The great 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake [moment magnitude (Mw) 9.0)] is the best-documented megathrust earthquake in the world, but its causal mechanism is still in controversy because of the poor state of knowledge on the nature of the megathrust zone. We constrain the structure of the Tohoku forearc using seismic tomography, residual topography, and gravity data, which reveal a close relationship between structural heterogeneities in and around the megathrust zone and rupture processes of the 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake. Its mainshock nucleated in an area with high seismic velocity, low seismic attenuation, and strong seismic coupling, probably indicating a large asperity (or a cluster of asperities) in the megathrust zone. Strong coseismic high-frequency radiations also occurred in high-velocity patches, whereas large afterslips took plate in low-velocity areas, differences that may reflect changes in fault friction and lithological variations. These structural heterogeneities in and around the Tohoku megathrust originate from both the overriding and subducting plates, which controlled the nucleation and rupture processes of the 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake.
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