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Nine dead and hundreds injured as quake strikes southern Japan

The strongest earthquake to strike Japan since 2011 shook a southern swath of the country late Thursday, killing at least nine people and leaving hundreds injured, some trapped in the debris of fallen buildings.

The quake, centered in southern Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture, about 600 miles southwest of Tokyo, was calculated at a magnitude of 7.0 by the Japan Meteorological Agency and at 6.2 by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The greatest damage was reported in the town of Mashiki, where roughly 20 homes collapsed and at least three of the deaths occurred. The Kumamoto prefectural police said one person died after being trapped under debris and another in an earthquake-related fire.

The government’s chief spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, put the overall death toll at nine and said 761 people were injured, 44 seriously. The numbers may rise as debris is cleared and missing persons reports are filed.

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Several fires were reported in Mashiki, which has a population of more than 30,000. Nearly 2,000 people had left their homes and were spending the night in evacuation areas.

Other areas also reported damage. According to the Kyodo News service, more than 280 people were being treated for injuries in several hospitals in Kumamoto city.

A series of aftershocks followed the initial quake, including one just after midnight that registered above 6 on the Japanese seismic scale.

Although Japan is in a highly active seismic zone and accustomed to periodic temblors, the quake evoked traumatic memories of the March 2011 disaster in which a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

On Friday, the Kyushu Electric Power Co. said it found no problems with its Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima prefecture, adjacent to Kumamoto. The plant, which was taken offline after the 2011 quake, was restarted in August despite polls showing that 57% of the public opposed the decision.

Kyushu Electric reported that as of 3 a.m. Friday, there were roughly 15,900 homes in Kumamoto prefecture without electricity because of the earthquake.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately set up an emergency headquarters and instructed government authorities and agencies to gather information and take measures to respond to the quake.

In a partially televised news conference, Abe, assured the public: “The Japanese government is putting all its power into dealing with the situation, but because of the late hour, the full extent of the damage is still unclear.”

The Defense Ministry announced that 500 members of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces had been dispatched to the area to help provide assistance in rescue operations.

Adelstein is a special correspondent.

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