Image: Marines in Higashi Matsushima
Wally Santana  /  AP
U.S. Marines unload hardware to install hot showers at a makeshift shelter for displaced residents on Saturday in Higashi Matsushima, Japan.
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updated 3/27/2011 12:12:48 AM ET 2011-03-27T04:12:48

Just one year after tensions over American military bases forced out a prime minister, a U.S. relief mission after the earthquake and tsunami is remaking Japanese opinions.

Roughly 20,000 U.S. troops have been mobilized in "Operation Tomodachi," or "Friend." It is the biggest bilateral humanitarian mission the U.S. has conducted in Japan, its most important ally in Asia.

As logistics gradually improve, U.S. troops have been moving farther into hard-hit zones and providing tons of relief supplies and badly needed manpower to help the hundreds of thousands of Japanese whose lives were shattered in the March 11 disaster.

In a part of Japan that hosts few U.S. bases, the Americans in uniform are a high-profile presence.

"To be honest, I didn't think much about the U.S. troops until now," said Arika Ota, 29, who works at an amusement center in the coastal city of Sendai. "But when I see them working at the airport every day, I'm really thankful. They are working really hard. I never imagined they could help us so much."

The Sendai airport cleanup is one of the troops' most visible — and successful — operations so far.

Sendai is the biggest city in the region hit by the tsunami and its airport was utterly destroyed. The grounds and runways were covered in mud, rubble and more than 1,000 vehicles that were tossed about by the sea. The first floor of the terminal building was caked in sandy sludge, its windows were shattered by the tsunami and its shops were a jumble of garbage and broken souvenirs.

Now, the runways are clear enough to handle large cargo planes, the tossed-about cars have been placed in rows and the second floor houses a command center.

Capt. Robert Gerbract, who is in charge of the U.S. Marines' cleanup operations, said that when he arrived last week he felt like he had stepped back in time.

"It looked like if you had left an airport alone for 1,000 years. It was like an archaeological site. It was hard to figure out where to begin," Gerbract, an Iraq veteran from Wantaugh, N.Y., said as he looked out at the runway from the Marines' makeshift command center in the airport's departure lounge.

Video: In Japan, radiation level in sea water raises fears (on this page)

For Marines like Gerbract, it's a satisfying assignment.

"I'd much rather be carrying relief food packages than a rifle, to be honest," he said.

The Marines are just one facet of the U.S. operation.

  • Within days of the tsunami, the USS Ronald Reagan was stationed about 100 miles off Japan's northeastern shore. It had to reposition itself due to radiation from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility but is now sending sorties to hard-hit towns. The U.S. Navy has 19 ships, 140 aircraft and 18,282 personnel assigned to assist in the operation. It is sending barges filled with freshwater to help cool the reactor site.
  • The Air Force has opened its bases for relief flights. Its transport planes have flown dozens of missions and its fighters have flown over the devastation in search of survivors. Two of its aircraft have helped the Japanese monitor the nuclear plant.
  • Nearly 500 soldiers with the U.S. Army in Japan, which has fewer troops here than the other branches, have delivered blankets and other supplies and are conducting support and refueling for military helicopter operations.

The U.S. forces stress that they are not taking a lead role. That is being done by Japan itself, which has mobilized more of its troops than at anytime since World War II.

"What we're doing is coordination with the Japanese army," said Gunnery Sgt. Leo Salinas, of Dallas, Texas. "Every mission we do is a bilateral mission. They are all Japanese-led and under Japanese initiative. These guys are our allies and, more than that, they are our friends. Whatever they want us to do, we will do."

The Japanese public is very pro-America and generally sees the military presence as a benefit.

But the relationship is complicated by a strong pacifist undercurrent in public opinion borne from World War II. Japan's own military is strictly limited to national self-defense and many Japanese feel the U.S. presence here could make their country a target or draw Japan into a conflict involving American troops over Taiwan or other flash points.

Video: Tsunami survivors band together (on this page)

Even at the shelters where crucial U.S. help is arriving, some Japanese expressed mixed feelings about the troops.

"I feel thankful that they are helping us," Yoko Hiraoka, 40, said as a convoy of U.S. Marines arrived at her evacuation center in the city of Higashi Matsushima on Saturday. The Marines set up showers, which the evacuees have lacked for two weeks.

"But I still have reservations about having U.S. troops in Japan," Hiraoka said. "I'm happy today, and I appreciate their help, but it doesn't fundamentally change the way I feel."

About 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed throughout Japan under a mutual security treaty signed in the 1960s. Tokyo strongly supports the alliance, because it saves Japan money on defense and serves as a powerful deterrent force in the region, particularly as China's military strength and economic clout rise.

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But opposition to the bases is high on the southern island of Okinawa, a strategically important outpost that hosts more U.S. troops than any other part of Japan.

That concentration of forces — including the Marines who make up the bulk of the on-the-ground assistance here — is an endemic source of friction with local residents, who complain of overcrowding, the danger of accidents and base-related crime.

Tensions between the Marines and Okinawans boiled in 1995, when two Marines and a sailor raped a local schoolgirl. The outrage from that attack led to an agreement that the U.S. military would reduce its presence in Okinawa.

Both sides agreed to close down Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, an airfield in the middle of a heavily populated area that has long symbolized the military burden for Okinawans.

But after more than a decade, the base remains open. Washington wants to replace Futenma with another facility on Okinawa before relocating 8,500 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam, as it had agreed to do by 2014.

Okinawans have strongly opposed the construction of any new facilities.

Unable to make any headway in the dispute, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign last year.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, said he believes the disaster relief mission will help build goodwill, but does not expect it to have much impact in Okinawa.

"The goodwill of the Japanese to the Americans ... even to the American presence in Okinawa, has not really been a problem of the mainland," he said. "The problem remains Okinawa. The Okinawans will be saying, 'Of course it's good what the Americans did, but why do the bases have to be in Okinawa?'"

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: In Japan, radiation level in sea water raises fears

  1. Closed captioning of: In Japan, radiation level in sea water raises fears

    >>> from japan , troubling news from the earthquake zone where workers are struggling to cool the damaged fukushima daiichi power plant . high radiation levels found in seawater near the plant two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami struck. nbc's lee cowan has our story.

    >> reporter: with so much talk of the spike in radiation levels, the other spike in the death toll is sometimes lost. but it continues unabated. it is fast approaching 11,000 with nearly 18,000 still missing. at the fukushima nuclear power plant the u.s. is shipping in hundreds of thousands of gallons of freshwater to help cool the reactors. a better alternative engineers say than injecting salt water . but all of it has to drain somewhere and the government now says it may have made its way back out to sea. radiation readings in water near shore have registered 1,000 times greater than normal. japanese officials though are quick to point out that it is still within safe limits. but were angered by news that the plant's owner tepco knew radioactive water was gathering in one of the reactors but didn't disclose it until after three workers were exposed. sending two to the hospital. tepco apologized. it is that kind of revelation though that prompted japan 's prime minister to warn that it is no time to be optimistic, not yet. a sobering assessment as millions struggled to get back to some semblance of normal. there is a phrase here in japan [ speak foreign language ] it means what can you do. we hear it time and time again, over and over again. despite the circumstances live goes on. and it is. there were weddings today. at a shrine under brilliant blue skies with barely a cloud. at least not the kind you can see. a steady stream of people came to pray, new parents brought children to be blessed, this couple, a boy. just 7 weeks owed. you have to act accordingly and stay calm this young father says. i am call am. my wife isn't. although many of life's happy rituals, college graduations have been canceled. these two students weren't going to be deterred. they donned their graduation kimonos, next to the shrine the customary collection of wooden plaques inscribed with wishes, pray for japan this one read, which to many on this brilliant day, were three words that said it all. lee cowan, nbc

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

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  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
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