By MARIKO SANCHANTA and CHESTER DAWSON in Tokyo and DAISUKE WAKABAYASHI in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan
WSJ’s Daisuke Wakabayashi reports from Northern Japan, where the extent of the devastation from a 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent Tsunami became even clearer with the arrival of daylight Saturday morning.
TOKYO—The most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan triggered a 30-foot tsunami that washed away parts of the northern shore, leaving hundreds dead, forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes and raising fears of a radioactive release from some of the country’s many nuclear power plants.
Strong Quake Strikes Japan
The quake was one of the world’s five strongest in more than a century of record-keeping, with a magnitude of 8.9. It inflicted particularly severe damage in Japan’s northeast, where powerful waves swallowed warehouses and fishing boats and swept across neighborhoods and rice paddies. A train was reported derailed and missing. A quake-sparked blaze at an oil-storage site spread throughout a town of 75,000.
Japan’s National Police Agency said Saturday morning that 236 people had died, 725 were missing and 1028 injured. That toll is likely to rise as figures were compiled across the country: Police said 200 to 300 bodies had been found in the city of Sendai, the closest major city to the quake’s epicenter.
Worries mounted early Saturday over safety at two nuclear-power plants north of Tokyo, after power outages disabled the systems that cool fuel rods. Radiation levels in a control room of one reactor reached around 1,000 times the normal level early Saturday, Kyodo News reported the government’s nuclear agency as saying. Officials said they had asked people living within about six miles of that plant to evacuate. Some 20,000 people had left the area around that and another troubled plant by Saturday morning, Kyodo reported.
Japan Quake’s Effects
See a map of post-earthquake events in Japan, Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast.
The impact of the quake’s first jolt, which hit at 2:46 p.m. on a clear Friday afternoon, was felt around the country, including in Tokyo. There, office buildings swayed. Trains, buses and phone service stopped. Millions of households lost power.
Japanese spent the rest of the day and night watching televised images of fires, collapsed buildings and deadly debris-filled waves, delivered by news anchors in hard hats. Dozens of powerful aftershocks emanated from off the eastern coast through Saturday morning, shaking the country and its people.
The quake’s footprint spread at about 3 a.m. local time, as new seismic activity rippled through the center to the country’s western coast, raising the specter of a series of quakes extending throughout the country, which sits atop crisscrossing fault lines on the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire.
“I really thought I was going to die,” Yuhei Sakaibara, a reporter for the local Sendai newspaper, said in a telephone interview Friday night. “Dishes went flying in every direction and huge cracks ripped up the walls. When I got outside, I saw that several houses in the neighborhood had collapsed.”
In a town of about 12,500 residents in neighboring Fukushima prefecture—at the outskirts of the worst-damaged areas—roads were cracked. Goro Okawara, a 68-year-old farmer who said he was in the fields when the first quake hit, said he thought the temblor would last 30 seconds but “it just kept going and kept getting worse and worse.”
The traditional kawara tiles on Mr. Okawara’s roof “came flying off,” he said, crumbling and spraying red clay blocks in all directions. A glass door shattered. A crater appeared in his driveway. Nearby, he said, the crematorium where his family was planning a funeral for a relative Saturday had collapsed. At the local cemetery, many headstones were snapped in half.
In all, about 100,000 residents of Fukushima province had evacuated by early Saturday, Kyodo reported.
The quakes and waves slammed a nation that has had its prolonged share of miseries. An extended economic decline saw Japan recently slip behind China as the world’s second-largest economy. A series of scandals have not only discredited and paralyzed its political leadership, but also tarred institutions from elite universities to the ancient sumo sport.
Japan’s long-deadlocked parliament appeared initially to have set aside political bickering and rallied around calls for unity and new measures to keep the quake from further weakening the economy.
With damages estimates likely to mount quickly, news of the quake—which struck near the close of trading Friday on the Tokyo Stock Exchange—may pummel Japanese shares next week. Should the already debt-burdened government be forced to issues trillions of yen in reconstruction bonds, the move would affect the Japanese fixed-income market and weigh on Japan’s already-weakened credit rating from the world’s major rating agencies.
Yumiko Ono reports from Tokyo that more than 1000 people are dead or missing after a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami struck Northern Japan Friday.
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Some economists have argued that a quake could actually lift the economy in the long run, by requiring a surge in rebuilding spending. But more immediately, the impact disrupted a spectrum of the nation’s industries, from auto and consumer-electronics makers to steel and beverage producers, forcing a number of them to shut factories.
Offers of sympathy were swift from around the world, with Japan’s foreign ministry saying it had recieved assistance offers from some 50 governments. These included China and Russia, which have recently had testy territorial disputes with Tokyo.
Premier Wen Jiabao expressed “deep sympathy and solicitude to the Japanese government and the people” and told Prime Minister Naoto Kan that China is willing to offer aid. An earthquake has been an occasion for China and Japan to set aside their differences before: After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 68,000 people, Japan’s Self Defense Forces were the first foreign aid and rescue team allowed into China.
“Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be,” U.S. President Barack Obama said at a news conference. “Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan and across the region and we’re going to stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this tragedy.”
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Quake Hits Japan
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* Quake-Hit Area Was Already Reeling
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* Post-Kobe Measures May Have Limited Damage
* Waves Hit Hawaii, Force Evacuations
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* Live Blog: Updates From Japan Real Time
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Mr. Obama said he spoke Friday morning with Mr. Kan and offered whatever assistance was needed, and said he expected U.S. aid to be focused on helping with the cleanup. He said the U.S. has an aircraft carrier in Japan now, with another is on the way. A third ship is en route to the Marianas Islands to assist as needed, he said. The U.S. has a large military presence in Japan, and there were signs troops were being mobilized quickly there to help out.
Friday’s quake was the largest ever to hit the earthquake-prone country in terms of strength, but didn’t appear, at least in the early hours, to be as devastating as two great quakes of the 20th century. More than 100,000 people died or went missing in the 7.9-magnitude Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The 1995 Kobe earthquake, which registered 7.3, killed more than 6,000 people in the region.
Disastrous Japan Earthquakes
In September 1923, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo.
See some of the most powerful earthquakes to have hit the island nation.
The World’s Biggest Earthquakes
A photographer looked over wreckage as smoke rose in the background from burning oil storage tanks at Valdez, Alaska, March 29, 1964.
One reason for the lower death toll appeared to be a heightened readiness in Japan, raised particularly after the Kobe quake embarrassed the government and builders for weak preparedness.
“Japan has spent a huge effort preparing for a destructive earthquake off the east coast and is better prepared than most countries in the world,” said Kevin McCue, a director at Australian Seismological Centre.
Analysts say steps taken since the wake-up call of the Kobe quake include using improved construction methods for bridges to make them more responsive to the shock and giving the country’s self-defense forces authority to more immediately engage in relief efforts.
Citizens also got some advance warning from the world’s first early-warning system, developed by the country’s meteorological agency. The agency detected the initial quake’s shock wave near the seismic center and sent off the warning message, which appeared on national television and radio as well as on mobile-phone screens. Throughout the day, the tell-tale warning chime sounded regularly before new tremors hit.
After the quake hit, the government ordered the nation’s military, police and emergency rescue personnel to head for the affected areas to help with the rescue missions.
The central bank quickly announced that it has set up a disaster-management team, headed by Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa, and said it was standing ready to supply liquidity to ensure stability in financial markets.
The government will likely first use roughly 200 billion yen ($2.41 billion) in emergency funding left in the budget for the current fiscal year ending this month, several Finance Ministry officials said. They said the proposed budget for the new fiscal year contains another 350 billion yen for natural disasters and 810 billion yen in emergency funding.
Across Japan, ports, railways and airports shut down. Car-navigation systems indicated that almost every entry point in Tokyo to the nation’s highway system was closed.
In Tokyo, cellphone reception was down, causing long lines to snake around pay phones. Children walked home from school, some with protective head gear. People huddled around televisions, trying to grasp the extent of the damage.
Near Tokyo Station, people streamed onto the street, where the only option was to walk— buses and taxis weren’t available and all trains were halted.
Akira Nomiya, 74, in Tokyo from Sapporo to visit his grandchildren, said the quake hit right after he stepped out of a monorail. “It shook so badly that I couldn’t keep standing as I stepped out of the monorail. People were just hanging onto the wall or sitting down on the ground. Girls were screaming on the platform.”
“A screen fell off my desk,” said Varun Nayyar, an associate director at UBS Securities Japan, who hastily evacuated his building.
At 3:24 p.m., the first large aftershock could be felt by those standing outside of buildings in central Tokyo. Looking up at construction cranes shaking violently atop half-completed buildings, people gasped. As of early Saturday, at least 50 aftershocks were recorded.
The Japanese auto industry was also hit by the earthquake, with Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. among those shutting plants, but one automotive analyst called the expected impact on the industry “manageable.”
Toyota shut down two assembly plants. At Honda’s plant in Tochigi, north of Tokyo, a factory ceiling collapsed, crushing a worker to death and injuring 30 others. Nissan said five plants were shut down immediately after the quake struck, with small fires extinguished at two of them. It was assessing its operations and those of suppliers to see whether production could restart Monday.
Analysts from the main ratings agencies—which have recently downgraded Japan’s sovereign debt—said it was too early to say how the quake might affect the country’s credit ratings. Richard Jerram, a Singapore-based economist at Macquarie Securities with long experience in Japan, said that while the scale of damage was hard to predict, “the most obvious concern is the debt market. That’s going to be the thing to watch.”
Japan’s political logjam won’t likely be a problem, as “you’re obviously going to get a cooperative approach,” he said.
—Juro Osawa, Kana Inagaki, Yoshio Takahashi, Mari Iwata
and Kenneth Maxwell contributed to this article.
“ This is truly a horrible tragedy. I feel very sorry for those affected as well as their family members. I hope they can get back on their feet quickly.