TOKYO - Powerful typhoon Neoguri lashed Japan's southern Okinawa islands Tuesday, forcing over half a million people to seek shelter, as the region's worst storm in years damaged buildings, downed trees and brought air and sea traffic to a halt.
The typhoon packed gusts of up to 216kmh with torrential downpours, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights as authorities said at least one person had died and several were injured by the raging storm.
In the capital Naha, traffic lights went off and television footage showed trees split by the force of the storm, signboards flying around and a restaurant destroyed, with the shattered building blocking a street.
The coastguard and local police said a 62-year-old man was found dead after he was knocked off his boat in rough waters near Japan's mainland - the weather agency earlier warned that waves could reach as high as 14m.
Separately, Okinawa police said at least four people were injured, including an 83-year-old woman, with public broadcaster NHK putting the number of injured at 19.
Schools across the sprawling archipelago were also closed while nearly 70,000 Okinawan households had no power, NHK said.
"We have no water or electricity, but the gas is still on," said Takuro Ogawa, who lives in Chatan, a town in central Okinawa.
Late Monday, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued its highest typhoon alert for Okinawa's main island, home to around 1.2 million people, as well as the outlying Miyako islands. The alert for the Miyako region was downgraded Tuesday evening.
Authorities had warned there was a risk to life, as well as major property damage from the typhoon and subsequent flooding and landslides.
Officials called on 590,000 people across Okinawa to take shelter in their homes or evacuate to community centres and town halls.
"We have urged residents to evacuate when they see any danger," a local municipal official told AFP by telephone.
More than 700 people have taken refuge in shelters, Jiji Press agency reported, as the powerful storm barrels toward the Japanese mainland.
Neoguri comes less than a year after Typhoon Haiyan, packing the strongest winds ever recorded on land, killed or left missing more than 7,300 people as it tore across the central Philippines in November.
Japan, a wealthy nation with strict building codes, has a strong track record of coming through major storms comparatively unscathed in the last few decades compared to its poorer neighbours.
Nonetheless Japanese officials are urging people to take the threat posed by Neoguri seriously.
"There are fears about violent winds, high waves and tides and torrential rain that we have never experienced before," Satoshi Ebihara, the Japanese weather agency's chief forecaster, told an evening news conference Monday.
"We are in an abnormal situation where serious danger is imminent," he said.
US Astronaut Reid Wiseman posted two dramatic views of the swirling typhoon from the International Space Station with the images from his Twitter account re-tweeted more than 5,000 times.
The Kadena Air Force Base, the biggest US Air Force base in the Pacific which is located on Okinawa's main island, evacuated some of its aircraft as the storm approached.
The typhoon, which has been downgraded from super typhoon status, was about 160km west northwest of Kume island near Okinawa's most populated areas as of 6.50pm. It was moving north northwest at about 30kmh, the weather agency said.
The storm could reach the southern main island of Kyushu late Wednesday or early Thursday, with the weather agency warning that the amount of rainfall by Thursday could reach as much as 400mm, posing a serious risk of landslides and flooding.
Kyushu - next to the main island of Honshu, where major cities including Tokyo and Osaka are located - was already experiencing heavy rain.
US officials at the US air base, home to thousands of American servicepeople and their families, warned of life-threatening risks.
"I can't stress enough how dangerous this typhoon may be when it hits Okinawa," Commander James Hecker of the 18th Wing stationed in Kadena said in a statement posted earlier online.
"This is the most powerful typhoon forecast to hit the island in 15 years.
"So be prepared! Tie down your outdoor items and work with your neighbours to help them." He added: "During the typhoon, do not go outside... anything not tied down, even small items, could become deadly projectiles."