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Japan quake death toll up to 16 as rescuers dig through mud

The magnitude 6.7 quake unleashed scores of landslides in Hokkaido.

The site of a landslide triggered by Thursday’s earthquake in Atsuma town, Hokkaido
The site of a landslide triggered by Thursday’s earthquake in Atsuma town, Hokkaido Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Searchers are digging through mud and debris to look for survivors beneath the landslides caused by a powerful earthquake in northern Japan that left at least 16 people dead or presumed dead.

The magnitude 6.7 quake early on Thursday unleashed scores of landslides that buried homes in avalanches of soil, rock and timber on the country's northern-most main island of Hokkaido.

In Atsuma, a town of 4,600 people, 26 were still unaccounted for.

The landslides ripped through some homes and buried others. Some residents interviewed by national broadcaster NHK described awakening to find their relatives and next-door neighbours gone.

"The entire thing just collapsed," said one. "It's unbelievable."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said nearly half of the nearly three million households on the island had their power restored after a day of island-wide blackouts.

"The forecasts are for rain, and that could bring more landslides, so please continue to exercise extreme caution," he said.

The regional government said the bullet train to the provincial capital, Sapporo, was due to reopen later in the day.

The city's regional airport also was beginning to resume operations after hundreds of flights had been cancelled, stranding thousands of travellers, due to Thursday's power outage and light quake damage.

Hokkaido is Japan's northern frontier and a major farming region with rugged mountain ranges and vast forests, and its people are accustomed to coping with long winters, isolation and other hardships.

It is sparsely populated compared to the rest of Japan, but disruptions were widespread. Many roads were closed and some were impassable.

In Sapporo, the regional capital and home to 1.9 million people, casualties were relatively light.

But damage to some parts of the city was severe, with houses atilt and roads crumbled or sunken.

A powerful earthquake hit wide areas on Japan’s northern-most main island of Hokkaido early ON Thursday
A powerful earthquake hit wide areas on Japan’s northern-most main island of Hokkaido early ON Thursday Eugene Hoshiko/AP

A mudslide left several cars half buried, and the ground subsided, leaving drainpipes and manhole covers protruding by more than a metre in some places.

"This is shocking. I was always walking on this street and I had never imagined this road could collapse in such a way," said resident Sumi Noriyuki.

"But, if you think positively, imagine if I was walking here when this took place. I might have lost my life. So, I try to think I am lucky in this unfortunate situation."

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters on Friday that it would take at least a week to fully restore power to all communities due to damage at a thermal power plant at Tomato-Atsuma that supplies half of Hokkaido's electricity.

"We're trying to do it faster, but it will likely take a week," Seko said. He urged residents to conserve power by keeping lights off, unplugging unused appliances and having family members stay together in one room.

"This will help us to restore power to more places," he said.

The last few months have brought a string of calamities in Japan.

The quake came on the heels of a typhoon that lifted heavy trucks off their wheels and triggered major flooding in western Japan, and damaged the main airport near Osaka and Kobe.

The summer also brought devastating floods and landslides from torrential rains in Hiroshima and deadly hot temperatures across the country.

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