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Last Updated: December 2020
Japanese culinary knives have a fantastic reputation. If you have ever worked with a professionally crafted blade from Japan, then you have tasted quality. From Samurai swords to kitchen knives, Japan has long been renowned for making blades.
If you are new to Japanese blades, then you may be wondering what is so special about them, especially when it comes to kitchen knives. What makes Japanese knives so different, and why should I invest in one?
We are here to answer all of your questions so you can make an informed decision about the best type of knife for your needs.
While Japanese knives do have unique properties and signature craftsmanship, they do share a lot of similarities with Western knives, bringing a lot of familiarity.
We’ll take a look at the key features of Japanese knives, highlight the most commonly used Japanese kitchen knives, and recommend some of our favorites.
The History of Japanese Knives
Knives have been used in many cultures around the world, dating back hundreds of years. In Japan, knives can be dated as far back as the Nara Era (710-794). Visit the Imperial Treasure House in the Nara prefecture and you will find long, narrow knives with curved blades.
These simple blades were used in religious ceremonies by the Japanese Aristocracy. The ceremonies often had carps and cranes expertly cut to musical accompaniments.
From here, the evolution of the Japanese knives led to many different types. The Edo period brought about Deba (kitchen), Yanagiba (sashimi), and Nakiri (vegetable) knives. As meat became more of a staple in Japan, Gyutu (chef) knives were introduced.
Over the years, Japanese knives have remained segmented in individual categories. While the use has stayed the same, the quality of each knife has continued to increase over time. There is a reason why Japanese knives are coveted all over the world.
The Tradition of Japanese Kitchen Knives
Chefs undergo rigorous training until they can create mouth-watering dishes. In Japan, a chef not only has to learn how to cook, but they must also be able to expertly handle and care for their knives too.
A knife, to a chef, is a personal item. After a day in the kitchen, a Japanese chef will sharpen and polish their knife, using it with care and extending the life of it for years.
Many believe that after years of use, a tool becomes inhabited by a spirit. The item becomes more personal and integral and is a part of the chef, an extension of their being.
When a knife breaks or becomes too worn to be used, it is not merely disposed of. There is an appreciation for the life and productivity of the knife, and a Hocho-zuka is erected.
A Hocho-zuka is a mound where knives are buried. Just like swords, there is a belief that knives also hold spirits, so the mound is not only to appreciate the life of the knife but to also consecrate the spirit inside. The monuments are used to pray for improved knife and cooking skills.
This reverence for knives is being embraced around the world and is leading to a less wasteful kitchen. Japan has a culture of maintaining a tool, and that means blades are re-sharpened, handles replaced, and the knife revived multiple times.
Japanese knives are expertly made but they are also maintained and can last for a lifetime.
How Are Japanese Kitchen Knives Made?
Japanese knives are crafted from a single piece of steel. The advanced forging process hammers and tempers the steel to create each blade, and there are two distinct processes, each bringing their own characteristics to the finished knife.
Kasumi (mist) knives combine hard steel with flexible and soft iron to create sturdiness and an extra-sharp blade.
Honyaki (true-forged) knives use only steel in the blade and that means that the knife stays sharper for longer.
Japanese vs. German Kitchen Knives
Japan has not cornered the market on kitchen knives. Germany also makes expert kitchen knives that can rival Japanese ones. So, what are the differences between the two?
Both Japanese and German knives come in a variety of types. Bread knives are very different from steak knives, and both are vastly different when compared to boning knives.
Each knife serves a distinct purpose and the purpose comes from the shape, hardness, sharpness, and edge angle.
Steel is an alloy created by fusing iron and carbon. The more carbon a steel knife contains, the harder it is, but the less durable it also becomes.
Japanese knives traditionally contain more carbon than German knives. They are harder but less durable. German steel knives are softer but this means that they hold an edge longer and do not need to be sharpened as often.
German knives are crafted entirely from steel, from blade to handle. Japanese knives taper the steel inside of a handle, leading to a lighter knife with more weight at the front. Japanese knives offer more control over the movement.
Japanese blades are usually thinner. They have an edge-angle of around 15 degrees, while German knives have edge-angles of around 20 degrees. These sharper edges are created by hand-honing each blade, where German knives are machine-finished. A German blade will also have a slightly curved blade for rocking cuts, while a Japanese blade is straighter for more precise slices.
