Some of the most popular types of knives in the world are Japanese kitchen knives, especially if you are looking for the very best that will last the course and slice with ease.
They are produced with high quality materials and stay sharp after years of use. There are different styles of knife that are used in different cutlery purposes and hopefully you will get a better understanding of just why they are so popular with both professional & amateur cooks on the planet.
The reason I am writing about traditional Japanese knives, is because my wife was a Japanese speaking tour guide and later on a translator for a large NGO from Japan called JICA.
She made many friends and I became really interested in Asian culture and seeing as I am a bit of research geek, I thought I would write about what are arguably the best knife shapes in the world!
Types of High End Japanese Chefs Knives
There is a wide variation of different Japanese knife styles that have a rich history and are all beautifully produced.
The class is based on the method and material used in producing the knives.
Traditional utility knife-forging methods have two classes, namely the honyaki and kasumi.
Honyaki are made from one material and are true forged knives. You can check out what is forged steel and how is it classified, here.
The most common type of honyaki are blue steel and white steel.
Kasumi knives are made of two materials, namely the high carbon steel also known as “hagane” and a soft iron also called “jigane”.
These two materials are forged together.
Kasumi knives are easier to maintain than the honyaki.
Essentially, they are all fantastic, and some of the best Japanese chef’s knife styles in the world are detailed below with information about how they are used and what their function is.
See Also: Check out The Kitchen Guy’s Knife Set Review
Western Vs Japanese Knives
The fundamental distinction between Western style Vs Japanese style; is the idea that the Western knife is honed on both sides of their edge. They therefore have what is known as a symmetrical bevel and not a single bevel.
However, a professional chef knife from Japan is used much in the same way as their Western counterparts, just for different styles of cooking.
What are the different Japanese knife types used for?
- Udon kiri for making udon
- Soba kiri for making soba
- Unagisaki hocho or eel knife
- Usuba bocho or the professional vegetable knife
- Deba bocho or the kitchen knife for fish
- Gyuto that is similar to western chef’s utility knife
- Honesuke or boning knife
- Nakiri bocho or the standard vegetable knife
- Maguro bocho are the very long knifes for making tuna fillet
- Sashimi bocho or the sashimi slicer
- Yanagi ba are 210-300 mm in length to slice sashimi
- Santoku that means “three virtues”. It is used to cut fish, meat, and vegetables. It has a western style with double-level blades.
Let's go deeper into the Best Japanese Kitchen Knives
The Basic forms of Japanese Cutting Blades
We use these tools daily, whether in a professional work culinary setting or in our home and just as we have several different forms for different purposes in the West; so do they in Japan. Usually single bevel, although there are other forms such as for vegetable cutting.
Shun Classic 8” Chef’s Knife
One of the basic Japanese chef knife is the Deba. The Deba knife is typically thick and used for cutting and filleting fish.
In the United States, it is associated as a cleaver and cleavers are used for butchering chicken. Many cooks and chefs in the US use it for cutting bones but this is not really recommended for this kind of task.
The Gyuto knife is the Japanese equivalent of standard Western European French knife. This is an all-around kitchen knife but it is not recommended for jointing out a chicken.
Essential to any knife set; the standard length is 5 to 15 inches and it’s made of very hard steel but has thinner blade than typical Western European blades.
If you are looking for the Best Gyuto Knife, you can often buy online.
Yanagiba or Sashimi Knife
The blade of this type of Japanese kitchen knife is typically long and narrow and comes in a variety of sizes from 8 to 12 inches. In the United States, it is called “Yanagi” or sometimes “shobu”.
This is strictly used for cutting fish, but in most modern Western houses and Japanese sushi restaurants, Yanagiba knife is mostly used for cutting and slicing tasks for any kind of food, meat or vegetable due to its length and ease of slicing.
The Takohiki knife is sometimes called Yanagiba.
It is often confused with the Takohiki knife with its blades because of their similar looking style, however the difference lies with the edge of the blade.
The Yanagiba has pointy edge while this Takohiki knife has square tip.
This type of knife is used to cut octopus or an eel, with “tako” actually meaning “octopus” in English!
Each manufacturer of Japanese blades have different Takohiki forms and typically they have 8.5 to 15.5 in length.
In French, it is called “the petit” because of its small size.
It is used for everyday cutting purposes and it is traditionally a single-ground knife but many manufacturers today make the petty chef’s knife as V-grind knives as well.
This is the most popular knife in American households, maybe because most celebrity chefs around the world use one, from from a Kyocera Ceramic Santoku to a Mac Santoku.
It is used in everyday cutting tasks because of its versatility.
