There is an army of roughly a ga-bazillion kanji characters in Japanese armed for battle. In writing, if you are able to make them out, they form a friendly tangible troupe helping you to make semi-perfect sense of the meaning of a context. However, in spoken conversation, you can be brought down by the homophone traps that fill the trenches. I sometimes wish I was living in a cartoon that had the conversation bubbles above the speaker, but alas, oral communication in the real-world lacks such subtitles. I am homophone-obic. It's the principle (or is it the principal?) of the abundance of cases that can bind you in Japan. Fortunately, some are generally easy to distinguish from context, like hashi, bridge, and hashi, chopsticks. Unfortunately, there are more than to, too, or two opportunities to confuse homophones in Japanese, and leave it to me to take a should be easily perceivable homophone, confuse the context, stopping the conversation in its tracks.
It was an innocent lunch break from the office, at a local a sushi shop, with the section chief, two other staffers and myself, making up our party of 4. The topic was a recent report from the United Nations Development Program which ranked Japan close to 50th on its Gender Empowerment Measure (The UK and the US ranked much higher, while the top rankings went to Scandinavian countries). The casual chatter glossed over the factors involved in the survey, such as economic empowerment, participation in decision making, and political participation. It was lunch, and I allowed myself to mentally pop in and out of the conversation between bites of salmon roe and washing down my wasabi with ice water, chiming in occasionally on how other industrially advanced countries fared.
The conversation shifts to focus on the role of Japanese women in the workforce as well as their roles in the home. Their domestic load takes center stage, and the chief commented on how almost all of the child rearing and household chores fall on the woman of the house. He then declares the root of the problem surrounds the issue of "sentaku." Guilty of letting my mind wander as far as Denmark and Finland on this lunch break, if in fact they do have it so good in Scandinavia, I'm put on the spot. He turns to me, "Don't you think that's the problem? Sentaku ga nai? As an American female, what do you think?" I freshly digested the "household chores" and the no "sentaku" bits from the conversation and opted not to backpedal and fess up that I wasn't paying full attention in that moment. Instead, I stalled with a swig of green tea, and with a half guilty smile, I stated that the time and energy consuming problem in that case less about the washing, but more due to the lack of dryers. Sentaku, choices vs. sentaku, laundry. Obviously he meant the former and I was solving the country's gender inequality issues with something you could pick up at Sears at any mega mall in the States.
At the time, they nodded as if I said something deep and meaningful. Later that day I realized that there was no continuation of my point for a reason. After all, where do you go with that? "Oh, but there's hope to ease the life of women in Japan with all the fabric softeners on the market!" I now realize, especially as a teacher, that not admitting that I wasn't paying full attention was more ignorant than letting the homophone get the best of me. I didn't come clean (pun intended) about having figured out my sentaku gaffe. Perhaps subconsciously I feared that if I explained how I was dying of embarrassment it would be misunderstood that I was dying my laundry. Nonetheless, they were still trusting me enough to assign me to the in-house gender education for city employees the following week. The equality seminar went well, but the details don't have the same permanent stain on my memory that the lunch combating the sentaku does. It's been 11 years, and thus I guess I should think more about my sentaku, meaning choice. I can choose to put it behind me, I can choose to judge myself less and start trying to trust my abilities the way others do more. That, or I can choose to escape to one of those reportedly top ranked Scandinavian countries. Well, I think I'll start facing my homophone-obic fears and teach myself confidence. There's hope: I can win this war. But just in case, I do need to secure back-up: are there as many homophones in spoken Icelandic?