Determining factors that limit coseismic rupture is important to evaluate the hazard of powerful subduction zone earthquakes such as the 2011 Tohoku-Oki event (Mw = 9.0). In 1960 (Mw = 9.5) and 2010 (Mw = 8.8), Chile was hit by such powerful earthquakes, the boundary of which was the site of a giant submarine slope failure with chaotic debris subducted to seismogenic zone depth. Here, a continuous décollement is absent, whereas away from the slope failure, a continuous décollement is seismically imaged. We infer that underthrusting of inhomogeneous slide deposits prevents the development of a décollement, and thus the formation of a thin continuous slip zone necessary for earthquake rupture propagation. Thus, coseismic rupture during the 1960 and 2010 earthquakes seems to be limited by underthrusted upper plate mass-wasting deposits. More generally, our results suggest that upper plate dynamics and resulting surface processes can play a key role for determining rupture size of subduction zone earthquakes.