Over 1,000 military and civilian rescue personnel, including firefighters and paramedics, were scrambling through a deluge of mud and debris in Atami on Sunday, a day after a colossal mudslide ripped through the small Japanese town.
Two people were confirmed dead and about 130 houses have been damaged in the town of about 20,000 dwellings in Shizuoka prefecture, 90 kilometres south-west of Tokyo.
Around 80 homes have been buried, according to the local Fire and Disaster Management Agency.
The death toll was unchanged since the disaster struck on Saturday morning and the number of unaccounted for was also the same at 20, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters. Nineteen people have been rescued.
“There is a possibility of heavy rain due to the rain front, so we still need to be alert at the maximum level. Arduous rescue efforts will continue,” Mr Suga said, warning residents to watch out for more landslides. “Please act as quickly as you can to stay safe.”
Authorities deployed six drones to assist in the search, which was being hampered by poor weather and thick fog.
On the morning before the disaster, Japan’s National Meteorological Agency issued a Level Five warning -- the most severe kind -- telling residents to evacuate their homes in vulnerable areas.
Level Five warnings stipulate that the public “should make every effort to save themselves”.
"Because of the heavy rain, the ground loosened and the mudslide occurred … it picked up speed and swept away houses together with people," said Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu, speaking at a press conference.
The town experienced a deluge of rainfall in the days preceding the disaster, 313 millimetres in 48 hours, well above the monthly average at this time of year of 242.5 millimetres.
Like many others, Mariko Hattori, an interpreter who lives a short walk away from where the tsunami-like torrent of mud struck, at first did not know what had happened.
“The first things I noticed were lots of emergency vehicles. I didn’t know what happened at first,” she said. “Then I was frightened when I saw the footage.”
Witnesses said they heard a giant roar and then watched helplessly as homes were consumed by the mud waves.
The two people confirmed dead, both women, had been swept to the sea and were found by the coast guard, said Tatsushi Ueda, a Shizuoka prefecture official in charge of disaster prevention.