Authorities in Japan on Tuesday rushed to assess the damage the day after a powerful earthquake left at least 48 dead, led to landslides and the collapse of multiple buildings, sparked a large-scale fire in a popular tourist area, and triggered a tsunami warning for the length of the nation’s west coast.
Continuing aftershocks, rubble on roadways and damaged roads were hampering rescue operations amid a race to find survivors.
Footage taken by the broadcaster NHK on Tuesday morning showed a seven-story building toppled over sideways and smoke rising in a central area of Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, known for its morning market, where a large blaze broke out Monday.
Images on social media showed cars, houses and bridges in Ishikawa wobbling violently as terrified people cowered in shops and train stations. Houses collapsed and huge cracks appeared in roads while others were hit by landslides.
Fires engulfed over 200 structures in the central Wajima area but have been bought under control, Ishikawa officials said.
Ishikawa Gov. Hiroshi Hase wrote on X that roads have been cut in widespread areas by landslides or cracking, while in the port of Suzu, "multiple" vessels had capsized.
The 7.6 magnitude earthquake, which at its center was rated the highest-level 7 on Japan’s shindo intensity scale, struck Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto Peninsula on Monday afternoon, as the nation was marking New Year’s Day — when families generally gather at home and many shops are closed.
The quake was centered around 30 kilometers east-northeast of Wajima with a provisional depth of 16 km.
The quake triggered a rare major tsunami warning and forecasts that waves of up to 5 meters could strike, but by 10 a.m. Tuesday, all warnings and advisories had been lifted. The highest tsunami recorded was said to be over 1.2 meters at Wajima Port in Ishikawa.
The Meteorological Agency said on Tuesday that while waves are not likely to grow larger, sea level changes were still being observed, encouraging people in areas that had been under tsunami warnings to refrain from marine-based work.
While fears of a major tsunami — reminiscent of the deadly waves that struck Japan’s northeast coast following the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster in March 2011 — did not materialize, the quake itself appears to have caused widespread damage, with the death toll likely to rise as rescuers move through the disaster area.
"It was such a powerful jolt," said Tsugumasa Mihara, 73, as he lined up with hundreds of others for water in the shellshocked town of Shika.
"What a terrible way to start the year."
In the city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, the quake was fairly strong, but the damage was not widespread aside from a residential area in the Tagami-shinmachi district, where houses at the top of a hill were hit by a landslide — leading three to collapse. No deaths were reported due to the landslide. The area was also cut off from water and gas services.
Hiroko Aoki, a woman in her 70s from the area, recalled that she felt a strong jolt when she was reaching out to drink from a cup, followed by an even stronger shaking. She quickly went outside after the shaking subsided to check the situation, discovering that her windows were shattered. She was then prompted by the authorities to evacuate.
“I was really scared,” Aoki said, recalling that there were around 40 people at an elementary school that became an evacuation site. “Since it’s a gym, it was very cold and there was no radio or TV, so I had no idea what was going on.”
Toshiko Oshima, 75, also a resident who is currently taking refuge at Kanazawa Tagami Community Center, told The Japan Times that she knew a family member who lived in one of the houses that had collapsed.
The family member — an architect — felt a shaking he had “never felt before.” Acting on instinct, he scooped up his dog and fled the house along with his wife, holding a key in his hand. When he took a quick glance back, the house “had already disappeared,” Oshima said.
“He was so caring, reaching out to others and letting everyone know of the situation even though he is a victim. He probably did not sleep at the evacuation center,” Oshima said. “He is a very kind person.”
Niigata Prefecture resident Brendon Donaldson told The Japan Times by phone that the earthquake he experienced at his home in the city of Joetsu was the worst he’d felt in the 30 years he has lived in Japan.
“I was just sitting down using my iPad, and I couldn't do anything. I couldn't stand. I didn't really know what to do,” said Donaldson, who is originally from Scotland. “Things were falling off shelves, cupboards were opening up, doors were opening.”
Donaldson, 56, said his house is located around a kilometer from the Sea of Japan, and around 150 km from the Noto Peninsula as the crow flies. Although houses in his area did not see much damage, he said when he went to a beach near his house on Tuesday morning, he observed that many of the beach houses had been damaged by the small tsunami from the day before.
“Some of the beach houses had just completely disappeared,” he said.
Some of the deaths confirmed so far appear to have been caused by people being trapped or buried in collapsed buildings. Structures are reported to have collapsed in Niigata, Toyama, Fukui and Gifu prefectures, leading to multiple injuries.
According to Ishikawa Prefecture, 20 have been confirmed dead in Suzu, 19 in Wajima, five in Nanao, two in Anamizu and one each in Hakui and Shika. The deaths included seven victims at Wajima Municipal Hospital, city officials said.
