Wayland graduate from Japan recalls experiences

October 29, 2010

PLAINVIEW – Yoshiko Shiga was not like most students at Wayland Baptist University when she arrived in 1960. For one thing, she was from Japan, and though Wayland’s international student population was growing, there still were not a great number of Asian students.

For another, her going to college at all – much less in America – was something of an anomaly for women of her heritage.

“Normally girls aren’t so important in Japanese culture,” said Burke. “They get married and are baby machines.”

But even as a young woman Burke would prove to go against the flow and raise the bar for others. Not only did she attend college overseas, she became a Christian and has spent her adult life making a difference in the life of children as the owner of a preschool in Ashiya, Japan.

Burke visited the Wayland campus recently with her husband, Billy, returning to America for the reunion of his Texas Tech football team from the 1950s. While on campus, she was able to see the many changes since her days as a student nearly 50 years ago, speak briefly at a faculty-staff chapel service and meet Wayland’s current President Dr. Paul Armes.

All were testimony to the life-changing experiences she had while a teenager in Kyoto, a student in Plainview and a wife, mother and teacher in Japan. A native of Kyoto, Burke said she was saved at age 16 by American missionaries who shared the Gospel and expressed deep regret for the lives lost during the Hiroshima bombing of World War II. She was baptized in a nearby river and joined her family as believers. 

The missionaries soon put out the call for someone to help them translate their message into Japanese and travel with them to other parts of the nation. In return, the student would learn English at the classes they taught and gain experience in the language. Yoshiko jumped at the chance and, as a teenager, moved with the two missionary ladies to begin her four years of service as translator and student.

“For nearly two years I would hear them talking and it would mean nothing,” she recalled, noting the language barrier. “Then one day it began to make sense and I could understand English.”

Some friends of the ladies in Florida decided Shiga needed to attend an American college, so they arranged to bring her by boat to Florida, then send her by bus to Georgia to attend Toccoa Falls Bible College, where she attended from 1958-60 before transferring to Wayland on a music scholarship for the International Choir and to study English and Bible. Her goal was to become an English teacher.

That choir experience opened the doors for Shiga to be selected for a special project of the Baptist Student Union’s Texas choir which was to travel the Orient on tour as part of Project Understanding, a goodwill effort from the state convention.  The student choir was able to travel to various nations, even garnering an appearance with the king and queen of Thailand, an opening only available to them because of their student status and because of two maids who visited about the choir’s tour.

“Diplomats were not allowed into Thailand and certainly not Christians at the time, but because we were college students, they invited us to come. The maid for the royal family was hanging clothes outside and visiting with a neighbor’s maid who mentioned the choir coming. She knew the family loved music, so she passed on the word about the choir and we were able to perform in the royal palace,” Yoshiko recalled.

While there, God orchestrated a divine encounter between Shiga and the Queen, who was quite moved by the choir’s program of both show tunes and sacred hymns.

“She came up to me and asked me if I was Hawaiian because I was the only Asian in the group,” Burke said. She told her she was from Japan and she then asked why Yoshiko was singing in an American choir. She shared about being saved, coming to Wayland Baptist College to study and enjoying singing to God because she was so grateful for her salvation and her life. Once again, the Queen was visibly moved, even shedding a few tears.

After the tour, Yoshiko was at Collegiate Week at Glorieta Baptist Conference Center shortly before her junior year at Wayland began when God orchestrated another encounter, this time with Billy Burke.

Billy was a graduate student in English at Texas Tech who had taught for a year at Kermit High School. He met Yoshiko’s younger sister Emiko, who was a new student at Wayland that year as well, during the week and she introduced Yoshiko to the former football player. Once the two found out Billy was an English teacher, they begged him for help with their English compositions at Wayland.

“I would have classes all week and then come up to Plainview nearly every Saturday and check over their compositions,” laughed Billy. “They told me that when I checked them, they made As but when I didn’t, they made Ds. After a few months of this, Yoshiko told her sister Emiko she didn’t have to meet me for the editing because I was here to see her alone.”

The friendship blossomed into romance and the two began dating. Billy took Yoshiko to meet his parents in his hometown of Hobbs, N.M, over Thanksgiving and took her to Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands. There, among the sand that Yoshiko swore was snow, Billy proposed marriage. 

