From Out West #31, July 1995

Mt. Rushmore cloned in Japan

By Chuck Woodbury
editor, Out West

IMAICHI, JAPAN — George Washington wouldn't believe it. Seventy miles north of Tokyo, alongside bullet-train tracks and a busy highway, giant busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln stare off into the Japanese countryside and Nikko National Park.

PHOTOS: Right: Mr. Ominami and his scale model Mt. Rushmore. Below: The real thing.

They're the stars of a new one-third scale replica of South Dakota's Mount Rushmore, opened in May (1995). Not since Robert McCulloch transported the London Bridge to the Arizona desert in 1971 has a cultural icon been so bizarrely mismatched with a new surrounding.

The historical clone is the $27 million creation of Kenichi Ominami, a 52-year-old businessman and owner of Western Village, a family-owned and operated Wild West theme park in a rural tourist area famous for hot baths and one of Japan's most revered Shinto shrines.

"When I was a child I would go to the movies and see American westerns," Ominami explained through an interpreter. "I watched Rawhide on television."

Twenty years ago, on four acres of family land, he opened what would become Western Village.

"I'm an example of a self-made man," said Ominami, who believes that Japanese youth need someone like him to emulate. "The goal of life is not to make money, but to make your dreams come true."

Ominami's dream of an American frontier town now attracts nearly a million visitors a year, mostly Japanese. They come to eat cheeseburgers at the Chuckwagon Cafe, shoot fake buffalo with air cannons, ride horses or see a performance at the Indian Theater.

On Main Street, Japanese cowboys stage mock gunfights, performing a sort of Far East equivalent of the Shootout At The OK Corral. A block away, a Japanese-speaking Clint Eastwood robot tells visitors how he ran the bad guys out of town.

Two years ago, after seeing Kevin Costner's hit movie, "Dances With Wolves," Ominami flew to South Dakota to buy some of the movie's props. He'd never heard of South Dakota before. "We hear about the states on the coasts of America but we never he
The real Mount Rushmore in South Dakota
ar about the ones in-between" he said.

Once he reached South Dakota, his hosts drove him to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. Ominami was dazzled by Gutzon Borglum's massive sculptures.

Back home a week later, he awoke in the middle of the night with an idea to build a replica of the sculptures in his theme park. He contacted the Mount Rushmore Memorial Society with the idea. The reception was hardly enthusiastic.

"Our hearts about stopped," said Sharon Lee, secretary of the society's board of trustees. "Later, our concern was that the replica would be to scale, that all the heads would be in the right places." Ominami promised a first-class effort. He commissioned South Dakota sculptor Dale Lamphere to create a model.

Using satellite-plotted topographical maps and other state-of-the-art information, Lamphere was able to fashion a perfect scale model. A Japanese firm then fabricated the Western Village replica of Fiberglas-reinforced plastic.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, tourism officials had now figured they'd been handed a golden egg; the Japanese, they reasoned, would surely want to cross the Pacific to see the real thing. In short order, Mr. Ominami was declared an honorary governor of South Dakota as well as an honorary citizen of Rapid City. Rapid City and Imaichi became sister cities. And Japanese travel agencies began planning travel packages to the Black Hills.

In May (1995), the 82-foot-high replica was unveiled to a gathering of 150 members of the Japanese media, plus three reigning Miss South Dakotas (all winnners of different contests), five Dakota Sioux, the mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota's lieutenant governor, and about 500 Japanese dignitaries. A U.S. Navy band played "Stars and Stripes Forever" and a Shinto priest blessed the mountain.

Above it all, George, Tom, Teddy and Abe gazed into the distance, over the bullet-train tracks and across the busy highway, their images flawlessly replicating sculptor Gutzon Borglum's originals.

Kenichi Ominami shook hands, bowed and accepted congratulations. "There's a saying in Japanese that passions will move mountains," he said. "In my case, passion has built a mountain."

©2002 by Out West Newspaper