There's no denying that Japanese knives are amongst some of the most highly renowned and highest quality knives available.
The craftsmanship and level of detail that goes into a Japanese knife are almost unrivalled. Their manufacturing focuses on appealing to all of the human senses rather than just making something that can simply cut food.
When looking into Japanese knives, you might feel overwhelmed at first, the types and functions seem to be never-ending and it can often be difficult knowing where to start.
Popular Japanese knives can be more easily categorized by single and double bevel blades with certain popular types being more common in each category. Some of the most popular Japanese knives are Santoku, Gyuto, Nakiri, Usuba, Deba and Yanagiba.
While there are many types of Japanese knives, there are a select few (though few certainly means more than one or two in this instance) that the best Japanese chefs will have as an absolute staple in their knife collection.
In this article, we are going to cover some of the most popular Japanese knives that are not only used by Japanese chefs but also chefs worldwide as Japanese knives continue to rise in popularity in the Western world.
Table of contents
Single Bevel or Double BevelBefore getting into the different types of Japanese knives and the Japanese knife names, it’s important to point out one of the key differences between a Japanese knife and those made in the Western world like French or German knives and that is the bevel and blade edge.
The bevel is a taper on the knife blade that forms the edge and is what gives a knife its degree of sharpness. Traditional Japanese knives will have a single bevel which means that one side of the knife is flat while the other will have a slight taper to form the edge.
The reason this is common with Japanese knives is so that you can form and hone a sharper edge (typically 10 - 15 degrees) which is incredibly sharp. The flat side of the knife also helps to maintain the food's cell structure and ultimately retain the intended flavor of the item.
A double bevel edge is more popular in Western culture and a number of Japanese knives have taken on this feature as they grow in popularity. A double bevel means that the knife is tapered on both sides to form an edge with typical Western knives forming a V-shaped edge.
Types of Japanese Knives
In Japanese cuisine, there is a strong focus on food preparation, precise cuts, and overall presentation of the dish meaning that most Japanese chefs will have between three and six knives that they will utilize depending on the dish they are making.
A sushi or sashimi chef for example could easily have four specific knives that they use daily to handle the different cutting requirements for their dish.
To elaborate, one knife would be used to fillet and cut a large fish (particularly through bone and cartilage), a second knife is then used to slice the fish and another knife is then used to prepare the vegetables.
The level of precision with Japanese knives is always the key priority as the chefs aim to utilize extremely sharp knives in order to not only get precise cuts but also to retain the food's flavor by cutting through the food cells as cleanly as possible.
Below is a quick video to show the level of accuracy (and sharpness of the knife) that is used by a professional Japanese chef.
With all this being said, we are now going to get into some of the different types of Japanese knives and why they are used by some of the best Japanese chefs.
Single Bevel KnivesThe following single bevel knives are the most popular and three specific knives are typically used to make up a collection for sushi or sashimi, arguably Japan's most popular dishes. These three knives are often considered to be essential for Japanese cuisine.
The Yanagiba knife (Yanagi meaning willow blade) is one of the most traditional knives for Japanese cuisine and is most commonly used for sushi and sashimi-based dishes. This knife typically has a long and thin blade with an angled tip to finely slice blocks or raw fish. A typical Yanagiba knife will have a blade length of 10” - 12”.
Usuba (meaning thin blade) might look like a large meat cleaver however these knives are typically used to produce cuts for fruit and vegetables. But how to use a Usuba knife? The thin blade is well-suited to making thin and clean cuts and you’ll find they are often used to provide the decorative finish to Japanese dishes.
Usuba blades are often 7” - 10” in length and the fine edge is often difficult for beginners to sharpen which is why these knives are used more by a professional Japanese chef.
The Deba knife is the final knife of the three general knives and is the thickest of the three, used primarily for cutting and filleting of fish. The thick spine of this knife and slightly heavier weight allow for cutting through bone and cartilage, though the fine edge means this knife is much more fragile than a Western butcher's knife.
The Deba can come in three common sizes (Kodeba, Hondeba, and Miokishi Deba) with various sizes from 3” - 10” depending on the type of fish and cut being done.
The Kiritsuke is a versatile knife that is typically used to perform a variety of cutting functions that are usually performed by a Yanagiba and Usuba knife making this a specialty purpose knife for cutting vegetables and slicing raw fish.
Due to the blade profile having a flat heel yet long blade length (10” - 12” on average) this knife is utilized for long drawing cuts but can be very difficult to control. This specialty knife is therefore usually only handled by the head chef and its use is seen as a symbol of skill and reputation for Japanese chefs.
The Kiritsuke can also come with a double bevel edge and is better known as a Kiritsuke Gyuto which offers the versatility of a Kiritsuke whilst being adapted for Western users.
