By Sam Nussey
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese fashion billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s first meeting with role model and SoftBank Group Corp <9984.T> boss Masayoshi Son came in 2010 when they bathed together – a popular communal activity in Japan – on the 26th floor of the tech giant’s headquarters.
The next year, the two men teamed up to launch a business in China.
“If I was to work under somebody it would definitely by Son-san. He is the only executive I think that about,” he said in a comment posted to a 2016 Newspicks article about the meeting.
Although Son has been an inspiration for the 42-year-old billionaire, Maezawa has taken a different approach to publicity, saying on Monday he would be the first private passenger taken around the moon by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
In a project which Maezawa has dubbed Dear Moon, he will bring up to eight artists to inspire works based on the experience.
It will also shine starlight on his publicly listed company Zozo, officially known as Start Today <3092.T>, and generate media coverage stretching to 2023 and beyond.
Yet his most expensive hobby – Maezawa declined to reveal how much the trip would cost but told Reuters it was “much higher” than the $110 million Basquiat painting he bought last year – may be his riskiest bet.
Unlike a Basquiat or Picasso, a trip to the moon cannot be sold to another collector, and only 24 astronauts have ventured beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field.
While success alone helped Son and Fast Retailing’s <9983.T> Tadashi Yanai become household names, Maezawa is a new breed of Japanese billionaire adept at self-promotion, said Parissa Haghirian, professor of Japanese management at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
That has made Maezawa a regular fixture in the country’s gossipy weeklies with his collection of foreign and Japanese art, fast cars and celebrity girlfriend.
His heavy Twitter use bears more resemblance to Musk than Son, who effectively quit tweeting three years ago.
Maezawa uses Twitter to connect with his followers, frequently answering questions on everything from his art collection and hopes for world peace to customer service queries.
That off-the-cuff approachability has at times landed Musk in hot water, and the South African-born billionaire has been criticised for running electric car maker Tesla Inc <TSLA.O> as a one-man show.
By contrast, Maezawa has in recent years surrounded himself with lieutenants as the business has matured, said Michael Causton, an analyst at JapanConsuming.
The diminutive Japanese entrepreneur, who as a young man struggled to find clothes that fit, attended a feeder high school for the prestigious Waseda University.
But preferring to be a drummer in a punk band, he ditched college and the escalator to salaryman drudgery.
In 2004, he opened the Zozotown online fashion mall that has made him rich.
Zozo is now seeking to transform itself into a fashion brand, with a large-scale deployment of its polka-dot Zozosuit, which allows users to upload body measurements and order made-to-measure clothing.
That growing ambition is causing friction with established big personalities, such as Yanai, the founder of the Uniqlo chain, who called the Zozosuit “a toy” in comments to the Nikkei business daily.
“That’s the highest praise. It’s what we’re aiming for,” Maezawa responded on Newspicks. “We will increase the numbers of people having fun measuring themselves all over the world.”
Zozo’s growth targets are ambitious, with the company shooting for 80 billion yen (£542 million) in overseas sales in three years.
But it faces stiff competition, with big names such as Amazon <AMZN.O> making a major push into fashion in Japan. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is also behind Blue Origin, a rival to SpaceX.
Zozo’s recent share price decline – down a third from record highs hit in July – reflects concerns over its ambitions. The company has a market valuation of $9 billion.
“Amazon doesn’t like us,” Maezawa told Reuters. “We’re a competitor.”
Regardless of his company’s fortunes, Maezawa has already made an impact on society, experts say.
His public displays of conspicuous consumption – he tweeted last month that his new jet’s interior is being fashioned by luxury label Hermes, and he is considering buying a baseball team – stand out in a country where humility is seen as a virtue.
That shows young Japanese people that you can make a lot of money and be open about it, Sophia University’s Haghirian said.
“That’s affecting a lot of people in a positive way – people get inspired,” she said.
(Reporting by Sam Nussey; Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Gerry Doyle)