Examining International
Sister School Relations

by Steve McCarty

Original print publication: ON CUE, 6 (2), 18-24 (June 1998).

Unedited manuscript for the College and University Educators Newsletter of the Japan Association for Language Teaching.


Original research on a touchy topic. [ - Editor]

by Steve McCarty,
Kagawa Junior College

One type of international, multicultural program is the sister school relationship. This is a vast topic, even confined mainly to post-secondary institutions in Japan, because there are thousands of such formalized exchanges. From private junior colleges to public universities, most often linking Japan with native English speaking countries, many schools have a large number of agreements, not to mention informal partnerships. That is, the notion of a sister relationship does not seem to be constrained in practice by exclusive loyalties. We might therefore ask why so many sister school relationships exist, and what purposes they serve. This may in turn shed some light on the subtexts of institutions, the priorities of administrators, the desires of students, and the role of faculty members who maintain the exchange programs.


Available data will be presented, not exhaustive of the variety of institutions and partnerships involved, but providing some information on a rough cross-section of sister schools and study abroad programs. After a brief discussion of the issues involved, data from informants will be presented, including the sister school relationship that I have been involved with for ten years.

The methods of gathering data, besides first-hand experience, included questions to electronic discussion lists, offering to follow up with e-mail correspondence and telephone calls, in Japanese if the informants preferred. The fact that very few people responded to pleas for information, even by e-mail directly to individuals, indicates that some sensitive areas may be touched upon, subtexts that belie any tendency to take sister school relationships lightly. That the whole story will not be disclosed must not deter us from analyzing all available data, albeit fragmentary at best.

Informants were given the option to remain anonymous, and it is granted that my memories cannot be verified where people's names and even institutions are withheld. However, WWW URLs and other sources of fuller information are provided in the References. An attempt has been made to qualify most assertions, so readers are encouraged to verify the tentative findings presented and to draw their own conclusions.


Japan has a proportion of post-secondary institutions to population base similar to that of the U.S. However, two of the differences are that most junior colleges are privately owned, for-profit institutions, and there are national universities which are the most prestigious.

Sister school relationships overlap with the vaster topic of study abroad programs. The first impression of international sister schools may be that they are synonymous with exchange student programs, but it will be seen that more varied exchanges have been accomplished. Study abroad, nevertheless, involving as it does the movement of people and the transfer of large sums of money, may eclipse the sister school relationship per se in importance. We may then ask whether all the motives of the sister school relationship are reflected in written agreements and institutional goals of internationalization, or are there unstated purposes?

This small investigation met the obstacle of scant response to e-mail inquiries and pleas for information on electronic discussion lists. The responses were proportionally more from women and native speakers of Japanese, but the numbers involved are too few to argue that sister school relationships are taken most lightly by male native speakers of English. However, as the flow of students is mostly from Japan to Western institutions, there may be an assumed hierarchy in the flow of knowledge. There may exist a temptation for the providers, the native speakers of English, to assume a stance of superiority over the recipient group. Similarly, when the flow of students is from Asian mainland countries to Japan, a hierarchy may be assumed, with the leaders in technology tempted to take Asian institutions lightly. (A letter I once translated from Japanese to English, from a junior college owner to a Korean university president, seemed patronizing in wishing for the South Korean institution's "development").

Sister school relationships presuppose the mutual respect that makes partnerships equal and free of ethnocentrism. On the opposite pole of taking these agreements lightly, the beneficiaries of study abroad programs may be secretive to protect this lucrative source of income. Any sort of investigative reporting may be seen as a threat to this market. A Dean of Continuing Education at a flagship Australian university confided to me in 1996 that he did no academic work but just made money for his university, to make up for revenue shortfalls typical all over Australia.

