Japanese style kitchen knives are functional works of art. The variety of wooden handles and blade finishes make them uniquely beautiful. Professional chefs and home cooks alike should have at least one in their culinary toolbox. Heirloom-like qualify and attention to detail make Japanese knives some of the best on the market.
Japanese Kitchen Knives
Japanese kitchen knives come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and many are made from the same stainless steel used to make Japanese swords. As you improve your culinary skills at home, you need to upgrade the equipment and tools you use in the kitchen. A quality chef’s knife, specifically a Japanese knife, is a smart choice when you’re ready to upgrade your toolbox.
Japan underwent a cultural modernization in the late 1800’s. As a result, samurai were banned from carrying their swords. The demand for samurai swords decreased significantly, so swordsmiths refocused their skill to making cutlery.
Kitchen Knife Features
There are four main features of a kitchen knife, and Japanese kitchen knives have their unique characteristics for each.
Western vs. Japanese: Handles of Western knives are generally shaped with a curved underside to provide a more comfortable grip. The curved handle allows the fingers to fit naturally into the contour of the handle for a more natural grip. Handles on most Japanese kitchen knives have an octagonal circumference that gradually tapers starting from the handle end and getting smaller closer to the blade of the knife. The handles of Western-style knives are usually made of synthetic materials which are heavier and withstand the intense heat of a dishwasher. Japanese handles are typically made with more decorative woods, such as ebony or cherry. While these woods are more likely to crack when exposed to moisture, they contribute to the beauty and unique character of Japanese kitchen knives.
Single Bevel vs. Double Bevel: Blade grind refers to the bevel of the blade. Western knives are made with a double bevel. Japanese knives are often single ground so only one side holds the cutting edge. Western double-beveled knives have gained popularity in Japan since World War II. Whether a knife has a single bevel blade grind or a double bevel blade grind depends on the purpose of the knife. Japanese blades are often flatter than the knives we’re used to in the United States. Like all quality knives, Japanese knives have good edge retention.
Stainless vs. Carbon: Japanese kitchen knives are known for their toughness and durability, sharpness, edge life, edge quality and ease of sharpening. Stainless steel blades are more durable and less likely to chip. They retain a sharp edge longer than carbon steel, but they are less sharp. Carbon steel is usually sharper. The hardness of the blade allows it to be sharpened to an extremely sharp edge, however that same hardness causes the blade to be more brittle and prone to breaking. Carbon steel becomes corroded more easily than stainless.
Laminated vs. Monosteel: Creating a laminated blade involves pressing together two pieces of steel, a softer outer cladding and a hard-cutting steel core. Monosteel blades are usually thinner but harder to sharpen as a result.
Japanese Kitchen Knife Types
There are several different types of Japanese kitchen knives.
This is the Japanese version of a chef’s knife. It is a perfect multi-purpose knife for everyday kitchen use. The gyuto blade provides the home chef with lots of versatility, able to slice, dice and mince everything from vegetables to herbs to beef and chicken. The extremely sharp blade is suitable for delicate cuts of fish. It’s usually made of harder steel and has a double bevel blade. Gyuto knives are perfect for home use.
The term gyuto means “cow sword” in Japanese because the blade is so sharp and strong that it can cut through thick meat of various types and sizes without having to switch to a bigger, stronger knife. Many professional chefs use a gyuto knife as their go-to knife in the kitchen.
The word santoku in Japanese means “three virtues” or “three uses.” Some say the santoku knife was given this name because it can be used for slicing, dicing and mincing, while others claim the “three uses” are meat, fish and vegetables. Either way, this knife can do just about anything a chef needs it to do. It can have a Western or Japanese style handle, and is usually double bevel.
Different than a chef’s knife, the santoku has a wide sheepsfoot blade with no tip. The dull top or spine of the knife curves down to meet the straight-edged front blade. This shape makes it ideal for intricate cutting and boning. The blade is also thinner than that of a chef’s knife. It is the most popular kitchen knife in Japanese homes.
A nakiri has a rectangular-shaped blade. Its straight, symmetrical edge is most commonly used for slicing, dicing and chopping vegetables. The blade on this knife is almost always double-beveled. The knife’s straight blade helps achieve thinner and very even slices. The blades of nakiri knives are usually 6.5 to 7 inches in length.
