Sanpaku Eyes: a Guide to the Japanese Superstition

Sanpaku eyes have become a popular topic lately, thanks to many celebrities like Billie Eilish and Marilyn Monroe having this distinct eye appearance.

Sanpaku refers to a Japanese superstition. It interprets the visibility of the white space above or below the iris as an indicator of an individual's physical and emotional imbalance.

The concept gained wider recognition through the work of the philosopher George Ohsawa. He popularized in the Western culture that sanpaku eyes could reflect a person's health and destiny.

Billie Eilish eyes
Picture by Glenn Francis,

This guide helps you understand the meaning of "sanpaku eyes" and shed light on how modern medicine approaches it.

Short Summary

Sanpaku eyes are eyes that have the white part visible above or below the iris.

Japanese superstition associates these eyes with certain undesirable behavioral traits.

Western medicine generally regards sanpaku eyes, or scleral show, as standard, except when caused by specific medical conditions.

Sanpaku eyes can be genetic or result from aging, trauma, or clinical and aesthetic dermatology procedures.

Sanpaku eyes usually don't require treatment but can be eliminated with plastic surgery.

Many celebrities have sanpaku eyes, including Billie Eilish, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, and President John F. Kennedy.

What Sanpaku Eyes Are

Sanpaku is a Japanese word meaning "three whites."

It refers to the condition where the whites of the eyes are visible in at least three locations.

Sanpaku originated in Japanese face-reading. Individuals with sanpaku eyes are considered ill-fated and destined for a life filled with misfortune.

Sanpaku eyes in Western medicine are known as scleral show. It is usually considered a normal condition and doesn't require treatment.

The Difference Between Normal And Sanpaku Eyes

According to Western medicine, the only difference is in appearance.

Illustrating the difference between normal and sanpaku eyes.
Illustrating the difference between normal and sanpaku eyes.

Normal eyes have the sclera, the white part of the eye, visible only on the sides of the iris.

In contrast, sanpaku eyes have the sclera visible above or beneath the iris resulting in a distinct eye appearance.

Scleral show is the medical term for sanpaku eyes in Western medicine. It is considered normal, and they don't require treatment unless caused by physical trauma or some health condition.

Origin And History

Japanese Superstition

The concept of sanpaku eyes is deeply rooted in Japanese face-reading practices where the visible white part of the eye, either above or below the iris, is thought to reveal something sinister about the individual's character.

You Are All Sanpaku" By George Ohsawa

In modern literature, George Ohsawa, the father of macrobiotics, first described Sanpaku in his 1965 book "You Are All Sanpaku." He wrote that sanpaku eyes indicate someone's fate and could signify imminent danger or an "early and tragic end."

For thousands of years, people of the Far East have been looking into each other's eyes for signs of this dreaded condition. Any sign of sanpaku meant that a man's entire system — physical, physiological and spiritual — was out of balance. He had committed sins against the order of the universe and he was therefore sick, unhappy, insane, what the West has come to call "accident prone". The condition of sanpaku is a warning, a sign from nature, that one's life is threatened by an early and tragic end.

Later he claimed to have predicted the death of President John F. Kennedy because of his yin sanpaku eyes.

Young John F. Kennedy in the office.
Young John F. Kennedy - Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Ohsawa says sanpaku eyes can be treated with a macrobiotic diet, focusing on brown rice and soybeans.

Cultural Beliefs Around Sanpaku Eyes

The cultural beliefs and superstitions associated with this vary between different Asian cultures. However, they agree that sanpaku eyes determine one's fate.

In Japanese culture, sanpaku eyes are thought to be associated with ill fate and misfortune.

Conversely, in Chinese, the presence of is considered a sign of good luck and fortune.

These contrasting beliefs highlight the diverse interpretations of this unique eye appearance across different cultures.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, the cultural beliefs surrounding sanpaku eyes have persisted throughout history. It still provides a fascinating insight into the symbolism and mythology of different societies.

