Tokyo: The biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began 140 years ago struck the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-meter tsunami that swept away everything in its path, including boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control.
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 US Geological Survey said the 2:46 pm quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s. Meanwhile, authorities said more earthquakes measuring over 7.0 on the Richter scale could occur in and around Japan within a month.
Japan issued a state of emergency at a nuclear power plant after its cooling system had a mechanical failure. Trouble was reported at two other nuclear plants as well but there was no radiation leak at any.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the measure at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima was a precaution and that the facility was not in immediate danger.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of Pacific, Southeast Asian and Latin American nations, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities said they expect a 3-foot (1-meter) high tsunami.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles (10 kilometers), about 80 miles (125 kilometers) off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles (380 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake was followed by at least 19 aftershocks, most of them of more than magnitude 6.0. 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.
`Help each other`
Already facing political furore, embattled Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has urged his countrymen to help each other in a bid to minimise the damage nature has inflicted upon the country.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," he said at a news conference.
In the televised address, he announced the set up of an emergency response headquarters in a bid to deal with the alarming situation in the country.
"The government will put its strength together and work hard in tackling this disaster," the PM said.
"We ask the people of Japan to act fast and to help one`s family and neighbours. We should all help each other to minimise the damage."
The government has further urged people to stay cautious and vigilant.
Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions.
"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."
He said the Defense Ministry was sending troops to the quake-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo and was burning out of control with 100-foot (30 meter) -high flames whipping into the sky.
In northeastern Japan`s Miyagi prefecture, a fire broke out in a turbine building of a nuclear power plant. Smoke was observed coming out of the building, which is separate from the plant`s reactor, and the cause is under investigation, said Tohoku Electric Power Co. the company said.
There have been no reports of radioactive leaks or injuries, the company said. Several nuclear plants elsewhere along the coast were also partially shut down, with no reports of leakage.
Also from Miyagi prefecture, NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city.
Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into the cities, slamming against overpasses. Upturned and partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water.
Waves of muddy waters swept over farmland near the city of Sendai, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport, north of Tokyo, was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways. Fires spread through a section of the city, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the houses, probably because of burst gas pipes.
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 Centre issued alerts for countries to the west and across the Pacific 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.
In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district of Tokyo. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 333-meter (1,093-foot) steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms.
Large numbers of people waited at Tokyo`s Shinjuku station, the world`s busiest train station, for service to resume so they could go home. TV announcers urged workers not to leave their offices to prevent injuries in case of more strong aftershocks.
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.
The 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 percent.
British, French and German insurers were also sold off in early trade, with Aviva down more than 2 percent, Allianz off 1.7 percent and Axa 1.3 percent lower.
More quakes forecast
More earthquakes measuring over 7.0 on the Richter scale could occur in and around Japan within a month, authorities said on Friday.
The National Meteorological Administration made the forecast after a massive earthquake hit the northeast of Japan Friday, Kyodo news agency said.
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 September 01, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.
The 1995 Kobe quake caused USD 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 USD 10 billion.
The US Geological Survey earlier verified a magnitude of 7.9 at a depth of 15.1 miles and located the quake 81 miles east of Sendai, on the main island of Honshu. It later upgraded it to 8.9.
Japan`s northeast Pacific coast, called Sanriku, has suffered from quakes and tsunamis in the past and a 7.2 quake struck on Wednesday. In 1933, a magnitude 8.1 quake in the area killed more than 3,000 people.
Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world`s most seismically active areas. The country accounts for about 20 percent of the world`s earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater.