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Even in a nation accustomed to tremors, yesterday's massive earthquake in Japan, and the tsunami it triggered, were terrifyingly different.

Coming only 17 days after the devastating quake in Christchurch, people in Japan were petrified.

Asagi Machida, a 27-year-old web designer in Tokyo, was walking near a coffee shop when the earthquake hit.

"The images from the New Zealand earthquake are still fresh in my mind so I was really scared. I couldn't believe such a big earthquake was happening."

The quake rattled skyscrapers in Tokyo where the streets around the main train station were packed with commuters stranded after buses and trains were halted.

"It was probably the worst I've felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago," said Reuters journalist Linda Sieg.

"The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks," she said.

One of the planet's most seismically active areas, Japan accounts for about 20 per cent of the world's earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater. An earthquake occurs on average every five minutes.

"I was terrified and I'm still frightened," said Hidekatsu Hata, 36, a restaurant manager in Tokyo's Akasaka area. "I've never experienced such a big quake before."

"People were very frightened. Very rare, since people in Japan are used to quakes. Today was very different," said reporter Kei Okamura.

Kyodo news agency reported 14 fires had broken out in Tokyo and a refinery in Chiba, just outside the capital, was also ablaze.

Hundreds of people spilled out onto Tokyo's streets, crowds gathering in front of televisions in shop windows. Some passengers on a subway line screamed and grabbed other passengers.

"I dashed out of my office. I sort of panicked and left behind my mobile phone and belongings," said Aya Nakamura, an office worker in Tokyo.

"You see the crane on top of that tall building under construction? I thought it might fall off the building because everything around me was shaking badly," she said, standing with her colleague on the street.

At least 10 people have so far been killed, but the death toll is certain to rise.

The quake surpasses the Great Kanto quake of September 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area. Seismologists had said another such quake could strike the city at any time.

A 1995 quake in Kobe caused US$100 billion ($136 billion) in damage, the most expensive natural disaster in history. For Takeshi Okada, yesterday's quake was a chilling reminder of that disaster.

"I remember seeing what happened in Kobe and thought, what if that happens to Tokyo? I'm panicking. I don't want to go outside in case something crashes down on me."