The estimated death toll from Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami leaped 10-fold yesterday as the world's third largest economy struggled to deal with the crippling aftermath of what Prime Minister Naoto Kan has described as the worst crisis to face his country since the Second World War.
With the relief effort continuing for a third day amid plunging night-time temperatures, the scale of Friday's disaster was unfolding as official lists of those missing were being compiled.
The official death toll last night stood at almost 1,600, but looked set to rise much further.
Police said that in Miyagi prefecture alone more than 10,000 people may have perished in the seven-metre tsunami waves that crashed in to Honshu Island's north-east coastline on Friday afternoon. Previous estimates over the weekend had hovered at the 1,200 mark.
All across the quake-hit area reports came in of towns wiped off the map with thousands feared dead or missing.
There are already concerns that as many as 9,500 people are missing in Minami Sanriku — roughly half the town's population.
Further north, in the port town of Rikuzentakata, city officials confirmed yesterday that only 5,900 of the 23,000 inhabitants had made it to city shelters in the past three days.
In Fukushima prefecture, officials said they were still unable to contact 1,167 residents, including 918 in the town of Namie alone.
In a sombre news conference, Mr Kan called on the people of Japan to unite in the face of its worst disaster in living memory.
“The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War Two,” he said.
“We're under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis.
“I am confident people can overcome these hardships if we stand united.”
The scale of the rescue operation needed for those affected by the earthquake is breathtaking, even for a country as technologically advanced as Japan.
New aerial footage has shown hundreds of kilometres of coastline have been overwhelmed by tsunami waves caused by Japan's largest recorded earthquake.
More than 310,000 people across the region are being housed in evacuation centres, many of which have little heating to guard against the freezing night-time temperatures. A further two million homes are without electricity and rescuers are struggling to reach the more remote areas.
Japanese television reported yesterday that up to 10,000 people are still cut off from emergency workers in the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, the three states hit hardest by the quake.
Many were reported to be holed up in schools, shopping malls and food factories that were either missed by the tsunami or were strong enough to withstand its force.
The rescue effort has been hampered by more than 250 aftershocks, 30 of which have measured more than 6 on the Richter scale. The size of Friday's initial earthquake was so large that the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that Honshu Island has moved 8ft to the west.
Kenneth Hudnut, a USGS geophysicist, told CNN: “We know that one GPS station moved [eight feet], and we have seen a map from GSI [Geospatial Information Authority] in Japan showing the pattern of shift over a large area is consistent with about that much shift of the land mass.”
The country's ruling and opposition parties will meet today to discuss bringing in a temporary tax increase to pay for the clean-up operation as insurers gave initial estimates that ranged between $15bn and $35bn.
- 10,000 minimum death toll expected
- 1,596 confirmed death toll to date
- 12,000 rescued so far
- 590,000 evacuated from their homes since the quake struck
- 215,000 people sheltering in makeshift rescue centres
- 100,000 Japanese soldiers sent to affected regions to assist with humanitarian crisis
- 2,050 Evacuation centres set up in north east Japan
- 2.6m Homes left without power
- 1.4m People without access to water
- 170,000 People evacuated from the exclusion zone around crippled nuclear plant
- 1,500 People tested for radioactive contamination
- 12 miles The size of the exclusion zone set up around the Fukushima nuclear power station
- 9.0 Japanese officials' new estimate of the magnitude of Friday's earthquake
- 8.2 The magnitude of earthquake the Fukushima nuclear plant was designed to withstand
- 9.8 The number of inches the earth was thrown off its axis by the powerful earthquake
- 7.8 The amount, in feet, Japan was shifted from its normal position
- 1,000 times stronger than the quake in New Zealand