In December of 1997, up to 12,000 Japanese children reported illnesses ranging from nausea to quasi-epileptic seizures after watching an episode of the Pokemon television show. But the vast majority of those reports of illness were part of a wave of mass hysteria that swept Japan after the first few hospitalizations were reported, says the magazine\’e2\’80\’99s May/June issue.

The Inquirer, published by the New York-based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), features the report, written by managing editor Benjamin Radford. The article claims that while many of the cases of perhaps 600 children taken to hospital in the immediate aftermath of the cartoon program\’e2\’80\’99s airing were probably actual instances of photosensitive epilepsy (PSE), the remainder reported over the next week were more likely due to an epidemic of media-induced hysteria.

Brightly or rapidly flashing lights have been shown to trigger seizures, headaches or vision problems in people with PSE, estimated at 1 in 5,000 of the population. In this case, millions, possibly half of all Japanese children, watched the sole airing of the episode, which featured the cartoon character Pikachu\’e2\’80\’99s electrical attack, depicted with quick red-and-blue flashing lights. While some of the children who were immediately taken to hospital had actually fainted or lost consciousness, almost all were returned home the same night. The incident resulted in the popular TV show being pulled from the airwaves for four months. Nintendo, who created the animated characters, saw its shares lose five percent of their value in the week following the panic.

PSE has been identified as the cause of some 1994 seizures in Britain linked to a noodles commercial that used a similar effect, and has also been identified in some children playing Nintendo video games, the magazine reports. Nintendo now includes \’e2\’80\’9cepilepsy warning\’e2\’80\’9d statements on all its products, including computer games, as a result. It\’e2\’80\’99s unknown whether computer games featuring noodles have followed suit. While Pikachu\’e2\’80\’99s attack had been seen on the series before, the sequence in question was unusually long (five to eight seconds). Radford says the larger size of Japanese televisions, and their prominence in what by American standards are generally small living rooms, likely also had an amplifying effect. They\’e2\’80\’99ve never seen where I live, apparently.

CSICOP is an organization dedicated to exposing fraudulent science. Its membership has included writers and scientists such as Carl \’e2\’80\’9cZentraedi\’e2\’80\’9d Sagan, Stephen Jay \’e2\’80\’9cInvid\’e2\’80\’9d Gould, and Nobel laureate Francis \’e2\’80\’9cMinmei\’e2\’80\’9d Crick. Rumours that the magazine will next be investigating links between brain damage and second-hand exposure to DragonBallZ and Sailor Moon were probably started by me, actually.