Japanese Cartoon
Triggers Seizures
Mind Control Technique Misfires?
By Mari Yamaguchi
TOKYO (AP) -- Colors exploded on TV screens across Japan, a cartoon character flashed his sparkling eyes -- and hundreds of young viewers were felled by fits of spasms and nausea.
More than 600 viewers of TV Tokyo's hit cartoon ``Pokemon'' suffered epilepsy-like seizures about 20 minutes into Tuesday night's show and were rushed to the hospital.
The broadcaster said today that it is canceling the segment on 30 other stations scheduled to show it. The bizarre sickness has officials considering new programming guidelines and mothers concerned that Japan's wildly popular cartoons could be harmful.
``I'm worried,'' said Keiko Murakami, who watched the program with her three children at their suburban Tokyo home, though none of them got sick. ``I have to warn my kids that the program could be dangerous.''
TV Tokyo would not say which scene in the show sickened the children. But viewers and news reports said a vividly colored explosion mixed with the strobe-light flashing of a character's eyes seemed to trigger the illness.
``It gave me a headache. Lights kept flickering in my eyes, then I felt sick,'' Hiroshi Kobari, 14, was quoted by the national Mainichi newspaper as saying. ``It was like getting a carsick.''
TV Tokyo said about 650 viewers ages 3 to 20 fell ill, including some who saw part of the show on a news program. About 150 remained hospitalized today.
The show, ``Pokemon,'' -- a Japanese rendering of ``pocket monsters'' -- is based on characters in a game produced by Nintendo Co. The weekly show has been broadcast on 37 TV stations nationwide since April and has the highest ratings in the Tokyo area in its 6:30 p.m. slot.
It's not the first time kids have been sickened by Japanese animation. Several years ago, a handful of teen-agers suffered seizures while playing video games sold by Nintendo. The company now attaches a warning of epilepsy-like symptoms triggered by the games' optical stimuli.
In the United States, a woman said in 1991 that she suffered seizures from the voice of `Entertainment Tonight'' co-host Mary Hart. Dianne Neale's doctors said Hart's electronically transmitted voice was triggering the abnormal electrical discharges in her brain. Neale suffered from a rare form of epilepsy called temporal lobe seizure.
In Japan, a country where garishly illustrated and often violent animation is so popular, some people are urging the government to more closely monitor the images that children watch on TV.
``I hope broadcasters would investigate it thoroughly and take precautions to avoid similar problems in the future,'' said Murakami, who complained that TV programs do not provide any warnings about content.
Kyoichi Sato, a spokesman for the Post and Telecommunications Ministry, which oversees TV and radio broadcasting, said officials are still investigating, but the case could lead to new programming guidelines.
Tuesday's ``Pokemon'' featured a child and a monster who were inside a computer battling a program designed to kill viruses. Program producer Takemoto Mori said he has used similar flashing effects in most of the previous ``Pokemon'' shows, with slight variations in color and background combinations.
``During editing, that particular portion didn't call my attention or bother me,'' Mori said. ``I'm really sorry that the kids got sick watching their favorite cartoon.''
TV Tokyo spokesman Hiroshi Uramoto said the station would investigate.
``We are shocked to hear many children were taken to hospitals,'' he told reporters.
Toshio Yamauchi, an epilepsy expert at Saitama University of Medicine outside Tokyo, said the viewers' symptoms suggest a one-time attack triggered by optical stimulus, which is different from epilepsy, Kyodo News said.
``There have been many similar cartoon programs in the past, and I don't understand why the program this time caused so many attacks,'' Yamauchi was quoted as saying. ``It's a sign that Japan will also have to set up guidelines for TV program production.''
The reports dominated today's television and newspaper headlines. ```Pokemon' panic,'' screamed Mainichi.
© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press

Cartoon Sickness Mystifies
Japan TV Network
By Janet Snyder

TOKYO (Reuters) - A television network on Wednesday called in doctors, psychologists and animation experts to find out why a cartoon show based on Nintendo's "Pocket Monsters" triggered convulsions among hundreds of children nationwide.
TV Tokyo programming division manager Hironari Mori told reporters that at least 650 schoolchildren were rushed to hospitals after watching the program on Tuesday night.
Public broadcasting network NHK reported that 729 children were taken to hospitals. About 120 children, aged from three upward, were still in hospital more than 24 hours later.
"We are investigating the cause of the incident using outside experts," Mori said.
The seizures began about 20 minutes into the 30-minute program, which airs on Tuesdays at 6.30 p.m., and the Fire Agency and TV Tokyo were inundated with emergency calls from concerned parents all over Japan, Mori said.
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.
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.
The weekly cartoon, shown since April, is the highest-rated program in its time slot on Tuesdays.
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.
The Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, which supervises TV stations, announced it also was investigating.
A spokesman for Nintendo Co. said characters were the only link between its game and the cartoon.
The Yomiuri newspaper quoted a doctor specializing in epileptic fits as saying the symptoms were similar to fits that some children are susceptible to when they play video games.
Doctors who treated the victims 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 color 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 programs 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.
"Given that they collapsed with their eyes irritated, there is the possibility of photosensitive epilepsy or group hysterics," said Kayama, author of a book on video games.
"The children must have been totally immersed in the program," she said.
Doctors at the University of Tokyo Hospital, where four children were hospitalized, 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 so far there had been no demands for damages from the parents, but added that the network was considering compensation for the families.

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