Japan's Earthquakes & Tectonic Setting

Why is the tectonic setting around Japan so complicated?

Earthquakes, volcanoes, and trenches all result from Japan being wedged among four major tectonic plates. The Pacific Plate subducts beneath the Okhotsk Plate at the Japan Trench. The Philippine Sea Plate subducts beneath central and southwest Japan at the Sagami Trough, the Nankai Trough, and the Ryukyu Trench. A complex structure accommodates slow east-west convergence between the Okhotsk and Eurasian plates.

Densely populated Japan is at the mercy of both offshore megathrust earthquakes that generate tsunamis and shallow on-shore crustal fault earthquakes that shake vulnerable overlying cities. Because of this, Japan has taken major steps to help mitigate disasters by creating one of the most effective earthquake early warning systems in the world and by engineering and seismically retrofitting their infrastructure (buildings, roads, railways). 96% of citizens successfully evacuated the tsunami inundtion zone during the 2011 earthquake. Tragically, almost 20,000 lives were lost.


Keypoints:

This animation addresses:

  1. Regional and local tectonics
  2. Earthquake occurances and historic earthquakes
  3. Crustal fault earthquakes (Kobe, 1995)
  4. Megathrust earthquakes (Tohoku-Oki, 2011) 
  5. Tsunamis

 

Related Interactives

Learn how the Pacific Northwest tectonic setting and megathrust earthquake of January 1700 is similar to the catastrophic earthquake in Japan in 2011 by touching icons on this interactive map.

Causes and casualties of the 14 most-significant earthquakes of that decade. This Flash rollover reveals facts about each of the earthquakes.

Related Animations

This UNAVCO animation compares Japan's subduction zone at the location of the 2011 earthquake with a mirror-image subduction zone in the Pacific Northwest. There are many similarities.

Subduction-zone megathrust earthquakes, the most powerful earthquakes in the world, can produce tsunamis through a variety of structures that are missed by simple models including: fault boundary rupture, deformation of overlying plate, splay faults and landslides. From a hazards viewpoint, it is critical to remember that tsunamis are multiple waves that often arrive on shore for many hours after the initial wave.

Related Fact-Sheets

Between 2001 and 2011, more than 18,500 seismic events between Magnitudes 5 and 9.3 were recorded and located by the US Geological Survey. This list highlights some of these recent seismic events that are of special interest because they have caused notable geologic changes to our landscape or devastating destruction to our society.