February 24, 2024

At least six people are reported to have died and there are fears that time is running out for any survivors trapped under the rubble after more than 100 tremors rippled through Japan on Monday, including a devastating 7.6 magnitude earthquake. 

A major search and rescue operation continued into the early hours of Tuesday, with Japan’s Prime Minister saying that rescue efforts had been made ‘extremely difficult due to damage to roads’ in the Ishikawa prefecture, near the epicentre of the quake. The main highway through the district was completely closed, according to reports.

Around 2,500 emergency responders were scrambled from big cities to help in the search operation in the  impacted coastal area, Nikkei Asia reports, with regional Governor Hiroshi Hasthat reportedly telling them that the first 24 hours is crucial in the rescue operation. 

Officials in Ishikawa prefecture confirmed four fatalities early Tuesday, according to the Kyodo news agency. The government said it was still assessing the extent of damage from the quake, which shook apartments in the capital Tokyo some 300 kilometres (190 miles) away.

Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate, according to the country’s fire and disaster management agency, cited by Kyodo. About 1,000 people were staying at a military base, the defence ministry said.

Government spokesman Yoshimasa Hayashi said that there were reports that six people were in the rubble of collapsed buildings, but gave no further details.

Fire burns following an earthquake at a residential area in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024

Convenience store items lay on the ground following an earthquake in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture

Convenience store items lay on the ground following an earthquake in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture

This image was taken in Hong Kong on January 1, 2024 shows a warning message on a screen from a live feed on NHK World asking people to evacuate from the area

This image was taken in Hong Kong on January 1, 2024 shows a warning message on a screen from a live feed on NHK World asking people to evacuate from the area

The biggest of the quakes devastated Japan’s main island Honshu, with dozens reported trapped under rubble and tsunami warnings triggered in four countries in the aftermath. They were subesquently downgraded.

As Japan was on high alert on Monday, waves of at least 1.2 metres (four feet) high hit the port of Wajima, and a series of smaller tsunamis were reported elsewhere, including as far away as the northern island of Hokkaido.

Dozens of aftershocks registering between 3.1 and 6 on the Richter scale rang out after the largest quake hit around 4pm local time (7am UK time), with Wajima City’s Fire Department in Ishikawa reporting it had received more than 30 reports of collapsed buildings, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK. 

Videos shared on social media and broadcast on Japanese TV showed how structures had crumbled in Suzu, a city close to the epicentre of the largest quake, with thick cracks appearing in roads. The tremors triggered a huge fire in Wajima, with shocking footage showing massive flames engulfing residential buildings according to local broadcasters.   

Other clips showed terrified shoppers thrown to the ground in department stores and flooding at a train station after water pipes burst. The earthquake struck as millions of Japanese flocked to temples to mark the New Year, and temple-goers were seen in footage crouching in fear as chunks of rock tumbled to the ground before them.

Rescuers are combing through the debris of several houses to evacuate trapped residents after Yoshimasa Hayashi, chief cabinet secretary of Japan, acknowledged reports of scores of people trapped under the rubble of their homes.

The death toll is expected to rise sharply as the rescue operation continues. 

Elements of Japan’s military have been called up to aid in the rescue and evacuation efforts, Hayashi added, with a total of 51,000 told to abandon their homes. 

Many of these people are spending the night braving sub-zero temperatures, afraid to return to their homes amid warnings that further aftershocks could continue for 72 hours, with a constant risk of tsunamis.

Meanwhile, local reports suggested that large landslides between the cities of Toyama and Kanazawa have all but severed the Noto peninsula from the rest of Ishikawa, further complicating rescue efforts. 

