Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa reacts during the announcement by Elon Musk to be the first private passenger who will fly around the Moon aboard the SpaceX BFR launch vehicle, at the SpaceX headquarters and rocket factory on September 17, 2018 in Hawthorne, California. Image Credit: AFP

Last week, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa stood in front of a crowd of reporters at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and declared jubilantly, “Finally, I can tell you that I choose to go to the moon.”

And the 42-year-old announced he purchased not one but all the seats aboard SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket.

Maezawa is not only a high-profile entrepreneur specialising in online retail and a world-famous art collector, but he is also set to be SpaceX’s first paying tourist to take a trip around the moon. Maezawa’s roughly week-long journey is tentatively scheduled for 2023.

Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the moon. Just staring at the moon filled my imagination… [But] I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself, that would be a little lonely. I want to share these experiences and things with as many people as possible.”

 - Yusaku Maezawa, First commercial tourist to moon


“Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the moon,” he said during a news conference. “Just staring at the moon filled my imagination. It’s always there and has continued to inspire humanity. That is why I could not pass up this opportunity to see the moon up close.”

Clad in a dark blue blazer over a white graphic T-shirt, Maezawa, with a giant grin dominating his youthful features, looked more like a boy band member than a person ranked 18th on Forbes’s 2018 list of Japan’s 50 richest people. But anyone who has tracked his meteoric rise would know that being different is normal for a man whose life has been defined by surprising moments.

“Japanese people think I’m a weirdo,” Maezawa told British auction house Christie’s in 2017. “They say, who is this Maezawa person?”

To put it simply, Maezawa is a former punk rocker-turned-self-made e-commerce billionaire with a love of expensive art.

More than two decades ago, Maezawa, then just a sprightly teen, had an epiphany — he envisioned the rest of his life and was disheartened by what he foresaw.

At the time, he was a student at a prestigious feeder high school in Tokyo, which meant he was destined for university and after that a career, most likely in business. But as he rode the train for an hour and a half every morning from his home in Japan’s Chiba prefecture, he told the Times in London he started noticing how all the people headed to their jobs appeared to be “tired and unhappy.”

“I think what I hated was the feeling that I was running along tracks that had already been laid down,” he told the British publication in July. “I could see the rails stretching in front of me — school, university, career. I could picture myself as one of those people jam-packed in a rush-hour train. I wanted to derail myself.”

An extraordinary life

Armed with a fierce desire to be more than just a worker drone, Maezawa took swift action making a series of decisions leading to a life that has been nothing short of extraordinary.

It all began in the ’90s, when Maezawa followed his then-girlfriend to the United States where he spent most of his time skateboarding along the streets of Santa Monica, California, he told reporters Monday. While in the US, Maezawa, an avid musician, also followed one of his favourite bands, the Gorilla Biscuits, a New York-based hardcore punk group, the Times reported.

Back in Japan, Maezawa was a drummer for Switch Style, a punk band he formed with friends that achieved moderate commercial success, according to the Nikkei Asian Review, a Japanese publication.

His six-month stint in the US would turn out to be a pivotal moment in his career, for it was there that he got the idea to sell music merchandise from Japan, Forbes reported. Upon returning to his home country, he launched a mail-order business selling T-shirts and CDs out of his kitchen, which became the foundation for a company he named Start Today, also the name of a Gorilla Biscuits album, according to the Japan Times. It was 1998 and Maezawa was 22 years old.

Still touring and recording with his band, Maezawa started getting overwhelmed by the responsibilities that came with juggling a music career and running a company. After a few years, something had to give. “When it became physically impossible to handle both, I chose my company — that was around when I was 25 or 26,” he told the Japan Times.

This was a decision that would prove fruitful for Maezawa. Start Today had shifted to focus more on fashion and apparel, eventually spawning an immensely popular e-commerce site called Zozotown, Forbes reported.

According to the Japan Times, the website now features around 6,300 brands and the company employs nearly 900 people. In July, the site launched its own in-house fashion line called Zozo, available in 72 countries, Racked reported. Maezawa now has a net worth of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes.

Love for art

While his company’s success earned him fame in Japan, Maezawa dominated international news last year when he dropped more than $110 million on a painting by American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat at a Sotheby’s auction. The painting’s sale price broke records and threw the art world into a tizzy. Called ‘Untitled’, the colourful graffiti-style depiction of a screaming skull became the sixth-most expensive piece ever sold at auction, the New York Times reported. According to NPR, the price Maezawa paid was the highest amount ever spent at auction for a work made in the US.

“I buy things on impulse — I have done since I was young,” Maezawa told Christie’s. “I have also always bought things up to my financial limit. And when I ran out of money, I would make more money — then I would buy again.”

But the Basquiat wouldn’t just be a spur of the moment purchase that would end up hanging in Maezawa’s home or office never to be seen by the public again. In May 2017, Maezawa posted on Instagram a series of photos of himself alongside the work, writing, “When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.”

True to his word, Maezawa has sponsored an international tour for the artwork. Earlier this year, it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, and is now making its way through Europe, the magazine Art News reported. Maezawa, whose extensive personal collection features works by Picasso, Alexander Calder and Willem de Kooning, among others, told Christie’s he has plans to open an art museum in his hometown of Chiba.

Like his sharing of art, Maezawa said Monday that he also wants to share his experience of seeing the moon, explaining why he purchased every seat on the rocket for an undisclosed amount.

“I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself, that would be a little lonely,” he said. “I don’t like being alone. I want to share these experiences and things with as many people as possible.”

The interstellar trip is all part of Maezawa’s grand project, which he has named Dear Moon. His plan is to bring with him six to eight artists from various disciplines, including film, architecture, painting, sculpture and photography, with the goal that upon their return to Earth they create works inspired by the experience.

The idea came to him as he was looking at a Basquiat painting.

“I thought, what if Basquiat had gone to space and had seen the moon up close or saw the earth in full view?” he said. “What wonderful masterpiece would he have created?”

Soon, he started imagining if his other favourite artists, such as Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, John Lennon and Coco Chanel, were also given the same privilege.

“These are all artists that I adore, but sadly they are no longer with us,” he said. “There are so many artists with us today that I wish could create amazing works of art for humankind, for children of the next generation.”

In a video promoting Dear Moon, which is aptly set to Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, the project is described as “awe-inspiring.”

Maezawa said his team of artists will be recruited from around the world, adding, “If you should hear from me, please say yes and accept my invitation. Please don’t say no.”