An earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale rocked Japan’s north-eastern coast today, unleashing a 4m tsunami which swept boats, cars, buildings and tonnes of debris miles inland.
Fires triggered by the quake burned out of control up and down the coast.
At least one person was killed and there were reports of several injuries in Tokyo, hundreds of miles away, where buildings shook violently throughout the main quake and the wave of massive aftershocks that followed.
TV footage showed waves of muddy waters sweeping over farmland near the city of Sendai, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away.
“This is a rare major quake, and damages could quickly rise by the minute,” said Junichi Sawada, an official with Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency.
Officials were trying to assess damage, injuries and deaths but had no immediate details. Police said at least one person was killed in a house collapse in Ibaraki prefecture, just north-east of Tokyo.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo and was burning out of control.
Public broadcaster NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away by the tsunami and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture. Similar destruction was seen in dozens of communities along the coast.
In various locations along the coast, footage showed massive damage from the tsunami, with cars, boats and even buildings being carried along by water.
The quake struck at 2.46pm local time and was followed by five powerful aftershocks within about an hour, the strongest measuring 7.1.
The US Geological Survey upgraded the strength of the first quake to a magnitude 8.9, while Japan’s meteorological agency measured it at 8.4.
The meteorological agency issued a tsunami warning for the entire Pacific coast of Japan. NHK was warning those near the coast to get to safer ground.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii said a tsunami warning was in effect for Japan, Russia, Marcus Island and the Northern Marianas.
A tsunami watch has been issued for Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the US state of Hawaii.
The quake struck at a depth of 10km, about 125km off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 380km north-east of Tokyo.
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.
In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms. NHK said more than 4 million buildings without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
The ceiling in Kudan Kaikan, a large hall in Tokyo, collapsed, injuring an unknown number of people, NHK said.
Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday.
Thirty minutes after the quake, tall buildings were still swaying in Tokyo and mobile phone networks were not working.