JAPAN is bracing itself for huge swells to smash into its coast after experiencing a series of powerful earthquakes that sparked tsunami alerts in three other nations.
The destruction caused by over 80 quakes that struck today has left at least one dead, others buried alive and emergency services battling to control a major fire and fearing landslides.
A quick succession of dozens of earthquakes struck Japan’s main island of Honshu on New Year’s Day – the worst being a 7.6 magnitude that hit at 4.10pm local time.
The quakes triggered urgent tsunami alerts, with officials initially warning that waves could be as high as 16ft in some places.
The tsunami threat was later downgraded to roughly 9.3ft waves, while 3ft waves have already been battering parts of Japan’s west coast since the early morning.
The worst affected areas of Toyama, Ishikawa and Niigata are now at risk of landslides and collapsing houses as aftershocks are set to continue for the next few days.
One person has been killed so far with another feared dead after 30 buildings were destroyed in Ishikawa.
At least six people are buried under the rubble, the government said, adding that the army had been deployed to aid rescue efforts.
A huge fire is also currently raging in the residential area of Wajima, Ishikawa which was close to the epicentre of the successive earthquakes.
It has engulfed a row of houses, with people being evacuated in the dark, some with blankets and others carrying babies.
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And more severe earthquakes are expected in the coming hours and days, officials said.
Japan’s meteorological agency warned that there is a “very high risk” of further buildings collapsing.
“Do not wander away from the safe place,” they said, adding: “History tells us that the similar scale of earthquakes can reoccur within two to three days.”
Earlier today, Japanese TV channels interrupted normal services with warnings including a video of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida urging people in danger areas to “evacuate as soon as possible” to higher ground.
“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,” an alarmed presenter on national broadcaster NHK told viewers.
Government spokesperson, Hayashi Yoshimasa, warned it was critical for people in coastal areas to get away from the oncoming tsunami waves.
“Every minute counts. Please evacuate to a safe area immediately,” he said.
Around 33,500 households around the epicentre, in Toyama, Ishikawa and Niigata prefectures, were without power, local utilities said.
Panic buying has broken out in the stores across the affected areas as residents stock up on water, rice and bread.
The country’s nuclear authority said that nuclear plants in the area had not reported any irregularities and there was no risk of radioactive leaks.
“I have never experienced anything like this before, it was scary. I went out right away but the ground was shaking,” an elderly man told broadcaster NHK.
“I was scared to see utility poles shaking,” a young boy added.
In South Korea, a tsunami measuring 3ft reached its eastern coast following the quakes in Japan.
South Korea’s meteorological agency has predicted more and larger waves will slam into Gangwon province in the next 24 hours.
The city of Samcheok advised residents to move to areas higher than a three-storey building.
Separately, North Korea issued tsunami warnings for its coast of possible waves of more than 7ft.
Russia has also declared a tsunami alert in the far eastern cities of Vladiovostok, close to Japan’s Pacific seaboard, state news reported.
Emergency services called on people to “remain calm” as they warned that coastal areas may be effected by tsunami waves and told fishermen and those at sea to return to shore.
Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world due to its position in the the “Pacific Ring of Fire” where several tectonic plates meet and grind against each other.
Honshu, Japan’s main island and the epicentre of today’s quakes, lies at the intersection between Eurasian, Philippine and North American plates.
The country is haunted by the memory of a massive 9.0 magnitude undersea quake off northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, which triggered a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people.
Today was the first time since that fateful day that Japan issued a major tsunami warning.
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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.