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Possibly active fault under Japan's Mount Fuji to trigger big quake, landslide?

Itsuo Inouye / AP

Mount Fuji, Japan's highest peak at 12,385 feet, may be sitting on a large, active fault that could trigger quakes and landslides that would change the mountain's shape and devastate nearby communities.

TOKYO -- Japan's Mount Fuji may be sitting on a large, active fault that could trigger a magnitude-7 earthquake, changing the shape of the mountain and devastating nearby communities, the education ministry said on Thursday. 

A survey commissioned by the ministry found an 18-mile fault beneath Japan's highest mountain, believed by many to be sacred, and research results indicate it was likely to be active, a ministry official said.

"We're not certain if it's an active fault," a ministry official said according to the Wall Street Journal. "But there is a possibility ... A structural investigation near [the volcano] found a fault. Because there's a fault there, there's a chance that it's moving."

If the fault sets off an earthquake, it could lead to a major landslide and hit communities at the foot of the 12,400-foot-high mountain. Further research was required, the official said. 

Little is known about the seismic structure under Mount Fuji because faults were buried by mudflows triggered by a huge landslide that occurred about 2,600 to 2,900 years ago, as well as by layers of volcanic ash, the Japan Times reported

However, scientists say there is evidence the mountain has collapsed in the past.

"In this region, there is a stratum right above the fault that indicates that Mount Fuji has collapsed before," a ministry official told the Wall Street Journal. 

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A magnitude-9 earthquake and massive tsunami hit northern Japan last year, leaving nearly 19,000 people dead or missing and causing the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years. 

An earthquake in 1707 caused Fuji to erupt and killed an estimated 20,000 people.

Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report. 

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