Final number killed by 9.0-magnitude offshore quake and 10-metre wall of water that slammed into Japan's coast appears increasingly likely to be in the tens of thousands.
Death toll in Japan continues to rise
As thousands more bodies were found in Japan's coastal regions, it became apparent yesterday that the tragedy the country suffered in Friday's earthquake and tsunami was of epic proportions.
The final number killed by a 9.0-magnitude offshore quake and a 10-metre wall of water that slammed into the coast appears increasingly likely to be measured in the tens of thousands.
As the country continues to grapple with an unfolding nuclear crisis, a grim tide of corpses is overwhelming crematoria and causing shortages of body bags.
About 2,000 bodies were found washed up yesterday morning on the shore in Miyagi prefecture, an area of north-east Honshu island where the authorities believe 10,000 people may have died.
The confirmed death toll nationwide stands at about 2,800 but is set to rise far higher.
Pictures from coastal towns revealed almost utter devastation, with houses and buildings reduced to rubble, vehicles turned over or ripped from their axles, large ships lying on their sides and in one case left sitting on top of a building.
Such was the almost total annihilation that some parts of Miyagi suffered, correspondents on the scene even made comparisons with Hiroshima.
The town of Minamisanriku, once home to 17,000, is almost completely washed away, with only a few buildings standing.
The Kyodo news agency reported that about 1,000 bodies had been found yesterday on the town's shore, with a similar number discovered in another coastal part of Miyagi.
In Iwate prefecture, the fire department said the city of Rikuzentakata, which used to have 23,000 residents, was "almost completely wiped out", Reuters reported, and there was no word on how many survived after 80 per cent of the city was left underwater.
In Otsuchi town, also in Iwate, 12,000 of the 15,000 residents are unaccounted for.
Tourism officials said as many as 2,500 visitors in tsunami-affected regions had not been traced.
The Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, said search teams had rescued 15,000 people so far and nearly half a million have been evacuated from the worst-hit areas.
About 100,000 troops, close to half those serving in the army, have been sent to affected areas, and vast quantities of blankets, water, fuel and food have also been dispatched, according to the Associated Press.
However, there was little comfort for some survivors, with many huddling in shelters without power supplies, food or water as night-time temperatures dropped close to zero. An estimated 24,000 people remain stranded.
Access to food and water has become the priority for many survivors, with 1.4 million households still without water supplies, along with 1.9 million that lack power.
Huge queues formed outside supermarkets in the north-east of Honshu and shoppers were limited in some cases to buying a maximum of five items as supplies ran low.
Some residents waited for several hours to fill up jugs of water, while supplies of fuel were scarce and, in many cases, restricted to those from rescue teams and other essential services needed to carry out official operations.
"People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming," Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, was quoted as saying.
In a macabre twist, Mr Sato said even body bags and coffins were running out, and assistance from foreign funeral parlours may be needed to cope with demand.
"We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don't have enough," he said.
"We just did not expect such a thing to happen, it is just overwhelming."
Other officials said crematoria were unable to deal with the vast number of bodies requiring cremation.
Yet there were dramatic stories of survival from those lucky enough to escape the raging water that swept away everything in its path.
Miki Otomo told Agence France-Presse that her sister was in a bus when the waves came hurtling from behind.
"The bus driver told everybody to get out of the bus and run," Ms Otomo said. "My sister was able to get away but some people just couldn't run fast enough."
A mother of three teenagers, Ms Otomo escaped by car and is now living in an evacuation centre with about 1,000 others.
"The tsunami wave was coming and I grabbed grandfather and our dog and drove. The wave was right behind me, but I had to keep zigzagging around obstacles and the water to get to safety," she said.
Rescue teams continued to fly in to Japan as scores of countries offered help. Helicopters from the United States navy flew aid into Sendai, a city of one million that suffered acutely in Friday's tsunami. Thick black smoke continued to pour from fires raging in the city.
Plans to ration electricity by introducing power cuts in areas in and around Tokyo were postponed by Mr Kan, who said they may not be required if people are careful not to waste electricity. Officials had proposed the rationing after the country's nuclear crisis forced the shutdown of a string of reactors.
To conserve power, the Tokyo subway and other rail services were running at half capacity, and people were advised to stay away from school and work yesterday.
In one piece of good news, a tsunami alert that sounded yesterday after a 6.2-magnitude aftershock turned out to be a false alarm, although with experts continuing to warn of severe aftershocks, the risk that the sea could wreak further destruction remains.