In Wajima, 25 houses are reported to have collapsed, with a likelihood of people being buried under rubble in at least 14 of the sites.
A team of firefighters crawled under a collapsed commercial building in Wajima looking for survivors, television footage showed.
"Hang in there! Hang in there," they shouted as they battled through piles of wooden beams with an electric saw.
A duty officer at the Wajima Fire Department said authorities were still being overwhelmed Tuesday by rescue requests and reports of damage.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday morning that the government had established an emergency disaster local response headquarters in Ishikawa to assess the situation and offer support.
“As time passes, the effect of the disaster is becoming more and more clear,” Kishida said. “Saving the lives of the disaster victims is a race against time.”
The Self-Defense Forces set up a joint task force and said 10,000 personnel were ready to engage in rescue and relief operations, on top of 1,000 personnel already in the area, Defense Minister Minoru Kihara told a news conference.
As darkness fell on the area on Monday night, news reports showed a massive blaze in the Kawaimachi district of Wajima. The fire, which burned shops and homes, was brought under control around late morning, while extinguishing efforts continue. The area is a popular tourist spot, known for its Asaichi street.
It was unclear if the fire had led to injuries or deaths. According to local police reports, around 200 buildings are believed to have burned from the fire in Wajima. Officials said the earthquake hindered firefighting operations, according to NHK. An expert told the broadcaster that confusion following the quake may have led to the spread of the fire, and that it may have spread easily due to the area’s predominantly wooden structures.
A total of over 46,000 people have evacuated across Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures as of Tuesday morning. Over 160 people evacuated in Noto island in the city of Nanao, but because roads are closed on the bridge that connects the island to the mainland, supplies are unable to reach the area.
Since the initial quake, which struck at around 4:10 p.m. on Monday, there have been over 129 aftershocks of shindo 2 or higher, as of 6 a.m. on Tuesday. On Monday, the Meteorological Agency warned that quakes of up to shindo 7 could strike the area again over the next week, urging caution especially over the next few days.
The quake also impacted the nation’s transport network and left passengers stranded. Some shinkansen lines and flights in the area were canceled after the quake. Four trains on the Hokuriku Shinkansen that were between Toyama and Kanazawa stations were left at a standstill for 11 hours with a total of 1,400 passengers aboard.
All train lines came back online by late Tuesday afternoon.
About 500 people were stranded at Noto's damaged airport, with access roads blocked and the runway riddled with cracks.
Around 32,600 households in Ishikawa Prefecture and 30 households in Niigata Prefecture have lost power. Some areas of Ishikawa, Toyama, Fukui and Nagano prefectures have also been cut off from water supplies.
There are also reports that 16 medical facilities in Ishikawa, two in Niigata and one in Toyama are experiencing power and water outages.
While some areas are experiencing difficulties with phone and internet services, three major telecommunications operators — NTT Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank — are working on setting up a free Wi-Fi service called “00000JAPAN” in affected regions.
Road closures have also impacted the delivery of goods in the area, with major delays being seen in Niigata, Ishikawa, Toyama and Fukui, according to Japan Post. Major convenience stores in the region, including 100 7-Eleven stores and 160 Family Mart stores, are temporarily closed as well.
According to the weather agency, the Noto peninsula is expected to see rain between Tuesday night and Thursday, warning that even a small amount of rain could result in a landslide.
A shindo 7 quake is described as making it impossible for people to remain standing. Such a temblor was last recorded in 2018 in Hokkaido, the weather agency said. Until Monday, a major tsunami warning hadn't been issued in the nation since the 2011 disaster.
The country's geodetic survey system recorded significant land movement, with a reference station in Wajima moving 1.3 meters westward, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan said. The number of earthquakes in the Noto Peninsula region has been steadily increasing since 2018, a Japanese government report said last year.
Foreign governments including those of the United States, Canada and Italy offered support.
In Washington, President Joe Biden said in a statement released after the quake that the United States will provide "any necessary assistance for the Japanese people."
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak issued a statement saying that his thoughts are with all those affected by the earthquake in Japan. "We stand ready to support Japan and are monitoring developments closely," he added.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on X that Canada stands with the people of Japan and is ready to extend a helping hand while French President Emmanuel Macron expressed solidarity with Japan, saying that the country can count on France's support.
In a message on X, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva also said: "Today, Japan is in my thoughts and prayers as it copes with yet another powerful earthquake. I admire the strength of the country and its people — you teach us all a valuable lesson about investing in resilience needed in a more shock-prone world."
- Detailed information about the latest earthquakes, from the Japan Meteorological Agency website
- An explanation of shindo, Japan's earthquake intensity scale
- A guide to what to before, during and after an earthquake
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