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Meet the billionaire dreamer taking Musk's rocket to the moon

Lisa Du and Yuji Nakamura


 /  Tue, September 18, 2018  /  11:38 am
Meet the billionaire dreamer taking Musk's rocket to the moon

Elon Musk with Yusaku Maezawa. Maezawa is the first paying passenger to the moon on a rocket built by SpaceX, scheduled to blast off in 2023. (Bloomberg/File)

A well-known Japanese expression goes, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Yusaku Maezawa, 42, isn’t that kind of nail. He’s the first paying passenger to the moon on a rocket built by SpaceX, scheduled to blast off in 2023. Known for dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on artwork, he’s the billionaire founder and president of Japan’s second-largest e-commerce company, Start Today Co. It’s the latest headline-grabbing project by Maezawa, whose Twitter handle is @yousuck2020.

While Maezawa is relatively unknown outside the archipelago and the art world, he’s guaranteed to become more famous with his plan to fly to Earth’s biggest satellite with a cabal of artists. A self-professed art lover, the Japanese entrepreneur intends to take painters, musicians, dancers, photographers, film directors, fashion designers and architects on a week-long loop around the moon, where he’ll get to watch as they get inspired and create art along the way.

“I thought long and hard about how valuable it would be to be first passenger to the moon,” Maezawa said at an announcement at Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s headquarters, sitting next to the rocket company’s CEO, Elon Musk. “I choose to go to the moon with artists.”

The flight around the moon is a marriage of Maezawa’s diverse interests: to be a visionary, to support art and to promote his company. Taking the enormous personal risk of orbiting the moon as the first private citizen would cement him in history books. Maezawa said he hopes the art created during the trip will inspire more interest and support for artists. Maezawa and Musk declined to say how much the lunar trip would cost.

“This is not us choosing him,” Musk said. “He chose us. He is a very brave person to do this.”

Maezawa made a name and fortune for himself by defying the norms of Japanese society. A former drummer in a rock band, he built shopping website Zozotown, a popular destination for younger consumers, from a mail-order music album business.

With a net worth of $2.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Maezawa made a splash in the art world in 2017 when he spent $110.5 million on a single Jean-Michel Basquiat painting at a Sotheby’s auction, setting a record for an American artist’s work at the time. By then, Maezawa had already bought several Basquiat pieces.

Read also: Japanese billionaire businessman revealed as SpaceX's first Moon traveler

Maezawa has long stood out in the Japanese corporate world. In a place where company executives maintain low-key lifestyles and keep out of the spotlight, the billionaire is active on social media, sharing snippets from lavish meals or vacations, and regularly makes headlines in the Japanese entertainment world for dating young, popular actresses.

The first would-be civilian passenger to the moon was already been signaling his interest in outer space before the announcement. Maezawa first mentioned in a Twitter post in 2015 that his “eyes were opened,” after touring NASA and talking to astronauts. A year later, he told Japan’s Newspicks online magazine he wanted to try his hand in space. In April, he tweeted that space is one of his main “hobbies,” along with art and wine.

Maezawa regularly injects his visions for humanity into interviews and speeches: world peace, universal income and letting every person reach his or her full potential. In an essay last month, he chided gross domestic product as being an inadequate way to measure progress. Instead, he called for the economic indicator to be replaced with one built around feelings of gratitude.

Building on the success of Start Today’s Zozo brand, Maezawa intends to turn his company into a global retailer, with the goal of being one of the world’s top 10 clothiers within a decade. His first step toward that has been a body-measuring, skintight suit called the Zozosuit, which is used to sell a line of made-to-fit private label basic wear and business suits. The company will be renamed Zozo Inc. from October.

In an interview with Bloomberg News in July, Maezawa talked about his love for making things, saying he once wanted to be a carpenter or do ceramics before realizing he couldn’t just focus on the art side.

“I’m actually very cautious,” he said. “I used to do music and love creative things. But to become successful and famous in the world, I can’t just do it with creative endeavors, I have to think about numbers and business strategy and balance those two things. I want to be someone that can balance both.”

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