The Types of Sanpaku Eye

Sanpaku eyes are divided into yin sanpaku and yang sanpaku. These classifications originate from the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang, representing the duality of opposing yet complementary forces in the universe.

Illustrating the difference between yin and yan sanpaku eyes.
Illustrating the difference between yin and yan sanpaku eyes.

Yin and yang sanpaku eyes indicate opposite manifestations of this eye appearance, each with unique beliefs and implications.

Yang Sanpaku Eyes

Yang Sanpaku eyes are characterized by the white part visible above the iris.

In Japanese face reading, yang sanpaku eyes are believed to reveal a person's dark and sinister nature. This eye appearance indicates an unstable mental state in individuals exhibiting uncontrollable aggression, such as psychopathic murderers or serial killers.

Mugshot of Charles Manson.
Charles Manson most common example of yang Sanpaku eyes

One of the most iconic examples of yang sanpaku is Charles Manson.

Yin Sanpaku Eyes

Yin Sanpaku eyes, on the other hand, are defined by the visible whites beneath the iris.

Yin sanpaku eyes signify a physical or mental imbalance within the individual. This particular type of sanpaku eyes is believed to be caused by the consumption of drugs, alcohol, and sugar which disrupt the body's equilibrium.

Marilyn Monroe is looking to the camera
Marilyn Monroe has the most iconic yin Sanpaku eyes. Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most famous people have yin sanpaku eyes, including Billie Eilish, Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson.

Medical Explanations for Sanpaku Eyes

In Western culture, the medical term scleral show describes the medical condition associated with sanpaku eyes.

Scleral show refers to an anatomical condition where the sclera, the white part of the human eye, is visible between the upper and lower eyelids and the iris.

Causes of Scleral Show

The causes of scleral show can be diverse and sophisticated.

This condition can be inherited or may manifest later in life due to facial changes or even as a consequence of aging.

It can result from medical conditions like eye trauma, hormone imbalances, or plastic and reconstructive surgery.

In some cases, lifestyle factors such as extreme exhaustion, chronic stress, and the use of drugs and alcohol can also impact the optic nerve, leading to a contraction that pulls the iris upward and exposes the white area below the iris.

Understanding the causes of scleral show is crucial for distinguishing between the cultural beliefs surrounding sanpaku eyes and the medical explanations rooted in scientific evidence.

Treatment Options

Scleral show only impacts eye appearance. Usually, it doesn't require treatment.

However, treatment options are available for individuals concerned about their scleral show. The most definitive treatment is aesthetic plastic surgery, specifically a procedure called blepharoplasty, which can correct the appearance of the eyes.

Natural remedies and non-surgical interventions can be explored to address scleral show.

It is essential to consult with a qualified medical professional, such as a clinical and aesthetic dermatologist, before pursuing any treatment options for scleral show.

Blepharoplasty Aesthetic Plastic Surgery

Blepharoplasty is a cosmetic eyelid surgery that helps rejuvenate the appearance of the face around the eyes.

A lower eyelid blepharoplasty is a procedure that helps fix puffy bags under the eyes. The doctor repositions and possibly removes some extra fat and skin.

Most patients experience minimal pain after surgery and can return to work in one week.

Sanpaku Eyes And the Cooperative Eye Hypothesis

The cooperative eye hypothesis, introduced by H. Kobayashi and S. Kohshima, states that the distinctive appearance of the human eye, including the sclera, has evolved to enhance nonverbal communication.

According to this hypothesis, the high visibility of eye features against the white background allows for easier tracking of eye movements. It helps individuals understand where others are looking during social interactions.

A close-up photo of a chimpanzee.
Apes do not have visible white in their eyes. Photo from Unsplash

Researchers studied how humans and other great apes move their heads and eyes to look at different things. They found that humans rely more on eye movements than head movements to see where someone else is looking. This means our eyes are good at helping us understand where others focus their attention.

