TOKYO -- A strong earthquake tore up highways, ripped open hillsides and shook down bridges across a swath of rural northern Japan yesterday morning, killing at least six people. More than 200 were injured, and at least 10 were reported missing.
The death toll and property damage were relatively low for a powerful 7.2-magnitude quake because the tremor was centered in thinly populated Iwate prefecture, a jurisdiction about 190 miles north of Tokyo, experts said.
Still, damage to roads, railways and other infrastructure was extensive. Many communities were cut off from land transportation.
The Japanese military dispatched helicopters and uniformed troops to deliver emergency supplies and evacuate the injured.
Authorities cautioned that the number of casualties could increase as rescueworkers reach hard-hit remote areas.
The quake shook buildings as far away as Tokyo.
"Our most important task is to save as many lives as possible," said Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. "We are doing the best we can."
Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in world. In 1995, a 7.3-magnitude quake in the city of Kobe killed more than 6,400 people.
Since then, tough building codes have substantially improved the capacity of office buildings, apartments and homes to withstand tremors.
Yesterday afternoon, inside many still-standing but shaken-up structures in the quake zone, belongings were thrown about and shattered, television news footage showed.
One woman, whose kitchen floor was filled with broken plates and glasses, told the national broadcasting NHK: "It was so scary. I can't get myself to go even look at my kitchen."
The ground shook so much in some areas that pedestrians struggled to stay on their feet.
"It was like being pushed hard onto the ground and then thrown back up again," one woman told NHK.
Cracks in the earth shredded some highways, and massive landslides gouged out huge gullies in forested mountains, giving them the appearance of having been strip mined, aerial television images showed.
Earthquake experts said, however, that the destructive power of the quake was substantially less than the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that on May 12 struck southwestern China, where about 87,000 people died or remain missing.
"The seismic energy of the China quake was one order of magnitude greater," Naoshi Hirata, a professor at Tokyo University's Earthquake Research Institute, told Reuters.
Nuclear power plants in the vicinity of the quake continued to operate normally yesterday, according to utility companies.
About 29,000 people lost power and water, but most service had been restored by late yesterday.
Inside the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, about 5 gallons of radioactive wastewater sloshed out of a pool, according to Tokyo Electric Power Co.
It said the spill did not affect the operation of the plant, and government officials said nothing leaked outside the plant.