IN THE DIGITAL WORLD, FACT CHECKING AND COMMON SENSE NO LONGER EXIST
“The craze is sweeping through Japan at an alarming rate, causing pink eye and is a hit among 12 year olds who are taking it as the next level after French kissing.” So wrote reporter Victory Oyeleke in the June 16 edition of the Nigerian Tribune, with an air of righteous certainty.
Oyeleke had not filed from Japan.
Neither had the journalist who wrote, “Surge in eye infections among Japanese youngsters due to sexual eyeball licking trend” (Washington Times, June 13); nor “Eyeball licking: the fetish that is making Japanese teenagers sick” (The Guardian, June 14); or “Japanese ‘eyeball licking’ trend carries blindness risk” (CBS News, June 14); or “Japanese craze for eyeball licking leads to rise in infections” (The Telegraph, June 17).
And to be fair to other nationalities, neither had the writer of “Japanische Schüler lecken sich die Augäpfel” (Japanese students lick their eyeballs), as reported by Germany’s DRadio Wissen on June 14.
Specialty publications were in on the act. A UK based medical bulletin board, Medical News Today, even beat out ABC News by one day, running the alarming story under the title “Eyeball Licking (Oculolinctus) Can Be Dangerous, Doctors Warn.” The site’s readers, including medical professionals, rated the story an average of 4.5 stars out of 5.
That was just the beginning. Barring destructive earthquakes, tsunami or nuclear accidents, it’s very likely this sordid tale of rampant oral ocular sex will emerge as the big Japan news item for 2013. The story was tweeted, shared, copied. At its peak, a Google search of the terms “eyeball licking” and “Japan” garnered 82 million hits. (The figure has since declined as the Google algorithm weeds out duplicates.) Where did the story originate? How was it circulated? And more to the point was there any truth to it? Did anyone attempt to verify it? And does anyone really care?
The source wasn’t that difficult to find. An article in Japanese titled “Shogakusei ni gankyuname hentai purei ga dairyuukou” (The perverted play of eyeball licking is a hit among primary schoolers) appeared on Friday, June 7 on Bucchi News, a site for subculture enthusiasts.
The story’s sole informant was “Y,” an anonymous teacher at a primary school in Tokyo, who revealed how he had traced an epidemic of pink eye at his school to “hentai (perverted) play” in the form of rampant eyeball licking among students. Notably lacking in attribution and details, the story had all the trappings of an urban legend.
Knowing the background of the story’s publisher didn’t instill much confidence in its veracity. Bucchi News is produced by Core Magazine, a publishing company raided by police on suspicion of obscenity last April 19, when a variety of materials, including its office computers, were confiscated. Four days later Core announced that two of its magazines, Komikku Megastore and Nyan2 Club, would suspend publication.
If that doesn’t raise questions, last year Core sold off one of its most popular periodicals, a monthly subculture magazine called Bubka whose previous editor, Masaki Okazaki, in 2006 had the distinction of becoming the first person in Japan arrested under new laws banning child pornography.
Bubka contents ran the whole gamut of extreme, mondo bizarro lifestyles: biker gangs, leather, tattooing and body piercing. It also catered to men with Lolita complexes, featuring depictions of not so innocent adolescent girls engaged in a variety of bizarre practices.
The same day the story came out in Bucchi, GMO Mobile, a Shibuya based IT company, ran it verbatim on its own news site, Yomerumo. It was text only, graphically unremarkable, and it possibly would have dropped from sight. It was given a second breath, however, when it was picked up by Naver Matome, a slick site operated by LINE, the Japanese subsidiary of NHN Corporation, a big Korean owned IT firm that provides applications and games for mobile phones.
Naver incorrectly credited Yomerumo as the story’s source and provided a link, but cherry picked the contents of the article to highlight the more shocking points related to schoolchildren. And, crucially, it embellished its page with three photographs, including stock photos of two cute, vulnerable looking adolescent girls wearing eye patches. So no one would miss the point, it added the photo of a male of indeterminate age and nationality poised to thrust his tongue into the eye of a young Asian female.
Hey kids! Follow the online trail of a dubious news story:
or search "eyeball licking" on:
Naver Matome’s story was reported to have been retweeted “over 10,000 times.” This attracted the notice of a site called JapanCRUSH, a site that offers “interesting news and stories translated into English from Japan and the Japanese language internet.”