A view of a collapsed road and houses because of an earthquake in Wajima

A view of a collapsed road and houses because of an earthquake in Wajima

Videos shared on social media and broadcast on Japanese TV showed how structures had crumbled in Suzu, a city close to the epicentre of the largest quake, with thick cracks appearing in roads

Videos shared on social media and broadcast on Japanese TV showed how structures had crumbled in Suzu, a city close to the epicentre of the largest quake, with thick cracks appearing in roads

Japan is bracing for yet more earthquakes after more than 80 tremors rippled through the country today, including one 7.6 magnitude quake that devastated Japan's main island Honshu, trapping dozens more under rubble

Japan is bracing for yet more earthquakes after more than 80 tremors rippled through the country today, including one 7.6 magnitude quake that devastated Japan’s main island Honshu, trapping dozens more under rubble

This aerial photo shows buildings burning in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on January 1, 2024, after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture in the afternoon

This aerial photo shows buildings burning in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on January 1, 2024, after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture in the afternoon

Fire burns following an earthquake at a residential area in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture

Fire burns following an earthquake at a residential area in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture

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Collapsed houses are seen in this street in Ishikawa

Some houses escaped the devastation but roads were cracked and torn up amid the quakes

Some houses escaped the devastation but roads were cracked and torn up amid the quakes

People cower from falling debris at a temple that was damaged in the quake

People cower from falling debris at a temple that was damaged in the quake

Fire burns following an earthquake at a residential area in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024, in this still image from a video released by Kyodo

Fire burns following an earthquake at a residential area in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024, in this still image from a video released by Kyodo

An aerial view shows fire site after an earthquake at a residential area in Wajima

An aerial view shows fire site after an earthquake at a residential area in Wajima

A car is trapped under a collapsed house following an earthquake in Shika town

A car is trapped under a collapsed house following an earthquake in Shika town

People sit on the floor inside a store as an earthquake hits, in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan January 1, 2024

People sit on the floor inside a store as an earthquake hits, in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan January 1, 2024

This general view shows badly damaged buildings along a street in the city of Wajima

This general view shows badly damaged buildings along a street in the city of Wajima

Cracks are seen on the ground in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, following an earthquake

Cracks are seen on the ground in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, following an earthquake

A commercial facility collapsed because of an earthquake is seen in Kaga, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024

A commercial facility collapsed because of an earthquake is seen in Kaga, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024

A collapsed house following an earthquake is seen in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture

A collapsed house following an earthquake is seen in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture

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A road is seen torn up with telephone and electricity masts damaged

Japan’s meteorological agency said that the earthquake‘s magnitude of 7.6 is the largest ever recorded in the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. Japan’s TBS News earlier reported police said two individuals in Ishikawa died having suffered cardiac arrests as a result of the quakes. 

The earthquakes triggered fears of a tsunami, with the meteorological agency initially warning citizens to brace for waves of up to 5 metres (16.4ft). Officials later downgraded the major warning to a regular tsunami warning.

But a spokesman official from Japan’s meteorological agency warned there is still a ‘very high risk’ of buildings collapsing, and strong tremors could continue for the ‘next two to three days’.

‘Do not wander away from the safe place,’ he said. ‘There is a very high risk of buildings collapsing and other damages caused by the tremors. History tells us that the similar scale of earthquakes can reoccur within two to three days.’

People stand next to large cracks in the pavement after evacuating into a street in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on January 1, 2024

People stand next to large cracks in the pavement after evacuating into a street in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on January 1, 2024

The contents of a store are seen spilled over the ground following heavy tremors in Japan

The contents of a store are seen spilled over the ground following heavy tremors in Japan

Books are scattered at a bookstore in Niigata, Japan following an earthquake Monday, Jan. 1, 2024

Books are scattered at a bookstore in Niigata, Japan following an earthquake Monday, Jan. 1, 2024

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Waves can be seen sloshing through the middle of the city following the earthquake, an unsettling reminder that a large tsunami could be on its way

Customers crouch following an earthquake at a supermarket in Toyama, Japan Sunday, Jan. 1, 2024. Japan issued tsunami alerts and told people to evacuate seaside areas after a series of strong quakes on its western coastline Monday

Customers crouch following an earthquake at a supermarket in Toyama, Japan Sunday, Jan. 1, 2024. Japan issued tsunami alerts and told people to evacuate seaside areas after a series of strong quakes on its western coastline Monday

The country’s meteorological agency reported the first big waves hit Wajima port in Ishikawa prefecture at 4:21pm local time just as darkness fell on the region, with many more expected.

A major tsunami warning was issued for Ishikawa as well as lower-level tsunami alerts or advisories for the rest of the western coast of the island of Honshu, as Japanese public broadcaster NHK TV urged people to flee to high land or to the top of nearby buildings.