The more egregious instances of degrees for sale or exploitive study abroad programs no doubt function outside of sister school agreements, but bad publicity could affect the decisions of parents in Asia to finance such studies in general. In the sensitive Hong Kong market, on one weekend the South China Morning Post ran two articles critical of study abroad practices. One subtitle was, "Plans to raise their fees to counter a budget squeeze have foreign students in Australia angry at their status" (Staff reporters, 1996b). The next day it was reported that Kensington University had been shut down by the California government but transferred its foreign students to its one-office campus in Hawaii. Kensington's certificates were judged to be fraudulent and of no academic value. Some foreign students did not mind, however, because their bosses could not distinguish accredited from unacccredited institutions. Some were able to transfer from Kensington to Master's courses in Britain (Staff reporters, 1996a). Surrounding these newspaper articles, ironically, were advertisements for study abroad at Australian and British universities.


Let us now look at some specifics from various educational institutions in Japan. Enquiries were posted to e-mail discussion lists, including <net-lang@clc.hyper.chubu.ac.jp>, where internet applications to EFL are shared, usually in Japanese. Keiko Hayasaka of Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Hokkaido, responded to my message: "Sister School Relationships (shimai ko nado no kokusai koryu)" in part as follows:

Our college has sister school relationships with 14 colleges in the U.S. plus one with a foreign language institute in China. We send about 40 students to those schools every year and receive some students from some of those schools. We have had quite active programs for these ten to fifteen years (Hayasaka, 1996).

There was no response to follow-up questions by e-mail, but her discussion list post shows that more is considered better, rather than sister school relationships implying any exclusive loyalty.

Nagasaki Wesleyan Junior College is Japanese-owned, but has sister school relationships with six colleges in the U.S., partly through parochial connections. Toshihiko Shiotsu was recommended to me as an informant, and he transmitted the answers to my e-mailed questions given by his colleague Joseph Romero, who is in charge of exchange programs:

In response to your questions RE sister college relationships:

1) Yes, we do have formal written agreements. 2) Yes, we do have exchanges besides students. See 3). 3) The relationships are mutually beneficial and balanced for the students (we have an annual exchange of students; 2 from Australia, 2 from Canada, 1 from Brazil, 4 from South Korea, 1 from the Phlippines, 2 from Thailand, and 8 from the US.), but not for the faculty. We receive 2 teachers on a yearly or 2-year basis, but we don't really send any from our side. 4) The basic purposes are language and culture learning. 5-6) Our school is not on-line, thus, no URLs (Shiotsu, 1996).

Be that as it may, a former teacher at Nagasaki Wesleyan, interviewed by telephone, paints a different picture of the sister school exchanges. Students come to learn Japanese and are unhappy, with mostly part-time teachers who are not in communication with each other. Some Chinese students disappear [this often happens at my college] and work illegally. Students from the U.S. have gotten rowdy in public. Exchange students are mostly male, while the junior college is 95% female. Having sister schools is a key to the college's success, as over half the students major in English, and many plan to study abroad. American schools for their part want the money of the Japanese students when they transfer. Tennessee Wesleyan recognizes their two-year degree and exempts them from required classes, "which they should not." Elon College planned to open an MA program and send their teachers for the summer, but the informant, who prefers to remain anonymous, wondered how a junior college could offer a graduate program.

Now let us look at Kochi (National) University and also follow up on its sister schools abroad, to examine whether or not the partners view or value the relationship similarly. Faculty member Yoshiko Fujisaki, interviewed by telephone in Japanese, said that Kochi University has formal partnerships with Cal State Fresno, Queensland University in Brisbane, and a university in China that she knew nothing about. This could be because she teaches English and does not administer the exchange programs. Kochi University has WWW home pages in Japanese (1996b), English (1996a), Spanish and Chinese. Kochi's Japanese home page mentions the Chinese university, but the English version does not. The writers may not have known how to render it in English, as Chinese characters are customarily given only Japanese phonetic readings in Japan. My colleague Mao Young identified the university as Xibei Gong Yie Xiu Yuan, or Northwest Institute of Technology in Xian. Mr. Mao thinks that the Institute is on-line, but even though the Japanese language uses thousands of Chinese characters, we cannot read the Chinese home page because of software incompatibility.

