, I believe art has the power to transcend language barriers and bring people together. It also helps you look within yourself," he told a news conference in Tokyo last Tuesday.

He was meeting the press in Japan for the first time since Mr Musk announced him as the first SpaceX customer in California last month.

The project brings together two eccentric entrepreneurs who have found great success in disruption.

Mr Maezawa, who turns 43 next month, was carried piggy-back by the 47-year-old Mr Musk at the California news conference.

Mr Maezawa, who stands at a diminutive 1.62m, has an air of cheeky mischief and an unabashedly outsized personality that seems more at home in Silicon Valley than in Japan's staid business environment.

He is a prolific tweeter under the handle @yousuck2020 after his stage name You Suck (a pun on his name) that he used as a drummer in the defunct punk rock band Switch Style, which released four albums and an EP between 1993 and 2001.

His Instagram feed has pictures of him doing backflips, along with his expensive additions to his art and super car collection.

He counts actor Leonardo DiCaprio as a good friend, and hangs out with former footballer David Beckham, American chanteuse Alicia Keys, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and South Korean rapper T.O.P from K-Pop group Big Bang.

"The dictionary defines an adult as someone whose thinking and attitude has MATURED," he wrote in an Instagram caption in August. "I find that many adults' thinking and attitude are RIGID. If that's the case, I'd much rather remain a child."

He has nonchalant disregard for Japanese social conventions, and regularly makes tabloid news for his celebrity girlfriends.

He is now dating Japanese actress Ayame Goriki, 26.

He is also reportedly a father of three boys, aged eight, five and five. The last two have different mothers. His marital status is not clear but he once said "marriage is just a contract". He sees his children at least once a month, and takes care of them financially.

Mr Maezawa was born in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, to an accountant father. His mother held a part-time job.

"I really respect and love my parents and it must have been very hard bringing me up," he said at the news conference last week.

He enrolled in the Waseda Jitsugyo High School, a through-train programme that guaranteed him a place at the prestigious Waseda University. But the daily 90-minute train journey to school in Tokyo made him realise that he did not want to live the life of a white-collar worker "after seeing all the tired faces on my morning commutes".

He left for the United States with a former girlfriend after he graduated from high school, and spent six months chasing his idols - the hardcore punk band Gorilla Biscuits. His passion for music led to a habit of collecting records that would later hone his acumen for business.

When he returned to Japan, he began a CD mail-order business that served as the basis of his own company Start Today - named after a Gorilla Biscuits album - that he started in May 1998, at the age of 22.

The same year, Switch Style was signed by BMG Japan, but he called it quits in 2001 to focus on growing his business. Start Today, which has its headquarters in Chiba prefecture, was at the time venturing into online fashion retail.

The company listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange Mothers Index for start-ups in 2007, and was listed in the first section of the exchange in 2012. It changed its name to Zozo this month - after its flagship Zozotown retail site that features about 6,800 brands - and is now worth US$12 billion (S$17 billion) with a staff of about 1,000.

This year, Mr Maezawa launched the new bespoke service Zozo, which was inspired by his own difficulty in finding clothes that fit his small frame. Users who don the polka-dotted Zozosuit can have their 3D measurements uploaded for a made-to-measure outfit.

This service is now available in 72 countries and territories.

He promotes six-hour work days in a country that has earned a bad reputation for long working hours, believing that the personal pursuits of his employees can lead to fresh ideas for the company.

"If they can get input from learning new things, travelling, or seeing other people, this will lead to good output as well," he said.

"This is why in my free time, I also like to look at cars and art, and seek new experiences, which is also why I decided to go on this adventure to the moon."

As a child, he wanted to become a carpenter, and enjoyed watching architects and creators work from morning to night. This saw him develop a passion for craftsmanship - and a penchant for digging into his deep pockets to acquire expensive masterpieces.

"Any time I make a purchase, people just talk about the price, but I'm buying the passion and the history of a masterpiece," he said.

"I want to share the passion and the exacting standards of manufacturing, especially with young people around the world. I want to share with them how many blisters the craftsmen have on their hands, and how much effort and passion went into creating a piece of work."

Mr Maezawa, who has a net worth of US$2.9 billion as estimated by Forbes, owns a private jet furnished by Hermes, expensive cars such as the Bugatti Chiron and the Mercedes-Maybach G650 Landaulet SUV, and a collection of more than 1,000 bottles of wine.

He is also an ardent art collector, splashing out US$98 million on seven art pieces over two days at Christie's and Sotheby's in 2016.

His home in the upmarket neighbourhood of Hiroo in Tokyo is full of artwork by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jeffrey Koons.

FRESH IDEAS

If they (employees) can get input from learning new things, travelling, or seeing other people, this will lead to good output as well. This is why in my free time, I also like to look at cars and art, and seek new experiences, which is also why I decided to go on this adventure to the moon.

MR YUSAKU MAEZAWA, founder and CEO of Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, on why he promotes six-hour work days.

Last year, he made the news for spending US$110.5 million - a record price tag for an artwork by an American artist - on an untitled 1982 piece by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, which he now lends to museums around the world.

This month, Mr Maezawa tweeted that he bought a 1717 Stradivari violin called Hamma.

He also jokingly asked, referring to the street artist who rigged his artwork to self-destruct moments after it was sold at a recent auction: "How can I meet Banksy, who self-shredded (his) painting?"

In 2012, he launched the Contemporary Art Foundation in Tokyo to give grants to aspiring artists. He is also building an art museum in Chiba where he intends to display his acquired art. He also hopes to some day manage a baseball team.

Mr Maezawa is also a low-key philanthropist who has helped disaster-stricken areas such as Fukushima and elsewhere around the world by donating supplies and providing financial support.

He bristles at accusations that he is just a self-indulgent billionaire.

He said last month: "I've never really publicised my philanthropic activities, but I feel the need to do so now that so many people have accused me of doing nothing."

But he said it was fair if some choose to see his space odyssey as a mere public relations stunt.

"Some may say that I'm doing this as PR for my company, and that's fine," he told the news conference.

"The more my company becomes famous, the more I'm able to make a positive difference in the world and give back to society."

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