‘We realise your home, your belongings are all precious to you, but your lives are important above everything else. Run to the highest ground possible,’ a presenter on broadcaster NHK told viewers.

The tsunami waves could keep returning, according to the network, as warnings continued to be aired nearly an hour after the initial alert.

The threat was later downgraded to a regular warning. 

The Japanese government has set up a special emergency centre to gather information on the quakes and tsunami and relay them speedily to residents to ensure safety, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters. 

But the effects of the earthquake were expected further afield than just Japan. 

Russia‘s emergencies ministry said that parts of the western coast Sakhalin island, situated close to Japan on Russia’s Pacific seaboard, were also under threat of tsunami, and that the local population was being evacuated, state news agency TASS reported. 

North Korea issued tsunami warnings for its east coast saying waves of up to 2.08 meters (6.8 ft) can reach its shore, Yonhap news reported citing the North’s state radio.

And South Korea’s meteorological agency earlier said sea levels in some parts of the Gangwon province on the east coast may rise after the earthquakes.

Shoppers crouch down as an earthquake hit the region at a supermarket in Toyama, Japan January 1, 2024

Shoppers crouch down as an earthquake hit the region at a supermarket in Toyama, Japan January 1, 2024

A roof is seen collapsed in this image shared on social media following an earthquake

A roof is seen collapsed in this image shared on social media following an earthquake

Surface of a parking lot cracks due to an earthquake, in Uchinada Town, Kahoku District, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024

Surface of a parking lot cracks due to an earthquake, in Uchinada Town, Kahoku District, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024

People evacuate to higher ground at a parking space of a junior high school after a tsunami warning issued caused by an earthquake in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture

People evacuate to higher ground at a parking space of a junior high school after a tsunami warning issued caused by an earthquake in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture

Water leaks from the ceiling inside the Kanazawa station, after an earthquake hit Ishikawa, Japan January 1, 2024

Water leaks from the ceiling inside the Kanazawa station, after an earthquake hit Ishikawa, Japan January 1, 2024

Empty shelves are seen as people had purchased in preparation for evacuation at a convenience store on January 1, 2024 in Kanazawa, Ishikawa

Empty shelves are seen as people had purchased in preparation for evacuation at a convenience store on January 1, 2024 in Kanazawa, Ishikawa

A torii gate is damaged after an earthquake at a shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan Monday, Jan. 1, 2024

A torii gate is damaged after an earthquake at a shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan Monday, Jan. 1, 2024

People stand near a collapsed torii gate caused by an earthquake at Onohiyoshi Shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024, in this photo released by Kyodo

People stand near a collapsed torii gate caused by an earthquake at Onohiyoshi Shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024, in this photo released by Kyodo

People walk along a road damaged by an earthquake, in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024

People walk along a road damaged by an earthquake, in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024

A house is seen collapsing amid an earthquake in Suzu, Ishikawa prefecture

A house is seen collapsing amid an earthquake in Suzu, Ishikawa prefecture

What causes tsunamis? 

A tsunami is a series of giant waves that are created by a disturbance in the ocean.

The disturbance could be a landslide, a volcanic eruption, an earthquake or a meteorite; the culprit is most often an earthquake.

If the landslide or earthquake triggering the tsunami occurs nearby the shore, inhabitants could see its effects almost immediately.

Areas that are closer to sea level have a higher risk of being affected by the waves.

In the case of an earthquake, the sea floor only needs to be uplifted by a few metres to displace several cubic kilometres of water and send a series of waves outwards.

The tsunami waves travel away from the earthquake epicentre in all directions. 

The height of the tsunami waves on shore depends on several factors, such as the distance and direction from the earthquake epicentre, the depth and shape of the sea floor, and shape of the coast line.

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The Japanese government will hold a news conference later in the day, with reports of any damage not immediately available.

Several major highways were closed, the road operator said, and Shinkansen bullet train services were also suspended between Tokyo and the epicentre in the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture on the Sea of Japan side of Japan’s main island of Honshu.

