Sanpaku is a Japanese term that means ‘three whites’ and is generally referred to in English as ‘Sanpaku eyes.’ The term refers to the iris being rather small, so that it only covers about two-thirds or less of the vertical axis of the eye; e.g. delineate an eye into four portions; the iris would only occupy one portion of the divided four sections; thus leaving the other three in white, hence ‘three whites.’

When the bottom of the white part of the eye, known as the sclera, is visible it is referred to as ‘Yin Sanpaku’ in Chinese lore. According to the myth, it represents physical imbalance in the body and is claimed to be present in alcoholics, drug addicts and people who overconsume sugar or grain. Conversely when the upper sclera is visible this is called ‘Yang Sanpaku.’ This is said to be an indication of mental imbalance in people such as psychotics, murderers, and anyone rageful. Stress and fatigue may also be a cause.

In August 1963, macrobiotic pioneer George Ohsawa predicted that President John F. Kennedy would experience great danger because of his sanpaku condition. This was reported by Tom Wolfe in the ‘New York Herald Tribune.’ People with sanpaku eyes may also be feared to be prone to violent or disordered behaviors. There is no evidence for this belief, however. John Lennon mentioned sanpaku in his song ‘Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)’ from his 1973 ‘Mind Games’ album. It is also briefly referenced in William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer,’ as well as in Michael Franks’ 1979 song ‘Sanpaku.’ The Firesign Theatre’s piece ‘Temporarily Humboldt County’ (a compressed timeline of the European expansion into North America and the displacement of the Native Americans) mentions a character named ‘Sam Paku.’

There is currently no scientific evidence that supports the existence of the sanpaku eyes phenomenon. There is also no evidence to suggest that many of the listed conditions, such as the overconsumption of grain, are related to sclera visibility. The popularizer of the sanpaku eyes phenomenon, George Ohsawa, did not have any training in the medical field, and is thus not qualified to make diagnoses or medically related predictions. In a similar vein, Ohsawa also does not provide any explanations for the supposed links between particular physical ailments, mental disorders, personality types and the different types of sanpaku.

Ohsawa also makes note of some famous people with sanpaku eyes, such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, and insinuates that their demise was linked to the visible sclera under their eyes. However, there is no mention of people (both famous and non-famous) with this characteristic that do not adhere to the list of symptoms. Making observations on famous people exclusively results in a biased and non-random sample, from which results or observations cannot be generalized. It is highly likely that many (if not most) people with sanpaku live healthy and normal lives. In order to test this phenomenon, a scientific approach would be to acquire a random sample, whose sclera visibility would be compared to their medical history.

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