PikachuOn Wednesday, December 17, 1997, newspapers and other media – first in Japan and then around the world – reported that the previous evening, several hundred children were hospitalized after experiencing various symptoms, including convulsions/seizures, while watching an episode of the Pokemon anime series. The initial coverage, such as by BBC, CNN, and Reuters, was straight-forward and balanced, but soon enough, what took place was sensationalized and exaggerated – like in the E! Online article Convulsion Cartoon Bound for U.S. TV (Jan. 3, 1998).

In the following years, this “incident” has been brought up numerous times in writing on Japanese popular culture. It is no surprise that how authors have used it have little to do with what actually took place – for example, Elaine Gerbert, in Images of Japan in the digital age (East Asia: An International Quarterly, 19: 1/2, pp. 95-155) writes: “[T]he sheer physical power of this medium [of anime] to work on the nervous system was demonstrated when showings of ‘Pokemon’ on Japanese television produced seizures in viewing children.”

Accordingly, I think it would be useful to compile a comprehensive bibliography of academic writing on the incident. Using the Gale Academic OneFile, EBSCO Academic Search Premier, and ProQuest Research Library databases, as well as the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s PubMed resource, I located a total of 11 articles, published between 1998 and 2005 in 7 different journals (Acta Paediatrica Japonica, Epilepsia, Pediatric Neurology, New England Journal of MedicinePediatric Neurology, Southern Journal of Medicine, and the non-medical Skeptical Inquirer). 8 of the articles are written by Japanese authors; the authors of the other 3 are American/Western.

Scholarly articles on seizures induced by Pokemon episode

Furusho. Junichi, et al. (1998). Patient background of the Pokemon phenomenon: Questionnaire studies in multiple pediatric clinics. Acta Paediatrica Japonica, 40(6), 550-554.

“Many children in Japan developed various neuropsychological problems, including seizures, while watching the program Pocket Monster, televised on 16 December 1997. To examine the basis for this incident, we have performed a survey of volunteering children and their parents who visited our pediatric clinics for other reasons from 8 January to 28 February 1998. Children and their parents filled out questionnaires. Among the total of 662 children surveyed, the great majority (603, 91.1%) was found to have watched the Pocket Monster program and 30 individuals (5.0% of viewers) complained of variable degrees of neuropsychological abnormalities. These included seizures (two cases), headache (nine cases), nausea (eight cases), blurred vision (four cases), vertigo (two cases), dysthymia (two cases) and vomiting (one case). Nearly half (14) of these children developed symptoms during or immediately after watching the program, while the remainder did so later. Representative cases are reported and other statistical aspects are discussed.”

Ishida, Shigenobu, et al. (1998). Photosensitive seizures provoked while viewing “Pocket Monsters,” a made-for-television animated program in Japan. Epilepsia, 39(12), 1340-1344.

“Purpose: To describe the recent epidemic of photosensitive seizure that occurred in relation to an episode of the television animation program “Pocket Monsters,” we report four patients who experienced seizures while watching the episode in question. We also report some technical aspects of the program episode.”

Niijima, Shin-ichi, et al. (1998). Clinical electroencephalographic study of nine pediatric patients with convulsion induced by the TV animation, Pocket Monster. Acta Paediatrica Japonica, 40(6), 544-549.

“CONCLUSIONS: In a society where people are exposed to abundant TV games, TV animation or videos, self-restraint or regulations of frequent use of flickering scenes is thought to be necessary. However, it is also thought to be necessary to conduct EEG by applying photic stimulation, not only with the eyes closed, but also with the eyes opened or by applying flickering red light stimulation, which is emitted from a strong light source, or a combination of two colors, such as red and blue or red and green, in patients with suspected photosensitivity.”
[note: also published in Pediatrics International, 40(6), 554-549]

Takada, Hiroyuki, et al. (1999). Epileptic seizures induced by animated cartoon, “Pocket Monster”. Epilepsia, 40(7), 997-1002.

“Purpose: A large number of children had fits while watching the animated cartoon television (TV) program “Pocket Monster.” To elucidate the seizures associated with the TV program, we administered a questionnaire survey in Aichi Prefecture, Japan.
Conclusions: Almost all seizures induced by the TV program “Pocket Monster” were epileptic, and partial seizures were induced more frequently than generalized seizures. The incidence of this “Pocket Monster”-induced seizures was roughly estimated as ≥1 in 4,923 individuals aged 6–18 years.”

Furusho, Junichi, et al. (2002). A comparison survey of seizures and other symptoms of Pokemon phenomenon. Pediatric Neurology, 27(5), 350-355.

Ishiguro, Yoshiko, Takada, Hiroyuki, Watanabe, Kazuyoshi, Okumura, Akihisa, Aso, Kosaburo, & Ishikawa, Tatsuya (2004). A follow-up survey on seizures induced by animated cartoon TV program “Pocket Monster”. Epilepsia, 45(4), 377-383.

Purpose: To identify the short-term outcome of patients who had seizures while watching an animated cartoon TV program, “Pocket Monster,” on December 16, 1997.
Conclusions: Short-term outcomes showed that 70 (68%) of 103 patients who had a seizure during the incident had no seizures before and during ≤3 years of follow-up.”

Faught, Edward (2004). Attack of the Pocket Monsters: No lasting effects. Epilepsy Currents, 4(5), 198-199.

Okumura, Akihisa, Watanabe, Kazuyoshi, & Ishikawa, Tatsuya (2004). Letter to the editor: Five years after the “Pocket Monster” seizures. New England Journal of Medicine, 351(4), 403-404.

Okumura, Akihisa, et al., (2005). Epilepsies after Pocket Monster seizures. Epilepsia, 46(6), 980-982.

Conclusions: Epilepsies after Pocket Monster seizures were different according to the presence or absence of a history of epilepsy. These results will be useful in order to determine the treatment of a patient with a visually induced seizure.”

In addition, a third-party commentator authored two papers that expand the analysis beyond the purely medical aspects of what occurred.

Radford, Benjamin, & Bartholomew, Robert (2001). Pokemon contagion: Photosensitive epilepsy or mass psychogenic illness? Southern Medical Journal, 94(2), 197-204.

“We studied a reported illness outbreak occurring on December 16, 1997, involving more than 12,000 Japanese children who had various signs and symptoms of illness after watching an episode of a popular animated cartoon, Pokémon. While photosensitive epilepsy was diagnosed in a minuscule fraction of those affected, this explanation cannot account for the breadth and pattern of the events. The characteristic features of the episode are consistent with the diagnosis of epidemic hysteria, triggered by sudden anxiety after dramatic mass media reports describing a relatively small number of genuine photosensitive-epilepsy seizures. The importance of the mass media in precipitating outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness is discussed.”

This follow-up is written for a general audience, rather than for medical practitioners.

Radford, Benjamin (2001). The Pokemon panic of 1997. Skeptical Inquirer, 25(3), 26-31.

“In 1997, an episode of the cartoon Pokémon allegedly induced seizures and other ailments in thousands of Japanese children. Though popularly attributed to photosensitive epilepsy, the episode has many of the hallmarks of mass hysteria.”

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