At least six people are confirmed dead and 22 are missing after rain-sodden hills in the outskirts of Hiroshima gave way early Wednesday in several landslides.
Local media reports put the death toll at 18.
Video footage from the national broadcaster NHK showed suburban homes in the western Japanese city surrounded by streams of mud and debris, and residents picking their way over piles of rocks and dirt.
Rescue workers suspended by ropes from police helicopters were pulling victims from the rubble as they searched homes stranded amid piles of lumber from crushed houses.
A troop of police rescue personnel working after landslides swept through a residential area in Hiroshima.
Photo / AP
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency, citing the local government, said six people were confirmed dead and another 22 were missing as of late morning.
It said at least 20 people were injured, one seriously.'
National broadcaster NHK, citing local police, put the death toll at 18.
"A few people were washed away and it is hard to know exactly how many are unaccounted for," said local government official Nakatoshi Okamoto, noting that the conditions in the disaster area were hindering efforts to account for all those affected.
Authorities issued warnings that further rains could trigger more landslides and flooding.
Japanese troops were deployed in response to a request from the local government.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it would be a sizeable deployment. "I have ordered (government officials) to carry out the rescue operation in an integrated manner, aware of the possibility of further rain," he told reporters in Tokyo.
"I also ordered them to raise the number of Self-Defense Force (military) personnel to several hundred in order to strengthen rescue operations," he said, adding he would be sending one of his ministers to the site.
Rescue workers search for survivors. Photo / AP
Landslides are a constant risk in mountainous, crowded Japan, where many homes are built on or near steep slopes. Torrential rains in the early morning apparently caused slopes to collapse in an area where many of the buildings were newly constructed.
Damage from land and mudslides has increased over the past few decades due to more frequent heavy rains, despite extensive work on stabilizing slopes. In the past decade there have been nearly 1,200 landslides a year, according to the land ministry, up from an average of about 770 a year in the previous decade.
In October last year, multiple mudslides on Izu-Oshima, an island south of Tokyo, killed 35 people, four of whose bodies were never recovered. Those slides followed a typhoon that dumped a record 824 millimeters (more than 32 inches) of rain in a single day.