Coastal residents voiced relief yesterday as one of the biggest earthquakes in recent times did little more than flip over boats in a scare that demonstrated Japan's quick-moving tsunami alert system.
The earthquake, with a magnitude of at least 8.1, struck late on Wednesday in the northern Pacific Ocean northeast of Japan, triggering alerts stretching from Indonesia to California.
In Japan, authorities urged some 130,000 people to evacuate to higher ground in fear of the seismic waves. With memories of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami still fresh, hundreds of cars rushed to the hills.
The Japan Meteorological Agency had warned of waves up to 2m, but the biggest of a series of tsunamis to hit northern Japan was just 40cm.
"We all felt relieved when the tsunami warning was lifted," said Takeshi Tanaka, an official of the Fishermen's Association of Nemuro, which faces the Kuril chain -- the closest land to the quake's epicenter.
The US Geological Survey put the quake at 8.3 on the Richter scale, making it the 19th most powerful tremor ever recorded.
The underwater earthquake that triggered the December 2004 tsunami measured 9.1, the third strongest in recorded history.
The meteorological agency issued the tsunami warning 14 minutes after the earthquake occurred at 8:15pm -- and eight minutes before it reported the quake itself, owing to the remote location.
"Tsunami information has priority as it has a sense of urgency in terms of disaster prevention," said an agency official.
"Our expected waves were higher than the actual ones because we needed to issue it as quickly as possible even if some calculation errors may be included in the data," he said.
Japanese and US seismologists released tsunami data through international channels including to Russia, which disputes some of the Kuril island chain with Japan.
In Nemuro, the Japanese city facing the disputed Kuril islands, all residents who were evacuated have returned home "and are full of relief," said Yasukazu Imai, a city official.
"There was anxiety among residents following the tsunami warning but at the same time there was no chaos or confusion as we delivered the warning to our residents smoothly in line with our disaster relief manual," Imai said.
No damage or casualties were immediately reported from the Kuril islands, according to Russian officials.
Small tsunamis, some measuring several meters high, crashed into Hawaiin shores, slightly injuring one swimmer and temporarily flooding a harbor about six hours after the earthquake struck.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center canceled a tsunami watch initially issued for Hawaii when it became clear the waves would not be large enough to inflict serious damage.
But local civil defense authorities still warned people to stay out of the water and to exercise caution near harbors given the possibility the earthquake would generate unusual currents around Hawaii.
A woman swimming at Waikiki suffered cuts when she was sucked through an opening in a seawall as the water receded just before the swells arrived. She was otherwise fine, said John Cummings, a spokesman for Oahu Civil Defense.
On Kauai, a 75cm swell flooded a parking lot at Nawiliwili Harbor.
In California, two docks were damaged and several boats were tossed onto dry land from the force of the tsunami.