TOKYO -- A powerful earthquake shook major cities in central Japan today, killing nearly 600 people, setting off fires and trapping hundreds of residents in the wreckage of collapsed buildings.
The national police and other authorities put the official death toll at 597, with 2,198 injured.
Reliable figures were difficult to obtain as authorities began to comb the rubble of toppled apartment blocks. At least 531 persons were reported missing. The toll was expected to rise.
The earthquake struck at 5:46 a.m. (3:36 p.m. EST), when most residents were still in their beds.
The temblor measured 7.2 on the Richter scale. In comparison, the earthquake in Los Angeles exactly a year ago today measured 6.7.
While quakes stronger than today's have hit rural areas, this morning's temblor apparently caused the most damage since one struck the coastal city of Fukui in 1948, killing 3,769 people. That quake measured 7.1 on the Richter scale.
This morning's quake will not be nearly so lethal, but it has caused enormous amounts of structural damage in some of Japan's most important economic centers.
In Kobe, a major port city of 1.4 million people near the epicenter of the quake, 1,100 buildings reportedly collapsed in the quake with hundreds trapped inside, according to television reports.
Fires triggered by the quake raged out of control in Kobe, leaving a black cloud of smoke hanging over the city. Portions of an elevated freeway also toppled, carrying cars with them.
There was no damage reported in Tokyo, where the quake could scarcely be felt.
Osaka, a major business center that is home to many international companies, is Japan's second largest city.
A major fire was burning in Osaka, apparently started by the quake. Ten other major fires were reported in central Japan.
Many buildings were reported to have collapsed in Ashiya, a prosperous bedroom community between Kobe and Osaka. NHK, the public television system, said 200 people were thought to be buried in rubble.
The epicenter of the earthquake was reported to be beneath Awajishima, an island in the Inland Sea, about 12 1/2 miles off Kobe. More than 100 island homes were knocked down, killing at least one person. Kyodo News Agency said many more residents were trapped under debris.
Japanese television showed fires sweeping through apartment buildings, a toppled radio tower and collapsed buildings. One square apartment building, four or five stories tall, lay on its side as if it had been chopped down with an ax.
"I was in the fourth floor of a five-story hotel," one television journalist reported. "The quake continued for 20 seconds or so, and I just lay on the floor and couldn't move. I tried the door, but it wouldn't open, so I kicked it down and barely escaped. The lower section of the hotel, under the third floor, had completely collapsed."
Many traditional one-story buildings also appeared damaged, with their roofs caved in. Still, the great majority of buildings, even near the center of the quake, seemed to have survived unscathed.
There was no tsunami, or huge sea wave, as sometimes follows a quake.
Trains derailed at 20 places, disrupting rail service. The Osaka Stock Exchange canceled its morning session. Electrical blackouts and water-main breaks were reported in many places.
The police in Hyogo Prefecture, which includes Kobe, asked the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to send troops to rescue those trapped in the rubble. The government said it would set up a special task force to deal with the quake.
Communications were disrupted, with telephone service out in Kobe. That left many citizens unable to summon rescue authorities or firefighters.
Japan, which lies atop several active fault lines, has always been subject to disastrous earthquakes, and to the fires that follow and usually do even more damage.
One quake measuring 7.8 occurred in July 1993, triggering a tidal wave in which more than 200 people were killed. But that happened in a remote area of northern Japan.
In comparison, the earthquake in Los Angeles exactly a year ago today measured 6.7.
There have been several quakes in Japan recently, including one
Dec. 28 that struck northern and central areas; that quake measured 7.5 but killed only two people.
The government said just a few days ago that it planned to upgrade geological surveillance because of the increase in seismic activity.
The construction minister, Koken Nosaka, told reporters that the authorities planned to use satellite data to measure tiny shifts in the earth's crust. Some 400 observation posts will be set up around the country, he said.
Japan now has 210 seismic observation posts at 100-mile intervals around its coast.