The knife allows home cooks to use a smoother chopping stroke when slicing because of the straight edge of the blade, unlike a chef’s knife that requires a rocking motion. The smooth chopping motion means a chef can work faster and chop a large quantity of vegetables quickly and efficiently.
Nakiri knives are especially well-suited to julienne vegetables. The flat straight edge of the blade makes complete contact with the cutting board which also adds to the efficiency of the nakiri. The blade is lightweight and very easy to get razor-sharpness.
The usuba is a Japanese style knife designed specifically to cut vegetables. The literal translation of usuba is `thin slice.’ It has a flat edge profile, designed for cutting vegetables. Usuba knives can have a rectangular or semicircular tip, each one useful for cutting different types of vegetables.
The usuba knife has the thinnest blade of Japanese kitchen knives. It is extremely sharp and also single-beveled. This makes it the perfect knife to make very fine vegetable slices. It is also commonly used as a sushi knife to make the very thin slices of vegetables inside sushi rolls.
Sushi chefs choose the usuba for raw vegetables because the razor sharp one-side blade cuts with very minimal cellular damage to the vegetable. This helps the vegetables to retain their vibrant color and helps preserve the flavor and freshness of the vegetables for longer.
The bunka is a multi-purpose knife suitable for long or short cuts. This is a great first Japanese kitchen knife for the home chef. The bunka knife has a straight cutting edge and wide blade like the santoku knife. It differs from the santoku with its signature ‘reverse-tanto’ angled tip, also known as a ‘k-tip’ point.
The pointed tip of a bunka makes it ideal for precision cuts such as scoring fish and vegetables. It is also a great butcher knife, being an effective tool for getting under the fat and sinew of beef. The wide blade is handy for scooping food off the cutting board.
The bunka is a smaller, lighter chef’s knife making it a great choice for home cooks with smaller hands.
A petty knife is a small version of a gyuto for fruits and vegetables. These are used for peeling, paring, coring apples and making decorative cuts. It’s smaller size makes it an ideal knife for chopping herbs and making garnishes. The compact size and relatively narrow blade make the petty knife very nimble and controllable, ideal for making precision cuts.
Petty knives are larger in size than paring knives, but smaller than the similarly shaped gyuto. The smaller size makes it a good knife for beginning home cooks because it is easier to control than the larger gyuto knife.
The yanagiba is a traditional Japanese knife with a long thin blade originally designed for cutting thin slices of sashimi. The long blade of this knife makes it perfect for cutting large pieces of meat. Yanagiba knives have a Japanese handle and a chisel ground blade.
The yanagiba is the sleek and pointy knife that you usually see sushi chefs holding in their hand. It’s sleek and pointy shape makes it immediately recognizable.
The deba is a heavy knife designed to cut through tougher ingredients such as fish skin or small bones. They are chisel ground and usually have a Japanese handle. The deba knife is not intended to be used in a heavy chopping motion like a cleaver. If you need to chop thick bones, a meat cleaver is the tool to use.
Japanese Kitchen Knives Top Brands
Shun Cutlery is a kitchen knife brand of the KAI Group, headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. In the United States, Shun is sold by Kai USA in Tualatin, Oregon—alongside the Kershaw Knives and Zero Tolerance Knives brands. The origins of the Kai Group date back to 1908, when founder Saijiro Endo established the company in Seki City, Japan. The company produced various cutlery throughout the 20th century, including folding knives, razors, and kitchen cutlery. In 2002, Kai introduced the Shun Cutlery brand to the Western market. All Shun knives are currently made in Seki City and are distributed to over 30 countries. Shun has been recognized at the annual Blade Show in Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, International Forum Design presented the Shun/Ken Onion Chef’s Knife with an iF Product Design Award in 2005.
Since the 13th century, Seki City has been the heart of the Japanese cutlery industry. For more than 112 years, it has also been the home of Kai Corporation, the makers of Shun fine cutlery. Inspired by the traditions of ancient Japan, today’s highly skilled Shun artisans produce blades of unparalleled quality and beauty. Shun is dedicated to maintaining this ancient tradition by continuing to handcraft each knife in our Seki City facilities. Each piece of this fine kitchen cutlery takes at least 100 individual steps to complete.From Shun Cutlery
Under the trademark MIYABI some of the world’s sharpest blades are created; because the Japanese recognized long ago the importance of sharp knives for retaining the taste and texture of delicate dishes like sashimi. With an original MIYABI knife, you will have the exact same realization.
