SAPPORO, Japan -- The toll from a killer earthquake off northern Japan mounted to 81 dead and 167 missing Tuesday as residents began to take stock of the damage caused when the powerful temblor jarred the region and then sent tidal waves crashing into the shorelines of Japan, Russia and South Korea.
As the toll continued to mount in the hardest-hit areas of Japan's northern main island of Hokkaido, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa canceled his campaigning for Sunday's general election and flew to the region Tuesday night for a first-hand assessment of the damage.
'I've heard what the situation is and decided to go to Hokkaido,' Miyazawa told reporters in Tokyo, hurrying off the campaign trail to personally inspect the devastated areas. 'It's tremendously sad,' he added. 'The government should do all it can.'
Authorities rushed tons of food, water and medical aid to the island during the day as rescuers poked through the remains of entire neighborhoods reduced to kindling, looking for survivors under collapsed homes. The government said it would offer low-interest loans to help quake victims rebuild.
The earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the open-ended Richter scale, struck southern parts of Japan's northernmost main island and other areas in northern Japan at 10:17 p.m. Monday, unleashing a torrent of abnormally high waves known popularly as tidal waves and more correctly as tsunamis.
Officials said the quake was the worst to hit Japan in 10 years in terms of casualties, and the death toll could exceed the number killed in 1983 when 104 people died.
The tidal waves spawned by the quake claimed victims as far away as Aomori at the northern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu, killing a fisherman who toppled into the churning sea from his boat, the National Police Agency said.
The epicenter of the quake was located 30 miles under the Sea of Japan, 42 miles southwest of Hokkaido.
The quake was not felt in Tokyo, 525 miles south of the epicenter, but the tidal waves generated by the quake destroyed 28 fishing boats on South Korea's east coast.
The independent Interfax news agency in Russia said 10-foot waves slammed the Russian Far East coast in the vicinity of the port of Nakhodka. The towns of Rudnaya Pristan, Olga, Kamenka, Valentin and Preobrazhensky were hit.
Civil defense official Cpt. Sergei Kubynin said three people were missing.
At least five fishing boats were swept aground on the Russian coast. A fish-processing factory in Kamenka was damaged, local authorities reported. The extent of the damage along Russia's Far East coast was still being assessed.
Tidal waves reaching 16 feet high pounded Hokkaido throughout the night, and thousands of frightened residents fled to higher ground as their wood homes were either consumed by flames ignited by the quake or battered by raging surf.
Witnesses on the hardest hit island of Okushiri, west of Hokkaido in the Japan Sea, reported tidal waves as high as 32 feet.
News footage of the island Tuesday showed seaweed draped over telephone poles standing near the shoreline.
Large sections of roadway were torn up as if slashed with a giant blade, and cars and trucks lay in the gaping earth, tossed there atop one another like discarded toys.
Along one wharf, a fishing boat and bus had been thrown together against a battered building.
A camera crew from Japan's NHK television visiting the island to work on a documentary rushed out into the streets with their equipment after the quake to film the residents' attempts to fight fires and escape the approaching tidal waves.
People ran along the streets in their pajamas in the dark carrying flashlights, some with small children perched on their shoulders. A woman in a car searched frantically for her mother.
Sea water was reported to be rushing onto some streets after waves slammed into the nearby coastline. Another woman looked out toward the sea for her grandchild, who was swept away by the sea.
Sixty people reportedly died on Okushiri, whose population is 4,700, and 155 were missing Tuesday night, officials said.
The Meteorological Agency Tuesday morning lifted all tsunami warnings it had issued for the Sea of Japan coastal areas, Sea of Okhotsk coast in Hokkaido, and Pacific coast regions in northern Japan.
'Okushiri does not have a tidal observatory,' said a Meteorological Agency official in Tokyo. 'But we think the island was hit by waves within minutes after the earthquake occurred.'
The NHK crew also filmed pajama-clad residents on a hill who watched, stunned, as their homes burned. One man in pajamas, sandals and a helmet ran up a path with a section of fire hose in a futile attempt to save the homes.
Five bodies were recovered from a hotel crushed when the side of a hill sliced off and buried it under 30 feet of dirt, and more guests were feared killed.
An 80-year-old woman was swept out to sea and another woman was buried in a landslide. Two other people died under the wreckage of their homes, police said.
'My house was swept away in an instant,' said 36-year-old Masato Wakayama, surveying the sea-soaked plot.
By 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, 854 homes had been reported damaged or destroyed by the quake, officials said.
Some 399 homes were totally destroyed and 232 damaged by floods, officials said.
One home could be seen floating out to sea Tuesday afternoon, submerged up to its roof.
The tidal waves capsized or washed away an estimated 270 fishing boats over a broad area from Hokkaido to the Chugoku region, in western Japan across the Japan Sea from the southern tip of South Korea.
'I was sitting in the bathroom and felt the earth shake,' said a housewife seeking shelter. 'I was so surprised I ran out of the toilet. '
Churning surf reaching up to 16 feet high came ashore at various points along the coastline in Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, police said.
'Nobody expected this much damage,' said a rescue official on the island, noting that a total evaluation was hampered by road closings from landslides.
Immediately after the quake, authorities urged people to seek higher ground and evacuate areas along the coast. In the town of Setana, battered by intermittent tidal waves causing widespread damage to homes and other structures, the 3,000 residents fled to a local school.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co. reported the quake knocked out a number of its transformer stations and power was cut off to 28,000 homes. Rail service came to a standstill and landslides blocked roads in several locations.
Police and military troops started rescue operations before dawn. Ground troops were flown by helicopter to Okushiri Island while three patrol boats with 100 officers were dispatched. A team of 100 doctors and nurses treated the injured.
Miyazawa planned to fly to Okushiri by helicopter Wednesday morning because the airport was unusable.
The government said it will provide low interest loans for the earthquake victims that can be repaid over a 10-year period at 5.4 to 6. 5 percent, including a grace period of two years.