USS Denver crew gets lesson in honor from samurai
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 9, 2013
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The crew of the USS Denver got a special lesson on the warrior code when samurai descendants visited the amphibious transport dock Friday.
With snow flurrying outside, a couple hundred sailors gathered around the 11 kimono-clad warriors to observe sword fighting techniques passed down for generations. The swords — hundreds of years old and considered national treasures — sliced through bamboo limbs with ease as grunts echoed on the ship’s chilly well-deck.
While it may have looked like just a weapons display, the sailors also learned about dedication to training, vigilance, honor, the privilege of serving and the responsibility society places on its warriors. Organizers hope the samurai code, called bushido, can help inspire sailors to live with honor and avoid bad decisions.
“I thought it was kind of neat to bring Japan’s oldest warrior tradition here to the United States Navy’s oldest deployable warship, the USS Denver,” said the ship’s commander, Capt. Kevin Lenox.
“We talk about the sailor’s creed; we talk about honor, courage, commitment; we talk about serving something larger than yourself, to defend the Constitution, and we talk about those who have gone before us. We have a code that we live by. The samurai do, too.”
Holly Mateikat, wife of one of the ship’s officers, approached Lenox with the idea for the event. She said it would be worthwhile if the samurai code and its lessons of honor and responsibility reached even one sailor and spared him from making a mistake in his personal life.
The U.S. military in Japan has suffered several incidents of alcohol-related misbehavior in recent months that led to liberty restrictions and placed servicemembers increasingly under the microscope.
“It is our hope that if you can understand even a part of samurai philosophy, we feel we have fulfilled our commitment to passing this wisdom to future generations,” samurai descendant and former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Lt. Ito Naomi told the sailors.
“The basic philosophy of the samurai is to reflect honor and respect in your everyday thoughts and behavior, honor and respect for those you protect and for whom you serve. These high ideals are the foundation of what it means to be a samurai and made him worthy of holding the highest position in society.”
Ito said the samurai sword is a symbol of that position and the philosophy that the samurai “holds in his heart.”
The 11 samurai from all over northern Kyushu showed off various weapons and fighting styles, including some developed in nearby Fukuoka in the 1500s that had been passed down only through a few descendants.
They showed off samurai swords large and small along with a sickle with a ball and chain attached that was effective in disarming an opponent before inflicting a deathblow.
The sailors snapped photos in awe as bamboo several inches thick was lopped off posts, seemingly with little force or effort.
“It was pretty cool I got to see some samurai and some old weapons,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Caseny Truesdale said. “I was surprised they could still cut that good being that they’re that old. It was pretty neat to see it; we got to experience some culture.”
After the event — with not a single piece of bamboo left standing — the samurai let the sailors hold these national treasures. They talked about preparation, focus, patience and being ready to fight when needed.
“I thought it was an interesting experience,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony Kowalewskivillalobos said. “[They taught me] to never falter from the code. Sometimes it’s hard, but you just have to live it.”
A samurai descendant demonstrates the proper technique and strength of wielding a samurai blade aboard the USS Denver Friday. Eleven samurai from northern Kyushu came to the amphibious transport dock to teach its sailors about the combat art form and also about the "bushido" code, whose tenets include honor and respect for those you protect and serve.
Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes