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Keywords:

  • Japan trench;
  • tectonic erosion;
  • forearc subsidence;
  • plate boundary kinematics

[1] Tectonic erosion along convergent plate boundaries, whereby removal of upper plate material along the subduction zone interface drives kilometer-scale outer forearc subsidence, has been purported to explain the evolution of nearly half the world's subduction margins, including part of the history of northeast Japan. Here, we evaluate the role of plate boundary dynamics in driving forearc subsidence in northeastern Japan. A synthesis of newly updated analyses of outer forearc subsidence, the timing and kinematics of upper plate deformation, and the history of plate convergence along the Japan trench demonstrate that the onset of rapid fore-arc tectonic subsidence is contemporaneous with upper plate extension during the opening of the Sea of Japan and with an acceleration in convergence rate at the trench. In Plio-Quaternary time, relative uplift of the outer forearc is contemporaneous with contraction across the arc and a decrease in plate convergence rate. The coincidence of these changes across the forearc, arc, backarc system appears to require an explanation at the scale of the entire plate boundary. Similar observations along other western Pacific margins suggest that correlations between forearc subsidence and major changes in plate kinematics are the rule, rather than the exception. We suggest that a significant component of forearc subsidence at the northeast Japan margin is not the consequence of basal tectonic erosion, but instead reflects dynamic changes in plate boundary geometry driven by temporal variations in plate kinematics. If correct, this model requires a reconsideration of the mass balance and crustal recycling of continental crust at nonaccretionary margins.