Japan was struck by its strongest earthquake on record, an 8.9-magnitude temblor that shook buildings across Tokyo and unleashed a seven-meter-high tsunami that killed hundreds as it engulfed towns on the northern coast.
As many as 300 people were killed, a Japanese police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department policy. Many are missing after the quake and waves as high as 23 feet swept ashore, according to state broadcaster NHK, which showed footage of flood waters sweeping away buildings and vehicles. Airports were closed and bullet train services suspended, and an emergency evacuation order was issued for a nuclear power plant north of Tokyo.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Chile were among more than 20 countries told to brace for a possible tsunami, after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center raised an alert. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning for the US west coast. Sirens were sounded and coastal areas evacuated in Hawaii, the Associated Press reported.
"Major damage occurred in the Tohoku area" north of Tokyo, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in a nationally televised address after convening an emergency response team. "I call on citizens to act calmly."
The world's strongest earthquake in more than six years struck at 2:46 p.m. local time 130 kilometers (81 miles) off the coast of Sendai, north of Tokyo, at a depth of 24 kilometers, the US Geological Survey said. It was followed by a 7.1- magnitude aftershock at 4:25 p.m., the agency said.
An evacuation order was issued to residents living within 3 kilometers of a reactor at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. An emergency order was issued earlier, the first of its kind.
"One of the reactors can no longer be cooled," Edano told reporters. "Therefore, we've decided to request an evacuation just in case there's an emergency."
Stocks slid, led by insurers, and oil tumbled as refiners shut plants in Japan, the world's third-largest crude user. Oil was below $100 a barrel in New York for the first time in more than a week, with crude for April delivery down by as much as $3.69, or 3.6 percent, to $99.01 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index fell 0.9 percent at 11:42 a.m. in London while futures on the Standard & Poor's 500 Index lost 0.4 percent.
Japan's stocks dropped 1.7 percent in Tokyo today as the earthquake struck less than half an hour before the market closed. The yen was little changed at 82.17 per dollar at 11:27 a.m. in London, up 1 percent from late yesterday in New York. Japanese government bonds rose, sending the yield on the 10-year security down 2.5 basis points to 1.27 percent.
In the space of an hour, tsunami waves swept inland, buffeting Japan's coast from Erimo in the northern island of Hokkaido to Oarai, Fukushima, about 670 kilometers to the south, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. The waves reached as far as 20 kilometers inland, NHK reported.
Boats smashed into walls as the tsunami struck, inundating buildings and flyovers with black water full of debris across stretches of coast north of Tokyo, NHK images showed. Hundreds of cars were washed around like toys and one large building was lifted off its foundations and dragged into the ocean.
Farmland was flooded with burning debris in some other areas as the tidal surge swept inland. Large boats were left stranded after the water surged back to sea.
A fire at Cosmo Oil Co.'s refinery in Chiba, outside Tokyo, is spreading, a Fire Department spokesman said. JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. shut refineries in Sendai, Kashima and Negishi.
Toru Yoshihashi, 48, was in Ginza, one of Tokyo's upscale shopping areas, when the earthquake struck. "The ground suddenly started shaking," he said. "I stayed outside and watched all these tall buildings sway. I've never seen anything like this before."
At Sumitomo Trust & Banking Co. in the capital, strategist Ayako Sera said "traders kept working through the quake" and were "grabbing the edges of our desks and holding on."
Tokyo's streets filled with traffic and pedestrians trying to get home after train services were closed. Government buildings are being opened for people to take shelter in the capital after officials urged residents not to try to walk home.
Tokyo's subway system, the world's busiest with about 8 million riders a day, shut down, leaving commuters to wait hours for taxis or search for somewhere to spend the night. Commuter trains serving the city and suburbs were also halted.
Office workers stood in lines for taxis at the city's central railway station while buses picked up passengers who stood in a 100-meter queue.
Tokyo Metro Co. restarted the Ginza line at 8:40 p.m. while the Hanzomon line had partial service. East Japan Railway Co. (9020), the nation's largest train operator, stopped all Tokyo-area commuter services and its Joetsu, Tohoku and Nagano bullet-train operations.
Some buildings in Japan, including the Shin Yokohama station on the JR Tokaido bullet train line have roller pads between the building and the foundation to limit the impact of an earthquake. The line itself has sensors that automatically bring services to a halt when they detect a temblor over a certain magnitude, according to JR East Railway Co.
"Japan has a rigorous earthquake building code and excellent tsunami warning system and evacuation plans -- this event will likely provide a severe test for all of them," James Goff, co-director of the Australian Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Lab at the University of New South Wales, said in an e-mailed statement sent via the Australian Science Media Centre.
Tokyo's Narita Airport, Japan's main international gateway, restarted some flights after stopping services earlier. About 13,800 passengers had been stranded, Ryoko Yabe, a spokeswoman for the airport said by phone. The airport gave the travelers water and food, she said.
There was no visible damage to runways, she said. Tokyo's Haneda airport, Asia's second-busiest by passengers, resumed flights, the transport ministry said.
All Nippon Airways Co., Japan's largest listed carrier, has canceled 131 flights, affecting 32,700 passengers, and diverted another 24, it said in a faxed statement. Japan Airlines Corp. said at least 27 flights were affected.
Today's temblor was the biggest since a 9.1-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami off northern Sumatra, Indonesia in December 2004 that left about 220,000 people dead or missing in 12 countries around the Indian Ocean.
Like Indonesia, Japan lies on the so-called "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines surrounding the Pacific Basin. A 6.9-magnitude earthquake in Kobe, western Japan, killed more than 6,000 people in 1995, while the 7.9- magnitude Great Kanto Quake of 1923 destroyed 576,262 structures and killed an estimated 140,000.
New Zealand is facing a bill of NZ$15 billion ($11 billion) after the city of Christchurch was devastated by the country's worst earthquake in 80 years on Feb. 22.
The Japan Meteorological Agency is warning of further aftershocks and told people to avoid coastal areas and evacuate to higher ground, according to an official at a press conference in Tokyo shown on NHK. Aftershocks continued through to 5 p.m. Japan time.
The airport in Sendai, a city of 1 million people 310 kilometers north of Tokyo, was flooded by the tsunami, according to NHK footage. Haneda, the capital's other main airport, also closed, NHK said.
Japan's central bank set up an emergency task force and said it will do everything it can to provide ample liquidity. The BOJ, which has already cut its benchmark rate to zero in an effort to end deflation, had last month said the economy was poised to recover from a contraction in the fourth quarter.