In essence, Japanese kitchen knives are suited for precision cutting, mainly designed for slicing. German kitchen knives are more versatile and are suited to slicing, chopping, and cutting, with added durability.
The Best Japanese Kitchen Knives by Type
You know a little about Japanese kitchen knives, but which knives do you need?
There are so many knives out there that you need to know a little more about the most common knives and what they are used for. Our simple guide introduces you to the traditional knives, plus we provide out a recommended knife for each type.
1. Gyuto (Chef’s Knife)
A Gyuto knife is a traditional chef’s knife. The literal translation of Gyuto is ‘beef sword.’
A Gyuto knife has a slightly curved blade allowing you to rock the knife back and forth as you cut, and is used in Japanese cuisine to prepare Western food, though it does lend itself well to Japanese cuisine too. This knife can replace any chef’s knife in a Western kitchen.
The knife works for meat and vegetables, and the sharp tip allows you to do precision work too.
Our Recommendation: Yoshihiro VG-10 Damascus Gyuto Japanese Chef Knife
A flexible knife that is essential in any chef’s kitchen. Made in Japan, the steel is hammered and forged to create 46 layers for strength. The hammered blade also eliminates friction, reducing sticking on the blade. The traditional Japanese Wa-style handcrafted octagonal handle is lightweight and ergonomic for comfort. A protective sheath keeps the knife in excellent condition and reduces the need for sharpening.
A traditional Gyuto knife made in Japan.
2. Santoku (Multipurpose)
Santoku translates as ‘knife of three virtues.’
This type of knife is mainly used for vegetables, fish, and meat. It is a multi-purpose knife that can come with a European or Japanese handle. The knife will usually be 6.5” – 7.1” long and usually has a double-bevel.
Our Recommendation: Yoshihiro VG-10 Damascus Santoku Japanese Chef Knife
This Santoku knife is a perfect multi-purpose knife for your kitchen, excellent for slicing, dicing, chopping, and mincing fruits, vegetables, fish, and boneless meat. The three-layer construction gives sharpness, edge retention, and durability. The 16-layer hammered outer steel not only provides a razor-sharp blade that is easy to sharpen, but it adds an aesthetic quality to the knife too, eliminating friction and sticking.
The mahogany handle will feel ergonomic in your hand, and the full tang creates balance, making it a great blade for any level of chef. A wonderful knife that is traditionally crafted in Japan.
3. Deba (Butchery)
The Deba knife is a butcher’s knife originally designed for cutting and filleting chicken and fish.
Deba knives run from 6.5” to 8.2” in length and are around 0.35” thick. While the blade does look tough, remember that this is a filleting knife. The knife should not be used to cut through bones, and the edge can chip if you do.
The blades are chisel-ground and usually have a Japanese handle.
Our Recommendation: Yoshihiro Deba Japanese Chef Knife
Handmade in Japan, this Deba knife has a hard steel blade forged with iron to create mist patterns in the metal. The knife looks great, and cuts precisely too, allowing you to fillet your meat with ease. The hand-forged blade is complemented with a rounded handcrafted magnolia handle for extra comfort when you are working in the kitchen. The heft of this knife does allow you to cut through some bones and remove the heads of fish but is not recommended for larger bones. The sharp point fillets the flesh from fish or chicken with precision. This is a knife that is built to last. With a protective sheath and blade oil, you can take care of it with ease and have it last for years.
An expert knife made in Japan.
4. Petty (Paring/Utility)
Resembling a smaller version of a Gyuto knife, a Petty knife is used for paring. It is a utility knife that will come in useful when you are handling any fruits or vegetables. Any take where a large knife would only get in the way, and you need a delicate touch, the Petty knife is your best friend.
If you ever need to peel fruit, remove cores, remove eyes from root vegetables, decorate, or perform any other delicate work, then a Petty knife should be in your kitchen.
Our Recommendation: Kikusumi KATURA Petty Knife – Damascus Steel
This blade is forged by master craftsmen in Seki, Japan. The stainless steel core is wrapped in 45 layers of Damascus steel and finished with a unique tsuchime finish. This stops food from sticking to the blade and also makes it easier to sharpen. The octagon handle also makes this knife a breeze to handle when you are performing more delicate tasks and fits comfortably in left or right hands, offering a premium grip.
The combination of design and function makes this a beautiful knife that was crafted to be used. This is an artisan knife that is crafted in Japan and is intended to inspire creative and beautiful cooking. A wonderful knife for any level of chef.
