By Julie K.L. Dam
October 30, 2000 12:00 PM

Last September, like any other tourist at Bill Clinton’s childhood home turned museum in Hope, Ark., Takeharu Shiraishi trekked through the President’s old bedroom, sat on the porch swing and marveled at the antique furnishings that make the rooms look exactly as they did when Clinton lived there with his mother and maternal grandparents during the first four years of his life. But when he was done, Shiraishi wasn’t satisfied with taking home just a postcard; he wanted blueprints. The 66-year-old Japanese tycoon’s plan: to reconstruct the two-story clapboard house in his native Okinawa. “Most people don’t realize how popular Clinton is overseas,” says Shiraishi, whose holdings in industries ranging from real estate to car rental chains to natural gas generate some $250 million a year. “He is seen as a man who does not put himself above everybody else. He has tried to resolve a lot of problems in the world and I admire him for that.”

Still, even the folks who run the Arkansas museum were surprised by Shiraishi’s planned tribute. “We’ve had requests from people who want to sleep in the house or who want detailed pictures,” says Beckie Moore, executive director of the Hope house, which was restored with the help of Clinton’s late mother, Virginia Kelley, and opened in 1997. “This was the first time someone said, ‘We want to build it.’ ”

Because no blueprints for the house, built in 1917, were immediately available, Shiraishi borrowed some paper and a measuring tape from Moore and sketched out the dimensions with the help of a friend. Back in Japan, he dispatched a shopping crew to Arkansas and Texas to track down items similar to those that filled the original house: a 1947 Frigidaire refrigerator and a Singer sewing machine like the ones that Clinton’s mother used; a Lionel train set and rubber Kewpie doll matching young Bill’s childhood toys; the bottle of Rose Hair Oil that sits in the medicine cabinet. The Hope museum sent him copies of the family photos that hang along the stairway and even a cutting from a rosebush that Clinton’s grandmother grew in the yard. When Moore toured the house in July, she says, “I felt as if I had just walked into Hope, Arkansas.”

The re-creation—which sits on the eighth hole of the golf course at Shiraishi’s Kanucha Bay resort—reportedly cost about $700,000, but admission is free. Some 200 people a day have visited since it opened in July. “Initially I didn’t know what to make of it,” says Shiraishi’s wife, Yae, 64, with whom he has three grown children. “But when I saw all these people coming to see the house, I was proud.”

Though the l,700-sq.-ft. house is large compared to typical Japanese homes, it’s still not what many visitors expect. “I can’t imagine the President grew up in this house,” says Okinawa fifth grader Tsumi Hokama, 11. “I expected something that would look like they were rich.”

And that’s just Shiraishi’s point. “I wanted to show Okinawa kids that they too can someday be a great person, even if they start from a humble background,” says Shiraishi, the son of an army officer and a homemaker, who began amassing his fortune in the building materials supply business after World War II.

Clinton didn’t have time to visit his new home away from Hope during his July trip to Okinawa for the G8 economic summit, but he has seen photos of the house and did meet Shiraishi briefly. “The President kept saying, ‘It’s incredible,’ over and over,” says Moore. “He was very emotional and so was Mr. Shiraishi. There were tears in their eyes.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Sharon Moshavi in Tokyo