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Sharpen Up: Hone Your Knowledge of Japanese Cooking Knives

Replace your blunted kitchen cutting tools with these universally revered Japanese blades.

By 6 min read

Are you looking for a unique and high-quality gift for a special someone, or are you simply looking to expand your growing knife collection? Either way, you may be finding the world of Japanese knives a little overwhelming and confusing, so let’s get right to the point.

As the weapon of choice in many professional kitchens worldwide, these chef’s blades are reliable, precise and—of course—satisfyingly sharp. But what sets apart the general-purpose kitchen knife from a sushi knife? And why shouldn’t you use a vegetable knife to fillet a fish?

Let’s answer these questions and help you sheath your worries once and for all.

Japanese vs. Western knives

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Japanese knives and Western knives.

So what distinguishes a Japanese knife from a Western one?

Like the katana (Japanese single-edged sword), the modern-day Japanese knife has the reputation of being exquisitely honed and made from enduring high-quality steel.

Compared to its Western counterpart, this superior sharpness is most likely due to the traditional Japanese knives’ single-bevel edge. One side of the blade is concave at a slight angle while the other sits straight, creating a sharper edge that’s perfect for uninterrupted slicing.

However, not all Japanese knives are the same. Double-bevel blades (where the sides meet) grew popular after Western cuisine entered Japan. These became the all-purpose chef’s knife in Japan and are equivalent to a typical European chef’s knife.

You may also see many wa, or traditional Japanese wooden handles, in your search. The grip is vital when choosing a knife as it changes the balance and weight of the tool. Moreover, the handle makes the blade lighter and more front-loaded, revolutionizing how you use your knife.

All-purpose knives

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Your standard Japanese kitchen knife.

The gyutou bocho (“chef’s knife,” in Japanese) is the most common and versatile chef’s knife in Japan. Although its name implies it’s solely for meat, this beast does so much more. Beloved by professional chefs worldwide for its slim and versatile blade, it can do anything from julienning onions to slicing a well-cooked steak.

Its lengthiness and rock-cut style push people towards the more compact knives (see below), but trained cooks generally prefer the gyutou for its elongated size.

The knife most often found in Japanese households is the santoku bocho (literally, “three virtues” or “three purpose ” knife). Not to be confused with the Japanese supermarket of the same name, its name refers to its ability to dice, mince and slice meat, vegetables and fish.

In the 1940s, there was a demand for a universal kitchen knife. At the time, most kitchens used the bunka bocho (cultural knife), a wide blade with a reverse tip. The santoku was adapted from the bunka but is made with a curved tip.

The santoku’s smoother tip and flat profile make cutting a breeze. Hence, you finally get those perfectly cut carrots—a reliable choice to start your Japanese knife collection.

The gyutou knife

  • Professional chefs love it
  • Longer and thinner than the santoku
  • Size: 18 to 30 centimeters

The santoku knife

  • Great knife for beginners
  • Flat, compact and shorter than the gyutou
  • Size: 13 to 20 centimeters

For vegetables

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The daikon (radish) never stood a chance.

To complement your all-purpose knife, pick up try the quaint and practical petinaifu (derived from the French word “petit”). Primarily used for herbs, small vegetables and fruits, this nimble blade can be utilized effortlessly on the chopping board or in your hand. Smaller versions, such as a paring knife, are small enough to fit in your palm and are excellent for peeling.

Similar in shape to a cleaver, the nakiri bocho (vegetable cutting knife) is an excellent tool for veggie lovers. Its rectangular shape, flat edge and unsharpened tip make it the perfect aid for straight clean cuts through voluptuous greens and gourds such as squashes and cabbages. You can also use the wide blade to ferry your cuttings across the kitchen.

Have you ever wondered how that paper-thin daikon ended up on your pricey sushi plate? You can likely thank the chef and his master cutting technique, katsuramuki (a method for cutting thin, long strips) via their traditional single-bevel Usuba bocho (thin knife).

Once you’ve bought your prized possession and are wielding it with pride, invest in tools such as a hocho togi (knife sharpener).

It shares many characteristics with the nakari, such as its flat edge and cleaver likeness. However, the usuba’s single-bevel and razor-sharp qualities make it suitable for achieving finely shaved fruits and vegetables. There are two types of the usuba knife, the Kanto version with a blunt tip and the Kansai version with a point.

The petinaifu

  • Perfect for smaller kitchens
  • Pair it with the gyutou
  • Size: 8 to 18 centimeters

The nakiri knife

  • Large, clean vegetable cuts
  • Quick and easy to use
  • Size: 12 to 24 centimeters

The usuba knife

  • Primarily for professional chefs
  • Single-bevel
  • Size: 16.5 to 24 centimeters

For seafood

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If you like sushi, you can thank these knives.

Japan is home to an array of fresh, delicious fish. The perfect knife to skin and fillet them is the traditional deba bocho (pointed carving knife). Originating in the Edo Period (1603–1867), this single-bevel knife is heavier than other knives on this list to cut through bone without dulling the blade. It has a thick spine, but with some practice, you can use it delicately.

Finish the job with a yanagiba bocho (willow blade knife), typically used for sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish). Like a typical Japanese-style knife, its elegant length and single-bevel edge make it the perfect tool for long, uninterrupted cuts through your fillet. That’s how you get those unblemished sashimi pieces.

The deba knife

  • Cuts through bone
  • For butchering a whole fish
  • Size: 15to 33 centimeters

The yanagiba knife

  • For perfect sashimi cuts
  • Size: 21cm (8 inches) to 36cm (14 inches)

For beef and chicken

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The honesuki knife looks like something from Assassin’s Creed.

If you are not shy around raw meat, try out the sujihiki bocho (literally,”muscle cutter“) next time you slice up some boneless beef, chicken or pork.

It is a slimmed-down version of the European carving knife and is similar in aesthetic and cuts to the yanagiba. When used correctly, you will come away with clean cuts and now a tear in sight.

Have you ever needed to break down a chicken to fit inside your tiny Japanese oven? Then the honesuki bocho (bone lover knife) is for you. Though it won’t cut through large bones, its angled tip is more than proficient for those pesky cartridges and nagging wishbones.

In the end, you’ll be left with a perfectly cut chicken with separated wings, breasts, tenders and drumsticks to eat throughout the week.

The sujihiki knife

  • A slimmed-down carving knife.
  • Get cuts similar to a sashimi knife
  • Size: 21 to 36 centimeters

The honesuki knife

  • Break down a whole chicken
  • Maneuverable
  • Size: 14.5 to 18 centimeters

Where to buy

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While you were out partying, I studied the blade.
  • Tojiro: Long-lasting knives manufactured in Niigata using ancient katana swordsmithing methods.
  • Ryusen: Premium quality knives made with a 700-year-old technique.
  • Yoshikin: Responsible for the world-renowned Global brand that Anthony Bourdain once endorsed.
  • Kai: Affordable blades at every price range and also produce the much-loved Shun brand.
  • Masamoto: Six generations later, these craftsmen still specialize in impeccable traditional Japanese-style knives.

The final point

The list could go on and on, such as the all-purpose kiritsuke bocho (slit open knife) for the real experts or the hankotsu bocho (“rebellious” knife) for hanging meats. So it’s best to research further to find the perfect Japanese knife for your kitchen.

Just remember, once you’ve bought your prized possession and are wielding it with pride, invest in tools such as a hocho togi (knife sharpener) and oil to keep them sharp and polished.

Which knife would you like to grace your kitchen? Did we forget your favorite? Let us know in the comments! 

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