PROJECT TITLE: The Impacts of Climate Change Induced Projected Sea Level Rise on Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan


AFFILIATION: Master’s student, Keio University




Itsukushima Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Prefecture Japan. Since 1963, tide gauge data from the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) shows that sea levels at the site have been rising. This has led to an increase in flooding events at the site. This rise mirrors a global increase in sea levels, with many researchers arguing that this is as a direct result of global warming. Research into global warming and its impacts upon climate systems over the next century strongly suggest that global sea levels will continue to rise. This original research entails the collection and analysis of historic and projected sea level data to study Itsukushima Shrine in the context of a changing climate. By analysing climate model data, it is possible to assess the impact of changing sea levels on Itsukushima Shrine. It is hoped these results will be used by the shrine organization and government bodies to help guarantee the site’s continuity, and act as an example of the threat posed by climate change to sites of cultural importance.


Keywords: Itsukushima Shrine, cultural heritage, sea level rise, climate change, adaptation, mitigation



1        Introduction

Global warming and climate change are widely accepted to be warming the earth. This climate change is having an immediate, observed impact on every continent with future projections suggesting this trend will continue. 


One of the most alarming changes is sea level rise. Many sites of historical significance in Japan are located along low-lying coastlines. One such place is Itsukushima Shrine, located on Miyajima Island, Japan (Figure 1). The site itself is located on the shore of the Seto Inland Sea, which is connected to both the Pacific Ocean off Japan’s east coast and the Sea of Japan to the west. Itsukushima Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and designated Japanese National Treasure. The shrine is built on posts sunk into the seabed, that allow it to appear, at high tide, as if it’s floating on the sea (Figure 2). The effect of this design is visually stunning but leaves it very vulnerable to flooding events. Indeed, rising sea levels are a real threat to the site’s continuity.

Figure 1: Map showing location of Itsukushima Shrine

Figure 2: Photographs of Itsukushima Shrine at low (inset) and high tide (main picture)

1.1       Objective

The objective of this case study was to investigate the observed and projected impact of climate change on Itsukushima Shrine. The site was chosen due to the fact that it is an important cultural heritage site in Japan and as such would serve as a high profile example of the potential impact of global warming. A further reason for the site’s selection is its coastal location and its proximity to the sea, particularly during high tides. The major threat to the shrine posed by climate change is sea level rise and as such this is the focus of this case study. However, other impacts are also considered as part of this report.


The case study aims to ascertain whether any sea level change has been witnessed in the vicinity of Itsukushima Shrine and, if so, whether this is attributable to climate change. Furthermore, climate models allow future climatic changes to be identified and their projected impacts visualized based on differing greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Such data can be used to see how sea levels in the future are projected to change at the shrine, which will clearly show the potential threat climate change and its associated sea level change will have at the site.


This information will be used in conjunction with interviews with key stakeholders to understand whether sites like Itsukushima Shrine are aware and prepared for the climatic and associated changes that global warming induced climate change will bring.

1.2       Hypothesis

Following an initial visit to Itsukushima Shrine in December 2011 as well as background research into climate change and cultural heritage in Japan, the following hypotheses were proposed for this case study:

Š      Projected climate change in the future will cause sea levels at Itsukushima Shrine to continue to rise

Š      Itsukushima Shrine will experience increased flooding events in the future as result of this sea level rise

Š      A lack of available information regarding sea level rise means stakeholders are unprepared for its potential impact

2        Methodology

The methodology for the investigation of Itsukushima Shrine has both quantitative and qualitative elements. Figure 3 details the basic methodology for this case study.

Figure 3: Case study methodology flow chart

The first stage involved the collection of various different types of data; these included climate model data, tide gauge data and mapping data. The climate model that was chosen for this project was the ‘MIROC-ESM model’. This model was a collaborative development from a number of Japanese Universities and research institutions (Watanabe et al., 2011). It was chosen as it made use of the latest RCP emission scenarios and also because one of the individuals involved with the model was available for consultation if questions arose during the project, as they did on a number of occasions. Data was downloaded from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) online repository. Climate model data was downloaded for the four different RCP scenarios; RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6 and RCP8.5. In addition, the output from a version of the climate model that had been run historically was downloaded in order to test the model’s historical output against observed data.

The climate model is divided into different outputs; of interest to this case study was the sea level data. The relevant data was downloaded, and processed using ArcGIS and Microsoft Excel. The output of the model is point data. As a result of this kind of data, the nearest point to Itsukushima Shrine was identified and the sea level values for this point used for this study. A more geographically accurate result could have been achieved if the points were interpolated into a raster. However, to do this for such a large of amount of data was not feasible given the time constraints of this project. A 2004 paper noted that a sea level rise of just 10cm at Itsukushima Shrine would lead to sustained frequent flooding of the Shrine as the Shrine’s corridor is constructed just 30cm above normal high tide (Tokeshi & Yanagi, 2004). An important element of this case study was to understand when this would occur and produce graph outputs displaying this information.


Tide gauge data was retrieved from an online repository of global tide level data; Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL). The data itself for tide gauge stations in Japan is provided by JMA. PSMSL then takes this data and converts it into a common format, where data between different tide gauge stations can be directly compared. For the purposes of this study, tide gauge data was acquired for all recording stations in the Seto Inland Sea (Figure 4), with the majority of recording stations having data available from around 1960.  Finally global mapping data was acquired to allow visual outputs of both the climate model data and tide gauge data to be produced.

Figure 4: Seto Inland Sea tide gauge data collection sites

The qualitative aspect of this project involved interviewing key stakeholders to investigate their attitude towards the possible threat of global warming and what was currently being done in this area. Four key stakeholders were selected for interview:

Š      Itsukushima Shrine Organization

Š      National Shrine Organization

Š      Hiroshima Prefectural Government

The exact questions differed depending on the stakeholder, with the goal of the interviews with the local and national shrine organizations and local government to establish whether they had access to climate change information and guidance, and whether they thought enough was currently being done on the issue. These interviews were also an opportunity to introduce the approach taken in the UK on the issue of climate change in the context if cultural heritage and understand whether the stakeholders felt a similar approach would be useful in Japan. The answers to these questions, along with the results of the quantitative analysis would allow for the identification of gaps in the context of current climate change awareness, understanding and monitoring. This would ultimately feed into recommendations for improved practices.

3        Results

3.1       Observed sea level change

Since 1963 the sea level in the vicinity of Itsukushima Shrine has been steadily rising. Tide gauge data is not available for Itsukushima Shrine or Miyajima Island; however, data is available for Hiroshima, which is located approximately 16km away. Figure 5 shows how sea levels at Hiroshima have risen since 1963. The causes of this sea level change are complex and include land subsidence and complex natural processes; namely variations in seawater density and oceanic circulation. As a result, JMA has conceded that attributing sea level rise on Japan’s coast to climate change is very difficult (JMA, 2009).

Figure 5: Monthly observed sea level at Hiroshima December 1963-December 2011 (source:

In order to better understand how sea levels changes over time in the vicinity of Itsukushima Shrine, tide gauge data was collected for all stations where it was available in the Seto Inland Sea. The averaged data for all the stations shows a rising trend at a faster rate than the global average (Table 1).


Annual Seto Inland Sea Level Rise (mm)

IPCC Annual Global Sea Level Rise (mm)










Table 1: Rate of sea level rise for Seto Inland Sea and global average (source: and IPCC AR4, 2007)

The work of the IPCC has shown that global sea levels have been rising over the past century and there is conclusive evidence to suggest that this sea level rise is linked to increasing temperatures due to anthropogenic warming of the earth as the result of the burning of fossil fuels (IPCC, 2007; Vermeer & Rahmstorf, 2009). It is not unreasonable to suppose that at least part of this rise in sea levels in the Seto Inland Sea is due to climate change.


Rising sea levels are a real threat to Itsukushima Shrine. As the sea level has increased in recent years, the incidence of high tides flooding the site has also increased (Figure 6 & Figure 7).

Figure 6: Itsukushima Shrine flooding event data received from Itsukushima Shrine organization

Figure 7: Itsukushima Shrine flooding event data received from published by National Government

However, it as is immediately clear, the flooding data from the two different data sources in Figure 6 and Figure 7 differs (see Figure 8 for a direct comparison). The reason that different data sources recorded different numbers of flooding events was not clear until a meeting was held with the Itsukushima Shrine Organization, the outcome of which is discussed later.

Figure 8: Comparison of flooding event data from Itsukushima Shrine organization and National Government

3.1.1     Projected sea level change

In order to understand how sea levels around Japan’s coasts are projected to change in the coming decades, data from the MIROC-ESM climate model data was used. In order to see whether this approach was acceptable, data from a version of the MIROC-ESM model that had been run from 1850-2005 was compared to observed tide gauge data, in order to see how the two sets of data compared. Tide gauge data for Hiroshima (the nearest available tide gauge data to Itsukushima Shrine) is available from 1963 and, as such, this was chosen as a baseline. The model’s output and the tide gauge data could then be directly compared from this point until the completion of the historic climate model’s output in December 2005. Figure 9 shows the result of this analysis.

Figure 9: Historical model results for the nearest point to Itsukushima compared to Hiroshima tide gauge data

According to this result, the MIROC-ESM model shows less of an increase in sea level than actually occurred. Furthermore, seasonal tidal variation seems to be greater at Hiroshima than in the model’s output. The reason for this could be due to natural processes unique to inland seas, as Hiroshima is located in the Seto Inland Sea and the model’s output is for the Pacific Ocean. In addition, as has been previously noted, land subsistence of approximately 5mm a year has been confirmed to be occurring along the coastline where Hiroshima is located (Tokeshi & Yanagi, 2004). In order to see whether the difference between the model’s output and the tide gauge data was due to land subsistence, 5mm was added annually to the model results (incrementally added to the monthly data). Figure 10 shows a comparison between Hiroshima tide gauge data and the adjusted model output.

Figure 10: Historical model results for nearest point to Itsukushima including 5mm a year land subsidence compared to Hiroshima tide gauge data

The result of this comparison sees the two sets of data exhibiting a similar rising trend. It is also clear to see that seasonal tidal variations are accurately reproduced in the model’s output, despite the tide gauge data exhibiting more pronounced seasonal tidal change. Following this validation of the model’s historic accuracy, outputs of the model for future sea level rise were obtained for four different emissions scenarios, based on the four representative concentration pathways selected by the IPCC (Moses et al., 2010). These scenarios range from RCP2.6, which follows a peak and decline in equivalent CO2 emissions pathway to RCP8.5, which is a constantly rising without stabilization pathway (Table 2). 



Radiative forcing

Concentration (ppm)



>8.5 W m-2 in 2100

>1,370 CO2-equiv. in 2100



~6 W m-2 at stabilization after 2100

~850 CO2-equiv. (at stabilization after 2100)

Stabilization without overshoot


~4.5 W m-2 at stabilization after 2100

~650 CO2-equiv. (at stabilization after 2100)

Stabilization without overshoot


Peak at ~3 W m-2 before 2100 and then declines

Peak at ~490 CO2-equiv. before 2100 and then declines

Peak and decline

Table 2: Detail of ‘Representative Concentration Pathways’ (source: Moss et al., 2010).

By assembling multiple time slices of future sea levels under the different emissions scenarios, it is possible to calculate the projected change in sea level between two different time slices. The climate model projects that Japan will see sea level rise along all of its coasts. The amount of sea level rise depends on the emissions scenario, with RCP2.6 showing significantly less sea level rise than RCP8.5 (Figure 11).

Figure 11: GIS output showing projected sea level change in vicinity of Japan 2012-2100 under different emissions scenarios

It is important to note that the climate model does not take into account factors such as land subsidence, which is important given the fact that land subsidence has been identified at a rate of 5mm/ year at Hiroshima.

As has been shown, the MIROC-ESM climate model shows sea levels in the study area increasing for all four emissions scenarios. Sea levels are projected to be between approximately 0.4 and 0.7m higher by 2100 (Figure 12) in the vicinity of the shrine.

