The biggest earthquake to hit Japan in 140 years struck the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-metre tsunami that swept away everything in its path, including houses, cars and farm buildings on fire, media and witnesses said.
At least one person was killed in Fukushima prefecture, north of Tokyo where four million homes were without power. The 8.9 magnitude quake caused many injuries, public broadcaster NHK said, sparked fires and the wall of water, prompting warnings to people to move to higher ground in coastal areas.
The Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia all issued tsunami alerts, reviving memories of the giant tsunami which struck Asia in 2004. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued alerts for countries as far away as Colombia and Peru.
There were several strong aftershocks. In the capital Tokyo, buildings shook violently. An oil refinery near Tokyo was on fire, with dozens of storage tanks under threat.
TV pictures showed the tsunami carrying the debris and fires across a large swathe of coastal farmland near the city of Sendai, which has a population of one million. The pictures suggested the death toll was going to rise.
NHK showed flames and black smoke billowing from a building in Odaiba, a Tokyo suburb, and bullet trains to the north of the country were halted.
Black smoke was also pouring out of an industrial area in Yokohama's Isogo area. TV footage showed boats, cars and trucks floating in water after a small tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. An overpass, location unknown, appeared to have collapsed into the water.
Kyodo news agency said there were reports of fires in Sendai where waves carried cars across the runway at the airport. The western prefecture of Wakayama ordered 20,000 people to evacuate after further tsunami warnings.
"The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks," Reuters correspondent Linda Sieg said in Tokyo.
"It was probably the worst I have felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago."