The Pokémon Panic of 1997

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.

On Tuesday night, December 16, 1997, Pokémon episode number 38, Dennou Senshi Porigon (Computer Warrior Polygon) aired in Japan at 6:30. The program, broadcast over thirty-seven TV stations, was already very popular in Japan, and held the highest ratings for its time slot.

In the episode, Pikachu and its human friends Satoshi, Kasumi, and Takeshi, have an adventure that leads inside a computer. About twenty minutes into the program, the gang encounters a fighter named Polygon. A battle ensues, during which Pikachu uses his electricity powers to stop a “virus bomb.” The animators depict Pikachu’s electric attack with a quick series of flashing lights.

In all, millions watched the program. In one section of Japan, Aichi Prefecture, an estimated 70 percent of the 24,000 elementary school students and 35 percent of the 13,000 junior high school students watched the program, for a total of more than 21,000 in Aichi alone (Japan Times 1997). In Tokyo, the local board of education investigated all public kindergartens, primary and middle schools in the area and found that 50,714 students, or 55 percent of the whole, watched the episode (Yomiuri Shimbun 1997c).

At about 6:51, the flashing lights filled the screens. By 7:30, according to the Fire-Defense agency, 618 children had been taken to hospitals complaining of various symptoms.

News of the attacks shot through Japan, and it was the subject of media reports later that evening. During the coverage, several stations replayed the flashing sequence, whereupon even more children fell ill and sought medical attention. The number affected by this “second wave” is unknown.

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