Japanese knives are kitchen knives that originated in Japan and are renowned for their superior quality, exceptional sharpness, and rich tradition of craftsmanship. Their history goes far back, to the times of the samurai, and is rooted in the design and forging of the legendary Japanese swords - katanas. Their unbeatable qualities have made Japanese knives the first choice of many chefs and cooking enthusiasts worldwide. World-renowned chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nick Beardshaw, James Sommerin, Tom Kerridge, Ana Roš, and many others swear by Japanese knives!
The Tradition and History of the Japanese Knife
The origins of Japanese knife-making lie in the design and forging of katanas, traditional Japanese samurai swords. In feudal Japan, the art of swordsmithing held immense significance and was highly esteemed, as the sword symbolized the social standing, authority, and honor of the samurai class. Swordmasters, known as 'tosho', were respected artisans who, over many generations, developed the techniques of steel extraction and blade forging that form the basis of modern Japanese knives today.
To this day, the manufacture of Japanese blades and handles is still mainly done by hand, which allows for meticulous shaping of the cutting edge and a perfect balance between blade and handle. Today, Japanese knives are forged in small workshops throughout Japan, the most famous centers of the blacksmith's craft being Seki, Echizen, and Tsubame-Sanjo.
Japanese Knives: A Blade for Every Task
Japanese knives come in many shapes, designs, and materials, and serve very different purposes. For all-round and everyday use, Santoku, Bunka, and Gyuto knives are the perfect and most popular choice. The incredible variety of shapes, designs, and materials, as well as the wide price range, mean that everyone can find a knife that suits their culinary needs and aesthetic preferences.
A general rule of thumb when choosing the shape of a Japanese knife:
- The wider the blade, the more suitable it is for chopping vegetables.
- Narrow and long blades are designed for cutting raw meat but are not suitable for quick chopping on the cutting board.
- Short and narrow blades are great for free-hand tasks and precise peeling and trimming.
For your first Japanese knife, we recommend:
Santoku: If your menu consists of many different ingredients, santoku is an excellent choice. It makes it easy to slice and chop vegetables, fish, and meat. Its length makes it very easy to maneuver and use in smaller kitchens with little space. The shape and length of a santoku knife make it suitable for new Japanese knife wielders and professional chefs alike. Due to its length, santoku is not the best choice for larger cuts of meat or fish.
Bunka: It is a medium-sized knife with a wide blade and a distinctive tip that pays homage to Japanese tanto blades. The profile of the blade is unique thanks to the so-called kiritsuke tip, allowing for versatile work and the use of a variety of cutting techniques. The wide blade with a slight curve in the belly is ideal for chopping, while the K-tip offers an excellent visual overview of the cutting surface and the food being prepared.
Gyuto: The Japanese version of the Western main kitchen knife – Chef’s knife. The main difference that distinguishes the gyuto from the European version of the (French or German) Chef's knife is the thinner and lighter blade. If you are looking for a knife that will easily handle all the tasks in the kitchen, this is the design for you. It is suitable for most cutting techniques, and thanks to its longer blade it also excels at cutting larger cuts of meat and fish. Gyuto blades are available in a fairly wide size range - from 180 mm to 300 mm. For beginners, we recommend a length between 180 mm and 210 mm, but if you are already skilled in cutting and slicing techniques, the 240 mm length is the most optimal for all-round tasks in the kitchen.
The Heart of Sharpness: Quality Japanese Steel
Japanese knives are renowned for their exceptional sharpness and durability. Their key principles of manufacture have been inherited from traditional sword forging. The blacksmiths use high-quality Japanese steel with high hardness and high edge retention, steel which is also easy to sharpen. Japanese steels such as VG-10, ZDP-189, Aogami, and Shirogami are the most common.
Japanese steel can be classified into three main categories:
Stainless steels: These types of steel are easy to maintain because they do not rust. They are an excellent choice for everyday use and a fast-paced kitchen environment where diligent wiping and maintenance might not always be possible.
Powder steels: Powder steels are famous for their sharpness and durability. Their composition allows for exceptional cutting power, and their incredible edge retention makes them a popular choice among professional chefs.
Carbon steels: These steels allow for an incredibly sharp edge, but require careful maintenance as they are susceptible to corrosion. They are a great choice for those who desire the best sharpness possible and want to keep it long-term.
The Geometry and Composition of a Japanese Blade
Japanese blades are largely made up of two or more different layers of steel. The core is made of very hard high-carbon steel (HRC 60+), clad with layers of softer (often stainless) steel. Kitchen knives that are laminated with several different layers of steel have a very special appearance; wavy layers that resemble beach waves or annual rings of a tree. This pattern is called a damascus pattern.
