Japanese Kitchen Knives: Like Katanas for Your Kitchen

Japanese Kitchen Knives: Like Katanas for Your Kitchen

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Knife and fish
Picture: shige hattori / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Why are Japanese kitchen knives so popular? Learn the history behind the blades - and how to buy one that's right for your kitchen.

One thing that’s always fascinated me about Japan is how behind even some of the most seemingly mundane objects have an enthusiastic fan base. My most recent such observation was people’s fascination with Japanese kitchen knives, or houchou (包丁)

A recent translating gig had me looking up brands, types, and knife terminology I’d never heard before. The original author enthusiastically described her shopping experience and her satisfaction with her brand new (and expensive) Japanese knives. 

It wasn’t the first time I heard stories of people spending upwards of several hundred dollars on a single knife, which got me wondering: what’s so special about Japanese kitchen knives, anyway?

The Fascination with Japanese Kitchen Knives

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Japanese knives have a cult following. But it’s more than a come-and-go trend. 

Famous for their outstanding quality, these knives trace back to the samurai days. Traditional Japanese blades are angled to one side. This is good for making cleaner cuts. However, it requires more skill to handle. 

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They are incredibly durable, sharp, and have a much longer edge life than typical department store cutlery. Attribute this to the high-quality hagane (stainless steel) and hand-forging methods that manufacturers use – the same material and techniques used to craft actual samurai swords! 

History of Japanese Kitchen Knives

The earliest Japanese knives were ceremonial blades tracing back to the Nara Period (710-794). At that time, only noblemen and warriors possessed swords. The crafting techniques for each were still quite different. 

In the 10th century, the creation of the samurai class created a greater demand for swords, resulting in rapidly advancing sword smithing technology and top-notch blades. But in the Edo Period (1603-1868), things changed. 

Several prefectures stand out amongst others when it comes to knife production. Sakai, Osaka is one of the top producers of quality knives. Share on X

As Japan’s peaceful period, there was no longer a demand for swords. Smithing jobs grew scarce. By the time of the Meiji Restoration, the Sword Abolition Act completely banned the possession of weapons, including swords. For sword smiths, it was either face unemployment or adapt. 

Many skilled artisans chose the latter, using their talents to forge other types of high-quality blades, such as farming tools and kitchen knives. This meant that hundreds of years of sword smithing techniques were now being poured into the kitchen industry. The result – kitchen knives of the highest caliber.

Western and Japanese Knives

Until the Meiji Period, farmers only used cattle for transportation and fertilizing crops. So when the west introduced cattle farming for food, they also had to introduce knives that could slice thicker slabs of meat, as traditional Japanese knives just wouldn’t cut it (pun totally intended).

This lead to the development of double-bevel butcher knives – knives with angles on both edges. Fun fact: this is why they named Western knives ‘gyu-to’ – it literally translates to ‘beef knife’!

Japanese Kitchen Knives for Every Occasion

Japanese kitchen knives: knife cutting tonkatsu
shige hattori / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Several prefectures stand out amongst others when it comes to knife production. Sakai, Osaka is one of the top producers of quality knives. Which is no surprise considering its history as the leader in samurai sword manufacturing since the 1300s. 

Only the best sword smiths worked here. One of the most notable was Master Yoshihiro, the best sword craftsman of his time whose techniques continue to dominate the cutlery industry today. Seki, Gifu, is another place, home to many modern popular cutlery brands.

With all the variations, there is a knife for every occasion. Categorizing factors include manufacturing method, sharpness, and blade type. It is also important to distinguish Western-style knives from traditional Japanese knives.

A Brief Look At Types of Japanese Knives

Just as Japan has many unique dishes, there are just as many specialty knives for preparing them. This is only a very brief summary of some of the most common types.

Western Style:

  • Gyuto: the typical Western professional chef’s knife; for vegetables or meat; blade size ranges from 210-270 mm
  • Santoku: smaller than gyuto; most common for general home use; mainly for vegetables and fish (165-180 mm)
  • Nakiri: vegetable knife, similar in size to the Santoku (165-180 mm), but with a square tip.
  • Petty: smaller knife (120-180mm) for paring and cutting smaller vegetables
  • Sujihiki: much longer meat knife (240-180mm)
  • Hankotsu: butcher knife for cutting meat off bone (approx. 150mm)

Japanese Style:

  • Yanagiba: most popular fish knife (sashimi knife); can cut, skin, scale, and debone.
  • Deba: thicker fish knife; for filleting and cutting through bone (120-210mm)
  • Usuba: the thinnest of the knives, for cutting thin slices (180-240mm)
  • Kiritsuke: hybrid of yanagiba and usuba; requires greater control to use due to its length and shape (240-300mm)
  • Mukimono: angled vegetable knife for decorative cutting (150-210mm)
  • Hamokiri: medium thickness and length (compared to yanagiba and deba); for thin fish bone and flesh (240-300mm)

There are even special knives for specific types of fish! For example, the Maguro-kiri (tuna knife), Unagisaki (eel knife), and Fuguhiki (pufferfish knife). 

Buying Japanese Kitchen Knives

Kappabashi (aka Kitchenware Street) in Tokyo is one of the best spots to buy kitchen knives in Japan. Share on X

The best place to buy good quality knives is, without a doubt, in Japan! But don’t worry – if you can’t hop a plane for your next shopping trip, you can find them online as well.

Kappabashi (aka Kitchenware Street) in Tokyo is one of the best spots. With nearly 200 kitchenware stores, there are several specialty Japanese knife shops. One of the most popular is Kamata, a top cutlery shop since 1923.

Shopping in person also allows you to hold and test the products before purchasing. Ask the shop owner for a carrot and try it out for yourself!

Online, they are available through Japanese retailers, Rakuten, and even Amazon.

Conclusion

There is so much more to the world of Japanese kitchen knives than I could feasibly explain in this simple article. Thankfully, the internet is not short of helpful resources all about these incredible tools!

Life With Knife is a useful Japanese blog with all kinds of information, including buying and caring for your knives. This Rakuten page details how to know which knife is best for you. For English readers, ZKnives has a thorough list of Japanese knife types, including many that we didn’t even mention here.

But no need to go to another Web site. If you already shop at Amazon, you can pick up authentic Japanese cutlery easily! Below are some of our recommendations, all highly rated by other Amazon shoppers.

And if you’re not ready to invest in your own just yet, you can always visit a kaiten-zushi shop to watch these blades in action while you still can!

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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