A ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded slammed Japan's eastern coast on Friday, killing hundreds of people as it swept away boats, cars and homes while widespread fires burned out of control.

Hours later, the tsunami hit Hawaii and warnings blanketed the Pacific, putting areas on alert as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West Coast.

The 8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 23-ft. tsunami and was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0. Dozens of cities and villages along a 2,100 km. stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre. The area around a nuclear power plant in northeast Japan was evacuated after the reactor's cooling system failed.

The catastrophe claimed probably more than 1,000 lives, the Kyodo news agency said.

The news agency report came as grim updates indicating appalling loss of life kept emerging from the hard-hit east coast of northern Honshu island, where the monster wave destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

The National Police Agency said 137 people were confirmed dead and 531 were missing, while police in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, separately said 200 to 300 bodies had been found on the shore.

Fears of greater losses rose as reports came in of a ship with 100 people swept away, two trains missing, and a dam break flooding more homes.

The defence ministry said about 1,800 homes in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, were destroyed, while in Sendai authorities said 1,200 houses were toppled by the tsunami.

The small town of Ofunato further north reported that 300 houses collapsed or were swept away.

More than 80 fires blazed in and around Tokyo and in the Iwate, Miyagi, Akita and Fukushima prefectures, Kyodo reported, quoting Japan's Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of the flames being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said. “The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.

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