Japan braces for more earthquakes with victims still trapped under buildings

Authorities are in a desperate race to find victims trapped under rubble caused by dozens of earthquakes that hit Japan on New Year’s Day, destroying buildings and triggering tsunami warnings.

At least six people have been dead with concerns that further tremors could lead to the collapse of more homes, with local authorities reporting bodies had been pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings.

A 7.6 magnitude quake created waves of more than a metre along the west coast of Japan, with residents forced to flee to higher ground.

This quake was one of a series of more than 50, with tens of thousands of people living close to the Sea of Japan forced to evacuate, many of whom were forced to spend the night in shelters.

The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) issued tsunami warnings for Ishikawa, Niigata and Toyama.

Buildings in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on January 1, 2024, after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa (Photo: Yusuke Fukuhara/Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP via Getty)

The government said it had ordered nearly 100,000 people in nine prefectures on the western coast of Japan’s main island Honshu to evacuate.

Officials in Ishikawa prefecture said four people had died, including a man and woman in their 50s, a young boy, and a man in his 70s, with fears the death toll would rise in the coming days.

Rishi Sunak has said Britain stands “ready to support Japan” as he urged British nationals in the affected areas to follow the advice of the Japanese authorities.

Tsunami warning

A tsunami measuring more than three feet reached South Korea’s east coast in the wake of the earthquake that hit Japan on Monday, South Korea’s meteorological agency said, which added there may be more and larger waves in the next hours.

It came after a major tsunami warning – the first since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck north-eastern Japan – was initially issued for Ishikawa but later downgraded.

Russia and North Korea also issued tsunami warnings for some areas.

Japan dropped its highest-level tsunami alert but told residents of coastal areas not to return to their homes as deadly waves could reach land.

At least 30 buildings were reported flattened in Wajima, a town of around 30,000 people where a large fire ripped through several buildings.

The quake also jolted buildings in the capital Tokyo, some 500 km from Wajima on the opposite coast.

Among the dead was an elderly man who was killed after the collapse of a building in Shika, a town in Ishikawa, the broadcaster NTV reported.

Thousands without power

The US President Joe Biden said Washington is ready to provide any necessary assistance to Japan following the earthquake, which left more than 36,000 households without power in Ishikawa and Toyama, where temperatures were set to drop to near freezing overnight.

The extent of any injuries and deaths was unclear. Two people recovered from quake debris in Ishikawa prefecture were unresponsive, public broadcaster NHK reported.

A car is trapped under a collapsed house following an earthquake, in Shika town, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan January 1, 2024, in this photo released by Kyodo. Mandatory credit Kyodo via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN
A car is trapped under a collapsed house following an earthquake, in Shika town, Ishikawa (Photo: Kyodo via Reuters)

Forty train lines and two high-speed rail services to the quake-hit area halted operations, while six expressways were closed and one of Ishikawa’s airports was forced to shut due to a crack in the runway, transport authorities said.

Japanese airline ANA turned back planes headed to airports in Toyama and Ishikawa, while Japan Airlines cancelled most of its services to the Niigata and Ishikawa regions.

Evacuation order

After the earthquake struck, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned residents to prepare for more disasters.

“I urge people in areas where tsunamis are expected to evacuate as soon as possible,” he said.

Professor David Tappin, the principal researcher of the British Geological Survey, has said that the area hit by the earthquake has “lower seismicity” but tremors are “not unusual”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that “there is still a risk” of a large tsunami occurring but “the major hazard has reduced”.

A member of Korea coast guard patrols to watch for possible changes in sea levels on a beach in Gangneung, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. (You Hyung-jae/Yonhap via AP)
A member of Korea’s coastguard patrols to watch for possible changes in sea levels on a beach in Gangneung, South Korea (Photo: You Hyung-jae/Yonhap via AP)

“One of the aspects of the tsunami is its being in an enclosed sea, so what could happen here is that the tsunami might bounce backwards and forwards between the coast of Japan and the coast of Asia.

“There’s a possibility that there could be further tsunamis […] but the risk is much lower.”

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority said no irregularities had been confirmed at nuclear power plants along the Sea of Japan, including five active reactors at Kansai Electric Power’s Ohi and Takahama plants in Fukui Prefecture.

Hokuriku’s Shika plant in Ishikawa, the closest nuclear power station to the quake’s epicentre, had already halted its two reactors before the quake for regular inspections and saw no impact from the quake, the agency said.

Fukushima quake

The quake comes at a sensitive time for Japan’s nuclear industry, which has faced fierce opposition from some locals since a 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.

Nearly 20,000 people were killed and whole towns devastated in the disaster.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Japan nuclear disaster tsunami anniversary reconstruction, by Shingo Ito This picture taken on March 12, 2011 shows local residents look at debris brought by the huge tsunami in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. Some 19,000 people were dead and still missing after a monster tsunami unleashed by a massive quake which wreaked destruction across northeast Japan and meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. AFP PHOTO / TORU YAMANAKA / AFP / TORU YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images)
In 2011, around 20,000 people were killed after a tsunami unleashed by a quake wrought destruction across northeast Japan and led to a meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (Photo: AFP Photo/ Toru Yamanaka)

Japan last week lifted an operational ban imposed on the world’s biggest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, which has been offline since the 2011 tsunami that was trigged by an earthquake of magnitude 9.1.

The earthquake, the country’s most powerful ever, and tsunami took out the Fukushima Daiichi plant in central Japan, causing several nuclear meltdowns and the release of nuclear contamination.

Four killed in 7.4 quake

In March, 2022, four people were killed after Japan was hit by an earthquake and more than 100 were injured at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

A magnitude 7.4 quake struck shortly before midnight local time, throwing a swathe of northeastern Japan into darkness, severing key transport links and killing four.

At least 107 people were reported injured, several seriously, with 4,300 households left without water.

Two million homes initially lost power and a bullet train was derailed, but no passengers were hurt.