NEW YORK – More than a decade ago, Ikumi Yoshimatsu chose the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech to recite at her junior high school in Kyushu and the powerful words stayed with her.
“I studied about Martin Luther King, Jr. and I so respect and was impressed by what he did,” the 2012 Miss International winner told third-graders at a New York school, recalling the difficulty of memorizing it with only an old cassette tape recording that her mother had given her.
Mesmerized by the Japanese beauty’s story, the Brooklyn children from Public School 307 listened intently to her connection to the civil rights leader who mobilized more than 200,000 people in the U.S. capital nearly half a century ago.
“As a 14-year-old junior high student living in a small town in Kyushu, I could only try to imagine the endless plight of African-Americans spoken of by Dr. King,” she said.
“It was clear to me even as a young girl that the issue of equality and civil rights is still an ongoing struggle not only in other countries, but also in Japan.”
The 25-year-old was part of a surprise visit to the class Jan. 24 with Peter Yarrow, the American folksinger best known for his antiwar songs as part of the famed musical trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
While widely regarded for songs such as “If I had a Hammer,” which the 74-year-old sang to the children with Yoshimatsu, Yarrow is also an advocate against bullying.
His Operation Respect program has gained congressional recognition in the United States and has been presented to education leaders and more than 10 million children.
Yoshimatsu and Yarrow share a vision of promoting classroom tolerance despite coming from different countries and generations. They are collaborating on education programs this month, when Yarrow will meet education ministry officials and visits schools in Japan.
“He (Yarrow) is my mentor in peace,” Yoshimatsu said explaining how her recent trip to the United States to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony included meeting Yarrow and his friend, Secretary of State John Kerry.
“He is teaching me about youth education and how to create change through teaching our youth to respect each other and embrace diversity,” she said.
Uplifted by her first visit to an American school, she was struck by the students’ “pure nature.”
Listening to their heartfelt wishes for a peaceful future free of bullying, she described how the youngsters “etched a permanent impression on my heart.”
As a first step in fulfilling her dream, she wants to link the Brooklyn third-graders with elementary school students in her hometown of Tosu, Saga Prefecture.
The American folksinger will accompany her on school visits while in Japan, sharing his vision and culture as Yoshimatsu did with the students in Brooklyn.
“I will (eventually) connect classrooms in Japan with classrooms in other countries so that kids can meet and learn from each other face to face via the Internet,” she explained.
“If I can share the nature of the kids at Brooklyn P.S. 307 with kids around the world, we will all have a better future.”
Her aspirations are clear to students such as Ray Reid, who was excited about making new friends overseas and enjoyed learning to fold a paper frog.
“I thought Ikumi was excellent at teaching us origami and I thought that we learned a lesson from the song,” the 8-year-old said, referring to the same tune Peter, Paul and Mary sang on Aug. 28, 1963, when King led the civil rights march on Washington and delivered his speech.
The third-grader also wanted to share lessons learned from his heroes — King and Obama — with his Japanese peers.
Teachers like Claudia Budansingh recognize the value of such exchanges.
“Seeing a person and interacting with a person from Japan brought Japan closer to them,” Budansingh said of the visit. “It helps them to realize they are not in the world by themselves, they have made a connection to the world.”
Especially given her international standing over the next year until she steps down in October, Yoshimatsu wants to make inroads in the Japanese education system.
“She brings the status of the ambassador because of being Miss International, but she also brings a great lifelong passion for what she is trying to do,” Yarrow said.
Inspired by the fact that children as young as 4 at the Brooklyn public school are learning Mandarin, she wants to press for the introduction of English at earlier ages in her country.
Also troubling to her are the larger, universal issues of isolation, alienation, bullying and suicide that Japanese students share with their peers around the world.
Privately visiting the graves and Connecticut school of the children killed in the December Newtown massacre before returning home was an “overwhelming” experience. It brought home how the “gun romance” in videos and movies dangerously confuses children, blurring their reality.
As a daughter of schoolteachers, the international pageant winner also values her education and realizes how her command of English and exposure to other cultures were crucial in winning the top title.
During her 90-second speech on the world stage she communicated her aspirations, ultimately beating out 68 other competitors.
“I had the heavy responsibility not only to represent modern Japanese women, but to realize the dreams I’ve had since hearing Dr. King’s speech as a young girl,” she said.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Obama’s inauguration and reflecting on the personal significance of King’s speech was a “full circle experience” for her, yet one that offers a “new beginning.”
While King’s legendary words brought her to this point, she continues to aspire to become a positive agent of change to improve the world with support now from her new American contacts.
“I have taken the torch and accepted the challenge to change a culture of gender inequality and endeavor to change the way children look at each other regardless of country, race, gender or religion,” she pledged.