It takes more than 100 steps and 42 days to make one knife worthy of the MIYABI brand. Each knife goes from the hands of skilled artisans to yours—ensuring you get the finest caliber. We craft the knives in Seki, Japan’s samurai sword making capital since the 14th century. You get the best of both worlds: German engineering and Japanese craftsmanship, for long-lasting durability and scalpel-like sharpness. Making you the master of precision cuts.From Miyabi
Yoshihiro Cutlery is a company specializing in handcrafted premium Japanese kitchen knives. With a history of over 100 years, the Yoshihiro knife brand has been a leading provider of premium kitchen cutlery in Japan. In 2008 we began offering our knives worldwide. Yoshihiro knives are handcrafted by artisans with a lineage spanning centuries. The origins of the techniques used to create Yoshihiro knives dates back to the 14th century medieval Japanese sword smiths who perfected the technique of handling fire, iron, and water. In the course of 700 years these sword smiths gradually transitioned to knife smiths, and the ethos of crafting the Japanese sword flowed into the crafting of Japanese kitchen knives. Since then, Japanese knives has gained an ever increasing accolades from professional and novice chefs worldwide from a wide variety of styles and backgrounds for its excellence in performance and aesthetic beauty.From Yoshihiro Cutlery
A superb knife should have a long-lasting sharp blade that doesn not rust. Imarku explores the ultimate steel from aerospace science and technology and selects the top smelting and forging technology from the United States. In the meantime, imarku utilizes the unique high-tech carbon steel combined with the special stainless steel from Japan and super core steel from Germany. Each knife has extremely high hardness properties, wear resistance, and corrosion resistance, just like super alloy. Compared with knives commonly found in the market, imarku knives are more reliable in sharpness and durability.From IMARKU
Each Kamikoto knife goes through a rigorous 19-step process that takes several years from start to finish to complete. With more than 100 years of experience between them, our expert bladesmiths forge and shape raw steel into hardy blades, polishing and sharpening them to an excruciatingly fine edge. Each blade is individually inspected before it leaves our workshop, ensuring that every single Kamikoto knife stays true to the Japanese legacy of crafting single-bevel Japanese steel knives of an exceptional quality. Kamikoto knives are a study in skill; you feel the spirit of the craft in every piece.
Fully versed in traditional blade-making practices, Kamikoto’s blades are handmade by a select group of experienced craftsmen in Niigata, Japan, where blacksmithing can be traced back to before the Edo period, as well as in Yanjiang, China – a town with over 1,000 years of knife and sword making heritage. Today, Yanjiang is the leading center of Japanese-style knife forging, polishing and balancing – where the Japanese legacy is preserved, and carried on, with reverence for the skill of the knifesmiths who evolved this craft centuries ago.From Kamikoto
My Japanese Knives Top Picks
Shun Cutlery Premier Grey Chef’s Knife 8”
With its 8-inch blade, this knife is the perfect all-purpose kitchen knife. It’s ideal for preparing fruit, vegetables, meat and more. This Japanese kitchen knife has a wide blade that keeps knuckles off the cutting board with a curved belly that can be “rocked” through herbs and spices for a very fine mince.
Miyabi Kaizen II 6.5-inch Nakiri Knife
The blades gorgeous flower Damascus steel pattern is dramatically darkened through acid dipping. The double FRIODUR ice-hardened blade makes for improved corrosion resistance and astonishing durability. The blade is hand-honed using the historic Honbazuke method to an exceptionally sharp 9.5 to 12 degrees
Authentic, Japanese thin blade profile
Yoshihiro VG-10 46 Layers Hammered Damascus Santoku Japanese Multipurpose Knife
Forged and hammered with 46 layers of steel in the Damascus tradition. The quality of the steel together with its expert craftsmanship makes this a professional quality chefs knife with an excellent blend of razor sharpness.
The simplest tasks are elevated with a handcrafted knife that is as beautiful as it is functional.
Kamikoto – Senshi Dual Knife Set with Wooden Display Stand The Senshi Dual Knife Set consists of a 10-inch Chef knife and a 5.5-inch utility knife made from high-quality steel from Honshu, Japan. A set of fine, handmade steel knives, inspired by a legacy of craftsmanship. Each knife is precision-balanced and weighted, offering excellent use with longlasting performance. Kamikoto knives are made from high-quality steel from Honshu, Japan.