paraverse hp   topsy-intro   topsy-sample   topsy-index   topsy-errata   all reviews  all errata

 all glosses     all new books   about the author-publisher   book-lines, or context of work

A 4-star Review posted at Barnes & Noble [in a single paragraph]

by Heidi Markovitz , a computer nerd, not a Japanophile, 12/25/2007

What a fun book! Don't be discouraged by its size [740pp]. It is perfectly laid out for 10-minute doses of entertainment.

The foundation of the book is a 16th century account by a Portuguese Jesuit of Japanese behaviors he found unusual during his stay in Japan. Father Frois' treatise apparently started out as a concise list. 'Topsy-Turvy 1585' expanded each of the numbered differences between Europe and Japan into a multi-page discourse full of fun quotes and factoids which have been carefully researched by the author. For instance, Frois mentions that Portuguese 'breeches or drawers open in the front. . . .Japanese open on both sides . . .' Gill runs with that comment, citing for us European paintings from the period that show men in skirts or that exaggerate masculine physical endowments for all the world to applaud. He then progresses to a discussion of the evolution of underwear around the world and comments by experts on whether long pants are more or less flattering to short legs. And that’s just in one small topic!

The book is divided into sections on broad subjects such as “Men,” “Women,” and “Food and Drink.” Each section lists the specific topics it contains, such as ”Daggers, short vs. long,” “Melons, direction of cut,” and “Cradles vs. nature.” Each topic begins with a translation (by the author) of the item from the Portuguese and continues with a wealth of related material, including the author’s own dryly humorous opinions. I recommend reading the book in pieces. Open it at random and start reading. Since each topic is not more than a few pages long, it is easy to enjoy one and return later for more. I am sure that almost every reader will find something to amuse them in this book.

Like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, I accept reviews from anyone.  Just send them to info at paraverse dot org or uncoolwabin at hotmail dot com and I will share them here!

  TOPSY-TURVY 1585 a full translation, explication and essay of Luis Frois S.J.’s famous treatise (Tratado) listing 611 ways Europeans and Japanese differ  – by  robin d. gill

“The Jesuits had aimed for Eldorado but landed in the antipodes”  writes Professor George Elison in Deus Destroyed.  “There was no foothold to be had without an inversion of past attitudes.  How difficult it was to perform to perform that headstand is apparent from a look at Padre Luis Frois’s attempt at cultural analysis, a treatise he composed in 1585 on Contradictions and Differences of Custom between the Peoples of Europe and this Province of Japan.” (E:DD


Frois’s treatise (tratado) is bold and unique.  Herodotus  made dozens of black and white contrasts between Egypt and the Greco-Roman civilization he called “the rest of the world;” Alberuni (Il Bîrûnî) did the same, contrasting India to the West (mostly Arab world); but no one has made hundreds as did Frois,  who was also the most prolific writer on Japan of the 16th century, and, probably, of all time.   In this book,  Frois’s 611 (!) skeletal distiches –  two lines we might call heroic contrast! – are translated into English, most for the first time.  The author provides ample (and hopefully entertaining) commentary on the veracity and significance of the contrasts as well as their relationship to the Jesuits’ attempt to accommodate themselves to life in Japan, something that preceded and paved the way for the more famous effort of Ricci in China described by Jonathon Spence (S:MPMR) and others.

The topsy-turvy is interesting in itself. Two slightly annotated Japanese translations of Frois’s treatise have gone through countless popular pocket-book printings.  Scholars value the work because most of Frois’s contrasts are not judgmental but descriptive, resembling the more neutral stuff of cultural anthropology and history; and laymen enjoy it because the Tratado is also, to quote Elison again, “a booklet of amazing banality in which everything Japanese – from the man’s head to the horse’s tail” –  is included. 2  Who but Frois would have noticed we pick our noses with different fingers and bothered to write it down!


Ideas raised by Frois’s contrasts are explored when deemed significant or interesting.  Additional Faux Frois contrasts are suggested, bringing the total distiches in the book to a thousand or so.    Essays into the history of topsy-turvy and the way China (Japan’s closest competition for being topsy-turvy to the Occident) fits into the general picture provide added perspective and, the author is not ashamed to hope, entertainment.

1. Robin D. Gill.  A native Floridian (Key Biscayne). Worked 20 years as an acquisitions editor in Japan, where he is known for deconstructing the antithetical yet complementary cultural stereotypes of Orientalism & Occidentalism (the title of his most recent book).  Descriptions of his seven non-fiction books written and published in Japan/ese (by publishers including Chikuma-bunko, Hakusuisha and Kousakusha) may be found at the website.   His first book in English, Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! (Paraverse Press: 2003), a translation and essay of 1,000 holothurian haiku, is highly acclaimed (Blurbs and Reviews in the appendix) but still unknown to most potential readers for lack of media coverage.  Gill will publish the first volume of In Praise of Olde Haiku, an almanac of five seasons, in winter of 2004.


2. Elison’s sentence continues, “[everything Japanese] is made to appear the precise opposite of its European counterpart.”   “Made to appear” implies exaggeration if not dishonesty.  Where this happens, I point it out;  but on the whole, there is remarkably little distortion in Tratado and it is mainly found in the selection of items that happen to be very different, something easy to do with cultures as different – mutually exotic –  as Europe and Japan once were.