Charity and Kanji – the meaning behind Altruism

Charity and Kanji – the meaning behind Altruism

After traversing the countryside and cityscapes of Japan through blistering summer heat and frosty autumn winds for three months, I began to wonder if there are parts of our idea of ‘charity’ which are globally recognised as fundamental. My studying of the language has made me reflect on the etymological nuances of ‘charity words’ and how they can help reinforce effective altruism. This article aims to probe, with my understanding of the Japanese language and their Chinese characters (Kanji), what it is that is universal and what we can learn from the meaning behind charity.

The word charity (慈善; jizen) is made up of the characters for mercy () and virtuous (), putting compassion at the heart of charity. is made up of heart and mind (), ’short thread’ (), ‘put together’ (), and ‘one’ (), signifying that true mercy is not differentiating between anyone, being compassionate towards all humanity as if they were one thread, one universal heart and mind. Virtuous () is composed of mouth (), king (), sheep (), and ‘put together’ (). This is fascinating as it highlights the fact that virtue is not limited to any one group of people, class, race, or even species! At the centre of virtue there is no difference between a king and his sheep.

This is important to note for a movement such as effective altruism, which is often critiqued for sacrificing compassion for so called ‘cold hearted’ reason! Yet mercy is still at the centre of effective altruism, based on our belief that we should treat all people as we would our own loved-ones. The Life You Can Save supports charities that have a proven track record in making real changes in people’s lives, and I believe that research and evidence can help us in our commitment to give everyone a fair chance to live happy and healthy lives. It is through mercy that the barriers between us abate and vanish; only through compassion can we step in another’s shoes!

A Japanese word for altruism (愛他主義; aitashugi) includes love (), another (), master (), and righteousness (), as in ‘loving one another is the master principle’. This kanji for love () is the kind of love that keeps on giving; it’s not passionate or romantic, but a pure, unadulterated, philanthropic love for your fellow man. This is shown in words for ‘benevolence’ such as 仁愛 (jinai) and 博愛 (hakuai). is simply made up of ‘human’ and two lines – signifying that ‘two is one’, that man is only complete when working together. is ‘esteem’ suggesting that one who loves has respect higher than any rank of office, and it’s this sense of philanthropy that drives my own work to help the global poor. Through our efforts to live a more charitable and benevolent lifestyle, we can truly make a difference.

What are the connotations for charity words in the languages you know and study? By understanding etymological similarities and differences that make up the words that shape our actions, we can reach a better understanding of what those actions may entail.

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About the author:

Charles Bresler

Co-Founder & Executive Director

After earning a PhD in Social and Clinical Psychology from Clark University, Charlie became Director of Behavioral Medicine for The California School of Professional Psychology, Fresno (CSPP-F), where he was a full-time professor and founder of a teaching clinic for treating anxiety & stress disorders. He was recruited to The Men’s Wearhouse where he became head of human resources, stores, and marketing and ultimately President. He stepped down in order to fulfil his long-standing desire to work directly on social and economic issues, especially wealth inequality. In 2013, Charlie became volunteer Executive Director of The Life You Can Save, a non-profit dedicated to reducing extreme poverty and its devastating effects on over 700 million people globally. Through his financial support and leadership, Charlie has helped TLYCS’s Founder, Peter Singer, develop the organization from the ground up. Charlie lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington with his wife Diana, a family physician, who partners in supporting The Life You Can Save. He welcomes discussion and questions at

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.