For most people, picking the right kitchen knives is a big investment. And if you’re going to drop a chunk of change on a nice blade, you probably want to get it right the first time.
We brought the most popular Japanese knives on the market into our Test Kitchen. We learned about their strengths and weaknesses, how they perform at everyday cooking tasks, how much they cost, and whether or not they’re worth the money.
Then, we picked the top performers from our tests to help you make an informed choice. No matter what you’re looking for, we’ve got a recommendation on this list. Here’s a look at our testing process.
Test Kitchen Stats
|Number of knives tested||15|
|Length of testing||6+ months|
|Japanese chefs consulted||3|
|Pounds of onions diced||> 250 lbs|
|Number of testers||4|
If you’re considering Japanese knives, then you are already starting in a good place.
Western chefs love them. They’re lightweight, super-sharp, and don’t dull easily. Many believe that Japanese carbon steel is the best metal for a chef knife because it’s capable of taking the finest edge. This translates to long, precise cuts that don’t crush the ingredients.
Japanese knives also have an undeniable romantic quality to them, built on centuries of tradition. You’ll find few things in a kitchen to match the striking aesthetic of a hand-hammered finish, folded Damascus steel, or smooth wooden handle.
In the Test Kitchen, we focused our efforts specifically on Japanese chef knives. We’ve covered the best knife sets elsewhere if you’re looking for a full kit.
Our top picks included cutlery market leaders like Shun and Miyabi. We didn’t skip on affordable options either, or brands you probably haven’t heard of yet. If you’re into the obscure and beautiful, Oishya offers hand-worked traditional knives unlike anything your friends have ever seen.
For all that and more, let’s jump right into the best Japanese knives of the year.
In This Article
Our Top Picks – Japanese Chef Knife
Comparison Of The Best Japanese Knives
Classic 8" Chef Knife
Birchwood 8" Chef Knife
Sakai Kyuba 8.5" Gyuto
Zelite Infinity 8" Damascus Chef Knife
Dalstrong Phantom 8" Chef Knife
Misen 8" Chef Knife (2nd Gen)
Detailed Reviews of The Best Japanese Knife Brands & Makers
The company behind Shun has been making blades in Japan’s “city of blades” for over a century. But it was only in 2002 that they introduced the Shun imprint to western kitchens.
The business absolutely took off, and twenty years later is among the biggest names in the world of kitchen knives. They bridged the gap between traditional Japanese swordmaking and the modern kitchen.
The Shun Classic gyuto is always our first recommendation for anyone who’s just getting into Japanese knives. It’s a surefire fit for most home chefs.
While the blade is crafted in a traditional Japanese style, several of the design decisions will feel comfortable if you’re more familiar with using a western-style chef knife. The balance is great, it gets (very) sharp, and the price is right.
What we like
- Takes a sharp edge and keeps it.
- Knife shape and weight are beginner friendly.
- At the intersection of performance and value
What We don’t
- Other options are more unique, flashier aesthetic.
- Not a great choice for left-handers.
The Shun Classic gyuto bares the hallmark of a good Japanese knife – the steel is thin, exceptionally hard, and sharp. It doesn’t dull easily, either.
This blade is constructed in layers.
At the center is VG-MAX high carbon steel, which has a Rockwell hardness of 60. This metal forms the knife’s cutting edge. It’s surrounded by 34 layers of Damascus-folded stainless steel on either side.
The gyuto we trialed in the Test Kitchen arrived exceptionally sharp. And it held an edge at least as long as any of the other knives we tested. We re-sharpened every product at 3-month intervals, even though the Shun probably didn’t need it yet.
Western Blade Design
Although the Classic gyuto is fashioned using traditional materials and forging, several aspects of the blade design are geared toward a US audience.
Unlike many traditional Japanese knives, this one is sharpened with a symmetric 16-degree double bevel. This means that the sharpening angle is identical on either side of the cutting edge. The angle and symmetry are similar to what you’d find in a European design.
While a single-bevel blade can get sharper than this knife, there are significant benefits to usability and maintenance with a double-bevel.
The shape of the blade is also rounded and more akin to the shape of a European knife. In the Test Kitchen, our team found this was very helpful because it makes rock cutting and chopping much easier.
Traditional Japanese knives often take a flatter edge, which is great for straight slicing cuts but eliminates the rocking motion. You can practice slicing or pushing cuts with this knife, but we’ve found that most home chefs in the west gravitate toward rocking.