Around 33,500 households on the western coast of Honshu were left without power, according to local utilities.

Takashi Wakabayashi, a worker at a convenience store in Ishikawa Prefecture, said some items had tumbled from the shelves following the tremors, but the biggest problem was the huge crowd of people who had shown up to stock up on bottled water, rice balls and bread.

‘We have customers at three times the level of usual,’ he said.

Fears are mounting that Japan’s coastal nuclear power plants could be affected in the wake of the quake. 

But operators have confirmed that no issues have been detected yet. 

‘It has been confirmed that there are no abnormalities at Shika nuclear power plant (in Ishikawa) and other stations as of now,’ government spokesman Yoshimasa Hayashi said.

‘Every minute counts. Please evacuate to a safe area immediately,’ he added. 

Hokuriku Electric Power, Tokyo Electric Power Co, and Kansai Electric Power operate several nuclear power plants along the coastline that could be struck by tsunamis.

Meanwhile in South Korea, officials in Gangwon province warned residents to take precautions and evacuate to higher grounds in anticipation of a potential tsunami.

A tsunami warning is shown on TV in Yokohama today after earthquakes in the Sea of Japan

A tsunami warning is shown on TV in Yokohama today after earthquakes in the Sea of Japan

Local people get evacuated to the shelter at Joetsushi Total Gymnastics on January 01, 2024 in Joetsu, Japan

Local people get evacuated to the shelter at Joetsushi Total Gymnastics on January 01, 2024 in Joetsu, Japan

People evacuate to higher ground at a parking space of a junior high school

People evacuate to higher ground at a parking space of a junior high school

People crouch following an earthquake at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, western Japan Monday, Jan 1, 2024

People crouch following an earthquake at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, western Japan Monday, Jan 1, 2024

Items fall from shelves on the ground inside a store as an earthquake hits

Items fall from shelves on the ground inside a store as an earthquake hits

An online video purportedly shows a house collapsing in Ishikawa during today's earthquake

An online video purportedly shows a house collapsing in Ishikawa during today’s earthquake

This image taken in Hong Kong on January 1, 2024 shows a warning message on a screen from a live feed on NHK World asking people to evacuate from the area after a series of major earthquakes hit central Japan

This image taken in Hong Kong on January 1, 2024 shows a warning message on a screen from a live feed on NHK World asking people to evacuate from the area after a series of major earthquakes hit central Japan

A road sign informs drivers to exit the expressway due to earthquakes in Oyabe City of Toyama Prefecture of Japan

A road sign informs drivers to exit the expressway due to earthquakes in Oyabe City of Toyama Prefecture of Japan

Strong waves began lashing the coastlines of Western Japan as night fell

Strong waves began lashing the coastlines of Western Japan as night fell

A map from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) shows the location of the earthquake hitting the Noto region of Ishikawa prefecture in Japan today

A map from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) shows the location of the earthquake hitting the Noto region of Ishikawa prefecture in Japan today

Japan has strict construction regulations intended to ensure buildings can withstand strong earthquakes and routinely holds emergency drills to prepare for a major jolt.

Buildings are reinforced with concrete walls and special joints that ease stress when the ground shakes.

Meanwhile, skyscrapers are built with shock absorbers and ‘elastic architecture’ that allows them to flex horizontally. 

But the country is haunted by the memory of a massive 9.0-magnitude undersea quake off northeastern Japan in March 2011, which triggered a tsunami that left around 18,500 people dead or missing.

The 2011 tsunami also sent three reactors into meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, causing Japan’s worst post-war disaster and the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

In March 2022, a 7.4-magnitude quake off the coast of Fukushima shook large areas of eastern Japan, killing three people.

The capital Tokyo was devastated by a huge earthquake a century ago in 1923.

While it is not possible to predict exactly where and when earthquakes will hit, we know the worst events will be along Earth’s plate boundaries – and much of Japan is located across one such boundary.

Honshu, Japan’s main island, lies at the intersection between three tectonic plates – Eurasian, Philippine and North American. 

In Japan, participation in natural disaster drills begins in kindergarten and all Japanese cell phones come with an earthquake alert system, potentially giving users a 5 to 10-second window to seek shelter before the quake strikes.