January 6, 2006

Japan Struggles to Cope with Record Snowfall

TOKYO -- Japan was bracing for more snow on Friday after some of the heaviest snowfall on record that has left 53 people dead and paralyzed transport.

Almost 13 ft of snow has piled up in the worst-hit areas of Niigata near the Japan Sea coast, though the snowiest season of the year is yet to come.

Television pictures showed drifts burying the ground floors of houses and almost covering street lamps.

A 93-year-old woman and her daughter were crushed to death in Ishikawa Prefecture, 186 miles northwest of Tokyo, on Thursday when their house collapsed under the weight of the snow.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said 53 people, including the latest fatalities, have died because of the inclement weather in the past few weeks, many of them elderly people trying to clear snow from their roofs.

Last month, Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa promised more funds to help rural communities, where a high proportion of the population is elderly, clear snow from local roads.

Akita prefecture in the north of Japan's main island of Honshu, has been hit hard by snow in recent days.

Many train passengers were left stranded in the area as services, including the high-speed bullet trains connecting Akita with Tokyo, came to a halt.

"If the snow continues to fall, we will have to think about calling in the armed forces to help out," a spokesman for a disaster management center in Akita City told the daily Asahi Shimbun.

Japan's Meteorological Agency said cold weather and heavier-than-usual snowfall would likely continue through January, caused by cold air flowing over the country from the North Pole.

This is a phenomenon that occurs on a regular basis, but has lasted longer than usual this winter, an agency official said.

Japan's heaviest snowfall usually comes in January and February.