Prius on the line at Toyotas Tsutsumi plant near Nagoya in June 2009. Photo: Graeme Roberts/just-auto.com

Prius on the line at Toyota's Tsutsumi plant near Nagoya in June 2009. Photo: Graeme Roberts/just-auto.com

An 8.8 earthquake, the largest to hit the country in 120 years, followed by a tsunami, rocked the north of Japan at about 5.46GMT (13.46 local), with the centre close to Sendai, where Toyota recently opened a new plant.

An auto website - thetruthaboutcars.com - said Sendai took the brunt of the quake, and telephone service all over Japan is severely degraded but, "via a very spotty cellphone line" reached Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco, who was standing outside his office building, like most people in Tokyo at the time.

Toyota had no information from or communication with their plant in Ohira near Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, Nolasco told the website. Reuters, meanwhile, reported both Toyota assembly plants in the area as closed.

Japanese TV showed pictures of the Sendai airport, completely flooded but Toyota’s Ohira plant is further up in the mountains and should be spared the effects of the tidal wave. As night fell, Sendai was completely blacked out, the website said.

Toyota Boshoku, a Toyota Motor supplier, reported damage at a plant in Miyagi prefecture.

Tokyo Broadcasting System reported five Nissan factories closed.

A 15:00GMT statement from Nissan USA said: "Operations have been suspended at Nissan’s Japan plants to the end of Sunday, 13 March. Nissan’s global headquarters building in Yokohama is was not significantly affected, is safe and operational. So far, there are no reports of employee casualties and employee safety precautions are underway at all locations."

NHK reported that a ceiling collapsed at a Honda Motor plant in Tochigi with two workers confirmed dead.

A Japan Auto Manufacturers Association (JAMA) official in Tokyo told just-auto staff could not get home as trains and subways were not running. Japanese TV has shown pictures of fires near the city.

Kyodo News said fires had started at industrial facilities including Sumitomo Metal Industries and Nissan Motor.

Kyodo said operations had stopped at Toyota affiliate Kanto Auto Works' plant in Iwate Prefecture and three plants of a subsidiary of auto parts manufacturer Toyota Boshoku.

NBC News autos correspondent Phil LeBeau said on Twitter at around 13:13GMT that all Toyota plants in Japan had restarted production and were being checked for damage as were suppliers. Some dealers had reported damage.

Reuters said a 42-year-old male employee at Honda Motor's R&D Centre in Tochigi prefecture had died after a wall collapsed in a canteen. In other Tochigi facilities, including other R&D sites and an engine parts/transmission factory, walls and ceilings were damaged, injuring about 30 employees.

Honda's Sayama, Tochigi and Hamamatsu factories halted production but the Suzuka factory in central Japan has restarted after a temporary halt.

Nissan Motor has halted production at all four car assembly factories in Japan, including those in severely hit Tochigi and Fukushima prefectures. Small fires confirmed at those two factories. Two suffered minor injuries at Tochigi factory.

Production has stopped at Toyota's joint venture with Panasonic, Prime Earth EV Energy, in Miyagi prefecture, which makes batteries for hybrid cars.

Production also stopped at the Toyota Motor Tohoku car parts factory.

Fuji Heavy Industries has halted eight of 10 factories, including all five car and car parts-related plants for its Subaru-brand vehicles in Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo.

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