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Sanpaku, an Intriguing Form of Face Reading

By Renée Batchelor

Marilyn Monroe displayed yin sanpaku, where the whites of her eyes could be seen at the sides as well as the bottom.
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Marilyn Monroe displayed yin sanpaku, where the whites of her eyes could be seen at the sides as well as the bottom.

Billie Eilish may be known for her youth and her unusual singing style, but if you have ever seen a picture of her, another thing might have struck you about the singer. Eilish, seldom smiling and often with a perpetually bored expression on her face, also has an obvious case of yin sanpaku. Translated from the Japanese, sanpaku means “three whites” and refers to eyes in which the sclera — or the white space around the pupil — is visible either above or below it. Closer to home, the singer Lisa Manoban of the K-Pop group Blackpink has a less obvious form of Sanpaku, which mysteriously is only visible in certain images. Other historical figures with prominent examples of yin sanpaku, where the whites of the eyes can be seen below the iris, include the late United States president John F. Kennedy, Diana, Princess of Wales and Marilyn Monroe. Cult leader Charles Manson, meanwhile, had yang sanpaku, where the white of the eyes is visible above the iris. 

According to Japanese theories on sanpaku, having this “condition” does not bode well for the individual, which is said to either lead to an early demise, or in the case of the dreaded upper (or yang) sanpaku that Manson displayed, as being an indicator of psychosis. Sanpaku has been written about quite extensively in Japanese culture, particularly by George Ohsawa, a Japanese writer and alternative medicine practitioner, who authored a book entitled, “You Are All Sanpaku” in 1965. The book used the Kennedys as examples of individuals whose “unhealthy” Western diets made them off-kilter both physically and spiritually. In fact, Ohsawa was a strong proponent of a macrobiotic diet as the cure for sanpaku, and is considered by many to be the father of macrobiotics. 

It seems that theories on sanpaku exist in other cultures as well. According to Max Liang, a fengshui consultant in Singapore who also practices face reading, sanpaku has always been a controversial theory. “Some people use it to predict bad occurrences for the person who has it, such as death. However, we have researched and know that it is of the state of mind the person is in. It is not the best of eyes (to have), but definitely not to the extent of causing death,” says Liang. 

Courtesy of Celine.Lisa of the group Blackpink has yin sanpaku, which is sometimes visible in photographs.
Lisa of the group Blackpink has yin sanpaku, which is sometimes visible in photographs.

There are two types of sanpaku: yin and yang. Of the former, Liang says it is linked to a form of ambition. “In classical face reading, the conclusion that we derive from a person having such eyes is that the person is aggressively aiming for something, with a strong desire to achieve certain goals or results. Even a person without so-called sanpaku eyes normally could exhibit this trait when they are thinking of achieving certain goals or objectives,” he says. On the other hand, yang sanpaku, which can give an individual a slightly crazed appearance, Liang believes it could indicate that they are literally looking down on those around them. “Again, in face reading, it actually indicates the person possesses a superiority complex and a strong sense of pride, with a certain disdain towards a person, situation or an environment. Basically, it means that they have a strong tendency to look down on people, situations or even places,” he further explains. Liang believes that those with yin sanpaku are at the stage of their lives where they are still striving and have not yet achieved stability, while those with yang sanpaku, are often wealthy individuals who hold a negative outlook on life.

And while face reading may not be a science, there is some scientific basis that having sanpaku could indicate underlying health issues. Dr Natasha Lim, the medical director at Dr Natasha Lim Eye Centre, and an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, says that in most normal eyes, one should not be seeing too much whites at both the top and the bottom of the eye, although for some, being born with sanpaku is a genetic condition. “If it’s a lot of white at the bottom or the top, it’s a very terrified look and it’s not normal. Usually, medically, you see these kinds of symptoms in thyroid disease,” says Dr Lim. She also believes that having too much eye whites may be a sign of anxiety. “In terms of anxiety or depression, it may occur with great anxiety, but not depression,” she adds. If an individual should come in with sanpaku, there will usually be tests carried out to determine if they have any medical issues. “If someone comes in with too much whites in their eyes, we’ll do immediate thyroid function test — if the thyroid function is negative, there could be a tumour pushing the eye out from the back,” explains Dr Lim. 

Whether the concept of sanpaku is mired in pseudo-science or not, it seems that the eyes often do have a tale to tell of their own. Dr Lim says that conditions like chronic inflammation can even affect the colour of the iris. In the case of Kennedy, Ohsawa pointed out in his book that Kennedy did not always have sanpaku, but that this condition became more and more apparent as he grew older — and presumably more enmeshed in the stresses of political and public life. 

Sanpaku, whether medically caused, genetic or ascribed to a form of spiritual dysfunction, continues to intrigue those who have stopped to take notice. 

Kathy HutchinsSinger Billie Eilish’s sanpaku is one of her most prominent features.
Singer Billie Eilish’s sanpaku is one of her most prominent features.