Figure 12: Annual average sea level change in vicinity of Itsukushima under different emissions scenarios

Until approximately 2075, all four emissions scenarios show a similar rate of increase. From this point onwards RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP6 continue to see a similar rate of increase, whilst RCP8.5 shows sea levels rising by a significantly greater amount. This output is consistent with the idea of ‘committed climate change’ as detailed by the IPCC (IPCC, 2007), whereby even if anthropogenic CO2 emissions were switched drastically reduced, global warming and associated climatic changes would continue to occur for the next several decades. It has been noted by Tokeshi & Yanagi (2004) that a 10cm average sea level increase at Itsukushima Shrine would lead to sustained frequent flooding as a result of high tides. According to the climate model output data, this will occur before 2035, regardless of emissions scenario. It should be noted that land subsidence has not been taken into account for the creation of Figure 12. Figure 13 shows how sea levels could rise in the future if land subsidence continues at its current rate.

Figure 13: Annual average sea level change in vicinity of Itsukushima under different emissions scenarios including 5mm land subsidence

When land subsidence is taken into account, an increase of 0.1m will occur in the early 2020s regardless of emissions scenarios, with sea levels projected to increase in the region of Itsukushima Shrine by between 0.89-1.14m by 2100 depending on emissions scenario. This compares to a projected rise of between 0.45-0.7m when land subsidence is not included.


In order to better understand the model’s output in the context of the historically observed Hiroshima tide gauge data, the data was combined into a common data format, with the latest tide gauge data available serving as the baseline. Figure 14 shows the result of this analysis for the four different emissions scenarios. These figures show that seasonal tidal variations will result in a higher sea level rise for part of the year than what is shown in the annual averaged data. For the creation of the charts that make up Figure 14, land subsidence was not included.





Figure 14: Hiroshima tide gauge data (12/1963-12/2011 in blue) & RCP2.6 (1), RCP4.5 (2), RCP6 (3) and RCP8.5 (4) emissions scenarios sea level projection data (01/2012-12/2099 in red)

3.1.2     Other potential impacts of climate change

Sea level rise is the clearest example of how climate change is projected to impact Itsukushima Shrine in the future. However, analysis of climate model data as well as research into other potential impacts of climate change on Japan, show that this may not be the only area in which the shrine could be impacted. Reports into how the future climate of Japan may impact typhoon activity have shown that whilst the number of typhoons is projected to decrease, their intensity is predicted to increase (Yasuda et al., 2009; JMA, 2011). This is a significant problem for the shrine as typhoons in the past have done major damage to shrine buildings (Figure 15).


Figure 15: Photograph showing damage to the shrine after a typhoon in 2006 (source:

Based on published reports that make use of climate model data, potential climatic changes in the region include:

Š      Surface temperature increase of between 2-3°C, depending on emissions scenario (JME, 2008).

Š      10-20% increase in winter precipitation (JME, 2008).

Š      140% change in maximum daily precipitation in the next 100 years (source: JME, 2008).

It is not known exactly how these climatic changes could impact cultural heritage sites in Japan, as no studies have been undertaken that look into this. However, based on work in Europe climatic changes such as these were identified as having significant impacts on cultural heritage sites there (Sabbioni et al., 2010). It is hoped that targeted studies will be undertaken to see how Japanese cultural heritage sites could be affected by projected climatic changes, similar to those undertaken in Europe.

3.1.3     Stakeholder interviews

In order to understand how Itsukushima Shrine and other cultural heritage sites currently address climate change, a number of interviews were undertaken with key stakeholders. The stakeholders interviewed were the shrine organization itself, the national shrine organization and Hiroshima Prefectural Government. The main points taken from these interviews are presented here, with full notes from the interviews available as appendices to this thesis. An interview with a representative from Itsukushima Shrine Organization was undertaken on October 2nd 2012 (Figure 16).

