Japan activates military and PM Suga urges vigilance amid record snowfall across wide areas

People remove snow on a street in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, on Dec 17, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS/KYODO
A woman removes snow on a street in Yuzawa, Japan, on Dec 17, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS/KYODO

TOKYO - Japan called on soldiers from the Self-Defence Forces on Thursday (Dec 17) to help with disaster relief, as a cold air mass dumped heavy snow across wide areas of the country.

More than 1,000 vehicles were stranded on two expressways, and over 10,000 households experienced power outages on Thursday, the government and police said.

At least one person has died. Ms Mayuko Mihori, a 33-year-old company employee from Tokyo, was snowboarding on an advanced course in the popular ski resort of Yuzawa in Niigata prefecture when she fell and got buried under fresh snow in a heavy blizzard.

Several towns, including Shin-onsen and Kami in Hyogo prefecture and Wakasa and Yazu in Tottori prefecture, were isolated, with roads being blocked off due to avalanches and fallen trees. Several roofs had also collapsed under the weight of accumulated snow in Ishikawa prefecture.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga convened a disaster relief task force meeting on Thursday, calling for utmost vigilance against traffic disruptions and damage to facilities due to the heavy snowfall.

The Japan Meteorological Agency has warned that heavy snowfall will likely continue in many areas along the coast of the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea) through Friday.

Mr Suga approved Niigata Governor Hideyo Hanazumi's request for military back-up, with soldiers being called in to help distribute supplies, clear snow, ascertain the safety of residents, and rescue stranded motorists trapped in their stalled vehicles.

About 1,100 vehicles were stuck overnight on Wednesday on the Kan-etsu Expressway, which connects Tokyo with Niigata prefecture to the north-west.

Its operator East Nippon Expressway estimated a gridlock extending 15km in both directions as at Thursday evening, with military rescue operations complicated by low visibility and blizzard-like conditions.

Drivers are being asked to stay patient as they hunker down in their stalled vehicles for a second sleepless night on Thursday, desperate for information as they fear for their lives.

News reports said many are melting snow for drinking water as they await supplies from the military, while the East Nippon Expressway is helping to distribute petrol and toiletries.

One woman in her 30s was taken to hospital after she complained of breathing difficulties.

Mr Yoshinobu Wakiya, 46, told the Asahi Shimbun on Thursday afternoon that it was a "life-or-death situation". He said he frequently had to remove snow off his car's exhaust pipe to prevent carbon monoxide fumes from building up in his vehicle.

A woman removes snow on a street in Yuzawa, Japan on Dec 17, 2020. PHOTO: KYODO/REUTERS

Another 300 vehicles were stuck overnight on Wednesday on the Joshin-etsu Expressway that connects Niigata, Nagano and Gunma prefectures, though the traffic jam had cleared up by Thursday morning.

A cold air mass has caused the mercury levels to fall, with more than 600 weather points across the country recording the season's lowest temperatures, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

Snow accumulated in central Kyoto - a rare phenomenon - while temperatures in Tokyo fell below 0 deg C on Thursday, 51 days earlier than the last winter, although there was no snowfall in the capital.

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