The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Understanding Magic: The Interrelationship between Knowledge and Practice

Joint Research Coordinator SHIRAKAWA Chihiro

Reserch Theme List


What is magic? And how does magic have reality? This research will attempt to find answers for these questions. To do so, this research will adopt two approaches.

First, we will focus on the correlation between knowledge and behavior. Various magical practices have been found to be illogical (in terms of the actual practice) and yet they are still carried out. In many cases we can detect disparity between the dimensions of knowledge and action, or between theoretical (intellectualism) understanding and physical (practical) reception. Based on this situation, this research will attempt to distinguish between the two dimensions and also, by analyzing the disparities and overlap between the two in a number of magical practices, will elucidate the mechanisms for the acceptance of magic as reality.

Another goal will be to evaluate knowledge and practice in everyday life, religious knowledge and practices and scientific knowledge and practices. We will focus on the disparities and overlap between these various kinds of knowledge and behavior, and the various magical practices, so as to come to terms with these two questions.

Research Results

This research project held meeting eight times during the two-and-a-half year research period. These meetings achieved in-depth discussions. There were several reasons for the group enthusiasm, including the fact that before this research, project members were nearly all the same group as those who had participated in the Core research project  “An Anthropological Study on the Practice of Magic and its Conceptual Frame in Southeast Asia and Oceania” (Organizer: Kawata Makito, 2004-2005) and the subcommittee on “Magic as ‘What Is Known’” at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology held in June 2006 at Tokyo University (Organizer: Kawata Makito). In addition, attendance was extremely high at each research meeting.

This research approached the question of “What is magic?” Our approach entailed keeping a distance from the arguments on magic and modernity which have become popular in recent years, especially in the anthropological study of Africa.  Rather than giving uppermost thought to macro social trends such as modernity and nation states, or neo-liberalism in our approach to magic, we decided instead to consider more micro dimensions. That is, we focused on how individuals relate magic to reality to determine what magic is. The result was our confirmation that a special characteristic of the practice of magic is the discrepancy between the dimensions of knowledge and practice as encapsulated in the frequently heard phrase, “I know it (this practice) is illogical, but I still end up engaging in it.” Furthermore, we were able to clarify the following: When magical practices with special characteristics are accepted as something realistic, theoretical and intellectual understanding and also sensory and physical effects have a substantive role. Tangible and tactile materials such as bodies and words of individuals or material objects, including magical implements, act as mediators.

Another object of our investigations was the symbiotic relationships between magical practice and everyday knowledge and practice, religious knowledge and practice, and scientific knowledge and practice. Among these we focused on the connections between magical and everyday practice. While in past debate magical practice has been contrasted with scientific practice, it has often been positioned on the side of everyday practice. This research took the stance that magical practices hasve continuity with everyday practice, just as tactile objects act as mediators when such magical practices is accepted as something having reality. Nevertheless, it became clear that if we are to consider the existence of professionals (magicians) and instances where knowledge and practice diverge, we need to pay special attention to those magical practices which result from everyday practices that have been specialized in a specific direction.