A ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded slammed Japan's eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it swept away boats, cars and homes while widespread fires burned out of control.
Tsunami warnings blanketed the entire Pacific, as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West Coast. Police said 200 to 300 bodies have been found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai. Police said another 88 were confirmed killed and 349 were missing.
The death toll was likely to continue climbing given the scale of the disaster.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 23-foot (7-meter) tsunami and was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0.
The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in Onahama city to evacuate because the plant's system was unable to cool the reactor. The reactor was not leaking radiation but its core remained hot even after a shutdown. The plant is 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo. Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometer) stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the epicenter.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference. (AP)
This was the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began 140 years ago.
The Red Cross in Geneva said the wall of water was higher than some Pacific islands and a tsunami warning was issued for the whole of the Pacific basin, except for the United States and Canada, but Hawaii ordered the evacuation of coastal areas.
At least 60 people had been killed in the quake and tsunami, Kyodo news agency said, and the extent of the destruction, and the forecast for the tsuanmi, suggested the death toll could rise significantly. Japan's public broadcaster NHK has put the death toll due to tsunami triggered by the earth quake at 26.
The 8.9 magnitude quake caused many injuries, sparked fires and a wall of water, prompting warnings to people to move to higher ground in coastal areas.
"I was terrified and I'm still frightened," said Hidekatsu Hata, 36, manager of a Chinese noodle restaurant in Tokyo's Akasaka area. "I've never experienced such a big quake before."
Some nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down and a refinery and a major steel plant was ablaze. Around 4.4 million homes were without power in northern Japan, media said. A hotel collapsed in the city of Sendai and people were feared buried in the rubble.
Electronics giant Sony Corp, one of the country's biggest exporters, shut six factories, Kyodo reported, as air force jets raced toward the northeast coast to determine the extent of the damage.
The Bank of Japan, which has been struggling to boost the anaemic economy, said it would do its utmost to ensure financial market stability as the yen and Japanese shares fell.
The Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia all issued tsunami alerts, reviving memories of the giant tsunami which struck Asia in 2004. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued alerts for countries to the west and across the Pacfic as far away as Colombia and Peru.
There were several strong aftershocks. In Tokyo, buildings shook violently. An oil refinery near the city was on fire, with dozens of storage tanks under threat.
Stunning TV footage showed the tsunami carrying the debris and fires across a large swathe of coastal farmland near the city of Sendai, which has a population of one million. Ships in once coastal area were lifted from the sea into a harbour where they lay helplessly on their side.
Sendai is 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo and the epicentre at sea was not far away.
NHK showed flames and black smoke billowing from a building in Odaiba, a Tokyo suburb, and bullet trains to the north of the country were halted. Thick smoke was also pouring out of an industrial area in Yokohama's Isogo area. TV footage showed boats, cars and trucks tossed around like toys in the water after a small tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. An overpass, location unknown, appeared to have collapsed and cars were turning around and speeding away. Kyodo news agency said there were reports of fires in Sendai where waves carried cars across the runway at the airport.
The western prefecture of Wakayama ordered 20,000 people to evacuate after further tsunami warnings.
"The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks," Reuters correspondent Linda Sieg said in Tokyo. "It was probably the worst I have felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago."
The quake struck just before the Tokyo stock market closed, pushing the Nikkei down to end at a five-week low. Nikkei futures trading in Osaka tumbled as much as 4.7 percent in reaction to the news.
This disaster also weighed on markets elsewhere, pushing shares in European insurance companies down. Large reinsurers -- Swiss Re , Hannover Re and Munich Re -- were all down more than 4 per cent.
British, French and German insurers were also sold off in early trade, with Aviva down more than 2 percent, Allianz
off 1.7 per cent and Axa 1.3 percent lower. (Reuters)
GREAT KANTO QUAKE
The quake was the biggest since records began 140 years ago, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. It surpasses the Great Kanto quake of Sept 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9, killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.
The 1995 Kobe quake caused $100 billion in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history. Economic damage from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was estimated at about $10 billion.