At least 19 missing after mudslide sweeps away houses in central Japan

At least 19 people are missing after a powerful mudslide swept away rows of houses in a Japanese town.

Disaster management officials in Shizuoka prefecture in central Japan say the mudslide occurred on Saturday morning in Atami, a location known for its hot springs.

As many as 80 homes in Atami were completely buried, according to an official with the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

The official said more people, possibly 100, could still be missing under the mudslides but warned that details were not immediately clear. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as is often policy at Japanese bureaucracies, stressed that aggressive rescue operations were underway to find survivors.

Prefectural disaster management official Takamichi Sugiyama said rescue workers are searching for at least 19 people, adding the mudslide occurred in an area called Izusan.

Mr Sugiyama said some people in the area are believed to have evacuated but no further details were immediately known.

Evidence of the mudslide in Zushi Credit: Kyodo News/AP

Social media footage showed a powerful, black mudslide slide down a mountainside, knocking down and crushing houses in its way as helpless neighbours watched in horror, some recording on their phones.

Heavy rain has been lashing across Japan since earlier this week, causing rivers to swell in central and the Tokyo region, and increasing the risk of landslides.

Defence forces will join firefighters and police in the rescue operation, Mr Sugiyama added. Evacuation warnings have also been issued for a widespread area.

NHK TV footage later showed a part of a bridge had collapsed.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called an emergency meeting for his Cabinet, and instructed the task force to push ahead with rescue operations while guarding against more such disasters.

Evacuation warnings were issued for a wide area, including the so-called “Level 5,” which is the highest possible alert, affecting more than 35,000 people.

Atami is a quaint seaside resort area in Shizuoka prefecture, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Tokyo. The area that was hit by the mudslide, Izusan, includes hot springs, residential areas, shopping streets and a famous shrine.