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Figure 16: Photograph taken with representative from Itsukushima Shrine organization

The main points taken from the interview were that Itsukushima Shrine organization:

Š      Are concerned about climate change

Š      Have no access to unbiased information

Š      Do not have a standardized tide monitoring system

Š      Do not include a climate change impact assessment as part of their management plan

Š      Have not undertaken a study on potential long-term impact of increased flooding events

Š      Would consider using data and information like that provided in the UK, if available

A representative from Hiroshima Prefectural Government was also interviewed on October 2nd 2012. From the interview it was deduced that the local government:

Š      Are not concerned about climate change

Š      Have no access to climate change information

Š      Believe that the lack of focus on climate change in Japan is due to focus on disasters/ sudden ‘shock’ events

Š      Information and guidance should come from national government, the local government can then pass it on to sites like Itsukushima Shrine

Š      Noted that it is Itsukushima Shrine’s responsibility for site management

The national shrine organization, which is responsible for overseeing all shrine sites in Japan, were scheduled to be interviewed in October 2012. However, following the submission of a proposed set of questions (provided as part of the appendices), the organization said that they would not be able to take part in such an interview as they were unable to answer the proposed questions due to a lack of information and knowledge regarding climate change.

4        Conclusions

The analysis completed and detailed in this paper shows that, regardless of emissions scenario, the sea level in the Seto Inland Sea and in the vicinity of Itsukushima Shrine will continue to rise in the coming decades. The fact that humans have committed themselves to decades of global warming and associated climatic changes, means that sea level rise before 2075 in the study area does not seem to be heavily impacted by future atmospheric CO2 concentrations. It should also be noted that the results of this work suggest that sea levels in the vicinity of Itsukushima Shrine will, by 2100, increase by more than the IPCC predicted in their 2007 report.


The results are concerning as previous work has suggested that a 10cm increase in sea level at Itsukushima Shrine would lead to frequent, sustained flooding (Tokeshi & Yanagi, 2004). The results of this work suggest that this will occur before 2035 and it could occur even earlier as in land subsidence continues at its current rate. Monitoring of the sea level at Itsukushima Shrine and the development of a management plan that takes future sea level rise as a result of climate change into account is essential for the shrine’s continuity. The lack of investigation into the impacts of climate change at the shrine and the fact that there is no provision in the local government’s shrine management plan means the shrine is currently at risk and unprepared for the future.


 When coupled with the results of the interviews, which show that the shrine organization and other associated key stakeholders are unprepared and lack knowledge regarding climate change, it is clear that more needs to be done in this field in future. It is hoped that when this project is finished, Itsukushima Shrine will use the outputs of this study to effectively adapt to the challenges posed by climate change and to guarantee the shrine’s continuity for future generations.  

4.1       Possible adaptation measures

At this juncture, it should be stressed that it is not the goal of this research to develop an adaptation strategy for the shrine. Rather this research seeks to show how climate change induced sea level rise is a threat to the shrine to identify gaps in current policy and management. However, after investigating the potential impacts of climate change, it became clear that adaptation measures would need to be undertaken to guarantee the shrine’s continuity at some point, making a brief introduction of the possible options relevant. Based on this case study, the shrine will have a number of options to choose from when this time arrives. These are:

Š      Constructing a sea wall

Š      Raising the shrine

Š      Relocating the shrine

Š      Allowing the shrine to regularly flood during high tide and undertake repairs and maintenance as required

When actions such as those described above need to be taken depends on the rate of sea level increase at the shrine and how this overall sea level rise impacts high tides. Information such as this will also need to be used to inform the decision making process about which option is best for the shrine. There would be little point raising the shrine if sea levels started to rise aggressively as this would only be a short-term fix. This could also be true of the sea wall, depending on its height. There are also aesthetic concerns; a sea wall may not be suitable, as it would interfere with the view of the gate that is built into the seabed in front of the shrine. Allowing the shrine to regularly flood would not be viable in the long term as the damage that high tides may cause to the shrine; its contents and building materials may be expensive and time-consuming to regularly repair.


In order to be fully prepared to make the correct decisions, it is important that the shrine an associated stakeholders fully appreciated the threat of climate change and manage the shrine accordingly. This includes introducing a standardized tide monitoring system and having access to the latest climate change data.

5        Further Information

This term report details part of the research undertaken for a Master’s thesis project entitled ‘Climate Change and Cultural; Heritage in Japan: A Case Study of Itsukushima Shrine’. More information can be found in the thesis document. For a copy please email

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