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Pokemon Panic

Just before Christmas 1997, tens of thousands of Japanese schoolkids tuned in to watch the latest TV episode of the cartoon series Pokémon, and thousands of them fainted and were hospitalised. Ben Radford conducts a postmortem on one of the most extensive cases of ‘mass hysteria’ in recent years.

Pokémon is a phenomenon in almost every sense of the word. The original Japanese game – called Poketto Monsuta (‘Pocket Monsters’, contracted to Pokémon) – began life quite modestly as a title for Nintendo’s handheld Gameboy system. By 22 November 1999, when Time magazine featured on its cover Pikachu, one of the player-controlled ‘Pocket Monsters’, it was a commercial success the world over. It has spawned countless video games, comic books, Web sites, video tapes, magazines, clubs, music CDs, books, trading cards, two cinema films, and, of course, an animated television series.

For kids, Pokémon is an engaging pastime; for its makers, Nintendo, it’s a multi-billion dollar money-maker and possibly the largest marketing effort in the history of toys. Satoshi Tajiri, the game’s creator, spent six years developing the game, in which a team of young boys and girls wander the world looking for small Pokémon creatures to befriend and train for battle against other trainers and their Pokémons. There are currently over 200 different Pokémons (with more on the way) and each creature has a unique personality and special powers. The ultimate aim is to collect one of every species and become a Pokémon Master. (The TV show’s theme song - “Gotta catch ‘em all!” – is a catchy ode to its merchandising potential.) Pikachu, the most popular Pokémon, looks a bit like a yellow rat with a lightning-bolt tail and has the ability to shock its opponents with electricity.

During 1997, Pokémon was broadcast from 37 television stations around the country and held the highest ratings for its time slot… when the unexpected happened; that December, the very profitable existence of Pikachu and friends nearly came to a dramatic end when some 12,000 Japanese children reported a range of disorienting illnesses after watching an episode on television.

The episode in question – the 38th, entitled ‘Dennou Senshi Porigon’ (Computer Warrior Polygon) – was shown at 6:30 pm on the evening of Tuesday, 16 December. Pikachu and his human friends Satoshi, Kasumi, and Takeshi, have an adventure that takes them inside a computer where – about 20 minutes into the programme – the team confronts a fighter named Polygon. In the ensuing battle, Pikachu uses his electric powers to stop a “virus bomb” and this was dramatised by a rapid series of red and blue flashing backgrounds, filling the TV screens at around 6:51 pm. In the following half an hour, according to the Fire-Defence agency, 618 children were taken to various hospitals with symptoms ranging from nausea to seizures.

News of the number of collapsed children shot through Japan as media reports later that evening referred to the incidents. Some news stations, helpfully, replayed the strobing sequence and, inadvertently, stimulated a ‘second wave’ in which even more children fell ill, many requiring medical attention.

In all, millions saw the initial programme. In one section of Japan, Aichi Prefecture, an estimated 70 per cent of the 24,000 elementary school students and 35 per cent of the 13,000 junior high school students watched it, giving a total of over 21,000 in Aichi alone.1 In Tokyo, the local boards of education investigated all public kindergartens, primary and middle schools in the area and found that 50,714 students, 55 per cent of the whole, watched the episode. 2

According to doctors, children “went into a trance-like state, similar to hypnosis, complaining of shortness of breath, nausea, and bad vision.” 3 According to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, “Victims’ families reported that children passed out during the broadcast, went into convulsions, and vomited.” 4 Another report gave a slightly different account, saying that: “Most children reportedly said they felt sick and had vision problems.” 5 Some of the victims gave their own descriptions of what the attacks were like. Ten-year-old Takuya Sato said: “Toward the end of the programme there was an explosion and I had to close my eyes because of an enormous yellow light like a camera flash.” A 15-year-old girl from Nagoya reported: “As I was watching blue and red lights flashing on the screen, I felt my body becoming tense. I do not remember what happened afterward.” 6

There is no specific data on exactly how many children became sick (and when) and how many were taken to hospitals although some figures are known for certain areas. One hospital in western Tokyo started to receive children shortly after 7 pm. A Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper story states: “A total of six children aged between 9 and 15 were taken to the hospital Tuesday night… After treatment there, all six returned home before midnight.” 7

The story of thousands of children made ill by their favourite cartoon was headline news all over Japan in the following days. Officers from Atago Police Station, acting on orders from the National Police Agency, questioned the programme’s producers about the cartoon’s contents and production procedures. The Health and Welfare Ministry held an emergency meeting, discussing the case with experts and gathering information from hospitals. Video retailers across the country pulled the series cassettes from their rental shelves.

