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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The U.S. government is providing relief supplies and logistical support as Japan struggles to recover from a powerful earthquake and tsunami. That aid is being delivered through the U.S. military.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that the relief operation may help to bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance, which has experienced recent friction over the issue of U.S. military bases in Japan.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

ANTHONY KUHN: U.S. Marines and sailors haul food and supplies across the flight deck of the U.S.S Essex. The amphibious assault ship with 2,000 men and women arrived off the coast of Japan on March 19th, joining more than a dozen other U.S. ships there.

In a previous life, the Essex was a World War II aircraft carrier that fought Japanese forces in the Pacific. Today, it's cooperating with the Japanese military in Operation Tomadachi, or Friend.

Crews load helicopters with pallets of rice and water, blankets and toothbrushes, fajitas and Pop Tarts. The choppers will deliver them to supply hubs from which they'll be distributed to Japanese evacuees.

Marine Colonel Andy MacInnis says the Essex has heavy lifting capabilities that the Japanese need.

Colonel ANDY MACINNIS (U.S.S. Essex): I think that's why they've come to us is there's a couple of places that they couldn't quite get to with all of their assets. And they've asked us to use our helos, pick up some supplies somewhere and get it to places where they can't access by roads right now.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KUHN: Below deck, young Marines fill five-gallon plastic jugs with water. The Essex can desalinate up to 100,000 gallons of seawater a day.

Taking all this in is Captain Ide Masanori, a liaison officer with Japan's Self-Defense Forces. He's aboard the Essex to find out what it could can to relief efforts. He says he's worked with the crew of the Essex before but not under anything like the current circumstances.

Captain IDE MASANORI (Liaison Officer, Self-Defense Forces): We have long history of experiences of how to deal with natural disaster, as a disaster relief operation. But this is out of our imagination, right? In entire Japanese history, this is the largest natural disaster.

KUHN: The Essex is part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. It's based on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the only such unit permanently based in Asia. While the unit conducts training in exchanges with most Asian militaries, Rear Admiral Scott Jones says that its ties with Japan are particularly close. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While the Essex does carry members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, it actually belongs to the 7th Fleet.]

Rear Admiral SCOTT JONES: It's all about, you know, communicating and building those relationships, because you just can't surge that trust and confidence in people. It has to be built over time. And that's what I think you see here.

KUHN: Last year, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign after he backed down on his pledge to get the U.S. Marine airbase at Futenma off the island of Okinawa.

Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, says that Operation Tomadachi will help Tokyo and Washington put the military base issue behind them, at least for now.

Professor KOICHI NAKANO (Political Science, Sophia University): The earthquake and its aftermath have really, you know, suspended the whole business of government, not just on the U.S. base issue but broadly on many other topics.

KUHN: Nakano says that while more cynical observers may see Operation Tomadachi as a mere public relations stunt, Japanese are, by and large, grateful for the outpouring of support from the U.S. military and from the international community in general.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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