Updated on  January 16, 2023
5 min read

Sanpaku Eyes: Definition, History, and Superstition

7 sources cited
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Sanpaku is a Japanese face-reading term translated as "three whites." Sanpaku eyes have more portions of the whites (sclera) exposed. The condition can be categorized into two types based on the position of the exposed sclera:

  • Yin sanpaku eyes, or "sanpaku below." The sclera portion below the iris is visible when you gaze forward.
  • Yan sanpaku eyes, or "sanpaku above." The sclera is visible above the iris when you gaze forward.

Sometimes, the sclera is visible on all sides (in people with bulging eyeballs or small irises). In western medicine, the condition is known as "scleral show."1

Sanpaku eyes are considered normal unless caused by certain health conditions. It's possible to have only one or both eyes affected.

History

A Japanese macrobiotic theorist, George Ohsawa, first described this condition in 1965. In his book "You Are All Sanpaku," Ohsawa claimed that "any sign of sanpaku meant that a man's entire system — physical, physiological and spiritual — was out of balance" and could signify an imminent threat or "early and tragic end."2 

Ohsawa claimed to have predicted Former US President John F. Kennedy's death in 1963. President Kennedy had yin sanpaku eyes (scleral show below the iris).

Asian face-reading tradition also agrees with Ohsawa's claims that sanpaku eyes can indicate someone's fate.

  • Yin sanpaku eyes (lower scleral show). Associated with alcoholics and drug addicts. These people are likely to put themselves in dangerous situations that may end tragically.
  • Yan sanpaku eyes (upper scleral show). People with this type face danger from within (mental imbalance). They're likely violent, full of rage, or elicit psychopathic tendencies. 

Although theorists can base their claims on human examples, there's no scientific evidence.

What Causes Scleral Show?

Although the psychological assessment of scleral show is based on superstition, science points to the following causes:

  • Genetics. The condition is passed from parents to their offspring.
  • Aging. As you age, the skin around the eye may lose its elasticity, resulting in drooping eyelids and exposing the sclera.
  • Weak cheekbone support. This can cause drooping eyelids, resulting in inferior scleral show.
  • Cosmetic surgery. Blepharoplasty (removal of excess eyelid skin) can cause tissue to stretch in ways that expose the sclera. 
  • Trauma. Fractured facial bones or facial scars can affect eyelid tissue alignment or movement, exposing the sclera.
  • Diseases. Grave's ophthalmopathy (thyroid eye disease) can cause eye-bulging, making the sclera seem more prominent.3 
  • Other health conditions. Hypertension, obesity, endocrine imbalance, and poor blood circulation can all lead to scleral show.

Your doctor can examine your eyes to rule out any disease or mental or physical imbalances. A notable treatment is quick and non-invasive hyaluronic acid (HA) fillers, used to improve constitutional scleral show.4

What is the Cooperative Eye Hypothesis?

The cooperative eye hypothesis is an evolutionary explanation of the eye's structural appearance.5 Although not universally accepted, it remains the most viable explanation for why eyes appear the way they do. 

According to this hypothesis, the sclera is white to make the irises and pupils more visible. This allegedly enhances communication by enabling us to follow each others' gazes during interactions.

How Common are Sanpaku Eyes? 

There is limited research on the prevalence of sanpaku eyes. However, this condition seems quite common. According to a study involving 100 Caucasian subjects, the researchers noted that yin sanpaku was common among all participants and the extent increased with head inclination.6 

The study showed no variation based on age or sex. More research is required to determine the prevalence in normal and diseased eyes of all races.

How Do Sanpaku Eyes Differ From Standard Eyes?

The most significant difference between sanpaku and standard eyes is their appearance. 

In normal eyes, the sclera is visible only on the left and right sides of the iris–the colored front part of the eye containing the pupil. The scleral portion above the iris is covered by the upper eyelid, while the lower eyelid covers the lower portion.

In sanpaku eyes, the sclera is visible above and/or below the iris when you look forward. 

Sanpaku eyes are "normal" in most cases and do not require corrective care unless caused by eye trauma, aging, disease, or aesthetic plastic surgery. Scleral show is considered a serious complication of blepharoplasty.7

What Celebrities Have Sanpaku Eyes?

Sanpaku eyes gained popularity in western culture after face readers identified the trait in American president John F. Kennedy. Since then, many celebrities with this distinct eye appearance have been identified. 

Like President Kennedy, some of these celebrities' fates seemingly justify the Japanese theory as documented by Ohsawa.

  • Princess Diana of Wales (yin sanpaku eyes). Died at age 36 following a car crash.
  • Michael Jackson (yin sanpaku eyes). Died at age 50 of a drug overdose.
  • Marilyn Monroe (yin sanpaku eyes). Died at age 36 of a sedative drug overdose
  • Takeoff (Kirsnick Khari Ball) (yin sanpaku eyes). Died at 28 after a tragic shooting. 
  • Elvis Presley (yin sanpaku eyes). Died at age 42 following years of drug use. 

Summary

  • Sanpaku eyes are eyes that have more portions of the whites (sclera) exposed above, below, or all around the iris. 
  • The only difference between sanpaku eyes and normal eyes is their appearance, although Japanese superstition associates the eyes with certain undesirable behavioral traits. 
  • Western medicine considers sanpaku eyes normal unless caused by certain health conditions, such as Grave's disease, hypertension, obesity, etc.
  • Sanpaku eyes can also result from aging, trauma, or aesthetic dermatology procedures.
  • Famous people with sanpaku eyes include Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvester Stallone, and many others.
Updated on  January 16, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on  January 16, 2023
  1.  Loeb. “Scleral show.” National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 1988.
  2. Citadel Press. You Are All Sanpaku, 1980.
  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology. “Upper Eyelid Retraction.” eyewiki.aao.org, 2022. 
  4. Bravo et al., “Use of Hyaluronic Acid Fillers to Correct Scleral Show.” National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 2018.
  5. Tomasello et al., “Reliance on head versus eyes in the gaze following of great apes and human infants: the cooperative eye hypothesis.” Journal of Human Evolution, 2007.
  6. Mackinnon et al., “The incidence and degree of scleral show in the normal population.” National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 1987.
  7. Oestreicher & Mehta. “Complications of Blepharoplasty: Prevention and Management.” Hindawi, 2012.
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