Outraged mothers accused TV Tokyo of ignoring their children’s health in the race for ratings, while other parents called for the implementation of an electronic screening device similar to the American ‘V-chip’ that would block out intense animation. Even Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto weighed in with a comment of dubious relevance: “Rays and lasers have been considered for use as weapons. Their effects have not been fully determined.”

TV Tokyo promptly issued an apology, suspended the programme, and said it would investigate the cause of the seizures. Although a spokesman from Nintendo rushed to explain that the only link between its game and the cartoon was the licensed characters, the company’s shares dropped nearly five per cent on the Tokyo stock market. TV Tokyo, to be on the safe side, announced that all future showings and repeats of Pokémon episodes would be preceded by a warning. Despite the scare, however, both kids and adults soon missed their Pokémon; it was back on air by April 1998, along with the new season of shows and promptly climbed to third in the ratings.

Several reasons were put forward to explain why the episode might have had the effect it did. It is fairly well established that bright, flashing images can trigger seizures in some epileptics. Some researchers believe that at least some children did in fact experience seizures from watching the episode made worse, perhaps, by the alternating red/blue colours. Dr Akinori Hoshika, a neurologist at Tokyo Medical College, confirmed that optical stimulation can produce some of the symptoms found in the Pokémon victims. 8

In Britain, in 1994, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) acted to limit commercial television ads and programmes to a rate of three flashes per second. The move followed a 1993 incident in which a Pot Noodle advert, featuring fast-moving graphics and bright flashes, sparked three seizures. The ITC also recommended that images should not dominate the screen, and repetitive ‘psychedelic’ patterns should be avoided. (FT108:15)

After several teens suffered seizures while playing Nintendo video games, the company began including warnings on much of its software. The notice told users that the games’ graphics and animation could cause a shigeki – a strong stimulation resulting in unconsciousness or seizures. A “Consumer Information and Precautions Booklet” that comes with the Game Boy product states in part: “WARNING: A very small portion of the population have a condition which may cause them to experience epileptic seizures or have momentary loss of consciousness when viewing certain kinds of flashing lights or patterns that are commonly present in our daily environment… If you or your child experience any of the following symptoms: dizziness, altered vision, eye or muscle twitching, involuntary movements, loss of awareness, disorientation, or convulsions, DISCONTINUE USE IMMEDIATELY and consult your physician.”

The Pokémon case, though, remained something of a mystery. Although the bright flashes seemed the most likely culprit, they had been included a great many times before without incident. The animation technique – called paka-paka – uses different-coloured lights flashing alternately to create tension. It is common in anime, the distinctive Japanese animation style used in Pokémon (and many other cartoons, such as Voltron, Sailor Moon, and Speed Racer).

There was, apparently, very little difference between episode 38 and other Pokémon episodes. It was then suggested that the number of flashes or length of the segment (reported as five to eight seconds, depending on the source) might have made all the difference. However, producer Takemoto Mori had used virtually identical paka-paka in most of the previous episodes, with slight variations in colour and background combinations. “During editing, that particular portion didn’t call my attention or bother me,” he said. All Pokémon episodes were pre-screened before airing, and no problems were reported.

Toshio Yamauchi, an epilepsy expert at Saitama University of Medicine outside Tokyo, suggested that the symptoms could be different from epilepsy, and might be a one-time attack triggered by an optical stimulus. But he qualified this, saying: “There have been many similar cartoon programmes in the past, and I don’t understand why the programme this time caused so many attacks.”

Despite the debate, the genesis of the Pokémon panic remained elusive. After four months, Nintendo announced that it could find no clear cause for the outbreak and Pokémon returned to the TV screens of Japan. Further research was left to doctors, although, to date, there have been only a handful of analyses in scientific journals, three of them in the Annals of Neurology.

One account 9 surveyed patients in the Yamaguchi prefecture (population 1,550,000) and found 12 affected children with no history of epilepsy. During the programme, two had fainted and 10 had tonic-clonic convulsions (in which the victims lose consciousness, usually with a stiffening of the body and forceful expiration of air, along with muscle contractions and other symptoms). Eleven of the 12 had “epileptic EEG abnormalities or photosensitivity.” The researchers concluded that the children had latent photosensitive conditions that had turned into seizures as a result of the flashing lights. They further estimated the incidence of seizures triggered by Pokémon was greater than 1.5 per 10,000… 10 times the incidence found by British researchers. 10

Another analysis 11 investigated the children in 80 elementary schools in an area with a population of 470,807. Out of the 32,083 students, only one child had a convulsion, but 1,002 reported minor symptoms. As half of all boys and girls saw the programme, they suggested that 6.25 per cent of the children were affected. This is similar to the percentage of children in the general population who show photosensitivity (8.9 per cent).

