Translating the Iroha Karuta 9.2: Good Medicine Tastes Bitter

In my last blog post about the Iroha Karuta I talked about one of the proverbs that is used to illustrate the 9th card in the series, which is “Ri,” (り) the ninth hiragana in the traditional hiragana syllabary. That proverb was,

“Richigi mono no ko dakusan.”

An honest person has many children.

However, the selected proverb for any given syllable often varies from deck to deck. The syllable “Ri” (り) is one of those cases, so in this post I will show you another “kotowaza” (proverb) that is commonly used for the ninth hiragana syllable. It goes like this:

Kotowaza 9: “Ryou-yaku kuchi ni nigashi.”

And here it is in Japanese:


We can break it down into three parts:

  1. 良薬 = ょうやく (hiragana) = ryou + yaku = “good” + “medicine”
  2. 口に = くちに (hiragana) = kuchi ni = “mouth” + “in”
  3. 苦し = にがし (hiragana) = “nigashi” = “bitter”

From that we can build up our translation starting at the most bare and literal version:

Good medicine, in the mouth, bitter.

To turn “good medicine, in the mouth, bitter” into a sentence that respects the concision of the original Japanese and keeps each element in its place, I agree with those versions that replace “in the mouth” with the verb, “taste”:

Good medicine / tastes / bitter.

That’s it! Nice and easy: Good medicine tastes bitter.

The translation that Michael L. Maynard came up with for his book, 101 Japanese Idioms seems far too wordy:

Good medicine tastes bitter in the mouth.

M.L. Maynard, 101 Japanese Idioms

I guess he wanted to keep the literal translation of “kuchi ni” (“in the mouth”) and ended up with a redundancy, “tastes … in the mouth” – where else but in the mouth does the sense of taste operate?

Margaret Thatcher’s “Medicine”

This particular kotowaza reminds me of a famous quotation by the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who used the medicine metaphor to defend her government’s program of public spending cuts in the 1980s:

Gentlemen, if we don’t cut spending we will be bankrupt. Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live. Should we withhold the medicine? No. We are not wrong. We did not seek election and win in order to manage the decline of a great nation.

Margaret Thatcher

Today the UK national debt is much bigger than it was in her day, and is now bigger than the UK’s annual GDP. If ever any medicine is applied, it would have to be very bitter indeed.