A strong 6.0-magnitude earthquake has struck southern Japan, with reports that several buildings had collapsed. No tsunami warning has been issued, however, and area nuclear power plants were unaffected by the tremors.
Cement walls crumbled, grocery stands toppled and a number of houses collapsed on Japan's southern island of Kyushu on Thursday after a powerful earthquake rocked the region, authorities reported.
"We intend to do the utmost to grasp the situation," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters. "I'm now planning to hear what we have gathered on the situation."
The US Geological Survey (USGS) put the quake's preliminary magnitude at 6.0 and said it was 23 kilometers (14 miles) deep. The first quake was then followed 30 minutes later by another one with a magnitude of 5.7.
USGS said there's a low likelihood of casualties, although damage is possible. No tsunami warnings have been issued.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference that a number of houses have collapsed, but that there was no abnormality at three nearby nuclear facilities.
Japanese broadcaster NHK said a fire had broken out in Mashiki, a town of around 34,000 people near the epicenter, and showed footage of firefighters tackling a blaze.
NHK also reported that some people were possibly trapped in the collapsed buildings, but details were scarce.
"There was a ka-boom and the whole house violently shook sideways," Takahiko Morita, a resident in Mashiki, said during a telephone interview with NHK TV. "Furniture and bookshelves fell down; books were all over the floor."
Other Japanese media also showed watermelons falling from shelves at a supermarket in Kumamoto, located around 1,900 km west of Tokyo.
High-speed train services were suspended as a precaution.
Japan is located at the junction of four tectonic plates and receives around 20 percent of the world's most powerful earthquakes. However, strict building codes mean that even very powerful tremors do not usually cause widespread damage.
On March 11, 2011,a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake sent a tsunami barreling into Japan's northern coast,
killing nearly 20,000 people and triggering a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
rs/kms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)