The Takohiki knife is a fish-slicing knife similar to the Yanagiba that is commonly used in Eastern regions of Japan. The word ‘Hiki’ can be translated to 'pull' and is a reflection of the cutting technique used with this knife.
This knife can be distinguished from the popular Yanagiba by its square-tipped end that is well suited to scooping food (mainly sashimi) from the chopping board and arranging it for presentation on the serving plate.
The squared tip is the only real distinguishing feature and otherwise, the blade length of 10” - 12” and single bevel design is the same as what you would find with a standard Yanagiba knife.
The Honesuki is a traditional Japanese boning knife that features a straight edge and pointed tip for precise de-boning and filleting work with meat (mainly poultry) and more recently fish.
Honesuki vs boning knife? The thick heel of this knife is used for scraping meat from bones while the sharp and pointed tip is easy to maneuver and is suited to filleting, piercing skin, and cutting cartilage and ligaments around joints.
This knife is specifically for de-boning or filleting work and should not be used for carving large meat or cutting through bone as the blade profile is not dense enough for this kind of heavy-duty cutting.
A Hankotsu knife is a specially designed boning knife used primarily for butchering hanging carcasses. The blade design, therefore, reflects this cutting purpose and is designed to cut in a downward motion with a reverse knife grip.
The edge is typically designed to be asymmetrically ground with the heel being blunter as a safety feature to accommodate a reverse grip cutting technique alongside being protective of slips when cutting in a downward direction.
The rest of the edge is sharper and leads to a pointed tip which, like the Honesuki, is used for filleting and de-boning meat, poultry, and fish.
Double Bevel Knives
The Santoku, meaning “three virtues” or “three purposes” is a general-purpose knife that is closely related to a Western chef's knife. It’s well suited to mincing, dicing, slicing, and chopping meat, fish, and vegetables which is why it derives its name.
Santoku knives have become the most common knives in Japanese kitchens due to their multi-purpose uses and are used in place of an Usuba and Deba.
The Gyuto knife, similar to the Santoku, is an all-purpose Japanese chef’s knife with a longer (8” - 12”) curved blade that can be used in a rocking chopping motion and is well suited to cutting meat as well as fish and vegetables.
Due to the longer blade, Gyuto knives are popular for those that cook for a large number of customers.
The Nakiri is a double beveled version of the Usuba knife and is used for chopping, peeling, and slicing vegetables. The blade has a thin profile with a rounded or flat tip to cater to more push-style chopping. But nakiri vs usuba? The key reason for preferring the nakiri would be that it is easier to sharpen than the single bevel Usuba.
Finally, a pairing or petty knife is a smaller knife used for cutting, peeling, and slicing vegetables. These knives are similar to a chef’s knife and are used for a variety of smaller, more intricate cutting tasks.
A Pankiri knife is the Japanese equivalent of a Western bread knife. The Pankiri, unlike some Japanese knives, does not differ too much from the Western equivalent with its serrated edge and 7” - 10” blade length being most common.
The only noticeable difference is that a Pankiri can often also be used for roughly cutting braised meats alongside its primary use as a bread knife.
The Sujihiki knife is a long and thin knife that is mainly used for slicing and trimming meat. It’s well suited to trimming, filleting, and slicing meat and can also be used with equal precision and functionality on fish.
Many people draw comparisons between this knife and a Yanagiba which has resulted in this being considered the Western equivalent of a Yanagiba as a result of the similarities of use but utilizing a Western-style double bevel edge.
Other Key FeaturesWhile there are many types of Japanese knives, there are certain features that help to distinguish them from other Western-style knives. The first, as mentioned earlier, is that traditional Japanese knives will have a single bevel to produce an incredibly sharp edge for precision-focused cuts.
What you will also find is that many are made from a very high carbon steel material (known as blue or white steel), this allows the knife’s blade to be lighter, thinner, and hold a much sharper edge.
This does, however, mean that Japanese knives need to be maintained much more as the blade can be prone to rust and corrosion if not properly maintained and the edges also need frequent honing and sharpening.
Finally, Japanese knives will typically have a wooden handle, this is used to encompass the blade's tang and give an even balance and weight distribution to the knife. These handles are often made from Ho wood and are referred to as “wa” handles.
Final ThoughtsJust looking at the above list, it’s easy to see that there is a wide range of popular Japanese knives and, if we are being honest, we could have added another five to ten Japanese knives to this list, which can be commonly used by Japanese chefs.
As the popularity of Japanese knives grows, however, those that are listed above are certainly at the forefront of most of the best chefs collections and can also be found in many homes/kitchens, not only in Japan, but in ever-increasing numbers in the Western world.