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Appalachia Meets Japan: One region, One nation, One goal

I’m glued to my TV and computer like all of you watching the events unfold in Japan. On March 11, 2011 Japan was ripped apart with a 9.0 seismic curveball earthquake, followed by a tsunami, and now it’s touch-and-go in fear of a nuclear catastrophe. Not since WWII has Japan suffered such devastation which resulted from the atomic bomb. During my trip to Japan, I was confronted, face-to-face, with the bits and pieces of the horrible aftermath from the A bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Radiation is brutal.

Betty Dotson-Lewis, center, Jean O’Dell on her right, Mitsuko (her contact from Japan) seated beside Jean, school principal on her right, teacher, back row, interpreters for Betty Dotson-Lewis on her left — and the children in pen pal club. (Submitted photo).

In 2003 I had the privilege of visiting Japan. Our bus tour took us to the military museum. I felt my stomach turn as the driver rolled to a stop, I felt breathless. I said to my interpreter and guide, “I don’t want to go in. I’ve read about this. I know about this. Please just let me stay here on the bus.”

My guide told me that it was part of the tour. It would be short visit—just a formality.

The museum, housing hundreds of reminders of our conflict with Japan during WWII was a large, modern facility. My guide placed her hand on mind. About fifteen from the group were on the bus. The door opened to large entry. On the wall—an empty chair, one brown shoe parched, a small coat, a pair of glasses with one lens missing, a man’s jacket, a little girl’s red plaid dress with holes in it, photos of families, babies, old people-all died from radiation. A moving sidewalk took us downstairs to the main floor. Covering the entire wall from floor to ceiling was the letter written by our President Truman stating the reason the bomb was dropped was to save American lives.

I didn’t know what to say or do faced-to-face with remnants left behind from a horrible event in our history. I said nothing. My Japanese guide in a manner to relieve the awkwardness of the situation said the bomb was intended for the shipyards nearby but the target was missed.


America rebuilt Japan after WWII and I have faith America will help rebuild again. I’m praying for the people, the country and leaders. I know they are suffering with the loss of their love ones, homes, basic necessities, love ones and anything anyone holds dear. Warning time was short for the earthquake and tsunami. Many lives are lost. Many are missing. We already know the number is growing of those exposed to radiation from the nuclear-powered reactors. Another reminder of WWII.

Now, back to my story of my adventure in Japan. My cousin Jean went with me. We toured the country for nine days.

This all started when I began collecting oral histories from my friends and neighbors in our coal mining community in Summersville, West Virginia—high in the Appalachian Mountains. I had no previous writing experience but deeply embedded in the culture of Appalachia, I wanted to give back. This endeavor was more than a dream. It was a calling of some sort from God telling me one person can make a difference.

I became so fascinated with the stories of courage, resilience, and their faith as simple as a child’s, told to me by coal miners, I knew the entire world would want to know how we lived and how too many died. I jumped in head first, no experience, no money. It was all in HIS hands, how could I fail? I decided to use the newest technology, computers, to tell some of the oldest stories. How else could I reach a global audience from the remote hills and hollers of West Virginia except with a computer website running under the domain name of . A name symbolizing the power of the Appalachian people.

I didn’t know Japan had a coal mining history until I received the email below. After research I learned that Japan abandoned coal mining in the 90s and turned to petroleum and other sources for energy.

The first of many emails I received from Japan.

The 6th International Coal Mining Congress‏



Dear Ms betty Dotson-Lewis:

My name is Mitsuko Nishikawa and this is the first contact from Japan.

I am writing on behalf of Koko Kato who is one of the Organizing Committee members for International Mining History Congress which will be held in Hokkaido, Japan in September 2003.

And, we are now seeking one speaker from the USA for the Congress who will be addressing to the participants who are facing the closure of an old mining district in Hokkaido. And, the people are interested in regeneration projects in other countries and would like to obtain fresh ideas from overseas as examples.

The reason to write to you is to inquire about your most recent activities which you have involved in. I do understand through your web site that you alone have done a lot of activities to prepare information in order to build up and fulfill the website.

I do understand that this is not the proper way to ask you but it would be appreciated if you could inform us of your most interested issues to deal with and recent activities in order to sustain the unique background which Appalachian area holds.

The information on this Congress is available at

Your kind consideration and reply would be much appreciated.

Mitsuko Nishikawa


The International Mining Congress Board selected me, without my knowledge, to attend as guest historian of the 6th International Mining Congress. When I first began receiving these emails from Japan, I thought it was a scam—who would want me, a totally ordinary Appalachian woman, to speak before hundreds of professionals. What could I possibly tell them they didn’t already know?

I didn’t want to go because I had never traveled outside the country before. I spoke no Japanese. I was afraid. Finally a good friend convinced me to go. I asked that my cousin be allowed to come with me and they graciously agreed.

The excitement of my invitation to Japan spread throughout Nicholas County, especially the public school system where I worked. I wanted to share this trip with the people in my county. After all they were the ones who made it possible. I collaborated with teachers at Mt. Lookout Elementary School with an enrollment of about 120 students and Panther Creek Elementary with an enrollment of about 180 students. I came up with the idea of pen pals between a school in Japan and the two schools in Nicholas County. They communicated through art projects. It was great. I developed a gift cd for the school with a video of the students and teachers. A slideshow set to John Denver’s Country Road, Take Me Home.

The flight from Charleston, West Virginia to Tokyo, Japan was long and tiring. After boarding at the international hub in Detroit, everyone on board, so it seemed, except for Jean and me, were drinking tea and eating rice cakes. We arrived in Toyko about midnight. Rain was falling and we didn’t have an interpreter until we arrived at our hotel in Akabira. We rode a shuttle to our connecting domestic flight. I kept asking passengers, who appeared to be business men, if they knew where we were supposed to get off. They all smiled and shook their heads affirmatively. They didn’t understand me. It could have been my mountain twang.