The most recently published paper 12 studied four children who had been affected by the cartoon. The authors write that “The probable cause [of the attacks] was PSE [photosensitive epilepsy] because a tremendous number of children developed similar symptoms at exactly the same time in a similar situation … However it is not clear as to why so many children without any previous seizures [75 per cent] were also affected or exactly which components of the cartoon [caused the attack].”

None of the children had a previous history of convulsions and all were found to be more sensitive to rapid colour changes than monochromatic ones. All were considered to have PSE. The researchers suggested that “the rapid colour changes in the cartoon thus provoked the seizures.” They argued that the children’s sensitivity to colour — in particular rapid changes between red and blue — played an important role in triggering the seizures. Four children, however, represent a very small sample by any standards and the results found may not be applicable to the general population; this is clearly a descriptive study, not an experimental one. (see FT127:66)

Another factor is the children’s viewing habits and the physical setup of Japanese homes, which probably exacerbated the effect. In a country with over 126 million people in an area the size of Montana (a population density of 865 per square mile), Japanese homes are typically quite small. Big-screen televisions are the norm and most living rooms could aptly be described as small cinemas. Many children sit very close to the television as well; one 14-year-old boy sitting three feet (90cm) from his big-screen television was struck unconscious.

While most doctors seemed to believe that PSE was ultimately the answer, others were sceptical about the reported breadth of the outbreak. In fact, epilepsy experts interviewed by ABC News.com were not convinced that the seizures were triggered by an epilepsy-like syndrome. “I’ve never heard of anything like it,” said Dr Jeffrey Cohen, director of the Epilepsy Program at the Clinical Neuro-Physiology Laboratory at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center. He thought it possible that a few of the children watching may have experienced photo-sensitive-induced seizures: “But it’s hard to conceive that 700 did.” Rika Kayama, psychologist and author of a book on video games and health, told Kyodo News that the illnesses might have been caused by photosensitive epilepsy or, more interestingly, “group hysterics”

To understand why the Pokémon episode might qualify as a case of mass hysteria, we need to look at the background of this illness. Mass hysteria – or mass sociogenic illness (MSI), as it is called in academic circles – begins when individuals under stress unwittingly convert that stress into physical symptoms. Peers, family members, or friends may also begin exhibiting the same illness through contagion, in which the suggestion of a threat can be enough to create symptoms. Outbreaks are most common in closed social units (such as schools, hospitals, or workplaces) and where afflicted individuals are under social pressure and stress.

The victims are firmly convinced their illness is ‘real’, although extensive tests and investigations usually fail to identify any physical or physiological cause for the symptoms. Victims are usually very reluctant to accept the diagnosis, however, and remain convinced of the legitimacy of their illness. 13 Their complaints, though, are real and verifiable; the victims are not just imagining their problems. Episodes of mass hysteria can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a few weeks, although a week seems to be a fairly average duration. The cases usually arise quickly, peak, and then subside just as fast. Media reports and publicity help fuel the hysteria as news of the affliction spreads, planting the idea in the community while reinforcing and validating the veracity of the illness for the initial victims.

With these points in mind, many facets of the Pokémon panic lend themselves to a diagnosis of mass hysteria:

• The jump in reported cases supports the idea that the media played a part in the panic. The figure of 700 children affected held steady over the Tuesday night of the broadcast and for the next day. The following morning, though, Japanese television and newspapers were full of the ‘Pokémon panic’ and any Japanese children who hadn’t heard about it from the news or their parents learned of it that morning from their peers, when the seizures “were the talk of the schoolyards.”

So the timing seems to offer a key to solving the mystery. Once the children had a chance to hear panicky accounts of what had happened via the media, their friends, and their schools, the number of kids reported to be suffering from the illness shot up to a staggering 12,000 cases. The first accounts of tens of thousands of students being affected appear only after extensive media coverage and the opportunity for contagion in the schools, after all among the most common places for outbreaks of mass hysteria to begin.

• Many of the Pokémon-induced symptoms reported (headaches, dizziness, vomiting) are less typical of seizures than of mass hysteria. Conversely, symptoms that are associated with seizures (drooling, stiffness, tongue biting) were not found in Pokémon victims. Three other symptoms (convulsions, fainting, and nausea) that were common to Pokémon victims are associated with both seizures and mass hysteria. (It is important to distinguish seizures from epilepsy. A seizure is a symptom of epilepsy, which in turn is a general term for an underlying tendency of the brain to produce a variety of electrical energy that disrupts brain function. Seizures can be brought about in various ways – eg. a lack of oxygen, brain injury, high fever – and one seizure does not in itself establish epilepsy. There are several types of seizures; research by Tobimatsu et al. found that the Pokémon victims they studied all had generalised tonic-clonic seizures, so that is the type I have used for comparison.) Furthermore, the incidence of photosensitive epilepsy is estimated at 1 in 5,000. 14 Such an incidence (0.02 per cent of the population) comes nowhere near explaining the sheer number of children affected; in some areas, nearly seven per cent of the viewers. This is not to say that some children did not endure seizures, but clearly the vast majority of children did not.

