A strong earthquake jolted northwestern Japan on Monday morning, killing at least two people and injuring more than 200 others. The quake flattened dozens of wooden houses and triggered small tsunamis.
Flames and black smoke were seen pouring from the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant. National broadcaster NHK reported the fire was in an electrical transformer, and that no radioactivity had been released. The reactor and two others in the region had shut down automatically.
"I was so scared - the violent shaking went on for 20 seconds," Ritei Wakatsuki, an employee of convenience store Lawson, told The Associated Press by telephone from Kashiwazaki. "I almost fainted by the fear of shaking.''
Two women in Kashiwazaki died, an official at Kashiwazaki Central Hospital said on condition of anonymity because of hospital protocol. National broadcaster NHK reported the women were in their 80s and had been buried in rubble.
Kyodo News agency reported more than 200 people were hurt.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude of the quake was 6.7. It was centered off the coast of Niigata, 160 miles northwest of Tokyo, where buildings swayed during the tremor.
A series of aftershocks also rattled the area, the largest one with a reported 4.2 magnitude.
The force of the quake buckled seaside roads and bridges, and one-yard-wide fissures could been seen in the ground along the Niigata coastline.
A ceiling collapsed in a gym in Kashiwazaki where about 200 people were gathered for a badminton tournament, and one person suffered minor facial injuries, Kyodo reported.
The quake also knocked a train off the rails while it was stopped at a station. No one was injured.
Several bullet train services linking Tokyo and northern and northwestern Japan have been suspended, NHK said. NHK said gas services for Kashiwazaki's 35,000 households were suspended after reports of gas leaks, the AP reports.
The Meteorological Agency said small tsunamis as high as 20 inches were believed to have hit coasts in the area. It issued tsunami warnings along the coasts of Niigata but later lifted them. No damage was immediately reported.
Bullet trains to the area were halted briefly and local trains stopped. TV pictures showed one train had toppled off the rails, but media said no one was injured. Some 37,000 households were without water service, public broadcaster NHK said.
The 10:13 a.m. (0113 GMT) quake was centred around 60 km southwest of Niigata. Monday is a holiday in Japan so financial markets were closed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had cut short campaigning for an upcoming Upper House election and was returning to Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference.
The government had established an emergency office to deal with the quake, he added.
"Gas seems to have leaked in some places. Electricity is fine, but I can't go inside," Kashiwazaki resident Masae Yanai told public broadcaster NHK.
Tsunami warning sirens sounded along affected stretches of the Sea of Japan, with a surge of up to about 50 cm predicted, but the warning was later withdrawn.
Bullet train services were halted and NHK said there were power outages and some highways had been closed.
Niigata was the site of an October 2004 earthquake with a matching magnitude of 6.8 that killed 65 people and injured more than 3,000.
That was the deadliest quake since a magnitude 7.3 tremor hit the city of Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6,400.
Sanyo Electric Co. spokesman Akihiko Oiwa said operations at its semiconductor factory in Niigata were halted due to the earthquake, though so far there have been no reports of damage. The factory is one of Sanyo's largest, Reuters reports.
Prepared by Alexander Timoshik
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