US military officials feared dead as typhoon slams into Japan

TOKYO - Strong typhoon Phanfone slammed into Japan Monday, packing gusting winds and huge waves that swept three US military officials out to sea and brought travel chaos to a nation accustomed to dealing with nature's fury.

Winds of up to 180 kilometres (112 miles) per hour whipped ashore as the typhoon made landfall in central Japan early in the morning, the meteorological agency said.

The storm whirled over Tokyo at around 11:00 am (0200 GMT) and then headed northeast, dumping rain further up the coast of Honshu while its eye moved out over the Pacific Ocean.

Six people are already dead or missing, including the three US military officials, according to Japanese police and coast guards.

Typhoon Phanfone grounded more than 600 flights, and caused the cancellation of dozens of bullet train services.

It also forced Japanese authorities to suspend the search on a volcano for the bodies of those still missing more than a week after it erupted suddenly, claiming dozens of lives.

The leading edge of the storm brought a nasty commute to Tokyo's morning rush hour, with hundreds of thousands of office workers caught up in the driving rain that lashed the streets.

Localised flooding was reported while television footage showed around 15 of the 20-metre (66-foot) high poles holding up the netting at a golf driving range had collapsed, crashing into houses in Chiba, east of Tokyo.

The storm also battered Japan's auto industries.

Toyota Motor said it suspended operations at its 12 factories in Aichi, central Japan, Monday morning due to the impact of the typhoon on its parts supplies.

"But we plan to resume operation at around 4 pm as there was no damage to the facilities," a company spokeswoman said.

First fatalities

The weather agency warned that, even as the storm passed out to see, landslides and floods were still a risk in a country where a relatively wet summer brought numerous landslides, including in Hiroshima where more than 70 people died.

In the central Japanese prefecture of Shizuoka, more than 50,000 people were ordered to evacuate their homes, while around 1.7 million others were advised to take refuge, local authorities said.

The first fatalities of Phanfone had already been recorded.

Three US military officials were engulfed by high waves triggered by the storm on the southern island of Okinawa.

"Three officials were taking pictures with high waves whipped up by the typhoon in the background," a local police spokesman said.

"One has been found dead, with the two others still missing," he said early Monday.

A 21-year-old surfer was also missing in the Pacific off Fujisawa, southwest of Tokyo, a coast guard spokesman said.

And rescuers were searching through the mess left by two separate landslides in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo, where two people were missing.

About 23 people were injured across the nation in storm-related accidents, public broadcaster NHK said.

The operator of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the northeastern Pacific coast, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said it had halted ground and sea operations, and bundled away cables and hoses.

"We are also patrolling and checking where water may flow in," a company spokesman said.

In the mountainous centre of the country, the typhoon meant the suspension of the search for the bodies of at least 12 hikers believed to be lying on the still-smouldering Mount Ontake. The mountain has already yielded 51.

The volcano was packed with walkers when it burst angrily to life on September 27, with many there to witness the spectacular colours of the countryside as summer turned to autumn.

The eruption is Japan's deadliest in almost 90 years and nearly 1,000 troops, firefighters and police have participated in a search made treacherous by the gases still rising from the peak, as well as a knee-deep layer of sticky ash.

"We want to resume operations as soon as possible when weather permits," said an official of the crisis management office of Nagano, where the volcano sits.

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