The standard length of blades of the Santoku vary from 6.5 to 9.5 inches and the blades may have a traditional handle or a Western European handle depending on the manufacturer.
Full Japanese Cooking Knife Block Set
What Is The Best Steel For A Knife
Nowadays high carbon steel is all the rage and is more preferred by professional chefs over stainless steel, for several reasons:
- Carbon steel stays sharper and “hold its edge” for longer than a stainless steel blade
- Despite being much harder then stainless; carbon steel is actually easier to sharpen
However carbon steel does have some downsides when compared with a stainless steel blade, most notably that as a result of its increased hardness; it is also much more brittle.
This forces you to look after your blade more and can be thought of as a good thing, especially if you are really serious about cooking.
So what has this got to do with Japanese kitchen knives?
Well, according to a professor of metallurgical history from MIT, the carbon content of their blades has been steadily increasing over the centuries as well as other base metals:
- 1940s—Carbon (edge) 1.02%, Carbon (body) 1.02%, Manganese 0.37%, Silicon 0.18%, Phosphorus 0.015%, Copper 0.21%
- 1800s—Carbon (edge) 0.62%%, Carbon (body) 0.1%, Manganese 0.01%, Silicon 0.07%, Phosphorus 0.046%, Copper 0.01%
- 1700s—Carbon (edge) 0.69%, Carbon (body) 0.43%, Manganese 0.005%, Silicon 0.02%, Phosphorus 0.075%, Copper 0.01%
- 1500s—Carbon (edge) 0.5%, Carbon (body) 0.5%, Manganese 0.005%, Silicon 0.04%, Phosphorus 0.034%, Copper 0.01%
This means that the hardness and therefore sharpness, has also increased over the same amount of time, giving us much sharper blades that hold their edge for longer especially single bevel – this is a good thing any way you look at it!
History and Production
Originating from the historical location of Sakai in Japan dating back to the 14th century, Japanese patterns are known to have Samurai sword quality.
During that era and after the Meiji Restoration, the carrying of Samurai class swords was prohibited as part of the attempt to modernize Japan.
However, the need for Samurai swords still existed for the military, and traditional samurai swords are still made by swordsmen.
But during those times that the Samurai swords were banned, the majority of swords makers refocused their expertise in making Japanese knives.
In the 16th century, the production of steel knives in Sakai began when the swordsmen made knives for cutting tobacco.
During the Edo period, the deba bocho types of Japanese knives were started to be manufactured, followed by other widespread kinds of knives.
Today, the majority of modern Japanese knives are produced in Seki, Gifu which is where state of the art technology and manufacturing is updated to produced world class, high-quality stainless steel and laminated steel precision blades.
The kitchen in Japanese culture, is a very important place and only the finest products are accepted into it.
Some of the Japanese knives brands and associations located there are the Seki Cutlery Association, Seki Swordsmith Museum, Seki Outdoor Knife Show, the Cutlery Hall and the October Cutlery Festival.
What actually makes a Japanese kitchen knife so special?
Legend goes that the foundations of the incredibly skilled knife making began as early as the 5th century AD, when the ancient megalithic tombs, or kofun, were built.
The process required not only a skill that was far in advance of other nations of the time; but also incredibly advanced tools which were also manufactured by other skilled workmen.
As a result of its skill in making the famous Katana or Samurai swords and the difficulty with the manufacturing process; Sakai kept its position as the premier knife making city.
The late 16th century saw a pivot away from traditional sword making, to general purpose knives, in part to do with the new Western trade with Japan.
The introduction of tobacco from the Portuguese, created a brand new need for for very high quality pieces to cut the tobacco crop cleanly…more difficult than you might expect.
Sakai was the go to place to make these new tobacco knives as a result of their well known craftsmanship and they became known all over Japan for their sharpness and longevity.
Needless to say, this skill became in demand around the rest of the world as a result of the increasing speed with which world trade was being conducted.
Sharpening and honing (Tazuke or Togi)
The blade gets it sharp edge.
When the rough blade has its overall shape, the craftsman will give it to the next man in the process, a togishi or polisher.
This craftsman’s job it is to refine the shape of the blade and make it look beautiful. This process takes a lot of time, and can last anywhere up to several weeks for the highest quality knife blades.
It is not unusual for the polishing process to take longer than the actual crafting; a well done polish massively improving the beauty of the blade
There is also a converse to this whereby a bad polish will ruin the days of hard work. For example, an inexperienced polisher can ruin a blade by hurting its angles and/ or wearing down too much steel.
The blade is attached to a haft, or a handle, usually made from magnolia wood.
The makers might then mark the handles with their seal and for the really expensive ones; give the buyer to have their name or symbol engraved on the blade itself!