In any case, Kochi's home pages include links to the American and Australian partners, along with an explanation of government and private sources of funding for Kochi University students who wish to go abroad. Both Kochi National University and its sister schools accept transfer credits earned at their partner institutions so long as the students are are on leave temporarily in formal exchange programs (see Kochi University, 1996a & 1996b).

As a public university, Kochi's PR needs are minimal, but the sister schools are nevertheless prominent on its home pages. However, no sister schools are mentioned in the home pages of the University of Queensland (1996b) or California State University at Fresno (1996b), although these URLs detail their study abroad programs. E-mail enquiries to relevant contact people at these universities, as to why their sister schools were not mentioned in their home pages, went unanswered. But with students from 71 countries by 1994, Cal State Fresno (1996a) may not wish to call attention to its special relationships with certain schools. Incidentally, over 75% of their foreign students are from the Asia-Pacific region.

Cal State Fresno is a public school and advertises itself as a bargain for studying abroad, but estimated expenses for a year total over US $17,000 (1996b). Multiply that by over 670 (1996a) at one relatively economical program and the scale of expenditures on studying abroad is immediately apparent. The University of Queensland (1996a) has a formal statement of objectives for its international outreach programs, but financial issues are not mentioned. Earlier, however, we heard from a Dean at another flagship university in Australia that money was the whole point of his work, which included traveling to sister schools abroad.


Will sister school agreements increase when schools go on-line, or will the ease of global communications render them anachronistic? Only one respondent addressed this question, so we cannot draw any conclusions, particularly about higher education, as the exchanges involve secondary schools. But this gives us a greater diversity of examples, demonstrating that the possibilities for sister school programs are indeed expanded by internet access. International exchanges are certainly increasing exponentially, whether or not formalized sister school agreements remain a principal means to organize them.

Rodney Ray of Kyoto Nishi High School writes:

our school has sister-school relationships with four high schools in Boston. Every year, about 40 of our second-year kids go over there for a four-week exchange/sightseeing trip called the Boston Seminar. This year, we're making an online version of the little self-introduction book that we always make for the homestay families in Boston. This year that project is going to be called something like "The Kyoto Teenagers' Manual of Style." Each student will write a page, and this time, that page will be accessible to anybody on the Web ... That kind of thing could lead to more international connections if, for example, the students' e-mail addresses were on their web pages. Furthermore, when the kids go over to the States, excerpts from their daily journals will be posted (1996d).

The Kyoto Nishi High School's Course of International and CulturalStudies is sending 37 second-year students on a three-weekexchange program at four high schools in Boston (USA) beginningOctober 18. For the first time, the Boston Seminar is beingdocumented on the web. The students have written an online self-introduction called the Kyoto Teenager's Manual of Style, a seriesof pages about their daily lives--fashion, food, daily schedules,loose socks and pocketbells. Also included in the project will bejournal entries and images from the students, and teacher commentary as the seminar unfolds (Ray, 1996c).

The Boston Seminar URL (see Ray, 1996a) includes links to the four Boston-area secondary schools. One is public like Kyoto Nishi, while the other three are private schools. Rodney Ray added the following in e-mail correspondence:

we're just starting to communicate with our sister schools via the Net. The kids themselves aren't doing it at all yet. In setting up our exchanges this year, it's been really helpful for the coordinating teachers, because we could reach each other right up until the day we left, which turned out to be absolutely necessary this time! Personally, I can't imagine the Internet replacing exchange trips, simply because we can't get the level of immersion we want that way (Ray, 1996b).


In 1996 the owners of my private junior college looked for sister schools in Australia and Hawaii for their combined junior-senior high school, finally settling on one school in New Zealand. The partner school was sought, partly like the high school in Kyoto, as a place to receive groups of students. Then it becomes a prestigious and photogenic selling point for the school, if my college is any indication.

