As soon as you make the transition from generally cooking to taking it as a serious art form, you’ll soon start to look more seriously into Japanese knives, which are widely regarded as the most premium, high-quality knives available.
There are many traditional Japanese chef knives and all of which have a different history, cutting purposes, and uses and therefore it can often be difficult knowing exactly where to start with a Japanese knife.
When looking to buy a Japanese chef knife, the process is not as simple as buying an all-purpose kitchen or chef’s knife as it is in the Western world. With a Japanese knife, there are a few key factors that should influence your decision on which knife is best, especially if this will be your first time buying a Japanese chef's knife.
Japanese knives are produced from years of metalworking knowledge and many chef’s knives you see are direct descendants from the famous craftsmanship of samurai swords.
Therefore, in this article, we are going to give you the brief rundown of what you need to look for in a Japanese chef’s knife and how you can ensure that you buy the most suitable knives to start a high-quality knife collection in your kitchen.
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Beginners Guide to Buying Japanese Chefs Knives
As mentioned earlier, most Japanese knives are the cultivation from years of Japanese knowledge and craftsmanship that evolved from the metal refinement that went into producing the Katana blade (samurai sword).
To this day, Japanese blacksmiths and artisans are renowned for producing the highest quality knives and the combination of tradition and technological advancements is what has made Japanese chef knives arguably the best on the planet (we say arguably as it’s based on individual opinion and preference).
Below, we’ve listed some of the key factors that make a Japanese knife such a unique and high-quality item, and these factors are the most important points that you need to be aware of when looking to purchase a Japanese chef’s knife.
Different Types of Japanese Chef Knives
There is a range of Japanese chef knives which have different purposes and uses, below are some of the most popular that can be commonly found in both Japanese and Western kitchens.
Santoku - A Santoku is the close equivalent of a Western chef’s knife, these knives are ideal for cutting fish, vegetables, and meat (as derived from the name meaning “three uses”) and is the most popular Japanese kitchen knife.
Gyuto - The Gyuto is a Japanese chef’s knife that is similar to a Santoku in that it has versatile use and can act as an all-purpose chef’s knife. This knife is ideal for beginners looking to purchase their first Japanese chef’s knife.
Nakiri - The Nakiri is a lightweight and thin knife used for finely cutting, peeling, and chopping vegetables.
Usuba - The Usuba, is similar to the Nakiri in shape, but it is sharpened only from one side, used for finely cutting vegetables for decorative dishes and sushi.
Yanagiba - The Yanagiba is a knife designed for cutting fish and is primarily used for sushi and sashimi dishes.
Deba - A Deba, often used in conjunction with a Yanagiba knife, is used for filleting and cutting fish and has a thicker blade to cut through bone and cartilage.
Material of the blade
When it comes to the material of the blade, this is the area that allows Japanese knives to stand out and be considered such high quality. Japanese knives are made from a combination of a hard carbon steel core and softer iron steel outer later.
Whilst you can get knives that are very high end and only a high carbon steel blend (known as ‘Honyaki’) you can also get more Western-style, stainless steel knives known as ‘Konsumi’ which is the blend of carbon steel and stainless steel.
This combination of steel allows Japanese knives to be thinner, lighter, and most importantly, hold a sharper edge. These are the characteristics that allow the Japanese to cut precise and thin items to make decorative and artistic cuisine and dishes.
This kind of steel, however, requires a little more maintenance, these knives can be prone to rust and corrosion so careful cleaning and monitoring of the knives environment are crucial.
Japanese chef knives traditionally have a single bevel or a v-shaped bevel.
We will cover this in more detail shortly when comparing Japanese knives to Western knives but what this essentially means is that one side of the knife is flat while the other side has a tapered bevel to form the knives edge and the v-shaped blade holds a sharper edge over the standard convex western version.
What this means is that the edge is formed from a much smaller angle which ultimately results in a sharper edge for more precise cutting.
The handle on most Japanese knives are made from Ho wood, this wooden handle will encompass the knives tang which helps to provide strength and balance to the overall finished product of the knife.
You’ll find that these wooden handles are often larger to balance out the weight of the knife, yet lightweight for increased control, especially when combined with a half tang.
While we mentioned that the metal is prone to rust and corrosion and does not do well in wet or moist atmospheres, the same is true for the handle. Correct cleaning care and storage need to be considered to ensure that these handles don’t crack or warp.
The size of a Japanese knife will depend heavily on the type of knife and purpose of use (as well as the user's preference). Typically a beginner will start with a multi-purpose 8” chef’s knife like a Santoku or Gyuto while a 10” knife is typically used by professional chefs.
Japanese knives in general require more maintenance than the Western variations. The high carbon steel blend is prone to rusting if not cared for properly.
So these knives cannot be cleaned in a dishwasher (why you shouldn't put knives in the dishwasher ) soaked in water for long period of time, or left with moisture or residue on the blade which means they need to be cleaned by hand and immediately dried after use.
These knives also have a sharper edge and they can hold a sharper edge for longer and are easier to sharpen by using a whetstone. Just make sure you sharpen at the correct angle we cover that in more detail in The guide to knife sharpening angle
Like all good knives they require honing and sharpening to keep the edge sharp, for best results we recommend using a whetstone with a grade of 1000/6000 like this one : Sharpening stone 1000/6000
Difference Between Japanese and Western Chef Knives
There are a few key differences between Japanese and Western knives that we want to cover as this is something that will help you to better understand what some of the Japanese characteristics that we’ve listed above actually mean when looking to buy your first Japanese chef’s knife.
The key difference between a Japanese knife and a Western knife is the metal used. Japanese knives are typically high-quality carbon steel made from a combination of a carbon steel core and softer iron steel outer layer whereas a Western knife is typically made from softer stainless steel.
This difference means that Japanese knives are typically harder and can hold a sharper edge, though this does however mean that Japanese knives require much more maintenance to keep this quality edge. A Western knife of stainless steel is easier to maintain as they are less prone to rust however the blade is less sharp and can dull much easier with repeated use.
Another key difference is that traditional Japanese knives have a single bevel meaning one side of the blade is flat while the other side is bevelled to form a tighter angle and sharper edge. This allows for more precise cutting and will maintain a food's natural flavour.
A Western knife has a double bevel meaning both sides of the knife will have a tapered angle to form the edge. This means that Western blades are typically less sharp than the Japanese knives.
With this said, neither Western nor Japanese knives should be considered better than the other, both serve a purpose and you’ll find some master chefs that prefer a French or German knife whilst others prefer a Japanese knife, it all comes down to personal preference.
As you can tell, there are quite a few unique and interesting factors that make up a Japanese chef’s knife. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed when looking into purchasing one of these items however, as something you can be assured of is quality and long-lasting knife (provided you maintain it properly).
If you are looking to purchase your first Japanese chef’s knife then a Santoku knife will be a great option, just ensure you get a whetstone to maintain the edge and you’ll no doubt be delighted once you own and handle one of these fine works of traditional Japanese craftsmanship.