Faults in Earth's crust accommodate slow relative motion between tectonic plates through either similarly slow slip or fast, seismic-wave-producing rupture events perceived as earthquakes. These types of behaviour are often assumed to be separated in space and to occur on two different types of fault segment: one with stable, rate-strengthening friction and the other with rate-weakening friction that leads to stick-slip. The 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake with moment magnitude M(w) = 9.0 challenged such assumptions by accumulating its largest seismic slip in the area that had been assumed to be creeping. Here we propose a model in which stable, rate-strengthening behaviour at low slip rates is combined with coseismic weakening due to rapid shear heating of pore fluids, allowing unstable slip to occur in segments that can creep between events. The model parameters are based on laboratory measurements on samples from the fault of the M(w) 7.6 1999 Chi-Chi earthquake. The long-term slip behaviour of the model, which we examine using a unique numerical approach that includes all wave effects, reproduces and explains a number of both long-term and coseismic observations-some of them seemingly contradictory-about the faults at which the Tohoku-Oki and Chi-Chi earthquakes occurred, including there being more high-frequency radiation from areas of lower slip, the largest seismic slip in the Tohoku-Oki earthquake having occurred in a potentially creeping segment, the overall pattern of previous events in the area and the complexity of the Tohoku-Oki rupture. The implication that earthquake rupture may break through large portions of creeping segments, which are at present considered to be barriers, requires a re-evaluation of seismic hazard in many areas.