Ten years ago in 1986, the owners asked me to find a sister college in Hawaii. We were about to enter into an agreement with Hawaii Pacific College, when it became apparent that they were only looking to attract study abroad students and were not willing to send any students to our school. We then formed our sole sister school relationship with Windward Community College, a public school in the University of Hawaii System. While the opposite imbalance would have occurred with Hawaii Pacific, in this case my college seems to benefit more from the relationship. My college sends groups once a year, with photos of Hawaii and non-Japanese gracing PR materials. Windward has sent small groups to our school every few years. Once the students from Hawaii were shown a PR video featuring their school, and I said that we would probably be filmed watching this video. Peals of laughter greeted the surprised cameraman when he arrived seconds later.

However, although we saw little evidence that the sister school relationships surveyed earlier involved more than student exchanges supervised by faculty, our exchanges have also been among faculty and administrators. This is despite the paucity of English speakers on our side, which may be explained by the value of the Japanese language for tourism in Hawaii, along with the interest in Japan, particularly among Americans of Japanese Ancestry. University of Hawaii Regent Kenneth Kato has visited us, as has Joyce Tsunoda, Chancellor of all community colleges in the state system. In a presentation at our faculty meeting she praised Japanese colleges for recognizing research activities as part of the role of faculty. I had been asked to interpret, and when she switched to Japanese at one point, I unhesitatingly translated it into English, evoking a round of laughter rare in staid Japanese academia.

Another unique accomplishment was a joint exhibition by art department faculty from both schools, held in Japan and then at several prominent locations in Honolulu. Afterwards, however, it seemed unnecessary to me when my colleagues gloated over their superior works, as if a shutout in a sports competition had been won by the Japanese side. There was also a misunderstanding over who would pay certain of the sizeable shipping costs. In face of budget cuts, Windward has asked that the relationship be scaled down, but the groups keep coming every year from Japan.

Within the spirit of the sister school agreement it should be possible for faculty at the two schools to switch jobs, even houses, while being paid as usual by their own institutions. The Japanese school year, however, runs from April to February, with a summer vacation from mid-July to mid-September, so there would only be a window of a few months in the fall for such an exchange to be possible. Sabbaticals are generally the time for faculty in Japan to go abroad, but faculty cannot readily take such entitlements that distance them from factional patronage networks and so forth, while some schools such as mine simply do not offer such luxuries.


A guest editorial in The Japan Times advocated a five-day school week and a fall to spring school year (McCarty, 1987). But whereas Saturday morning classes will be gone by the year 2000, changing the school year to the international norm would be financially prohibitive, particularly for the many privately-owned institutions already struggling with a decline in the college-age population. There are many issues involved that would take us too far afield, but it is evident that international exchanges would not be important enough to institutions in Japan if they involved sacrifices. Earlier we saw, similarly, how a college in the U.S. was unwilling to part with a single tuition-paying student even temporarily. Sister school relationships could not be as ubiquitous as they are without tangible benefits to each school. Noble notions such as internationalization seem to add the frosting of altruism to the cake of collective self-interest. Inasmuch as benefits accrue to formalized ties such as sister school relationships, with increasing ease and convenience of implementation, continued growth can be predicted for such partnerships.

One factor that has not been mentioned is that the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture regulates all colleges in Japan and influences their funding. The Ministry gives colleges incentives to engage in the national cause of internationalization. The forms that individual teachers and institutions regularly submit to the Ministry show the types of activities that are encouraged. Quantifying international programs in terms of the number of foreigners present presupposes that more is better, and rewards may be measured out to institutions and individuals with larger numbers in the categories considered accomplishments. This reportage and the competition among peer institutions could help to explain why national universities as well as private colleges engage in formalized rather than informal international exchanges.

