In this paper we describe the earthquake geology of East Japan, based on a seismotectonic analysis of foreshocks and aftershocks for the 2011 Tohoku-oki Great Earthquake. The earthquake geology is defined by three compressional buttresses that are separated by channels dominated by extensional earthquakes. In the 2011 earthquake sequence, most activity occurred in the Tohoku-oki extensional channel. This is bounded by seismotectonic lineaments that run subparallel to the slip direction of thrust-fault earthquakes in the adjacent compressional buttresses, and to the slip direction of landward-dipping normal-fault aftershocks in the subducting Pacific plate. The northern bounding seismotectonic lineament of the Tohoku-oki extensional channel runs WNW-ESE ∼15 km north of the Miyagi Volcanic Lineament. The southern bounding seismotectonic lineament runs ∼20 km to the south of the Fukushima Volcanic Lineament. These lineaments may reflect faults that splay from deeper structures beneath the volcanic lineaments. In any case, the seismotectonic lineaments appear to reflect zones of weakness, and as is the case in any load-bearing architecture, precursor movements on such focusing structures may herald the onset of catastrophic failure. We discovered that two-thirds of all major earthquakes with moment magnitude Mw ≥6.9 in the past 40 years in East Japan began within 15 km of the seaward prolongation of a volcanic lineament, and that motion across the northern seismotectonic lineament reversed its sense in the days prior to the 2011 Great Earthquake, suggesting the onset of yield. We infer that continuous geodetic monitoring across the East Japan lineaments might thus provide useful signals for future hazard assessment.

Gold Open Access: This paper is published under the terms of the CC-BY-NC license.