“She told me I’d have to ask her father for permission but she did say yes,” he recalls. The engagement would be a long one as they wanted to wait for Yoshiko to finish her degree. Billy finished his master’s degree the following May and moved to Japan to each English, following a call from God he had felt years before meeting Yoshiko. They wrote letters for two years and he met her family in Japan, getting to know them well and finally asking for permission to marry Yoshiko. Once he assured the Shigas he did not intend to drag their daughter back to the U.S., they blessed the union.

But Billy’s own mother was having a hard time accepting the engagement. She had family killed as prisoners of war by the Japanese and forgiveness was difficult even years later. When she finally came to visit Japan and Yoshiko took her to the Hiroshima Museum, photos of the devastation that the Japanese endured softened her heart.

“She had tears and just said, ‘I never knew what your people suffered too’ and just hugged me,” Yoshiko said. “It was a beautiful time of reconciliation.” From that point, everyone was on board.

Yoshiko finished her WBU degree in May 1963 and returned home to Japan, where she married Billy two months later. Billy was teaching at a Canadian academy and Yoshiko joined the faculty as a kindergarten teacher. The next year, she followed her passion and opened a Christian, English preschool, first in a Shinto shrine and later in a rented home she adapted for her purposes.

The Mikage International Preschool grew to about 45 children, caring for toddlers as young as 18 months up to age 6 and including an after-school care program and English Club. Then in January 1995, the earthquake that shook Japan destroyed the school building and killed two teachers on site. Yoshiko felt then she might retire permanently and perhaps return to the states. But God was not finished with the Burkes’ work with Japanese children. 

Yoshiko soon sold the furnishings from the old school building and opened her home to the four students remaining with the school to rebuild her business. She is currently renting another home for the school, which now has 30 enrolled and 6 teachers. She serves as the principal and oversees the entire operation.

Billy taught for the Canadian Academy for years before retiring. The couple then decided to draw from his retirement and build an international school for students to attend their elementary grades after they aged out of the Mikage Preschool. Missionaries helped build the facility, which was constructed in 2002 of lumber shipped from the United States. Classes began in 2003, and the school was able to get land from the Japanese government by applying to be an official nonprofit organization.

Billy serves as headmaster for the Ashiya International School, which offers private Christian education for children from kindergarten through sixth grade, focusing on a strong bilingual curriculum in English and Japanese. The Burkes’ son, Jay, serves as principal. Their daughter, Emi Burke Millard, lives in Houston with her husband and three children.

Both the facilities are English schools, a rarity at the time they started but a draw for prominent families and those from other countries who want their children to be fluent in the language of commerce. The Burkes plan to merge the two schools into one entity in April.

Even after all these years, Yoshiko said the work with children is rewarding.

“I love to see them grow and see them pray and be thankful for things,” she said. “Children teach parents a lot too. We just plant the seed and watch them grow.”

Her husband said it’s evident she has a gift.

“God gave her a charisma with children. They can be running crazy and when she comes in they just settle down for her,” he said.

The couple has been involved in starting an international church in Kobe, where people from 12 different nations worship. They are also often sending Japanese nationals on short-term missions to their daughter’s church in Houston to work with Japanese in that area. She also is in Toastmasters and is a confident speaker.

Thought it has been 47 years since Yoshiko crossed the Wayland stage to receive her diploma, she recalls fondly many experiences of those three years on campus. Memories of singing in formal attire with the International Choir and traveling to various locations to do so are vivid. On one trip, she recalled a South American student who was black being told he could eat in the kitchen while the rest of the choir at in the restaurant. The choir’s director, Dr. Crumm, refused and told the entire choir to get back on the bus. They did.

Yoshiko also recalled getting food from home while at Wayland, and the shipments often included home-canned vegetables with a strong smell. Since the girls in the dorms would complain of the odor, Yoshiko and Emiko would often eat their treats from home in the bathrooms so the smell would get carried away through the exhaust vents.

While she may be past retirement age by many standards, Yoshiko is not looking to quit her work anytime soon, even as she turns 76 this December.

“God is still using us, so as long as I live we’ll be doing this,” she says with a smile.