Shun uses a traditional D-Shaped handle for this knife, made of Pakkawood. It’s asymmetric and oriented toward right-handed users.
While this knife didn’t feel as natural to hold for our left-handed tester, it was still among her favorites.
The look of the handle is sleek and minimalist. It’s capped with a tapered stainless steel half-bolster, which is the balance point for the knife.
We found the grip worked well for testers who preferred a pinch grip, and those who gravitated toward a handle grip.
The Price Is Right
One reason this knife took our best overall pick is that the balance of value to cost is excellent.
It’s true you can spend half as much on a Japanese chef knife, or double. Shun Classic is priced at the rough median of what you can expect to find from other options.
This knife consistently and significantly outperformed lower-dollar knives. That was the opinion of our testers, cited by experts and owners we interviewed, and also what you can see from the raw material data about this knife.
A more expensive knife may get sharper or retain a better edge, but we found the performance benefits of spending more are incremental at best. This knife can handle the pressures of a home kitchen and is a favorite of many professional chefs.
If you care about uniqueness or aesthetics, spending more money can make a difference. I’ll give you a few examples of aesthetic upgrades (Miyabi), and obscure knives (Oishya) below.
If your priorities are to get a top-performing knife at a fair price then look no further. It’s classy and minimalist. And this knife will do everything you’d expect from a Japanese knife.
An offshoot of the venerable German knife company Zwilling, Miyabi combines the best in traditional Japanese craftsmanship with German technology and attention to detail. We brought the Miyabi Birchwood into the Test Kitchen.
Made of a special steel alloy known as SG2, this gyuto is the hardest and sharpest knife on this entire list. Where most German knives reach around 57 on the Rockwell hardness scale, and many Japanese blades don’t top out over 61, Miyabi’s gyuto hits a remarkable 64!
This is also a knife you’ll want to display proudly. The shape, Damascus folds, and birch wood handle beg for attention.
If not for the price, this would be the top knife on our list. Our team rated it tops in every other category. If it’s in your budget, this is a great choice.
What we like
- Visually stunning – a work of art.
- The sharpest knife we tested.
- Lightweight and easy to handle.
What We don’t
- You can get a similar-performing knife for less.
- Miyabi branding printed on the handle, although it does wear off.
- Knives are made in Seki, but the parent company is German. We felt this made the knife’s story slightly less interesting.
101 Damascus Layers
The Miyabi Birchwood has almost twice as many Damascus layers comopared to the Shun Classic, which was our top pick. But does it really matter? Yes and no.
By using Damascus forging, the knife maker is able to sandwich a corrosive high carbon steel between layers of protective stainless steel. It makes for a sharper cutting edge, better edge retention and less risk of staining or chipping.
The folded look of Damascus steel is also incredibly beautiful. For most people buying one of these knives, the aesthetic is part of the consideration. No other knife we tested was as clearly and beautifully damascus folded as the Miyabi.
When laid side-by-side with other knives, it’s sure to be the first thing that grabs your eye.
In our tests, we found that the 100 layers of SG2 steel didn’t stain or corrode.
The Miyabi Birchwood’s MC63 microcarbide powder steel core took the sharpest edge of any knife we tested.
It’s not surprising that it also ratest as the hardest steel on the Rockwell scale, at 63.
MC63 will take on an especially steep edge, to 9.5 degrees. This means the total cutting angle is 20 degrees. Compare that to most other blades which take a 30-40 degree cutting angle.
Not only does this work out in theory, the Birchwood was also consistently the best at taking and holding a sharp edge in the Test Kitchen. While many of the other knives performed similarly, this knife was noticeably better.
We did have some difficulty self-sharpening, and would recommend taking this knife to a pro sharpener once every 6 months if you aren’t comfortable with a whetstone. Most farmers markets have one, charging $1-2 per inch of blade, and can finish the job while you do your shopping.
Birch Wood Handle
Like the blade, the handle on this knife is also stunning. It’s made of birch wood, fashioned in a traditional D-Shape.
While the handle is intended for right-handed users, we found it was also the favorite blade of our left-handed tester. It has a slender and delicate feel, and is simple to maneuver. It’s very light.
The grain structure on the wooden handle will catch your eye at a distance, and there is some great up close attention to detail there too. A 20 piece mosaic is pressed into the side, made of steel, copper and bronze.
All of the edges are perfectly flush, and the handle tapers down to the blade with a half bolster. This provides great balance at the bolster, and an easy platform to grasp by the handle or with a pinch grip.
If you’re into the obscure and beautiful, Oishya offers hand-worked traditional knives unlike anything your friends have in their kitchen. We brought their Sakai Kyuba gyuto into our test kitchen.
Although the label is new, the blades are produced by a master blacksmith in Sakai, Japan using a 600 year old production method. It takes more than 3-months to produce each individual blade.
The handles are stunning and one-of-a-kind, made from 2000 year old European bog wood. It’s shaped into the traditional octagonal style and hand dyed.
Like everything else about this knife, the company is unique. It’s woman-owned, which is rare in this industry. They got their start by doing things differently, and it shows in the way they do business and the unique presentation of their products.
If you’re the type of person who fills your life with products that have a story behind them, or you need it to be unique – look no further. This gyuto mixes function, fashion and lifetime design.
What we like
- Exceptionally unique look, handmade feel, and a great story.
- The balance is set forward over the blade, making for easier maneuvering and chopping in a pinch grip.
- High attention to detail in the design of the blade, handle and how it’s packaged.
What We don’t
- This is art, and art isn’t cheap.
- The handle shape and forward-set balance makes it less ergonomic if you prefer a handle grip.
Hand-hammered steel is a core element of traditional Japanese bladesmithing. It’s an intensive process that requires a lot of time, labor and temperature.
The benefit is a thinner, lighter blade. At 159g, the Oishya gyuto was the lightest blade we tested even though it was ½” longer than every other knife.
Not only does hand-hammering provide equivalent strength in a more petite package, it also looks incredible. Even though some of the other knives we tested were also hand-made, no other blade was as clearly made in love as this one.
Every time you pick up this knife, you can feel it. From the 366 visible hammer strikes, to the damascus tree rings, and the hand-carved Kanji (“Sakai Kyuba”) on the blade.
If you like to use a pinch grip, you may have noticed that Western-style handles are heavy and the design features get in the way.
Wa handles are lighter, which compliments the thin steel of a Japanese blade and shifts the balance forward off of the handle. In the Test Kitchen, we found the forward balance and straight handle shape was conducive to a pinch grip. This makes chopping and maneuvering the knife easier, especially if you’re working on a high volume of precision cuts.
The handle design is octagonal, which provided an excellent grip for both right and left handed users. Most of our testers who preferred a handle grip, didn’t like this design as much since it was missing the curvy handle ergonomics you might get with a western handle.
While this was not the sharpest knife we tested, it was among the top tier. It performed similarly to the Shun Classic for sharpness and edge retention.
Oishya uses VG-10 high carbon steel for the core of the knife and cutting edge. This is one of the leading materials you’ll find across many brands of Japanese cutlery. It has a Rockwell hardness rating of 62.
Each side of the blade is sharpened to a cutting angle of 17 degrees, so the total cutting angle is 34 degrees. This was about average among the knives we tested.
The cutting core is surrounded by 46 Damascus layers of stainless steel. The folded pattern is bold on the knife exterior between the hand hammering and cutting edge.
The ornate handle sets this knife apart.
The collar material comes from ancient oak bog wood. This wood has been effectively preserved for 2000-5000 years because it was buried deep in a marsh where no oxygen was present to decay it. The heel wood is a maple burl which takes on an intricate swirling grain.
It’s hand dyed and no two handles are exactly the same.
Our team had mixed reactions to the handle before it arrived. Based on the product photos, some people loved it while others found it less appealing.
When the knife arrived to the Test Kitchen, everyone loved the swirling green dye. It was lighter than we expected and offered a firm grip, even when wet. And it was unlike anything else in the kitchen.
No recent knife making company has created quite as much of a stir as the Canadian company, Dalstrong. Since entering the scene, they’ve committed to making knives in both traditional and innovative styles, using the same top quality materials as competitors.
Yet somehow, they’re offering their knives for crazy cheap prices — leading some knife enthusiasts questioning their quality.
Despite the very “creative” names, most of Dalstrong’s kitchen knife offerings stand up to close scrutiny. We tried out several of their knives, and found that the Phantom gyuto, offers a good mix of traditional shape with modern design choices.
What we like
- The flat blade shape makes long slicing cuts easy to accomplish.
- Excellent quality of materials and construction.
- Comes with a great sheath, for safe drawer storage and travel.
- Price is very accessible.
What We don’t
- The shape isn’t a great fit for rocking cuts, like a western design.
- Most of us found the branding to be a turn-off.
- The handle is bulky, and the spine is thicker than other knives. Feels heavier and less petite, even though the overall size is smaller.
The Phantom series chef knife uses a traditional Japanese D-shaped handle, combined with a more modern half bolster design for excellent balance.
Everyone who tried this knife in the Test Kitchen found it harder to use, initially. But with a little practice we realized the shape and balance give this knife incredible control – almost like you’d get with a petty knife.
The blade shape on the Phantom is deceiving. Although the blade is deeper at the heel of the knife than any other model we tested, it still comes across as feeling “short.” We found this was inconvenient for cutting thick food product, but very effective for shallow cuts.
The other aspect of blade design that drew mixed reviews from our testing team was the cutout a the back of the blade. This feature makes space to nest the middle finger during a pinch grip. It works better for some hands than others, and inspired a lot of love (or hate) for this design.
The cutting edge curves up slightly toward the tip of the knife, similar to a French knife design, only flatter. This feature was especially helpful for detail work, like de-stringing celery.
The blade is made entirely of AUS8 Japanese steel, and forged in China, which helps to keep production costs down.
AUS8 has a lower carbon content than other popular knife steels like AUS10 or VG10, but it is similarly hard. It scores a 58 Rockwell hardness rating. This is among the softer knives we tested, but it still as hard as popular European brands like Wusthof.
In general we found this knife was slighly less sharp than others we tested, and only held an edge better than Misen among products in the Test Kitchen.
With that said, if you like the flat shape, then the difference in sharpness and edge retention shouldn’t sway you from this knife. Especially for the price.
The Zelite Infinity chef knife is made with Japanese steel in a Damascus process. It’s sharp and holds a great edge. Everything else about it feels Western.
A relative newcomer to the kitchen knife world, Zelite uses the same tactics as Dalstrong to produce inexpensive knives — meaning that they source steel from Japan, but produce their knives in China to keep costs low.
If you like weighty German knives that are shaped for deep rocking cuts, but you also want the benefit of Japanese damascus steel, this is a great knife for you.
What we like
- The shape and weight means it handles like a Western knife.
- Blade depth (~47mm) is ideal for the deeper cuts like red meat and root vegetables.
- All of the edges are smooth and well-rounded.
What We don’t
- Handle is heavy, and can get slippery when wet.
- Some nice details, but not a high-aesthetic knife.
- Bolster shape is not well suited for a pinch grip.
Our Zelite Infinity chef knife had a deeper, heavier blade than any other Japanese knife we tested.
The blade depth at the heel of the knife is 47mm, which was especially handy when cutting red meat and root vegatbles with a handle grip. This feature was somewhat less convenient for testers who preferred a handle grip.
More blade means more metal. And more metal means more weight. This knife was 50% heavier than our top pick, which may be a turn off if you prefer a knife that is light and petite.
But, if you need a knife that will do some of the work for you on stubborn cuts, this is a great fit.
German Blade Shape
While many of the knives we tested had western-leaning design elements, the curved shape of this blade was noticeably more German than any of the others.
The blade shape lends itself to smooth rocking cuts, which many home chefs are more familiar with. We found it was less effective for push-and-pull slicing that is more characteristic of traditional Japanese cutlery.
Apart from the blade shape, a dominant characteristic of this knife is the bulky western-style handle.
There is some ornate detail there, but it doesn’t really match the aesthetic of the rest of the knife. The Damascus layers are very faint. The brass, copper and stainless steel mosaic on the handle is beautiful, but seems out of place.
From a performance standpoint, if you like a heavy knife with a solid handle grip, this is a better fit than any other option we tested.
Our knife was dull out of the box, but quickly took a sharp edge using a whetstone.
The 12 degree sharpening angle created a very sharp edge, but peak sharpness didn’t last for long. Maybe one month.
One thing that was interesting about our experience with this knife is that when it dulled, it was still functionally sharp. Just not to its peak ability.
Zelite uses an AUS10 carbon steel core, which has a Rockwell hardness of 61. This is similar to our top pick, the Shun Classic. Although we weren’t able to determine why peak sharpness was brief, we found that overall edge retention was similar to the Shun.
Misen has been making direct-to-consumer kitchenware for nearly a decade. You may have heard of the super-successful Kickstarter campaign to launch the brand.
The company philosophy is to offer premium products at a discount price by cutting out middlemen. In that spirit, they launched kitchen cutlery in 2016.
We tested Misen’s second generation chef knife, which replaced their initial production design in 2019. Compared with their early knives, the new design features harder steel and changes to blade shape, bolster and handle.
What we like
- For the value you get, the price is right.
- French shape blade makes rocking and up-down cuts possible.
- Free sharpening for the life of your knife.
What We don’t
- The bolster design isn’t as comfortable as the first generation version.
- High quality steel for a low price.
- Many of their knives (ours included) badly needed sharpening out of the box.
Misen presents this knife as a happy medium between European and Japanese shaped blades. From experience in the Test Kitchen, the shape feels most distinctly French.
The blade does have some roundness, but is really long and drawn out before it curls upward. The tip of the knife draws down slightly from the heel.
As a result you can rock cut with this knife, but the flat belly is better oriented for up-and-down chopping.
For the 2.0 version of this knife, Misen upgraded from AUS8 to AUS10 steel. Both are similar types of Japanese high carbon steel, with AUS10 having a higher carbon content.
The benefit of the new steel is greater hardness. AUS10 gets a Rockwell hardness rating of 58. To be fair, it is one of the softer blades we tested, while also being harder that their original production model.
A harder blade yields better edge retention and, usually, a sharper edge.
We found the sharpness and edge retention of this knife to be a good value for the money, but significantly less effective than any of our top 3 picks.
What’s more, the knife was dull out of the box. If you sharpen your own knives this shouldn’t be a big deal. Misen does offer lifetime mail-in sharpening on their products. But it’s not exactly convenient to order a blade that needs to be mailed back for sharpening before you can use it.
The handle is boxy and minimal. It has some ergonomic curves like a German knife, but is mostly straight like a Japanese knife. It works ok for both handle and pinch grip, although it’s not dynamite for either.
In short, you don’t some of both worlds, but not the best of either.
When pinch gripping this knife, we found that the spine of the knife didn’t feel great. The edges weren’t well rounded, so it tended to cause soreness and eventually blisters after repeated use. This phenomenon dissipated as our hands grew callous on the inside of the forefinger from continuous use.
This knife wasn’t great in any one rating area, but it was pretty good across all of them. The main driver for keeping it on our list was value for the money.
The Misen chef’s knife mimics the features and performance of a $150 knife, for half the cost. While we still think the Shun Classic is a better pick, if you’re on a budget OR if this is a knife you don’t intend to use often then Misen may get you the most bang for your buck.
How We Picked The Best Japanese Knives
We considered a ton of factors when buying Japanese knives for our Test Kitchen, from the cost of each knife to the difficulty to use and maintain it. How did we decide which knives were right for our kitchen? Below we broke down all of the considerations we took when choosing knives and the methodology we used to test and review each brand.
Advantages of Japanese Knives
After testing out dozens of Japanese blades, we firmly understood and agreed on their advantages:
- Easy Handling: Compared with western knives, we found that Japanese knives are significantly easier to maneuver on the chopping block. The blades are thinner and weigh less, making them easier to control and less clumsy when cutting delicate foods. Ease of handling stood out to everyone in the Test Kitchen, especially those with smaller hands or petite stature.
- Sharpness: More than any other characteristic, Japanese steel is known for its ability to take and retain a sharp edge. We found that Japanese knives consistently had the best out-of-box sharpness and maintained a sharper edge than western knives when taken to a professional sharpener. What’s more, they maintained their sharpness for longer than Western knives across 6-months of testing.
- Beauty: This may seem like a vanity advantage, but I promise it will impact how you use your knife. Given that we had many knives to test, we used every knife storage option. The Japanese knives ended up on the magnetic rack or magnetic knife block every day. Both are prominent displays. The Western ones? Not so much. Having folded steel knives visible in the kitchen created a romantic aesthetic quality and meant we were always reaching for them first.
Japanese Knives Buyer’s Guide
We recommended considering the following factors before buying a Japanese knife:
- Butchery: Japanese knives were designed around a regional food culture that focuses primarily on veggies and fish. The design of the blades reflects that, and Japanese steel tends not to hold up as effectively if you’re working with thick animal bones. Most home chefs aren’t regularly breaking down a whole chicken or butchering red meat. If those tasks are part of your routine, look for a German knife instead. German steel is softer and less likely to chip against hard bones.
- Corrosion-Resistance: Most of the blades we tested were constructed using VG-10 steel, which is quite corrosion-resistant. But many traditional Japanese knives are made with high-carbon steel, which is more likely to stain and corrode. Either way, if you leave a Japanese knife dirty or wet for an extended time, it will stain and rust. During testing, one of our blades was left dirty overnight and had signs of corrosion when we returned the next day. For the least hassle, look for stainless Japanese steel, clean and dry between uses.
- Sharpening: Because they are made with brittle steel, Japanese knives hold their edge for a long time between sharpenings. But no matter what knife you own, it will need sharpening occasionally. Japanese blades can be difficult to self-sharpen compared with western blades. Some brands offer lifetime mail-in sharpening on their products if you aren’t handy with a whetstone. Otherwise, you may be better off working with a professional. Most charge $1-2 per inch of knife.
- Handle: At its most basic, a chef knife is a piece of steel with a handle attached. Finding the right kitchen knife handle has an outsized impact on how much you’ll want to use a knife and how easy it is to use safely. Japanese blades are traditionally fashioned with straight, octagonal handles. We preferred this construction because it was easy to hold in a variety of knife styles, regardless of hand size. One of the knives we tested had a stainless steel handle, which got slippery when wet. Real wood handles were aesthetically the most pleasing, with composite (wood resin) coming in second. Most of the plastic handles we used were safe and comfortable but “meh” in the aesthetic department.
- Bevel: Most of the knives we tested were double-bevel, meaning that the cutting edge is sharpened on both sides of the blade. Each side is given an angle of 10-15 degrees, meaning the total cutting angle is 20-30 degrees. This is probably similar to the European knives you’ve used before. But beware, some Japanese knives are sold with only a single bevel. This means one side of the blade is flat, and the other side angles toward the cutting edge. A single-bevel creates a sharper cutting edge which is helpful for long precision cuts. In most cases, we’d advise against a single-bevel purchase. They are difficult to sharpen and seem to be more brittle.
5 Specific Japanese Knife Buying Guides
- Best Damascus Steel Knives
- Best Nakiri Knife For Chopping Vegetables
- Best Sushi Knives
- Best Carbon Steel Knives
- Best Santoku
How To Buy
Taking these five steps before we decided on a Japanese knife made an enormous difference for us, and we recommended others do the same.
Before we selected our knife, we:
- Assessed our needs: Every kitchen has different needs, so the first critical step before buying a Japanese knife is assessing what you need. For most people, there are only 3 truly essential knives: chef, paring, and serrated bread knives. If you have each of those, you’re equipped to complete virtually any kitchen task. And among those 3, a chef’s knife covers about 85% of the work. It is the most essential knife for most people.
- Picked a style: If you’ve focused on a chef knife, you’ll need to choose between a Gyuto and Santoku style blade. A Santoku is usually a more affordable knife with a shorter, thinner blade. Gyuto is a better all-purpose knife because of the pointy tip and a longer belly for rocking cuts.
- Choose a size: Most chef knives are sold with either 6” or 8” blades. In general, an 8” blade is more versatile because it can handle bigger cuts and longer ingredients. For this reason, we decided only to consider 8” blades in the Test Kitchen. As a former user of a 6” blade, I can attest that it also has it’s benefits. If you are traveling, camping, or in an efficiency kitchen then it’s worth considering a shorter knife. They are lighter, more maneuverable, and take up less space. They also cost less.
- Set a budget: Knife shopping is a slipperly slope, if you haven’t already decided what you’re willing to pay. We spent several thousand dollars on chef knives for the Test Kitchen, and could have easily doubled that amount. Understand that most knives don’t come with a proper storage solution, and some will need to be sharpened regularly and even before the first use. If you haven’t done so in a while, plan to disinfect your old cutting board, or replace it. Using the right kind of wood board will keep your edge sharp for longer, and keep bacteria out of your food. The bottom line is, if you’re getting an awesome knife, make sure you’re equipped to treat it right.
- Take advantage of deals: From Amazon Prime Day deals, to seasonal discounts and Cyber Monday, you’ll always do better to wait for sales holidays to make your purchase. Join our newsletter (sign-up in the footer) for alerts on upcoming specials.
Methodology: How We Ranked Japanese Knives
There were dozens of factors we considered when reviewing Japanese knives, from how easy they were to use in our testing to maintenance difficulty to costs. While this list was by no means comprehensive, it provided us with a general overview of what to consider when deciding which Japanese knife was right for us.
Type of Knife
When ranking the best Japanese knife brands, we paid special attention to their chef’s knives.
Since you’ll be using a chef’s knife for the majority of the cuts you make in a kitchen, the quality of this type of blade is a good indicator for every other type of knife in a line.
We excluded any knives from these tests that weren’t chef knives. Japanese petty, nakri and deba knives were all points of interest for our team. But, given that they’re less practical for most kitchens, we decided to cover them separately.
Stamped vs. Forged
Kitchen knives are made with two main types of blades: Stamped and forged.
Stamped blades are much more affordable, but won’t ever sharpen to the same degree as a forged blade. Knives with forged blades are also more durable, but much pricier than stamped blades.
We excluded any stamped blades from our testing. The reason being that a stamped blade will never achieve the same level of sharpness as a forged blade. Since sharpness is a hallmark of Japanese cutlery, stamped blades didn’t seem to fit. Traditional Japanese craftsmanship utilizes carbon steel which is a harder material than stainless, and requires forging to shape properly.
The tang of a knife describes how far the metal of the blade extends into the handle. This determines how durable the knife is, and how likely it is to resist bending and breaking.
Full tang knives are the gold standard of durability. Their metal extends from the tip of the blade through the butt of the handle.
We excluded any knives from our testing that did not feature a full-tang blade.
A knife’s handle both provides balance and gives you a safe, comfortable place to grip. Some handles are a thing of beauty, as well.
When using knives in the Test Kitchen, we ranked the comfort and security of the grip on each handle. We tested when the handle was wet with water, when it was dry, and with hands that were dirty and somewhat slippery from food prep.
In this component of our ranking, we did not give preference based on aesthetic qualities or handle material. Only based on performance in the kitchen.
In the case of similar performing handles, we gave the tie-breaker edge to those built in a traditional Japanese style. Some of the Western-style grip handles were great, but seemed less aligned with the fact we wanted to recommend a Japanese-style knife.
Two types of handles dominate the world of Japanese knives: Natural wood & synthetic polymers.
Both provide a nearly identical balance for their knives, but will feel notably different in your hands. Pakkawood, a lightweight wood and resin composite, falls somewhere in the middle.
Natural wood handles are our personal preference, but they’re also considerably more expensive. For that reason, we recommend that anyone looking to buy the best Japanese knife for themselves pay more attention to the blade’s quality than the handle’s material. You’ll get more knife for your money that way, and have the opportunity to learn how to use your knife without worrying about damaging the wooden handle.
Over the course of 6-months, we tested the sharpness of each knife,
- Out of the box
- After professional sharpening,
- After sharpening at home using a whetstone,
We ran performance tests to see how effectively each knife would slice through stiff paper, slice a tomato, mince garlic and dice an onion at each interval. We also used all of the knives in recipe development and testing, taking note of how sharp they felt.
Another measure we consulted was the Rockwell hardness score of each blade we tested.
Japanese knives have developed their stellar reputation in large part because of the steel used for their blades. Knifemakers take two main approaches to the materials used in their blades:
- Folding high-carbon steel many times over, making an ultra-sharp edge.
- Folding alternating layers of high-carbon and low-carbon steel, creating what’s called “Damascus steel”.
Damascus steel takes much more time and effort to produce and is more expensive because of it. It also has the benefit of creating a blade that’s more durable and able to take a better edge than plain steel.
As long as the Japanese knife you’re looking at uses at least high-carbon steel in its production, it will make for a quality blade. Spring for Damascus steel if you want the absolute best.
Every blade lost its luster over time. Some were quick to grow dull, and others held a workable edge through the duration of each test. We credited each blade for how effectively it maintained an edge during testing and regular use.
Ability to Sharpen
We awarded extra credit for knives that we were capable of self-sharpening in the Test Kitchen, without help from a professional sharpener. The impact of this ranking was minimal, given that most home chefs don’t sharpen their own knives. Even so, we wanted to reward knives that weren’t exceedingly difficult to sharpen.
In traditional Japanese bladesmithing, every blade has a story to tell. Some knives are worked tirelessly for over a year by a single craftsman. They can be equally romantic as they are functional.
Part of our ranking considered the aesthetic qualities of each blade. There is no bargain bin Japanese chef knife. If you’re going to buy an expensive knife, then we believed it should look good too.
Brian worked back-of-house in the food industry for over a decade. His stops included fine dining restaurants and bars in New Orleans, Chicago and Portland. Our work benefited greatly from his experience as a prep cook in a sushi restaurant, and his lifetime enthusiasm for traditional Japanese knifesmanship and swordmaking. He was our resident expert.
David runs a nano-bakery and coffee roaster in Huntsville, AL, as well as our first Test Kitchen which is based there. He put each of the knives in this article through 6-months of rigorous testing including specific performance tests, recipe development and testing, use and feedback from other home cooks.
Maintaining Your Knife
The cost of the extra sharp edge of a Japanese knife is that they can be more difficult to sharpen. The hard steel is also more prone to chipping than Western knives. If you do happen to chip your knife, you’ll need to take it to a professional sharpener for refinishing.
Additionally, you’ll have to be especially careful to keep your Japanese blades dry at all times. Even a few drops of water left on the folded steel of a Japanese knife can discolor it, leading to damage over time.
If you’re serious about maintaining your Japanese kitchen knives in top condition, you’ll want to invest in a set of traditional Japanese sharpening stones, too. A two-sided sharpening stone like this one from King will allow you to hone your blade to a fine edge — but it will require quite a bit of practice to get it right.
Other Brands We Didn’t Test
We believe the knife makers and brands listed above represent high-performing options for their respective categories. We picked these products out of the 15 knives that came into our test kitchen.
Our team was familiar with several other brands through cooking at home and working in professional kitchens. We hope to put each of these through rigorous testing in the years to come.
Here are a few other recommendations from our team that didn’t make it into the Test Kitchen yet:
- Masamoto makes an excellent Damascus steel gyuto, and their 9-inch slicer knives are quite impressive for preparing sushi.
- Kuma’s knives might be the most affordable way to get into Japanese knives, and have been a beginner’s knife for a handful of chefs. Even their Damascus steel gyuto is inexpensive.
- Korin has a huge selection of Japanese knife styles, and their sharpening is top-notch. They represent around a dozen smaller Japanese knife brands through their online store.
- Kamikoto offers a short line of knives made from Japanese Niigata steel which is naturally corrosion-resistant, and gives them excellent sharpness, durability, and edge retention.
- Yoshihiro has been making Japanese knives for over 100 years, but they are still a relatively new name in the United States knife market. Their direct-to-consumer approach helps them offer a very affordable product.
FAQs About Japanese Knives
I hate Japanese knives – whats wrong with me?
There’s nothing wrong with you. For every person there is a preference. There are major differences in Japanese and western knives, but that difference isn’t objective quality.
Western knives are thicker, heavier and geared for smooth rocking cuts. Japanese knives are thinner and more often shaped for up and down chopping.
Japanese steel is harder, so it can take on a sharper edge for longer, but is more prone to chipping and less forgiving against hard surfaces like bones.
At the end of the day, you should pick a style of knife that suits your cooking style and the prep methods you prefer.
Why are high-end Japanese knives so expensive?
Many Japanese knives are especially expensive because they are hand-made. High quality materials like powder steel are costly. And the cost of an experienced artisan is high. Some methods of knife an swordmaking are permitted in Japan, and can only be performed by specific craftsmen at specific locations.
Japanese knives are cheaper when purchased in Japan. This is due to import, export, transit and distribution costs. Many traditional Japanese makers don’t sell their products outside of Japan.
Why do Western chefs prefer Japanese knives?
Many Western chefs prefer Japanese knives because they are harder and lighter. Especially for pro chefs who are working at high volume, the impact of a lighter sharper blade is immense at the end of a long day. Harder, thinner blades get sharper and hold an edge for longer. They also make better precision cuts.
Are there any drawbacks to Japanese knives?
The same hardness of the steel that gives Japanese blades their superior performance has some drawbacks. If hard carbon steel knocks against an especially hard surface — like a thick bone, or a stone cutting board — Japanese blades are at risk of chipping. When this happens, you’ll need to have it professionally refinished.
Additionally, Japanese steel is more prone to tarnishing than Western steel. To avoid this, it’s helpful to keep water off of your blade and store it in a cool, dry place.