Somehow we connected with our domestic flight that night with the help of airport personnel and total strangers who knew we were lost Americans. When we arrived at Akabira, two gentlemen were holding up large poster boards with our names on it. We rode several miles from the airport to our hotel with two strange men. We felt better when they told us they were volunteers with the Mining Congress.

Finally we were at our hotel. I felt so tall being 5’8” or taller with hi-heels. I felt so white with very fair skin and blonde hair. The Japanese were petite with shiny black hair and dark eyes. They were neatly dressed in dark suits and so polite. Our room on 7th floor was immaculate-neat and cozy. Everything was downsized for a tall American. Jean and I laughed when my feet extended way beyond the foot of the bed. The bathtub smaller. The couch closer to the floor which made my knees kinda under my chin. We were excited to be in Japan and see a different culture.

I couldn’t wait to get some sleep. Jean, on the other hand, always on guard— is a light sleeper. She read her Bible and said a prayer for us, the family back home and our Japanese hosts. We were in a foreign country—we took our religious freedom for granted. Shortly after falling asleep, she woke me—the bed was moving. We were still in the bed but holding on to the sides. Our room was swaying on its foundation. Jean, wide awake was able to hold on to the wall to get to the light switch on the wall. She switched it on. The light swayed back and forth almost touching the ceiling each time it swung. The heavy maroon colored drapes used to cover the window opened and closed. Our shoes, placed under our bed, were on the other side of the room. The couch, low to the floor, was turned sideways.

We didn’t know what to think. What was happening? We were new in this country. No one prepared us for this crash. Jean and I were scared to death but we didn’t want to seem uneducated about natural phenomena, but we were. We were from the hills of West Virginia and maybe this happened every day over here. We decided to get out when we saw a huge fire in the distance and heard loud sirens screaming in the night, we forgot about being uneducated about Japanese phenomena. We wanted to know what was happening. Were we going to be o.k.? Still in night clothes we opened our door to a hallway filled with 7th floor guests who were also scared, chatting to each other. Many in languages foreign to us.

I asked a young journalist, shirtless, reporting for the BBC, in my mountain twang dialect, if this was what happened when a train passed by the hotel–the swaying and all. I noticed we crossed a train track near the hotel. Even in the midst of confusion and being scared, he was unable to suppress a chuckle and reported back to us in his brisk British accent. “We just lived through an earthquake.”

We grabbed shoes, a change of clothes and jumped on the waiting elevator heading for the main floor. I trembled riding the elevator afraid we would get stuck if the electricity went off. Hotel guests were already assembled in the lobby. Our Japanese hosts comforted us and assured us everything was alright and that earthquakes were a normal occurrence in Japan. They prepared food and drinks for us.

We later learned the earthquake was 8.0 and mover 300 people were hurt.

Our families back in West Virginia heard the news reports of an earthquake in the area, northern Japan, where we were visiting but they were unable to get any communication with us. We were not able to get in touch with them either for the first day and night. We couldn’t get a phone or computer connection. Our families were scared to death we had been hurt or killed. They immediately placed us on the prayer chain at our church in Summersville. They were so happy when they heard out voices and learned we were alright. God kept us safe.

The International Mining Congress was exciting with more than 300 professional attending and speaking. I knew I was on a plan with God in charge so I overcame my backwardness and made many friends.

Jean and I visited our host elementary school. What a surprise. The students sang John Denver’s Country Road, Take Me Home in English. They wanted to ask me questions about my life in America. We exchanged gifts and I gave them all hugs. I didn’t know until day eight Japanese people do not hug—I think I had already hugged most of them by then. They even started hugging me back.

When we traveled through one city we saw signs promoting a Communist party. Again, I thanked God for our democracy. We stuck our heads through Buddha statutes for pictures. I’d never seen a Buddha statute before. We visited a Shinto Hall and given a brief introduction to Shintoism. Jean and I are Southern Baptists.

I met lots of local people in different communities whose family members had been coal miners. They wanted to know how to preserve their cultural heritage. Near Nagasaki, we boarded a small boat and headed out to sea to Hashima Island. What a site. On nothing but a huge rock, a coal mining camp made up of high-rises. Now abandoned, the camp at one time packed over 13,000 people in each square mile of residential high-risers. This former coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi Motors operated from 1887 to 1974. A couple who grew up there traveled with us telling us some people lived their entire lives there and only left to be buried on a hilly graveyard on the mainland nearby. This couple had begun a campaign to preserve this history but the government was not supportive.
They were hopeful when I told them I was a one-person show documenting our coal mining history by collecting individual oral histories. I told them I was not funded by any university or government agency. My project was out of my pocket and not expensive—just a hand-held tape recorder and computer.

The nine days flew by quickly but Jean and I were happy to get back to West Virginia. I left Japan more conscious of our similarities instead of differences. Our Appalachian region looked very much like northern Japan with rugged hills and green trees and coal mining heritage. Our houses, although different in style were similar in size, we both raise gardens. We both love bluegrass music. We both are representative of the working-class, not afraid of physical labor, caring for each other and survivors. When I left I had so many gifts they were shipped because of flight restraints. I made lasting friends with the Japanese.

They are in my prayers at this moment.


Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writer and contributor to She is the author of three books: Appalachia, Spirit Triumphant, and Sago Mine Disaster

The Sunny Side of Appalachia (Bluegrass from the Grassroots) and forth coming novel, Harlan Confessions.

She may be contacted at:

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