Let us finally look at the role of the different parties at each institution involved with international exchanges. We have seen that administrators establish lofty educational goals and seek mundane benefits for their institutions, while having little more than a ceremonial role in the actual exchanges. Nonetheless, the net result may well be positive, as compared with not having sister schools. The students clearly enjoy the exchanges in most cases. At any educational level in Japan, having a trip abroad as an official school activity makes it more likely that the parents will pay most or all that the students are charged, while travel costs of faculty and administrators are largely underwritten by their institutions.

While every party tends to win something, the work and benefits are not evenly distributed. It can be observed that, among the large numbers of young people studying abroad, some make substantial progress in terms of measures such as TOEFL or TOEIC scores, while others are wasting their parents' hard-earned money joyriding abroad with their peers, never becoming functional in ESL.

A bit of classroom research in Japanese (McCarty, 1991) aimed to find out the priorities of students if they joined a group going to Hawaii and our sister school there. Of the suggested activities that would be feasible for the group during eight days in Hawaii, going to the sister school fell in the middle range of activities that they would like to spend one day or more doing. Of three who had actually gone on the Hawaii trip, one was negative about going to the sister school at all. There was far more interest in shopping and going to the beach among the 56 students.

So if sister schools can provide somewhat of a pretext for the more important goals of administrators and students, then what about the teachers? They seem to benefit the least while putting the most work into the actual exchanges. They can enjoy some professional development and trips abroad provided they do all the groundwork and take responsibility for large numbers of students. When anything goes wrong in the relationship, with students visiting as well as going abroad, teachers are liable to suffer adverse consequences. Thus the role may not be welcome by teachers, who would rather avoid risks and enjoy a true vacation abroad at their own expense. Teachers are caught in the middle between the students and administrators, trying to satisfy their expectations while planning idealistic activities as if there were no ulterior agendas involved.

But ultimately, precisely because of their pivotal role, teachers meet the most people and learn the most from international sister school relationships and study abroad programs. The costs and benefits differ in each individual case, but as usual teachers are at the front lines.


California State University at Fresno (1996a, June 6 version).
Country list profile (as of Fall 1994) [WWW document]. URL

California State University at Fresno (1996b, June 6 version).
International application [WWW document]. URL

Hayasaka, K. (1996, September 27). Re: Sister school
relationships (shimai ko nado no kokusai koryu). NET-LANG
1322 [electronic discussion list message].

Kochi University (1996b, May 8 version). Exchange program
[WWW document]. URL

Kochi University (1996b, May 8 version). Ryugaku naiyo
[Exchange program] [WWW document]. URL

McCarty, S. (1987, July 26). Different kind of school year
that makes sense. The Japan Times, p. 16.

McCarty, S. (1991). Tandaisei no hawai kenshu katsudo
kibo ni tsuite no chosa
[Survey of junior college students'
preferences for activities in Hawaii]. Kagawa Tanki
Daigaku Gakuho
, 19, 21-25.

Ray, R. (1996a, October 10 version). Boston seminar [WWW
document]. URL http://www.st-marks.pvt.k12.ma.us/

Ray, R. (1996b, October 21). Re: my Internet rant [e-mail

Ray, R. (1996c, October 17). Student web project. JALTCALL
6033 [electronic discussion list message].

Ray, R. (1996d, October 6). Why Internet? JALTCALL 5712
[electronic discussion list message].

Shiotsu, T. (1996, October 4). Re: Sister colleges [e-mail

Staff reporters (1996a, June 23). College shut down for low
standards..South China Morning Post "Sunday Morning Post."

Staff reporters (1996b, June 22). Overseas students see red
on education cuts..South China Morning Post, p. 18.

University of Queensland (1996a, October 18 version).
International relations strategy [WWW document]. URL

University of Queensland (1996b, October 18 version).
Non-award courses [WWW document]. URL

Updated on 13 December 2002

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