Hours later, the waves washed ashore on Hawaii and the US west coast, where evacuations were ordered from California to Washington but little damage was reported.
The entire Pacific had been put on alert — including coastal areas of South America, Canada and Alaska — but waves were not as bad as expected.
In north-eastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor’s cooling system failed and pressure began building inside.
Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the north-eastern coastal city of Sendai, the city in Miyagi prefecture, or state, closest to the epicentre. But authorities said they weren’t able to reach the area because of damage to the roads.
A police official, who declined to be named because of department policy, said it may be a while before rescuers could reach the area to get a more precise body count. So far, they have confirmed 178 were killed, with 584 missing. Police also said 947 people were injured.
The magnitude-8.9 offshore quake triggered a seven-meter tsunami and was followed for hours by more than 50 aftershocks, many of them more than magnitude 6.0. In the early hours of Saturday, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck the central, mountainous part of the country — far from the original quake’s epicentre.
Friday’s massive quake shook dozens of cities and villages along a 2,100km stretch of coast, including Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre. A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said.
Scientists said the quake ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan planned to hold an emergency cabinet meeting early today and them take a helicopter to the quake-hit area and the troubled nuclear power plants.
Japan’s coastguard said it was searching for 80 dock workers on a ship that was swept away from a shipyard in Miyagi.
Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged kilometres inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images on Japanese TV of powerful, debris-filled waves, uncontrolled fires and a ship caught in a massive whirlpool resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.
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.
In one town alone on the northeastern coast, Minami-soma, some 1,800 houses were destroyed or badly ravaged, a Defence Ministry spokeswoman said.
As night fell and temperatures hovered just above freezing, tens of thousands of people remained stranded in Tokyo, where the rail network was still down.
- UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon: The world is shocked and saddened by the images coming out of Japan. We will do anything and everything we can.
- US President Barack Obama: The United States stands ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial.
- Russian President Dimitry Medvedev: Russia is ready to offer Japan all possible aid to cope with the aftermath of this tragedy.
- British Prime Minister David Cameron: We’ve had a terrible reminder of the destructive power of nature and everyone should be thinking of that country and their people, and I’ve asked immediately that our government should look at what we can do to help.