• Stress frequently plays an important role in cases of mass hysteria, and Japanese youth are under tremendous academic and social pressures to achieve. Japanese schools in particular are known as high stress-generating institutions, and students with low (or even mediocre) grades have been known to kill themselves. The week the episode aired, many Japanese youths were preparing for high school entrance exams and therefore under added pressure. 15

• In Japanese culture, there is strong social pressure to conform and follow what others are doing. Bob Riel, manager at a Boston-based cross-cultural training firm, puts it this way: “One of the most important traits of the Japanese mindset is its collective nature. In Japan, ‘we’ comes before ‘I’— a concept that’s taught early on. Unlike Western children, who are taught to be independent self-thinkers, Japanese children are educated in a way that stresses interdependence, and reliance on others. Many Japanese habits and customs stem from this desire to maintain the group.” 16 This type of collective social order makes a fertile ground for contagion. In addition, some facets of Japanese culture may lend themselves to just this kind of acting-out. For instance, when Japanese rock star ‘Hide’ Matsumoto hanged himself in May 1998, three people tried to follow him in suicide; one 14-year-old girl hanged herself using a towel, the same method Matsumoto used. A rash of Japanese youth suicides also followed the death of singer Yutaka Ozaki in 1992. 17

Although widely regarded as a simple case of mass epileptic seizures, the 1997 Pokémon panic is clearly much more complex. With very few exceptions, much of the media overlooked the possibility of mass hysteria, even though so many possibly contributing factors were visible. Several researchers have noted that episodes of mass hysteria are probably far more common than we currently think. The Pokémon incident should remind us all that such episodes may occur right under our noses, and that many strange events that do not, on the face of it, appear to be mass hysteria may turn out to be exactly that.

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ARTICLE SOURCES:
  • 1. Japan Times: ‘Pocket monsters shocks TV viewers into convulsions’, 17 Dec 1997.
  • 2. Yomiuri Shimbun: ‘Psychiatrists seek animation probe’, 19 Dec 1997.
  • 3. Janet Snyder: ‘Cartoon sickens children’, Reuters/ABC News; ‘Monster TV cartoon illness mystifies Japan’, Reuters 17 Dec 1997.
  • 4. Yomiuri Shimbun: ‘Govt launches probe of ‘Monster’ cartoon’, 18 Dec 1997.
  • 5. Next-generation.com: ‘Monster scare prompts Nintendo stock freeze’, 17 Dec 1997.
  • 6. Yomiuri Shimbun: ‘TV Tokyo to investigate ‘Pocket Monster’ panic’, 18 Dec 1997.
  • 7. Yomiuri Shimbun: ‘360 children suffer fits while viewing TV cartoon’, 17 Dec 1997.
  • 8. Kevin Sullivan: ‘Japan’s cartoon violence TV networks criticized after children’s seizures’, Washington Post Foreign Service 19 Dec 1997.
  • 9. Takashi Hayashi et al.: ‘Pocket Monsters, a popular television cartoon, attacks Japanese children’ in Annals of Neurology (September 1998) v44 n3 p427.
  • 10. James A. Quirk, et al.: ‘First seizures associated with playing electronic screen games: A community-based study in Great Britain’ in Annals of Neurology (June 1995) v37 n6 p734.
  • 11. Yushiro Yamashita et al.: ’Pocket Monsters attacks Japanese children via media’ in Annals of Neurology (September 1998) v44 n3 p428.
  • 12. Shozo Tobimatsu et al.: ‘Chromatic sensitive epilepsy: A variant of photosensitive epilepsy’ in Annals of Neurology (June 1999) v45 n6 p790.
  • 13. James R. Stewart: ‘The West Bank collective hysteria episode’ in Skeptical Inquirer (Winter 1991) v15 n2 p153.
  • 14. Jeffrey Cohen: Personal correspondence (20 Sept 1999).
  • 15. Asahi Shimbun: ‘Popular TV cartoon blamed for mass seizures’, 17 Dec; ‘TV Tokyo to set cartoon guidelines’, 19 Dec 1997.
  • 16. Bob Riel: ‘Understanding the Japanese mindset’ in Relocation Journal and Real Estate News (October 1996); accessed at www.relojournal.com.
  • 17. Chisaki Watanabe: ‘Japanese fans mourn rocker’s death’, AP 7 May 1998.
  • AUTHOR’s NOTE I would like to thank Dr Shozo Tobimatsu of the Neurological Institute at Kyushu University in Japan for his help in obtaining materials, as well as Dr Steve Novella and Robert Bartholomew.

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