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Replica of Clinton Home Brings Hope to Japanese

July 22, 2000|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAGO, Japan — Takeharu Shiraishi dreamed up the idea on a trip to Arkansas: If he built a full-size replica of Bill Clinton's boyhood home right here amid the swimming pools and the personally assigned golf carts on his sprawling resort in Okinawa, they would come.

And come they did. Not Clinton, at least not yet, but the tourists.

As Shiraishi beamed and an Arkansas state flag fluttered, what is assuredly one of Okinawa's--and Japan's--most unusual monuments has opened amid the hoopla of the Group of 8 summit that has brought world political leaders here.

Complete with white picket fence--about as common in Japan as chopsticks in Clinton's hometown of Hope, Ark.--the building is the only known replica of the house Clinton lived in until age 4. Shiraishi procured the furniture from antique shops in Arkansas and Texas, including the Singer sewing machine, the 1947 Frigidaire refrigerator and the chenille bedspreads. He even built a new street, studded with palm trees, on which to set the two-story, white-clapboard house.

"Just turning down Clinton Avenue made me cry," says special guest Beckie Moore, executive director of the real house in Hope, which was restored for $1.5 million and opened to the public in 1997. "It's such a generous gesture that's probably never been done before and probably never will be again--the house of a U.S. president built in another country," Moore says.

The few differences between the Hope house and the Japanese replica: The trees are palms rather than pecans, the tours are given in Japanese instead of English, and guests must take off their shoes before entering, as is the Japanese custom. And admission to the Nago replica is free, while adult admission is $5 in Hope.

Shiraishi, 66, a tycoon whose business empire includes a giant rental-car company, a public bus business and the Kanucha Bay resort where the new Clinton house is located, says he has visited the U.S. more than 50 times and reveres Presidents Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and, especially, Clinton. "I admire him for his policies, especially regarding Kosovo and his efforts to build world peace," Shiraishi says.

That attitude cuts against the grain here: Many residents on this island in southern Japan resent the U.S., which occupied Okinawa until 1972 and still keeps about 26,000 troops here. Moreover, residents remember the fierce Battle of Okinawa between the U.S. and Japan, in which about 150,000 Okinawans died.

But Shiraishi says he thinks that the U.S. military presence in Okinawa keeps Japan in check: "If you have a thief, you need police for control," he says.

Shiraishi, whose family escaped from Okinawa to the mainland during the war, was awed by the U.S. during his first visit, when he was a young sailor in 1954.

It took a week to load a shipment of coal in India, he says, but only 3 1/2 hours to unload it in Newport News, Va. "When I saw that power, I thought we never should have gone to war with the U.S.," he says.

Last fall, Shiraishi decided to make a detour from a trip to Little Rock, Ark., to visit Hope. He grew quiet and reflective while touring the house, says Ryokichi Higashionna, a friend and architect who accompanied him. Higashionna says he could see "the wheels turning."

Shiraishi told Higashionna that he wanted him to build the exact house at the Nago resort.

"Hope is a very sleepy country town, and I was overwhelmed that from such a small place, a person would emerge to move the whole world," Shiraishi says.

Since no blueprints for the 1917 house were available, Higashionna asked curator Moore for a few sheets of paper and a measuring tape, and, within an hour, he had sketched the basic dimensions. Shiraishi took pictures of the house and everything in it--from the vases and ashtrays to the old mixer--and told Moore of their intention. He even took a cutting of the rosebushes on the house's side to plant by the replica.

Moore's skepticism gradually eased as she began receiving faxes and telephone calls with inquiries from Shiraishi. She sent him copies of many of the boyhood pictures of Clinton that adorn the house.

Moore directed a 10-member Japanese shopping contingent sent by Shiraishi to scout out the antique shops in Arkansas and Texas for identical furniture and fixtures. The team found the same items as in the medicine chest in the Hope house, such as the Rose Hair Oil and the Lady Carole Medicated Ointment.

Shiraishi won't say how much he spent on the replica: It's a hobby, not a moneymaking venture, he insists. He hopes that at least 1,000 people will visit each month, including school groups. On Thursday, the day after the house opened, more than 150 people came before lunch. He envisions pen pals and exchange programs between Hope and Nago.

What impresses many Japanese, including Shiraishi's wife, Yae, is how big the house is. The two-bedroom, one-bath house of about 1,700 square feet would be considered modest for a small town by American standards. But even today, it is substantially larger than most Japanese homes, particularly in densely populated areas such as Okinawa.

"It shows how powerful the U.S. economy was even 50 years ago, that they could afford to live in a place like this and even have a refrigerator," says Yae Shiraishi.

Hiroshi Arakaki, 59, drove more than an hour to visit the house and says he will recommend that his friends go too. He says he was awed by the "elegance" of the house--which is several times the size of his own home--particularly since Clinton lived there at a time when Okinawa and Japan were in desperate poverty after losing the war.

"Everybody is interested in seeing what kind of house the president of the most powerful country in the world [lived] in," Arakaki says.

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