At least 100 people have died and more than 60 are missing after Japan suffered widespread flooding and landslides following the heaviest rains in recorded history.
Around 73,000 troops and emergency workers have been dispatched to search for the missing and to rescue residents left stranded on their rooftops after rivers burst their banks and swamped whole communities.
Days of constant rain finally stopped on Monday and as sunlight broke through the clouds it laid bare the full extent of the devastation.
In Kumano, the downpours loosened earth on the surrounding hillsides, and sent multiple waves of mud crashing down onto the homes below.
The road to the affected area remained impassable, but handfuls of residents made it back, escorted by rescue workers or troops.
Residents returning to their homes were left speechless and unsure where to start the recovery and clean-up due to the extent of the damage.
Seiji Toda was shocked and helpless when he saw his restaurant, which he opened nearly 40 years ago, filled with mud heaped about a yard (1m) from the floor.
Tables, covered with clean white tablecloths before he left, were all mud-covered, chairs thrown to the floor.
‘I had never seen anything like this,’ he said on TBS television, standing outside his restaurant in Hiroshima city while wearing a helmet. He said it would be impossible to clean up the mess by hand.
Right next to his restaurant were heaps of broken trees and other debris. Several cars were still half buried in the mud.
The assessment of casualties has been difficult because of the widespread area affected by the rainfall, flooding and landslides since late last week.
Authorities warned that landslides could strike even after rain subsides as the calamity shaped up to be potentially the worst in decades.
Some homes were smashed. Others were tilting precariously. Rivers overflowed, turning towns into lakes, leaving dozens of people stranded on rooftops. Military paddle boats and helicopters have taken people to safety.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Monday that 87 people were confirmed dead and 13 others were without vital signs when they were found.
Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe said the government has expended the search and rescue effort, dispatching 73,000 troops and emergency workers.
‘The rescue teams are doing their utmost,’ he said.
In large parts of Hiroshima, water streamed through a residential area, strewn with fallen telephone poles, uprooted trees and mud over the weekend.
Restaurant owner Mr Toda said he took precautions because of his fresh memory of flooding four years ago that killed more than 70 in Hiroshima. Others were caught off guard.
‘It gives me a chill thinking what could have happened,’ said Eiko Yamane on Sunday as she recalled realising how suddenly water was reaching the tyres of the car she was driving. She was able to escape.
The Japan Meteorological Agency said three hours of rainfall in one area in Kochi prefecture reached an accumulated 10.4in (26.3cm), the highest since such records started in 1976.
A couple were found dead in a farmhouse buried in a mudslide in Kagoshima prefecture on Monday.
Earlier, a woman who was reported as missing after getting trapped in her car was found dead, Kyodo news service reported.
Kochi prefecture, on Shikoku, issued landslide warnings over almost the entire island.
The Japanese government set up an emergency taskforce over the weekend and has sent troops, firefighters, police and other disaster relief.
People have also taken to social media to plead for help.
Okayama prefecture, south of Hiroshima, said in a statement that five people had died, seven were missing and 11 were injured, at least one of them seriously.
Nine homes were destroyed and dozens more were damaged, while more than 500 were flooded.
The heavy rains began with a typhoon front that hit as Japan entered its yearly typhoon season.
The archipelago is battered annually by an average of six typhoons, from around July to October or November.
The storm fronts bring torrential downpours and heavy winds, and are closely tracked by weather and government officials.
Despite various measures intended to prevent deaths, including dams to control flood waters, the country sees rain-related deaths most years.
But this rainfront has been unprecedented: record rainfall was recorded in the 72 hours to Sunday at 118 government observation points across the affected area, the weather agency told AFP.
About 70 percent of Japan’s land is made up of mountains and hills, so homes are often built on steep slopes, or flood-prone flat plains below them.
‘In addition, Japan’s earth is geologically diverse, with tectonic plates and volcanic geological layers, — in a nutshell, it’s weak,’ said Hiroyuki Ohno, head of the Sabo (sand erosion control) and Landslide Technical Centre.
That puts many people’s homes in the path of potential landslides and flooding.
The government has a long-term project nudging people in disaster-prone areas to move, and has even banned new construction in the most vulnerable places.
But the project is ongoing, and many remain in harm’s way.
Many of Japan’s homes are built of wood, particularly traditional or traditional-style houses that remain popular in the countryside.
Their foundations are also made of wood, which can be ideal for flexibility in the case of earthquakes, but stand little chance of withstanding the crushing pressure produced by a torrent of flood water or a massive landslide.
AFP reporters saw homes where the top floor had been ripped away from the lower one, and carried away by landslides, and others that had been swept away wholesale from their plots.
Japanese authorities issued evacuation orders to around five million people during the worst of the rains, but the orders are not mandatory, and many ignored them.
‘Human beings have a so-called normalcy bias, meaning people try not to evacuate, ignoring negative information,’ said Hirotada Hirose, a disaster management expert.
‘This human nature means people can’t react to disasters like landslides and flash floods, which occur suddenly,’ he told AFP.
But experts also say Japan’s warning system is problematic, with the decision to issue evacuation orders often left to local officials who may have no disaster management experience.
‘Reluctance to issue evacuation orders can result in delays… and if they are issued at odd hours, no one will hear about them,’ Hirose said.