Eocene onset of subduction in the western Pacific was accompanied by a global reorganization of tectonic plates and a change in Pacific plate motion relative to hotspots during the period 52–43 Ma. We present seismic-reflection and rock sample data from the Tasman Sea that demonstrate that there was a period of widespread Eocene continental and oceanic compressional plate failure after 53–48 Ma that lasted until at least 37–34 Ma. We call this the Tectonic Event of the Cenozoic in the Tasman Area (TECTA). Its compressional nature is different from coeval tensile stresses and back-arc opening after 50 Ma in the Izu-Bonin-Mariana region. Our observations imply that spatial and temporal patterns of stress evolution during western Pacific Eocene subduction initiation were more varied than previously recognized. The evolving Eocene geometry of plates and boundaries played an important role in determining regional differences in stress state.