The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Kitchen Knives

Japan is a land of traditions and a rich cultural heritage. There is a pervasive mindset of quality in all things. One of the best ways to get a taste of the real Japan is by using an exceptional Japanese kitchen knife.

Selecting the Best Japanese Kitchen Knife

Japanese knives bring a special sense of hand made craftsmanship to any kitchen. Often given as gifts, they signify quality and care in preparing food for the ones we love. But buying a Japanese kitchen knife can be a challenge, as information can be hard to find. That's why we've put together a guide to help you decide which Japanese knife is right for you.

As an aside, if you do plan on visiting Tokyo to shop for a Japanese kitchen knife, be sure to read our guide on shopping Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town.

Kinds of Japanese Knives

When we compare Japanese knives with European knives, you will find that European knives are more like powerhouses. These are suitable for both tough and delicate tasks. However, Japanese knives possess specialized applications. Here are the different kinds of knives and their specific utilization that make them last for a longer time.

The Gyuto or Japanese Chef's Knife

The Gyuto knife has characteristics that resemble a western-style knife. It is more of a hybrid between a western cook’s knife as well as the Japanese Nakiri which renders it capable of carrying out multiple duties such as slicing meat and fish.

The Japanese prefer the French representation of the chef's knife, meaning a long, straight edge that curves at the tip. This style of knife is excellent at nearly any food preparation task.

The profile of this blade offers it more contact with the cutting board. It implies that it doesn’t have to be lifted high and results in efficient cutting and less fatigue. It is ideal for detailed, intricate work because the tip is lower and in line with the center of gravity. The Gyuto knife is sharp on both sides and measures between 8 to 12 inches. This knife is light in weight and excels at precision work such as mincing light proteins and vegetables. It, however, would not excel at slicing large materials or cutting through dense materials.

The Santoku Knife

The Santoku knife is a general purpose knife which resembles a cook’s knife in appearance. It is thinner and shorter and combines features of both Nakiri and Gyuto. This knife measures between 5 to 7 inches, has a flatter edge and is angled dramatically up to 60 degrees. This knife permits rock-chopping with its slight angle towards the cutting edge. The profile helps in accomplishing cutting up and down in an efficient manner. The typical Santoku knife features a double beveled edge and features uniform thickness all over. The height and tip shape makes it ideal for scooping food. This knife can be used for numerous cutting jobs. It is perfect for cutting and chopping. However, it is not possible to slice up meat or fish because of lack of blade length.

Santoku knives are known for their versatility as a kitchen implement. These widely-used Japanese knives are typically the first Japanese kitchen knife given or purchased. The Santoku knife is best used in the kitchen for three common preparation tasks:

Slicing with a Santoku knife

The length of the Santoku blade and the overall balance are perfect for quick, long slices through meat, fish, vegetables, and more. Grasping the handle of a properly made Santoku imparts an immediate feeling of confidence and ability. This is because each knife is meticulously balanced, as each knife is handmade by artisans trained in centuries-old Japanese methods.

Dicing with a Santoku knife

Making quick, uniform cubes of vegetables is a task perfectly suited to the Santoku knife. Our Japanese Santoku knives include forged ridges to prevent diced vegetables from sticking to the blade. The only thing slowing you down will be your relative knife skill!

Mincing with a Santoku knife

An incredibly sharp edge and slightly curved blade will make quick work of any mincing task. By rocking the blade back and forth it is possible to deliver thin, uniform, and beautifully minced vegetables, nuts, and fruits.

The Bunka

This general purpose knife can manage many kitchen duties and is skilled at fine slicing shallots, celery, garlic, and herbs. The blade is medium sized and measures around five to eight inches. It makes it handy for use while carrying out scooping duties. The cutting edge features a double bevel and is ideal for chopping and push cutting. Rock chop is not possible because of the subtle curve. This knife is a bit thinner when compared to Santoku. It has a convex cross section which makes it ideal for use on vegetables and lean proteins. You can work on fish or meat efficiently because of dexterity offered by the blade. You can as well trim easily. As these knives are quite expensive, these are made in small batches by craft shops and independent smiths in Japan.

A Word on Damascus Steel

Japanese kitchen knives have a rich history stemming from centuries of crafting samurai swords. Japanese steel is forged by hand and folded many times to create a blade that is both strong and durable, perfect qualities for the home kitchen.

Some of the Japanese knives are known for their beautiful styling along with the diverse functions that they promise. The distinct beauty of these knives puts them in a different league. Damascus steel knives are crafted with Damascus steel along with wavy patterns that remind one of watered silk. Damascus steel, in general, comprises of high carbon steels with tempering and hardening properties fused into one. When the mixture is heated, it results in visible crystalline structure. The crystals form a water-like or wavy pattern upon cooling. Considerable skill is required to craft this product. These knives help in slicing through vegetables with much ease and offer a comfortable hold. The use of Damascus steel makes this knife quite strong, and care must be exercised while using these.

The history associated with Japanese kitchen knives

Japanese chef knives are designed by utilizing the techniques that were used for making samurai swords, or katana, thousands of years ago. The crafting of Japanese knives began During the 1850s, when the black ships of Commodore Matthew Perry anchored at the Tokyo Bay, the crafting of knives started. When the United States occupied Japan, the possession and production of Japanese swords was banned by General MacArthur, which acted as a stimulus for the knife industry.

This ban forced the highly skilled sword craftsmen to turn their attention to kitchen knives. Although the prohibition on swords was lifted after seven years, the government of Japan limited sword production to just a few pieces per year. After that, the Niigata and Tsubame-Sanjo region became known as a haven for knife makers.

Despite the ban and subsequent limitations, the legacy of the Japanese sword was continued, albeit in the kitchen.

In honor of a legendary cook 

A kitchen knife is popularly referred to as “Hou-Cho” in Japanese. As per a Chinese Taoist book, it translates to “sword of Houtei.” Houtei was a legendary Chinese cook. As per a legend, he was skilled at handling his knife even without having to sharpen it for decades. The name of the legendary cook somehow managed to pass on for decades from China to Japan.

Characteristics of Japanese Knives  

Japanese artisans have been tinkering with steel for centuries. They have managed to create wonders by combining technology with their traditional craftsmanship. Japanese knives are no exception. Japanese kitchen knives tend to be thinner, sharper and harder than Western European counterparts.

In fact, steel is often sourced locally from regions like Niigata, long known for industrial production. The steel in knife brands such as Kamikoto and Itami Mastumoto come from these regions.

Summing Up Japanese Kitchen Knives

Japanese kitchen knives are unparalleled in quality, sharpness, and durability, and any knife enthusiast would admit it. These knives possess striking appearance and carry specific application. You would barely come across a Japanese knife that is multi-purpose. It is because of the particular use and ergonomics that these knives last for a longer time. These will undoubtedly elevate the entire cooking process and skills in your kitchen.