An earthquake, a tsunami and an uncertain nuclear threat: the scale of the disaster to hit Japan dwarfs everyday political crises.
For the government, co-ordinating search, rescue and relief efforts presents a monumental challenge.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Japan was facing its toughest and most difficult crisis “in the 65 years since the end of World War II”.
“I’m confident that the Japanese people can be united to work together to overcome this difficulty,” he said.
The prime minister also said that selective power cuts were inevitable in the coming days, to avoid sudden power failure that could devastate lives as well as economic activity. The operators had been instructed to make controlled blackouts in the Tokyo area.
Away from the scenes of destruction, the impact is already being felt on everyday life. In Sendai city in northeastern Japan people have been queueing up to buy emergency supplies.
“We don’t know whether there’ll be electricity tonight, so we’ve come here to buy candles,” said two girls.
Water supplies have been disrupted as well as electricity. Street pipes are providing some relief. For a society used to modern comforts, it is a rude shock.
“The water is cut off, but Sukugawa is a little bit rural and there is natural wellwater. We take it and put it through the water purifier and warm it up and use it in various ways,” said a taxi driver.
Sendai – a city of a million people – took the brunt of the tsunami. Most shops and restaurants are closed – because of earthquake damage, a lack of supplies, or because owners have left.
There is already a shortage of fuel; phone networks are saturated. Hospital authorities fear they may run out of food and water very soon.