Popular TV cartoon blamed for mass seizures
Asahi Shimbun 17 December 1997The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication announced this morning that it will summon officials of Television Tokyo Channel 12 to explain why a Tuesday night broadcast of a popular television cartoon apparently triggered convulsions in more than 600 viewers, mostly children.
The ministry also will examine the contents of the program to ascertain how a broadcast of "Pocket Monster" caused the mass seizures that left a five-year-old girl in a serious condition and hospitalized 618 others throughout the country.
Meanwhile, boards of education across the nation began conducting surveys of students this morning in an effort to determine what effect the cartoon had on the children who viewed it, officials said
Television stations in Tokyo also tried to find a reason for the bizarre episode, and NHK received more than 50 telephone calls from worried parents who wanted a full explanation of the events of Tuesday night.
A Nippon Television Network spokesman expressed doubt that the seizures were caused by a subliminal effect. But, he said, an answer to the puzzle is needed and quickly.
A spokesman for Tokyo Broadcasting System, Inc. noted that programs targeting younger audiences often use stronger visual effects. He said his company would reconsider the use of these powerful images when producing programs in the future.
Fire-Defense Agency officials said this morning that between 6:50 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 618 people were rushed to hospitals complaining of convulsions, headaches and vision problems.
The effects of the program were dramatic for some. A 15-year-old girl from Nagoya recalled falling unconscious under the spell of the cartoon.
"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," she said.
Her mother said she was particularly concerned since her daughter is now preparing for high school entrance examinations.
Reaction was swift on the Tokyo Stock Exchange with Nintendo shares plunging 400 yen this morning to 12,200 yen as news of the event spread. The computer game company produces the game upon which the hugely popular cartoon series is based.
Nintendo's president Hiroshi Yamauchi told a press conference this morning that the video game company was not responsible since the original "Pocket Monster" game is for its Game Boy product which is presented in black and white.
360 children suffer fits while viewing TV cartoon
Yomiuri Shimbun 17 December 1997More than 360 children around the country suffered fits on Tuesday night while watching the "Pocket Monsters" cartoon on television and many were taken to hospitals, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun tally of hospital reports.
A total of 362 children in Tokyo and 20 other prefectures reportedly suffered from seizure-like symptoms such as convulsions and vomiting of blood. None of the symptoms were serious, but 16 children were hospitalized.
The fits occurred about 20 minutes into the 30-minute cartoon, which is popular among kindergarten and primary school students and is aired by TV Tokyo from 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.
Nicknamed "Pokemon" after Pocket Monsters--character goods produced by major video game and toy maker Nintendo--the program features some of the Nintendo characters. The program usually has audience rating of more than 15 percent.
The Tokyo Fire Department fielded calls from parents who said their children suffered something like an epileptic seizure during the program.
The show featured a scene in which a bright red explosion filled the screen as a soldier wandered into digital space.
A doctor at a hospital in Fuchu, Tokyo, told The Yomiuri Shimbun that she suspected the symptoms were similar to the ones children playing video games often suffered although she could not determine this without conducting brain scans.
Experts say children often go into convulsions while playing video games. A sudden strong light or flickering light reportedly causes this.
Many cases like this are reported in the United States and Britain.
The 8-year-old daughter of Yukiko Iwasaki, of Taito Ward, Tokyo, appeared to suffer from something similar to an epileptic fit.
"I was shocked to see my daughter lose consciousness. She started to breath only when I hit her on the back," Iwasaki said.
A public hospital in Fuchu, western Tokyo, started to receive children in a similar condition shortly after 7 p.m.
A total of six children aged between 9 and 15 were taken to the hospital Tuesday night. All had convulsions and some vomited.
After the treatment there, all six returned home before midnight, a hospital employee said.
Yukio Fukuyama, a doctor specializing in children's epileptic fits, said he believed the symptoms were similar to the fits some children are susceptible to when they play video games.
The impact of strong light and the contrast between dark and bright light affect the brain, causing convulsion fits, Fukuyama said.
Monster Scare Prompts Nintendo Stock Freeze
next-generation.com 17 December 1997Hundreds of children suffered seizures and convulsions following their viewing of a cartoon based upon Nintendo's Pocket Monster games. The Nikkei Exchange was not impressed.
Literally hundreds of children were rushed to the hospital last night following the airing of the Pokemon cartoon (which is one of the cartoons based on Nintendo's Pocket Monster games). At least 19 children were affected so badly that they needed to remain in the hospital overnight to recover. Most children reportedly said they felt sick and had vision problems after seeing Pikachu, one of the most popular characters, flash its eyes during the cartoon.
According to the reports, the show featured a scene where an explosion was used to destroy a computer virus. Said explosion was followed by the flashing of a red light for five seconds. Doctors consulted about the matter have indicated that the cartoon may have triggered a photosensitive epileptic effect.
While a spokesperson for NCL said that he didn't expect the event to affect future business practices, traders on the Nikkei exchange were less than convinced. Within minutes of the exchange opening (where Nintendo opened down about 500 yen), trading was frozen for fear of a crash. According to one analyst Next Generation Online spoke to, even though Nintendo didn't produce the cartoon, the fact that the event has attracted so much attention from the press and its association with Nintendo, stockholders are quite leery.
Kyodo News Photo 17 Dec 1997
Cartoon-based illness mystifies Japan
CNN 17 December 1997TOKYO (CNN) -- A Japanese television network called in doctors, psychologists and animation experts to find out why a popular cartoon triggered seizures in hundreds of children nationwide.
More than 700 people, mainly school children, were rushed to hospitals Tuesday after suffering convulsions, vomiting, irritated eyes and other symptoms after watching "Pokemon," a popular cartoon based on Nintendo's "Pocket Monsters" video game.
Two-hundred people, from age 3 to a 58-year-old man, were still in the hospital Wednesday with epilepsy-type symptoms more than 24 hours after the showing, the Home Affairs Ministry said.
The network said it plans to cancel next week's show if the cause of the incident remains unclear.
The show is Japan's most highly-rated program in its 6:30 p.m. time slot. Tuesday's episode, "Computer Warrior Porigon," featured characters fighting each other inside a computer.
Most of the children developed the symptoms about 20 minutes into the program after a scene depicting an exploding "vaccine bomb" set off to destroy a computer virus. It was followed by five seconds of flashing red light in the eyes of "Pikachu," a rat-like creature that is the show's most popular character.
Some other children were stricken later, when watching excerpts from the scene in TV news reports on the earlier victims.
TV Tokyo programming division manager Hironari Mori said the offending section passed inspection before broadcast, but in hindsight "we believe there may have been problems with presentation and production technique."
TV Tokyo imposed a health warning on future episodes, telling viewers that watching installments of "Pokemon" could cause fainting and nausea.
"I must say that as an adult that part made me blink, so for a child the effect must have been considerable," Mori said.
Mori added the network was considering compensation for the families.
Other TV networks said they were studying their cartoons to see if they posed a similar risk of "Pocket Monsters" sickness.
Dr. Yukio Fukuyama, a juvenile epilepsy expert, said that "television epilepsy" can be triggered by flashing, colorful lights. Though the phenomenon was observed before television, photosensitive epilepsy, as it is also called, has become far more common as TV has spread. The same symptoms have also been observed in children playing video games.
Fukuyama says parents should be made aware of the danger. "The networks should definitely think of issuing a health warning beforehand," he said.
Psychologist Rika Kayama, author of a book on video games and health, said that "there is the possibility of photosensitive epilepsy or group hysterics."
"The children must have been totally immersed in the program," Kayama said.
A Nintendo spokesman told Reuters that the only link between its games and the cartoons was the characters.
"We don't expect the incident will have any immediate impact on our business in the Christmas season, since the television program and game are different," the spokesman said. Nintendo's games carry a health warning.
Reuters contributed to this report.
"Monster" TV cartoon illness mystifies Japan
Reuters 17 December 1997 By Janet SnyderTOKYO - A Japanese television network on Wednesday called in doctors, psychologists and animation experts to find out why a cartoon based on video game "Pocket Monsters` triggered convulsions among hundreds of children nationwide.
TV Tokyo programming division manager Hironari Mori told reporters more than 700 mainly schoolchildren were rushed to hospitals after watching the programme on Tuesday night.
The Home Affairs Ministry said 208 people, aged from three upwards,including a man aged 58, were still in hospital with epilepsy-type symptoms more than 24 hours after the showing.
"We are investigating the cause of the incident using outside experts,` Mori said.
The seizures began about 20 minutes into the 30-minute programme, which airs on Tuesdays at 6.30 p.m.
The blame was put on a scene depicting an explosion followed by five seconds of flashing red lights from the eyes of the most popular character, "Pikachu`, a rat-like creature.
The episode featured characters entering a computer to fight each other. The explosion was set off by a "vaccine bomb` detonated to destroy a computer virus.
Even Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was drawn into the national debate, which dominated news headlines through the day.
Commenting on the cartoon's fascination with ray guns and laser beams, Hashimoto said their portrayal should be carefully considered because they were "weapons."
"Their effects (on viewers) have not been fully determined," he said.
Mori said the offending section passed inspection before broadcast, but in hindsight "we believe there may have been problems with presentation and production technique`.
TV Tokyo imposed a health warning on future episodes, telling viewers that watching Tuesday's installment of "Pocket Monsters could cause fainting and nausea.
"I must say that as an adult that part made me blink, so for a child the effect must have been considerable,` Mori said.
Other TV networks said they were studying their cartoons to see if they posed a similiar risk of "Pocket Monsters" sickness.
The cartoon, shown since April, is the highest-rated programme in its time slot. The network plans to cancel next week's show if the cause of the incident remains unclear.
Some local affiliates have already shelved the next episode.
Japan's largest video rental chain Culture Convenience Club Co Ltd announced it was taking "Pocket Monsters" videos off shelves at its 940 stores nationwide.
The Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, which supervises TV stations, announced it also was investigating.
A spokesman for Nintendo Co, whose shares lost about two percent, said the characters were the only link between its game and the cartoon. He also pointed out the game is only in black and white, not colour.
The game has been a huge success selling seven million units since it was released in Japan in February 1996. The game is sccheduled to be released in the rest of the world next year.
Doctors said children went into a trance-like state, similar to hypnosis, complaining of shortness of breath, nausea and bad vision when the rat-like creature's eyes flashed.
Other children were stricken when they watched TV replays of the offending scene in news reports on the earlier victims.
Dr Yukio Fukuyama, an expert on juvenile epilepsy, said bright flashes of light and colour from a television screen could trigger a phenomenon known as "television epilepsy`.
Doctors have known that children are susceptible to such seizures since even before the dawn of television, but it has become more evident with the spread of TV, Fukuyama said.
He said the seizures, albeit unpleasant, were not dangerous and that spontaneous recovery was the norm.
But parents should be aware of possible side effects of watching programmes featuring bright flashing lights.
"The networks should definitely think of issuing a health warning beforehand,` Fukuyama said.
Psychologist Rika Kayama said the phenomenon appeared to be an epileptic effect induced by flashing light, known as photosensitive epilepsy or group hysterics.
"The children must have been totally immersed in the programme,` said Kayama, author of a book on video games.
Doctors at the University of Tokyo Hospital, where four children were hospitalised, said patients seemed to have been affected by glaring light that stimulated their nerve cells.
One child did not remember watching the cartoon.
Mori said the network was considering compensation for the families.
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