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Yusaku Maezawa

Yusaku Maezawa: Japan’s corporate enfant terrible with the world’s first ticket to the moon

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Call it a flashy billionaire’s whimsy or a stroke of PR genius.

When Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk hinted on Twitter last week that a Japanese person could be the first tourist to go around the moon on board Space X’s Big Falcon Rocket, social media began buzzing with speculation.

Names being bandied about included Takafumi Horie, the brash former president of Livedoor Co., and Daisuke Enomoto, another former Livedoor executive who came close to becoming a space tourist. But the consensus seemed to point to Yusaku Maezawa, the wine- and art-loving founder of Japan’s largest fashion e-commerce company, Start Today Co., which operates the online apparel retailer Zozotown.

Horie himself was quick to deflect attention toward his friend when asked on Twitter whether it was him or Maezawa.

“No, I’m not. Only @yousuck2020 can pay for the seat,” he said, referring to Maezawa’s Twitter handle.

With the live-streamed announcement this week of Maezawa’s plan to fly to the moon along with a group of yet-to-be-decided artists he plans to sponsor, the former punk band drummer may have sealed his reputation as one of Japan’s savviest self-promoters.

Here’s a look at the 42-year-old billionaire’s skyrocketing career.

What is Start Today?

It’s a fashion e-commerce company Maezawa founded when he was 22.

Prior to launching his company, Maezawa was a drummer for a hardcore punk band signed with a major label. He had another passion, however: collecting imported punk and hardcore records and CDs, a hobby that turned into a mail order catalog business that was incorporated into Start Today in 1998. The firm went online in 2000 and began offering niche fashion apparel in addition to music before opening the shopping website Zozotown in 2004.

Today the site features about 6,800 brands with over 650,000 items, and the company, which began with just four staff members, now employs nearly 1,000. With a market capitalization of about ¥1.03 trillion and annual sales topping ¥98 billion in the fiscal year ended March 31, Maezawa, who owns about 38 percent of Start Today’s shares, is Japan’s 18th-richest man, according to Forbes.

How is Maezawa seen in Japan?

Much like Horie once was, Maezawa is his generation’s corporate enfant terrible — an anomaly in the nation’s conservative business climate that prefers low-key executives who shun the spotlight.

He is active on social media, where he shares glimpses of his lavish lifestyle, and the father of three children from past relationships is a regular on entertainment news, most recently for dating popular actress Ayame Goriki. He also owns a private jet and is known as an avid wine collector, owning thousands of bottles.

Unlike many startups, which often opt to headquarter their companies in Tokyo, Start Today’s main office has remained in Chiba Prefecture, where Maezawa was born and raised. Maezawa bought the naming rights to the home of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team in 2016, renaming the ball park Zozo Marine Stadium.

Maezawa made headlines in July by declaring his desire to own a baseball team, a move that would put him alongside other team-owning tech giants such as Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group Corp. and Hiroshi Mikitani’s Rakuten Inc.

But perhaps Maezawa is best known for his love of art. Last year he broke the auction record for a U.S. artist by splurging $110.5 million on a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sotheby’s. That followed a $57.3 million purchase of another Basquiat piece at Christie’s in 2016. He plans to open a museum in Chiba where he can showcase his vast collection of art, furniture and antiques. Maezawa is also a visionary of sorts, preaching world peace and universal basic income. In an essay he shared last month, he laid out his dream of seeing a world devoid of money, a radical change he believes will alter people’s attitudes toward work and relationships for the better.

“You don’t really find Maezawa’s type in Japan,” said technology writer Hitoshi Sato.

“While Zozotown is a household name in Japan, it’s still relatively unknown elsewhere. His decision to fly to the moon will help boost his company’s brand recognition overseas.”

What’s next for Start Today?

In an interview with The Japan Times in March, Maezawa said he intends to make his company one of the world’s leading apparel retailers. To that end, Start Today has been opening overseas offices and promoting the Zozosuit, a skin-tight garment that can capture 15,000 precise body measurements.

Linked via Bluetooth to a special app, the data from the suit’s sensors allows shoppers to find the best fit from the thousands of brands offered on the Zozotown website, as well as purchase made-to-order clothing from Zozo, the company’s private brand. Start Today will be renamed Zozo Inc. from October. “I think there’s a chance for us to become the No. 1 apparel company in the world,” he said in the interview.