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The envelope, please (and don’t lick it)

The Dopey News of the Year Award goes to the eyeball licking story that never was

by Mark Schreiber

One of the most sensational news stories emanating from Japan over the past year never actually happened.

This was the great “epidemic” of eye infections that had supposedly broke out among primary school students due to gankyū name, the expression of budding adolescent affection by engaging in oculolinctus, which is a fancy Latin term for licking a person’s eyeballs.

At its peak, a Google search using the terms “eyeball licking” and “Japan” brought up more than 82 million hits in English alone. Write-ups appeared in publications everywhere, from the British Guardian and America’s Time magazine to the Nigerian Tribune and — I kid you not — the Australian Kayak Fishing Forum.

According to the original story, which appeared without attribution June 7 on a Japanese-language subculture site, a mysterious outbreak of pinkeye was found to affect one-third of a class at an unnamed Tokyo primary school. Its cause was traced to eyeball-licking by the students.

Within three days the story had been blogged on a compilation site called Naver Matome, where it caught the attention of an English translator for the website JapanCrush. It was echoed on an English-language site called Shanghaiist, after which it went viral.

Within a week, mainstream print and broadcast media overseas were proclaiming that “an epidemic of conjunctivitis is occurring among Japanese primary school students,” when no such thing had happened.

I’m pretty sure I first read it on June 15 on rawstory.com, a progressive news site. My first reaction upon seeing it was to glance at the calendar and confirm it wasn’t April 1.

The story carried the byline of Stuart Heritage and was syndicated from The Guardian. Among the many, many other sites reporting the story, no one seemed to have made an effort to track down the source and establish whether there was any veracity to the claims.

Sitting upright in my chair, which is about as close as I ever get to springing into action, I reached for an amazing communications device called a “telephone” and dialed the offices of two Tokyo-based associations of ophthalmologists and an organization of school clinicians. I also inveigled a busy professor friend at a national university to run a search on medical databases.

It’s a pity that computers are not programmed to respond to ridiculous search queries with messages like “You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” Instead all he got was “mitsukarimasen” (not found), without so much as a gomen nasai (sorry).

I now felt reasonably assured that the story was a hoax, so I tried to track down the source. Two female receptionists at the headquarters of Line (sponsor of Naver Matome) in Tokyo’s upscale Hikarie Building in Shibuya refused to summon their spokesperson. I supposed I could have sat down on the carpet and made a big stink over their rejection, but it was a hot, sticky day, so I trudged down the street to the next link in the chain, GMO Mobile, which publishes the news blog Yomerumo.

Yomerumo’s editor proved friendly and obliging.

“Eyeball licking? No, no, it wasn’t ours,” he said, sliding his cursor to the upper left of his laptop’s screen. Sure enough, there was an almost invisible link he had embedded to a site called Bucchi (Butch) News, that I’d never heard of. But I did know about the company behind it: a wild and wooly subculture publisher named Coremagazine, whose stock in trade is “taboo” stories designed to shock and titillate. At least one of its print magazines, Jitsuwa Bunka Tabu, regularly runs full page ads offering to pay “big money” for “taboo stories.”

This proved to be my “gotcha” moment.

I dashed home and persuaded my editor friend Greg Starr to let me run a “J’accuse!” story in the August issue of Number 1 Shimbun, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s in-house organ. Greg readily agreed.

Titled “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em!” the story hit the web in early August, and several likeminded people helped me spread the liar-liar-pants-on-fire message. These included “Yokai Attack!” author Matt Alt and a Yokohama-based blogger named J.T. Cassidy, and several sympathetic foreign correspondents who shall remain unnamed.

We knew we’d made the big time on Aug. 8, when the famous debunking site Snopes.com officially proclaimed the story “False“and explained why it must be so.

Soon afterward, the Guardian’s readers’ editor ordered the eyeball-licking story removed from the newspaper’s site and apologized to readers. But if you still want to read about this flaky fetish, you’ll have no trouble finding it on other websites.

Tokyo-based writer Tim Hornyak, a 10-year resident of Japan, did an excellent write-up of whole sordid tale for CNET, which can be read at jtim.es/rSc64.

“Watching yet another fictitious Japan ‘news’ story making the rounds in foreign media can be vexing,” Hornyak remarked, adding “This one didn’t pass the sniff test — it seemed a little too gross to be true, especially considering how Japanese are freakish enough about their hygiene to wear surgical masks all day, in public.”

Did anyone learn a lesson from this modern version of the “Chicken Little” fable? Hornyak remains understandably skeptical.

“As the eyeball canard shows us, even editors at ‘legit’ news sites will throw skepticism out the window and republish shocking stories,” he shrugged. “The crux of this issue is an intractable problem I pondered back in journalism school: When it comes to news, where does the public interest end and the private interest begin? There’s no simple answer.”