Although the cooperative eye hypothesis is not universally agreed upon, it offers a plausible explanation for the evolutionary significance of the human eye's appearance in facilitating effective communication.

A man's eyes from close.
Human eye has easily visible white around the iris. Photo from Unsplash

This hypothesis offers an intriguing alternative to the cultural beliefs and superstitions surrounding sanpaku eyes, providing a more scientifically grounded explanation for the unique appearance of human eyes. While the world of sanpaku eyes may remain shrouded in mystery and speculation, the cooperative eye hypothesis sheds light on the potential evolutionary significance of this distinct eye condition.

How Common Sanpaku Eyes Are

According to a research paper from 2020, having some sort of sanpaku eyes, or scleral show, is quite common.

About half of the population is estimated to have sanpaku eyes, with at least 0.25-millimeter space between the iris and the upper and lower eyelids.

About every one person in five has sanpaku eyes with 1 millimeter or more scleral show.

However, fewer than one person in a hundred has more than 2 millimeters of visible whites.

Famous People With Sanpaku Eyes

The distinct eye appearance of sanpaku eyes has also captured the attention of many due to its presence in some famous faces.

Throughout history, several prominent individuals have possessed this distinct eye appearance, sparking curiosity and speculation about the potential implications of their sanpaku eyes.

Historical Figures

Historical figures such as Bonaparte Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, and President John F. Kennedy have been documented to have sanpaku eyes.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Picture from The White House

These iconic individuals, each with their unique contributions to history, have fueled the fascination surrounding sanpaku eyes and the possible hidden meaning behind their distinct appearance.

Contemporary Celebrities

In the world of contemporary celebrities, you can find sanpaku eyes among some of the most famous people.

The most iconic sanpaku was Marilyn Monroe's eyes with her iconic gaze. Other notable examples include Billie Eilish, Princess Diana, and Elvis Presley. These celebrities, with their captivating eyes and unique appearances, have further fueled the interest in sanpaku eyes and the potential implications of this distinct eye condition.

Photo of Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley promoting Jailhouse Rock. Picture from The Library of Congress

Similar to President Kennedy, the fates of some of these celebrities support the Japanese theory documented by Ohsawa.


While the phenomenon of sanpaku eyes is widely known in Asian cultures, it's pretty new in Western culture. It has attracted the attention of many worldwide for its perceived symbolism and potential health implications. While interpretations may vary, it is vital to approach the topic with an open mind and respect for diverse beliefs and experiences.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Sanpaku Eyes?

Sanpaku is a Japanese word meaning three whites. It refers to the three visible whites of the eyes. In Japanese culture, sanpaku eyes are associated with ill fate and misfortune. However, in Western medicine, sanpaku eye or scleral show is considered normal.

What Is Scleral Show?

Scleral show is when the sclera, the white part of the eye, is visible above or below the iris. In Western medicine, it's considered normal and only a different appearance. In Japanese culture, particularly in face reading, this condition is called Sanpaku. It associated the sanpaku eye with ill fate and bad luck.

Are Sanpaku Eyes Normal?

Sanpaku eyes are considered normal in Western medicine. This condition can be inherited or may manifest later in life due to facial changes or even as a consequence of aging. However, it is wise to seek medical attention if you experience a health condition or physical trauma that may cause them.

Do Sanpaku Eyes Need Treatment?

Sanpaku eyes, or scleral show, are normal. It's just a different eye appearance. If you're concerned about it, seek professional advice from your eye doctor during your next routine eye care check. Additionally, lifestyle changes such as stress reduction may also help to minimize the appearance of scleral show.

How Rare Are Sanpaku Eyes?

Every second person has some degree of sanpaku eye, so it's not very rare. However, only 1% of the people are estimated to have sanpaku eyes with 2 millimeters or more space between the eyelids.

What Celebrities Have Sanpaku Eyes?

Many celebrities, including historical and contemporary, have sanpaku eyes. Most notable examples: