The biggest earthquake to hit Japan on record struck the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-meter tsunami that swept away everything in its path, including houses, ships, cars and farm buildings on fire.
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The Red Cross in Geneva said the wall of water was higher than some Pacific islands and a tsunami warning was issued for almost the entire Pacific basin.
At least 60 people had been killed in the quake and tsunami in Japan, broadcaster NHK said, adding that many were missing.
The extent of the destruction along a lengthy stretch of Japan's coastline suggested the death toll could rise significantly.
The 8.9 magnitude quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping records 140 years ago, caused many injuries and sparked fires while the tsunami prompted warnings to people to move to higher ground in coastal areas.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters.
Around 4.4 million homes were without power in northern Japan, media said. A hotel collapsed in the city of Sendai and people were feared buried in the rubble.
A ship carrying 100 people had been swept away by the tsunami, Kyodo news agency added.
Electronics giant Sony Corp , one of the country's biggest exporters, shut six factories, as air force jets raced toward the northeast coast to determine the extent of the damage.
The Bank of Japan, which has been struggling to boost the anaemic economy, said it would do its utmost to ensure financial market stability as the yen and Japanese shares fell.
There were several strong aftershocks. In Tokyo, there was widespread panic. An oil refinery near the city was on fire, with dozens of storage tanks under threat.
The U.S. navy said its ships had been unaffected by the tsunami and were ready to provide disaster relief if needed. China offered to provide earthquake relief.
The quake struck just before the Tokyo stock market closed, pushing the Nikkei down to end at a five-week low. Nikkei futures trading in Osaka tumbled as much as 4.7 percent in reaction to the news.
The quake was the biggest since records began 140 years ago, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. It surpasses the Great Kanto quake of Sept. 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.
The U.S. Geological Survey earlier verified a magnitude of 7.9 at a depth of 15.1 miles and located the quake 81 miles east of Sendai, on the main island of Honshu. It later upgraded it to 8.9.
Japan's northeast Pacific coast, called Sanriku, has suffered from quakes and tsunamis in the past and a 7.2 quake struck on Wednesday. In 1933, a magnitude 8.1 quake in the area killed more than 3,000 people.
Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world's most seismically active areas. The country accounts for about 20 percent of the world's earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater.