This article is a broad introduction to Japanese knives.
Consider it the first step in your journey, as it should help you gather your bearings when first exploring this topic. By the end, you should have a better idea of the basics and some specific questions worth pursuing.
In This Article
What Makes Japanese Knives So Good?
Although there are dozens of reasons to love Japanese kitchen knives, it’s really 3 common characteristics that come up again and again among the home chefs in our community.
The thin blade profile characteristic of Japanese cutlery means these chef knives are incredibly lightweight. They’re also designed without a bolster, the heavy piece of steel fixed between the handle and blade that is typical of Western-style knives.
These may seem like negligible design differences, but in many cases, a Japanese chef knife will weigh nearly 50% less than a German knife.
People love the power and maneuverability you can get with the lightweight design of a Japanese knife.
They hold a sharp edge for longer.
Japanese steel’s relatively high carbon content makes for exceptionally thin and hard knives. Harder, thinner blades get sharper and hold an edge for longer. They also make better precision cuts.
Given enough time and use, the truth is that any kitchen knife will dull. But there is a considerable convenience benefit to owning a knife that doesn’t need to be sharpened frequently.
The craftsmanship can be stunning.
It’s prevalent that a Japanese knife’s beautiful craftsmanship initially stokes a person’s interest to learn more. Simply put, a blade made by a traditional blacksmith in Japan is both a labor of love and a work of art.
The ornate pattern of a folded Damascus steel blade is probably the best-known aesthetic element to those of us in the West. Still, there are a variety of other finishing techniques and handle styles that will make your jaw drop.
How Are Japanese Knives Made?
Japanese knives are typically made using a process called “forging,” which involves heating and shaping a piece of steel into a blade.
This process can take several days and involves multiple steps, including smelting raw iron into steel, hammering the steel into shape, folding it to create layers, and then tempering the blade to make it harder and more durable.
The type of steel used and the specific techniques used during forging can vary depending on the region and the style of the knife being made.
The traditional craftsmanship of Japanese knives follows a method that has been passed down from one generation to the next since the 14th century. It’s only in recent history that this process has evolved from sword making into the kitchen knives we know and love.
The design of these chef knives originated from the regional cuisine of Japan. Since Japan is an island nation, many of the traditional styles are oriented around fish preparation.
The traditional bladesmithing process is incredibly intensive. It combines many of Japan’s natural and cultural resources into creating a single blade: fire, water, earth, wind, heart, and spirit.
A bladesmith following this age-old process will “sign” their name in Kanji characters at the heel of the blade to signify responsibility for their work.
In the modern era, the number of traditional bladesmiths is declining. Many old practices and knife styles are being adapted to appeal to a global customer.
That means lower cost, more accessible designs, and higher volume production. As a result, you’re more likely to find brands than craftsmen being sold.
How To Pick A Japanese Knife
1: Assess Your Needs
In virgin hands, even the most incredible knife may fail to deliver.
There are dozens of styles of Japanese knives, and the truth is that most don’t functionally match the way we cook in the West. It’s easy to buy a beautiful and exciting new knife only to have it sit in a drawer and rarely see the light of day. I’ve (unfortunately) done this many times!
Think about the meals you cooked in the past 1-2 weeks. What sort of prep was involved?
If you’re like most people, what you really need is an all-around chef’s knife. It’s the tool you’ll use for 95% of kitchen jobs and the friendliest way to experience the unique benefits of Japanese bladesmithing.
2: Set A Budget
Knife shopping is a slippery slope if you haven’t already decided what you’re willing to pay.
Don’t start shopping until you have a budget in mind. Or decide you’re comfortable paying whatever it takes to secure the blade that catches your eye.
You can easily find a solid option for under $100 or over $1,000.
Remember that you’ll need to lock down a budget for proper storage and regular sharpening, along with a knife.
3: Choose A Style
There are dozens of styles of Japanese knives. But, for the beginner, there are really only 2 worth mentioning.
First and foremost, we recommend a gyuto as the best Japanese knife style for most people in the West. The design is derived from the familiar French chef’s knife, which makes it suitable for rock chopping and working with meat.
A small, but not insignificant, share of people seem to prefer the santoku.
While the santoku has many similarities to a gyuto, this knife usually has a flatter cutting edge, shorter blade, and more rounded tip. It does wonders with vegetables but won’t rock cut or work with meat very effectively.
The typical “edge type” on both santoku and gyuto is a double bevel, meaning that the cutting edge is evenly ground on either side of the blade. There is much to love about a traditional single-bevel Japanese blade, which is only sharpened on one side, but the learning curve can be steep.
4: Choose A Steel
At its core, steel is a mix of iron and carbon.
Japanese blades are known for using “carbon steel,” which can take on an exceptionally sharp edge and hold it. Functionally speaking, this type of steel usually contains 0.5 to 1.5% carbon and no alloys.
Sounds great, right? Yes, but there are drawbacks that some would find inconvenient.
High-carbon steel knives are molded by their environment, which means they gain a characterful look over time. But it also means that without attentive care, they will rust.
Most people don’t want to deal with rapid rusting, so many manufacturers now add chromium to their blades to resist corrosion. We call it stainless steel.
For the best of both worlds, you can also find folded Damascus steel knives that incorporate high and low-carbon steel layers in an ornate pattern.
5: Choose A Size
Most Japanese chef knives are sold with either 6, 7, or 8” blades. Although it’s possible to find a larger gyuto, most santoku knives are designed under 7”.
In our Test Kitchen, we’ve found that the 8” blade is the most versatile. It can handle bigger cuts and longer ingredients with ease. At the same time, some of our testers with smaller hands or petite frames preferred a shorter knife.
If you are traveling, camping, or working in a smaller kitchen, then it’s worth considering a shorter knife. They are lighter, more maneuverable, and take up less space. They also cost less.
6: Get Hands-On
There is no “one size fits all” knife, Japanese or otherwise. And the best way to learn what you like is to get hands-on experience.
At least a dozen importers of Japanese knives are scattered across the US. Many have brick-and-mortar showrooms where you can see, hold and (sometimes) use the knives in their collection. Many of these businesses work directly with small independent craftsmen in Japan who are creating the most traditional and quality products.
If traveling to a showroom in New York or Denver is out of the question, try to borrow a few knives from family or friends and take them for a test run. It’s the best way to find a handle material and shape that feels good in your grip and puts a real sensory experience on the concepts covered on this page.
I’ll repeat it. There is no substitute for hands-on experience in learning what you like. You’ll always do well to try before you buy.
7: Take Advantage Of Deals
From Amazon Prime Day to seasonal discounts and Cyber Monday, you’ll always do better to wait for sales holidays to make your purchase. Subscribers to our newsletter receive special deals that we’ve worked out with brands and alerts on upcoming sales.
Read This Before Buying Your First Japanese Knife
There are a few common fears and pitfalls among people who are just getting started with Japanese cutlery. Sticker shock, differences in how Japanese steel performs compared to softer Western steel and getting used to the grip feel – to mention a few.
Why are high-end Japanese knives so expensive?
Japanese knives are costly because they are hand-made. High-quality materials like powder steel are expensive. And the cost of an experienced artisan is high.
Some methods of knife and sword making permitted in Japan 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.
Some more prominent brands (like Shun and Yoshihiro) have driven down prices by adapting traditional blacksmithing with modern production methods.
Are there any drawbacks to Japanese knives?
The same hardness of the steel that gives Japanese blades 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, keeping water off your blade and storing it in a cool, dry place is helpful.
Why do Western chefs prefer Japanese knives?
Many Western chefs prefer Japanese knives because they are harder and lighter.
For pro chefs working at high volume, the impact of a lighter sharper blade is immense at the end of a long day. You may not feel the weight of your knife after prepping a single meal for your family, but imagine chopping the same proportion of food product for a roomful of diners. The repetitive rise and fall of the blade will take its toll.
Harder, thinner blades get sharper and hold an edge for longer. They also make better precision cuts. Achieving a dice of uniform size can make or break the doneness of a dish when you’re prepping large quantities.
Are Japanese knives easy to sharpen?
The thin, hard blade of a Japanese knife requires a certain level of skill and knowledge to sharpen correctly. Using the wrong technique or tools can actually damage the blade.
If you’re new to sharpening knives, practicing on a cheaper blade may be best before attempting to sharpen a Japanese knife. Using the right sharpening stones and technique is essential to ensure the best results.
I hate Japanese knives – what’s wrong with me?
There’s nothing wrong with you. For every person, there is a preference.
There are significant distinctions between Japanese and Western knives, but none are objective differences in 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 and can take on a sharper edge for longer. But it’s 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.
“Japanese” Knives Made In China
We’ve found that many of our readers started exploring Japanese cutlery only after being targeted by social media advertisements featuring products that aren’t actually Japanese.
Today, there are a number of Chinese and Western brands appropriating Japanese culture and craftsmanship for their own profitability. They market their knives as “Japanese,” on superficial criteria which is (often) purely aesthetic.
Do some of these brands make good products? Several do, including some we’ve reviewed in our Test Kitchen.
The ethical dilemma with this branding practice is that these knife labels aren’t simply infringing upon a company trademark, like a $5 knock-off pair of Oakley glasses. It may be infringing upon the culture and history of an entire people, going back centuries.
Branding a knife as “Japanese” solely based on the shape of the blade or the origin of materials used in its construction is a shallow perspective. Japanese bladesmithing is a centuries-old practice passed down from generation to generation. It is heavily dependent on the training of the smith, the method and location of forging, and the quality of materials. Several aspects of culture, geography, and process make a knife “Japanese.” Not just the branding.
In another case, brands like Miyabi and Oishya hire small craftsmen or factories in Japan to produce products that can then be sold under a Western-owned label. Some see this as a great way for small makers to access a global market.
So..can you get a good knife made in China? Absolutely, and you’ll probably save a buck doing it.
Just remember that a knife isn’t “Japanese” because of the blade’s shape or the metal’s origin. There is a lot more to it than that.
Wherever you land on this topic, it is worthwhile to be aware of what you’re being sold.
Where Are Japanese Knives Made?
Sakai, Seki, and Echizen are among Japan’s most well-known knife-making hubs. These areas developed as hotbeds for the blacksmith trade because of their proximity to larger city markets and bountiful resources like iron, water, and wood.
What is the best Japanese knife for a present?
In most cases, an 8″ Gyuto is the best Japanese kitchen knife for gifting a home chef. This style of knife is the most widely applicable to the way people cook in the western world. If your friend already has a slew of chef knives, opt for a nakiri vegetable knife. There is nothing quite like it in western cutlery.
Are Japanese knives better than European?
Compared with European knives, Japanese kitchen knives are generally lighter, sharper and more ornate. They work wonders on vegetables and fish, but if you’re consistently preparing red meat or dense root vegetables then a European knife may be a better fit.