“We don’t select our articles: Japan selects them for us,” proclaims JapanCRUSH in its mission statement. “. . . at Japan CRUSH, we also understand that humans, particularly those with access to the internet, are capable of everything from the very bad to the truly amazing.”
On June 9, a JapanCRUSH writer identified only as “Beth” began her story on the “phenomenon:” “A disturbing trend among younger Japanese school children has become one of the most popular recent threads on internet compilation site Naver Matome.” (Some of Beth’s other stories include one about a clever commuter who used a toilet plunger stuck to the train roof as a straphanger and a man arrested for walking around in a leotard.)
Beth followed with a quote from the “informant,” “From the beginning of this year, styes were practically epidemic in my class. At first the staff didn’t pay much attention to it, but when there were five kids or ten kids in a single class who all had eye patches, it really caught the attention of the adults. Even when homeroom teachers, who thought it strange, would question the students, all they’d say was that they didn’t know anything about it. We held an emergency staff meeting about this strange occurrence, but the cause of it remained unclear….”
That same day, crediting Naver Matome and JapanCRUSH, a site in China called Shanghailist, which claims 500,000 unique visitors a month, ran its own story: “Japanese teens are spreading pink eye by licking each other’s eyeballs.” “It was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached this story about an alleged craze among Japanese teens of licking each other’s eye balls,” its editor wrote. “On the one hand, this is the kind of insane, WTF news that blogs are built upon. On the other, it has to be fake right? Right?!”
Such caveats didn’t inhibit news organizations from jumping on the bandwagon, however, as over the next three days the story went viral globally. Reporters typically sought quotes from their local eye specialists, who were happy to advise that yes, indeed, tonguing eyeballs was definitely unsanitary and could lead to all sorts of infections.
No one appeared very keen to establish the story’s veracity. As far as I can tell, only one Japan based correspondent reported the story for an overseas publication. And that story was just a rehash of previously posted content with no indication of any effort to confirm the phenomenon via a reliable Japanese source.
ABC News, at least, decided to have some fun. It spoofed the story, saying, “Here in the United States of America, we prefer to keep our fetishes wholesome and private.” It included two tongue in cheek parodies of old public service advertisements “against the perils of this menacing and quintessentially Japanese trend.” One read, “Don’t give in to peer pressure! Teens, say no to eyeball licking!!! Or at least save it for marriage!!!”
Debunking an anonymous, unattributed story may be impossible, but it was not especially difficult to at least cast doubts on the sweeping claim that large numbers of Japanese adolescents were suffering from an epidemic of tongue induced pink eye, as the blogs were now claiming.
I contacted three Japanese professional organizations, including two opthamological associations and an organization of school clinicians. Queries were also sent to a professor of nursing at a national university and a Yokohama based ophthalmologist. None of them had the faintest idea of what I was talking about. None knew anything about the rampant spread of disease.
Convinced at this point that the story was based on a hoax, I fired off mails to editors who saw fit to run the story, at Raw Story, the SF Chronicle, The Syracuse Post Standard, Shanghailist and several others. A few responded. None of them were prompted to remove the story from their site.
“We didn’t write the story, dude. It’s a syndicated story,” was how Raw Story’s editor responded, advising me that if it was good enough for The Guardian, it was good enough for her.
Possibly after reading my mail, Shanghailist added the following comment: “Some reports have suggested that this ‘trend’ is more of an urban myth, created in part by Western media always happy to report a ‘weird Japan’ story. While this accusation is understandable, our original post was based on Japanese sources/reporting.”
As this story was going to press, I was able to reach the editor at Core Magazine who had posted the original story on Bucchi. Expressing astonishment at how the story had gone viral in the foreign media, he evaded my questions about the identity of the writer. “The story never claimed the problem was widespread,” he said defensively, implying that readers of his site are looking for thrills, not facts, and anyone who read the story in Japanese would clearly recognize the story’s main purpose, which was to titillate.
It’s hard to judge how many of the foreign readers of the story understood the purpose of the original: whether they actually believed that eyeball lickers were running amok across Japan or whether they were just titillated by the outlandisnness of the report. But, sadly, it appears that even at “news organizations” the rationale for running anything has become that somebody else said it first.
“I can’t imagine that journalists who write blogs, contribute as freelancers, etc., are held to different editorial standards than staff and other full time writers,” a Japan based correspondent of a UK newspaper wrote to me.
Tracking this story from its source to its audience has convinced me otherwise.
Mark Schreiber currently writes the “Big in Japan” and “Bilingual” columns for The Japan Times.