The benefits of laminated steel kitchen knives:
In terms of geometry, we distinguish between single bevel and double bevel knives. Single bevel knives have the blade ground on just one side and are therefore suitable for only left- or only right-handed users, depending on the side that was ground. This blade design allows for a thinner cutting edge and at the same time a strong and precise blade. Single bevel knives are specialized for certain cutting tasks: the Usuba – for preparing vegetables, the Deba – for filleting fish, the Yanagiba – for slicing thin pieces of fish for sushi and sashimi.
Double bevel knives have their blade ground on both sides and can be used for a wide range of kitchen tasks, from chopping vegetables to cutting meat.
The choice between a single bevel and a double bevel blade depends on the specific needs of the chef and the type of tasks the knife will be used for. Single bevel knives are generally specialized for certain specific tasks, while double bevel knives tend to be more versatile and better suited for general use in the kitchen.
Unbeatable Japanese Sharpness
The fine sharpness of Japanese blades makes it easy to cut without using force, which is one of the key features that make Japanese knives stand out from the rest. This incredible sharpness is the result of precise manufacturing and the use of high-quality materials, as well as the method used to forge and shape the blades to achieve a specific blade geometry.
Due to their exceptional sharpness, food preparation with Japanese knives causes minimal damage to the cell membranes of food. This is crucial for preserving the natural flavor and original texture of ingredients. Japanese cuisine is centered around the use of seasonal foods, for which there is a special term: shun. Shun is the essence of the season, the focus on food that is local and seasonal. The sharp and precise Japanese knife preserves the beauty and flavor of the food and allows for all the flavors, colors, and characteristics of the food to be preserved to perfection.
The incredibly sharp and thin Japanese kitchen knives need a little extra care as they are a bit more delicate and not suitable for heavy-duty tasks. For this reason, a simple rule of thumb applies to Japanese knives: Don’t cut with the knife what you wouldn't bite with your teeth (chopping bones, cutting a coconut, opening a bottle, ...). With proper use and care, a Japanese knife lasts for many years and will be your companion for life!
Japanese Knife Handles: A World of Choices
Japanese blades are available in a variety of shapes – from all-purpose knives to blades specialized for specific tasks. Just as there is a wide range of blades to choose from, there is also a large variability of available handles.
Handles fall into two main categories: the Japanese 'wa' type and the Western 'yo' type of handle. The geometry and composition of the handle and blade make Japanese knives extremely lightweight and allow for comfortable and effortless work, even in the case of hours-long chopping in a professional kitchen.
Traditional 'wa' handles are cylindrical in shape and made of special wood to ensure a comfortable grip. Knives with 'wa' handles are lightweight and the handle is easy to replace.
The 'yo' handle is well known all over the world - you probably have at least a few of them in your kitchen. Knives with a 'yo' handle tend to be heavier.
Japanese Philosophy and Aesthetics
Japanese knives reflect the specifics of Japanese culture and embody the idea of kodawari. In Japanese society, kodawari (こだわり) is a deeply rooted notion of striving for perfection. It is the idea that the masters of their craft should strive to achieve perfection in all aspects of their services and creations - not only in terms of external aesthetics, but also their functionality, usability, sophistication, and durability.
This ideal is also reflected in the making of Japanese knives. Blacksmiths pour a lot of creativity and craftsmanship into the making of Japanese knives, which is also reflected in different blade designs. Of these, the most distinctive are damascus patterns, hammer impressions (tsuchime), and delicate span style kasum lines, which add an extra aesthetic charge to the already interesting knife shapes.
Why Own a Japanese Knife?
Japanese knives are more than just kitchen tools; they are a tribute to the tradition, art, and exquisite craftsmanship that has evolved throughout Japan over centuries. The traditional craft of forging Japanese knives is still preserved and respected today, and at the same time, it is evolving alongside modern technological trends, allowing for even greater blade quality and durability.
The experience of cooking with Japanese knives is a true art, blending tradition with modern technology in an unforgettable experience.
Curious which kitchen knife is your best fit? Take a short quiz and find out which knife best suits your cooking style and dish preferences.
This quiz is a good way to start your Japanese-knife-owning journey. Don't hesitate to contact us (chat in the bottom right corner / email us at firstname.lastname@example.org ) and we'll be happy to help you choose the right knife for your needs. We also recommend taking a look at our in-depth guide on How to Choose a Kitchen Knife.