Japan’s 8.9 Quake and Tsunami

A powerful 8.9 offshore quake hit Japan on Friday, sending a massive tsunami into the Pacific. The Daily Beast’s Lennox Samuels reports.

The Daily Beast’s Lennox Samuels reports on Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami. Plus, view photos of the destruction and aftermath below, watch stunning videos from Japan, and read about history's 10 worst earthquakes.

Shaken Japanese were trying to get home safely Friday night, while Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Asia-Pacific countries braced for possible tsunamis after a huge 8.9-magnitude earthquake rocked northeastern Japan, killing hundreds and sending 23-foot waves crashing into coastal areas.

Shocking Photos: Quake, Tsunami Aftermath in Japan

The quake started at 2:46 p.m. local time about 80 miles off the Japanese coast and some 15 miles under the Pacific, seemingly pushing the seabed under the country in a series of shocks felt from the northernmost region to the southern tip, including Tokyo.

The superquake, the most powerful to hit Japan in more than 100 years, dwarfed the temblor that killed 6,400 people in Kobe in 1995, although casualties have been far fewer because the epicenter was offshore. Tsunami warnings were issued for more than a dozen countries and territories, including Papua New Guinea, Australia, Taiwan, Russia’s coastal area, the Marshall Islands, parts of South and Central America, Hawaii, and New Zealand—where a 6.3-magnitude earthquake devastated the city of Christchurch last month, killing 166.

Tokyo Broadcasting System Television Reports on the tsunami's damage

The northern Japanese city of Sendai, about 230 miles—normally a scenic three-hour ride by bullet train—from Tokyo, was hardest hit, with a 30-foot wall of brown water surging ashore like molten lava, pushing cars, trucks, boats, and small buildings onto the green farmland of Miyagi Prefecture. An oil refinery was blazing out of control Friday night in Ichihara, as the government hastened to assure citizens that four nuclear power plants closest to the epicenter had been shut down and that there was no sign of any radiation leakage. Japan relies heavily on nuclear power.

Tsunami engulfing farms and homes alongside river in Sendai

A grim Japanese Prime Minster Naoto Kan said at a news conference that the quake inflicted damage over a wide area, announced formation of an emergency disaster response team that he will head and urged people to be “cautious, vigilant, tune into reports and act calmly.” “We ask the people of Japan to exercise fraternity, act fast and help family and neighbors,” he said.

In Tokyo, aftershocks sent high-rises swaying, cracked the facades of buildings and prompted flash fires. Bullet trains automatically stopped running and the subway shut down, with many people trapped inside buildings whose structural integrity may have been compromised.

Yasukata Yano, 70, was attending a lecture at Waseda University in Tokyo’s tony Shinjuku section when the quake shook the capital city. “I was in the middle of a lecture on content and language integrated learning and the classroom swayed for a long time,” the retired English professor told The Daily Beast. “Most of us dived under the table, some were scared and immobilized for a while, and the professor, who is from Scotland, had a very pale face. It seemed like the longest time—two or three minutes—and when the first wave ended we rushed down the stairs—we were on the seventh floor—and onto the patio.”

Yano said he was able to walk home, but that many people who lived farther away were stuck in the area and were desperate to get home—given the absence of public transport. Many were anxiously trying to reach family and friends, because a number of mobile-phone lines had been disrupted.

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Bullet trains automatically stopped running and the subway shut down, with many people trapped inside buildings whose structural integrity may have been compromised.

Indonesia and the Philippines were preparing for tsunamis that were expected to reach up to five feet, hours after the huge tidal wave swept Japan. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand were savaged by a massive Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 that claimed about 230,000 lives, almost half of them in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Indonesian authorities were working to persuade coastal residents to evacuate their homes. Some in Sulawesi and Papua provinces, expected to be the hardest hit, remained reluctant to leave, despite the 2004 experience.

Friday’s earthquake off Japan was the sixth-largest in the world since 1900. Japanese are accustomed to temblors—their country ranks highest in seismic activity—and are better prepared, with hard hats and provisions at the ready, and even a command structure. The country has a highly advanced process for coping with quakes—including tremor-resistant buildings—and pays close attention to its tsunami early-warning system. It is that system that has forecast continuing tidal waves in the Pacific Basin in the wake of the earthquake. And officials said they expect to feel quake aftershocks for weeks to come.

Lennox Samuels is a Newsweek/Daily Beast editor based in Bangkok. He covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.