Updated on  February 21, 2024
4 min read

Sanpaku Eyes: Definition, History, and Superstition

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  • 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 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.
  • Sanpaku eyes can be inherited or 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.

What Are Sanpaku Eyes?

Sanpaku is a Japanese face-reading term translated as “three whites.” Sanpaku eyes have more of the white portion (sclera) visible above or below the iris. It is different from most eyes, which have visible whites only on the sides of the iris. 

Billie Eilish Sanpaku Eyes

The medical term for sanpaku eyes is scleral show. Although the scleral show is normal, it can occur due to certain health conditions or cosmetic eyelid surgery.

The condition can be categorized into two types based on the position of the exposed sclera:

  • Yin sanpaku (lower scleral show). The sclera portion below the iris is visible
  • Yang sanpaku (upper scleral show). The sclera is visible above the iris

History of Sanpaku Eyes

A Japanese macrobiotic theorist, George Ohsawa, first described sanpaku 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.

The face-reading tradition in Asian cultures agrees with Ohsawa’s claims that sanpaku eyes can indicate someone’s fate.

  • Yin sanpaku. Are likely to put themselves in dangerous situations that may end tragically
  • Yang sanpaku. Are 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?

The scleral show is an anatomical condition that can be inherited from your parents, or it may appear later in life as your facial structure changes shape. 

It can also result from medical conditions, such as:

Your doctor can examine your eyes to rule out disease or mental or physical imbalances. 

Does the Scleral Show Need Treatment?

The scleral show typically doesn’t require treatment. The lower scleral show, or yang sanpaku eyes, are often considered desirable.

However, scleral show that develops as a result of the aging process can lead to dry eye syndrome. If this occurs, your eye doctor may recommend using artificial tears to keep your eyes moist.

Hyaluronic acid (HA) dermal fillers have also been shown to reduce lower scleral show in people with sagging cheeks.4

How Do Sanpaku Eyes Differ From Standard Eyes?

Appearance is the only difference between sanpaku and standard eyes:

  • Most eyes have sclera visible only on the sides of the iris and pupil. 
  • Sanpaku eyes have a sclera visible above and/or below the iris when looking forward.

Sanpaku eyes are considered normal in Western medicine. They don’t require corrective care unless caused by a health condition, physical trauma, or aesthetic plastic surgery.

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. It 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.

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. Billie Eilish is a current example of yin sanpaku eyes.

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

Serial killer Charles Manson is shown with yang sanpaku eyes in some photos. But in others, his eyes appear normal.

Updated on  February 21, 2024
8 sources cited
Updated on  February 21, 2024
  1. Loeb, R. “Scleral show.” Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 1988.

  2. Oshawa, G. “You Are All Sanpaku.” Citadel Press, 2002.

  3. Phelps, PO. “Upper Eyelid Retraction.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2022. 

  4. Bravo et al. “Use of Hyaluronic Acid Fillers to Correct Scleral Show.” The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 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.” Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 1987.

  7. Oestreicher, J., and Mehta, S. “Complications of Blepharoplasty: Prevention and Management.” Plastic Surgery International, 2012.

  8. Rajab et al. “A Comparison of Lower Eyelid Retraction in Normal Individuals with Positive versus Negative Orbital Vector.” Middle East African Journal of Ophthalmology, 2020.

The information provided on VisionCenter.org should not be used in place of actual information provided by a doctor or a specialist.