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TOKYO (AP) — President Barack Obama on Wednesday opened a four-country Asia tour aimed at reassuring allies in the region that the U.S. remains a committed economic, military and political partner that can serve as a counterweight to China's growing influence.

The president kicked off his trip on an informal note, joining Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a famous Tokyo sushi restaurant with hard-to-come-by reservations and a hefty price tag. Obama and Abe greeted each other warmly outside Sukiyabashi Jiro, the underground sushi restaurant run by 88-year-old Jiro Ono.

The outing was unusually casual by Japanese standards and underscored the effort by both countries to strengthen the personal relationship between Obama and Abe.

The two leaders will hold more formal talks Thursday, with Obama aiming to promote the U.S. as a committed economic, military and political partner. But the West's dispute with Russia over Ukraine threatens to cast a shadow over the president's sales mission.

Relations between neighbors Russia and Ukraine remain tense nearly a week after both countries, the U.S. and the European Union inked an agreement in Geneva calling on Moscow to use its influence over pro-Russian forces to have them lay down their arms and end their occupation of government buildings in eastern Ukraine. Each side accuses the other of failing to uphold its end of the deal.

The White House, which lays the blame squarely on Russia and praises Ukraine for behaving responsibly, has said it is monitoring the situation closely and is prepared, without being specific about a timeline, to slap additional sanctions on Russia "in the coming days" if it fails to abide by the terms of the tenuous deal.

The U.S. response in Ukraine has unsettled some Asian countries, leaving them to wonder how reliable a partner the U.S. would be if they ever faced a similar situation given their own sea and air disputes with China. Ahead of his arrival in Tokyo, Obama sought to reassure Japan that its security pact with the U.S. does apply to the islands at the center of a territorial dispute with Beijing.

"The policy of the United States is clear," he said in a written response to questions published in Japan's Yomiuri newspaper before his arrival in Tokyo at the start of a four-country Asia tour. Obama said he opposes "unilateral attempts to undermine Japan's administration of these islands" and said the disputes need to be resolved "through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion."

Leaders in China will be closely watching Obama's eight-day Asia trip, particularly his efforts to show a united front with Abe. Obama and the Japanese prime minister greeted each other warmly outside the sushi restaurant Wednesday night. They were accompanied by only a handful of close advisers, including U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice.

The party was expected to be treated to Jiro's multiple-course, $300-per-person set sushi menu. The chef's meticulous preparation was detailed in the 2011 documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."

Obama's trip is a do-over of the Asia tour Obama had scheduled last October but canceled in the midst of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government. As with last fall's trip, the White House wants to keep the focus on Obama's promised "rebalance" of U.S. policy toward Asia, after years of attention on the Middle East and the fight against terrorism.

In Japan, Obama and Abe are expected to discuss trade and security concerns, including China and North Korea, among other issues. Ukraine may be on the agenda, too; Japan backs existing Western sanctions against Russia for taking the Crimean Peninsula away from Ukraine. Japan also has provided financial support to Ukraine's interim government.

The U.S. and its close regional ally Japan are the largest economies among 12 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal with several Asian countries that could have served as a centerpiece for Obama's visit. The U.S. had wanted to wrap up the deal by the end of last year, but the talks have stalled, with the U.S. and Japan remaining "at a considerable distance" over trade in farm products and vehicles, Japan's economy minister Akira Amari told reporters Tuesday.

No significant breakthroughs or announcements were expected this week. U.S. officials have said the talks will continue well after Obama leaves.

"The betting is against it," said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

A U.S.-Japan agreement is seen as crucial for progress on the broader deal that would set 21st century trade rules for the dozen nations. Whenever the TPP talks conclude, Obama would face the additional burden of getting the deal through Congress, where fellow Democrats in both chambers oppose legislation that would smooth its passage.

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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

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Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap

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PERTH, Australia (AP) — Authorities say unidentified material that washed ashore in southwestern Australia is being examined for any link to the lost Malaysian plane.

The search coordination center said Wednesday evening that police secured the material that washed ashore 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Augusta in Western Australia. Its statement did not describe the material found.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is examining photographs to assess whether further investigation is needed and if the material is relevant to Flight MH370.

Augusta is near Australia's southwestern tip about 310 kilometers (190 miles) from Perth, where the search has been headquartered.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- A degenerative eye disease slowly robbed Roger Pontz of his vision.

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a teenager, Pontz has been almost completely blind for years. Now, thanks to a high-tech procedure that involved the surgical implantation of a "bionic eye," he's regained enough of his eyesight to catch small glimpses of his wife, grandson and cat.

"It's awesome. It's exciting - seeing something new every day," Pontz said during a recent appointment at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. The 55-year-old former competitive weightlifter and factory worker is one of four people in the U.S. to receive an artificial retina since the Food and Drug Administration signed off on its use last year.

The facility in Ann Arbor has been the site of all four such surgeries since FDA approval. A fifth is scheduled for next month.

Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited disease that causes slow but progressive vision loss due to a gradual loss of the light-sensitive retinal cells called rods and cones. Patients experience loss of side vision and night vision, then central vision, which can result in near blindness.

Not all of the 100,000 or so people in the U.S. with retinitis pigmentosa can benefit from the bionic eye. An estimated 10,000 have vision low enough, said Dr. Brian Mech, an executive with Second Sight Medical Products Inc., the Sylmar, Calif.-based company that makes the device. Of those, about 7,500 are eligible for the surgery.

The artificial implant in Pontz's left eye is part of a system developed by Second Sight that includes a small video camera and transmitter housed in a pair of glasses.

Images from the camera are converted into a series of electrical pulses that are transmitted wirelessly to an array of electrodes on the surface of the retina. The pulses stimulate the retina's remaining healthy cells, causing them to relay the signal to the optic nerve.

The visual information then moves to the brain, where it is translated into patterns of light that can be recognized and interpreted, allowing the patient to regain some visual function.

When wearing the glasses, which Pontz refers to as his "eyes," he can identify and grab his cat and figure out that a flash of light is his grandson hightailing it to the kitchen.

The visual improvement is sometimes startling for Pontz and his wife, Terri, who is just as amazed at her husband's progress as he is.

"I said something I never thought I'd say: `Stop staring at me while I'm eating,'" Terri Pontz said.

She drives her husband the nearly 200 miles from tiny Reed City, Mich., to Ann Arbor for check-ups and visits with occupational therapist Ashley Howson, who helps Roger Pontz reawaken his visual memory and learn techniques needed to make the most of his new vision.

At the recent visit, Howson handed Pontz white and black plates, instructed him to move them back and forth in front of light and dark backgrounds and asked that he determine their color.

Back home, Terri Pontz helps her husband practice the techniques he learns in Ann Arbor.

For them, the long hours on the road and the homework assignments are a blessing.

"What's it worth to see again? It's worth everything," Terri Pontz said.

The artificial retina procedure has been performed several-dozen times over the past few years in Europe, and the expectation is that it will find similar success in the U.S., where the University of Michigan is one of 12 centers accepting consultations for patients.

Candidates for the retinal prosthesis must be 25 or older with end-stage retinitis pigmentosa that has progressed to the point of having "bare light" or no light perception in both eyes.

Dr. Thiran Jayasundera, one of two physicians who performed the 4.5-hour surgery on Roger Pontz, is scheduled to discuss his experiences with the retinal prosthesis process during a meeting of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery on Friday in Boston. He calls it a "game-changer."

Pontz agrees: "I can walk through the house with ease. If that's all I get out of this, it'd be great."

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Online:

HTTP://WWW.KELLOGG.UMICH.EDU

HTTP://WWW.2-SIGHT.COM

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