Tokyo, May 26 (Reuters): A powerful earthquake hit a broad swathe of northeastern Japan today, tangling communications and rocking buildings as far away as Tokyo about 450 km to the south, but there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.
The Meteorological Agency said the quake measured seven on the open-ended Richter scale, about the same strength as a devastating quake in the Japanese city of Kobe eight years ago.
It was centred around 20 km off the east coast but damage was limited and there was no danger of a tsunami, or giant wave, due to the quake’s 60-km deep epicentre.
“Based on information gathered as of 1100 GMT, it is absolutely inconceivable that there could be damage similar to that after the Hanshin Awaji earthquake” which devastated Kobe in western Japan in 1995 and left 6,430 dead, Yoshitada Konoike, minister of disaster management, told a news conference.
Kyodo news agency said 28 people were injured in the quake, which hit an area that has several large cities and some high-tech factories but is largely agricultural.
The earthquake, the largest to hit Japan in three years, shattered windows in Sendai and knocked objects from shelves. Three fires were reported and trains were halted for checks.
”I was at the university when it happened and we all rushed outside,” said Richard Halberstadt, an English teacher at a university in Ishinomaki on the Miyagi prefecture coast.
”It was unsettling but not to the extent where we couldn't stand.”
BUILDINGS SWAY IN TOKYO
In Tokyo, buildings shook strongly and lamps swayed from side to side, sending workers scurrying to the doors.
Japan sits atop the junction of at least three tectonic plates, immense slabs of the earth's crust whose movements cause earthquakes.
Another government official told a news conference that there had been two fires in Iwate Prefecture and one in the city of Sendai, 302 km (189 miles) north of Tokyo, but he added that all three had been put out.
About 35,000 homes temporarily lost power supplies but electricity was restored for most within a few hours.
The yen fell in European markets on news of the quake, which came after Tokyo markets closed.
The Cabinet Office in Tokyo said the government, criticised for a slow response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, had set up an emergency task force.
The strength of the quake was about the same as the one that hit Kobe. But the epicentre of that quake was much shallower, a characteristic that usually results in more violent shaking.
East Japan Railway stopped operations of bullet trains in the area for inspections and service on one line was halted for the rest of the day. Public broadcaster NHK said one highway in northeastern Japan was totally closed. Phones were snarled.
”Ever since the quake hit, I've been trying to call my family,” said Satoshi Aoyagi, whose hometown is Sendai.
”But none of the calls go through, and my parents don't have mobile phones.”
Telecoms firms said they were checking phone networks. Mobile firm DoCoMo said it had curbed voice traffic to northern Japan to prevent its system from being overwhelmed.
Japan's Tohoku Electric Power Co Inc said a 825,000 kilowatt (kW) nuclear reactor, the Onagawa No.3 unit in northern Japan, automatically shut down due to the quake.
Japan's largest oil refiner, Nippon Oil Corp, said it had started shutting down its 145,000 barrels per day Sendai refinery, although its facilities appeared to be fine.
Sendai was last hit by a major earthquake in 1978, which caused damage to property but relatively few casualties.