Japan quake kills three, more missing

An earthquake with a magnitude of 7,2 struck rural northern Japan on Saturday, killing at least three people, officials and televisions said. Several others were trapped in hotspring resort hit by a landslide.

The quake, at 23.43pm GMT on Friday, was centred in Iwate, a sparsely populated area around 300km north of Tokyo. Dozens of aftershocks also jolted the area.

”I was outside and I wanted to rush back to the store, but I couldn’t move because it was shaking,” a liquor store owner told Fuji TV. ”Broken bottles are all over the store, and there’s a smell of alcohol everywhere.”

One of the people killed was caught in a landslide, chief Cabinet secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters. A second was killed as he ran out of a building and was run over by a car. NHK said another man was killed at a dam construction site hit by falling rocks.

At least four people were buried in a landslide at a hot spring resort in Kurihara city in hard-hit Miyagi prefecture, TV Asahi reported, though it was unknown whether they were dead.

Three more were missing at a work site after another landslide in Kurihara, Kyodo news agency said, adding that more than 100 people were hurt.

Water containing a small amount of radiation leaked within a Tokyo Electric Power nuclear power facility in the region, but there was no leakage outside, a spokesperson for Japan’s biggest utility said.

Rail operator JR East said 2 000 were trapped on bullet trains that stopped between stations.

The energy released by the quake was far less than in the case of the magnitude 7,9 earthquake that hit south-western China on May 12, leaving nearly 87 000 people dead or missing.

”The seismic energy of the China quake was one order of magnitude greater,” Naoshi Hirata, a professor at Tokyo University’s Earthquake Research Institute, told Reuters.

He cautioned that casualties could rise as reports came in from isolated areas, but added the region’s sparse population and Japan’s strict building standards were likely to keep casualties and damage limited.

Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active areas. The country accounts for about 20% of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude six or greater, prompting tough building codes to try to limit damage.

Four people were badly injured near the airport in the north-east coastal city of Sendai as a bus they were travelling in was jolted by the earthquake, TV reported.

”I was at home and we had finished eating breakfast,” said Akira Nishimura, an official from the city hall in Kurihara. ”We got under the table”, he said referring to himself, his four-year-old child and his wife.

More aftershocks expected
A Japan Meteorological Agency official told a news conference that aftershocks were likely to continue for some time.

The government had set up an emergency response centre, the Tokyo Fire Department sent a relief team and Iwate governor Takuya Tasso asked for help from a military disaster relief unit.

”We are doing all that we can, involving local governments, the the country’s Self-Defence Forces [military] and police,” Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda told reporters. ”The most important thing is to rescue people.

Tohoku Electric Power said more than 30 000 people had lost electricity supplies.

The focus of the magnitude seven tremor was 10km underground in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, the Japan Meteorological Agency said on its website.

Children and teachers at a daycare centre were slightly injured, and some highways were closed, Japanese television reported, with aerial pictures showing landslides that had swept through a house and swamped some roads.

In worst hit areas, the earthquake was measured at an upper six on a Japanese intensity scale, which measures ground motion. It may be impossible to keep standing in a quake with that reading, the meteorological agency says.

”It shook for about two minutes,” Kazue Hishiya, manager of a hotel in Iwate prefecture, said by telephone.

”Three television sets fell off shelves, elevators have stopped, and we’ve turned off the boiler.”

Another Kurihara city official said that a Japanese-style inn had been hit by a landslide, blocking the first floor, and that guests had moved to the second floor.

A JR East spokesperson said it could take nine hours to complete safety checks and resume bullet train services.

An official at Tohoku said its nuclear plants at Onagawa and Higashidori were running as usual.

Top Japanese refiner Nippon Oil’s 145 000 barrel-per-day Sendai refinery appeared not to have been damaged after the quake, a company official said. The refinery is currently shut for scheduled maintenance.

Sony and Fujitsu said they had stopped production at semiconductor factories in the region but had not found any damage so far.

In October 2004, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6,8 struck the Niigata region in northern Japan, killing 65 people and injuring more than 3 000.

That was the deadliest quake since a magnitude 7,3 tremor hit the city of Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6 000. – Reuters

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