5. Honesuki (Boning)
A Honesuki knife is essential in any kitchen that handles a lot of meat and is used for deboning. Differing from Western boning knives, the Honesuki has a triangular blade that has minimal flex. It is extremely useful for deboning chicken and can cut through soft joints.
The usual asymmetrical edge favors using one hand over the other, but you can also find balanced versions that can be used in both hands. Being more compact, a Honesuki knife can also be used as a paring or utility knife.
Our Recommendation: Shun Premier Honesuki Knife
This 16-degree hand-sharpened Honesuki knife has a double-bevel blade for easy deboning and features 34 layers of Damascus steel on each side. The 4.5” blade is easy to handle, with an ergonomic handle that can be used to apply pressure to joints and bones without causing discomfort.
The Damascus steel is hand-hammered to create a tsuchime finish that is striking to look at and also stops food from sticking to the blade of the knife. The hammered blade also reduces drag, making it easier to slice through thick cuts of meat.
A wonderful Honesuki knife crafted in Japan.
6. Hankotsu (Boning)
Another boning knife, the Hankotsu is suited to larger cuts of meat. Perfect for hanging meats or loins, this knife has a thick spine and no flex that you would usually find in Western knives. It is still compact, so you can use it for more detailed work or paring if you do not have a Petty knife.
Our Recommendation: Yoshihiro Hankotsu Knife
Using traditional methods and modern technology, the Yoshihiro’s knife incorporates high carbon steel and stain resistant metallic elements. This is a hard knife that can be used again and again as long as you take care of it. A staple in the kitchen of chefs around the world, this Hankotsu knife will break down meat, cutting along bone, fat, and tendons.
The strong beveled edge can be left unsharpened for heavy-duty work and then sharpened up for detailed boning. It is amazing for delicate fileting along with cutting through heavy joints. This is a one-of-a-kind knife made in Japan.
7. Takobiki (Slicer)
Originating in the Kanto region of Japan, the Takobiki knife is a variation of the Yanagi knife and features an incredibly sharp single-edge. The knife as created for slicing, and is often used for sushi, sashimi, and crudo. The edge is blunt, bringing a layer of safety, and this is often favored by sushi chefs who are working close to customers.
Our Recommendation: Yoshihiro Takobiki Knife
This knife is handmade by master artisans in Japan and that creates the quality needed for precise slicing. The knife is forged with iron to create a mist pattern in the blade, and the exquisite craftsmanship allows for paper-thin slicing. The knife is light and easy to wield, cutting through food with minimal damage to the surface of the cells, thus preserving the texture and taste.
The D-shaped handle is ergonomic for seamless use, and the blade comes with a protective sheath to preserve the sharpness of the knife. A unique knife crafted in Japan.
8. Sujihiki (Slicer)
A long knife for slicing meat or fish, the Sujihiki is similar to a traditional Western carving knife. Whenever you would use a carving knife, you can use a Sujihiki knife. You can use the blade to trim roasts before cooking, and that carve them up once they are cooked. As with many Japanese knives, there can be multiple uses, and this knife is handy for filleting fish too.
Our Recommendation: Yoshihiro Sujihiki Chef Knife
The extra carbon in this knife adds edge retention and durability. The long, narrow blade is razor-sharp to slice easily through meat and vegetables, preserving the freshness and integrity as it does. The knife is handcrafted in Japan by master artisans, creating a knife like no other. The Western-style handle and full tang adds an ergonomic feel for extended use.
From slicing fresh fish to carving up a chicken, this Japanese knife is a must for all kitchens.
9. Kiritsuke (Slicer)
A traditional Japanese knife with an angled tip that is used for either slicing sashimi or as an all-purpose knife. This is a knife often found in Japanese restaurant kitchens, but traditionally only used by the Executive Chef and not by other cooks.
Our Recommendation: KATSU Kiritsuke Chef Knife – Damascus Steel
This knife looks beautiful, and comes with a protective sheath to increase the life of the blade, and retain the sharpness. The traditional convex-grind Damascus steel blade has excellent sharpness with amazing durability. It is easy to sharpen this knife when it becomes blunt.
The ebony-wood handle adds to the beauty of the knife and is lightweight, adding an ergonomic feel that adheres to the palm of your hand. An amazing knife for thin slicing in any kitchen.
10. Yanagi (Slicer)
Yanagi knives are single-edge traditional blades that are used to cut sushi, sashimi, and crudo in one long stroke. The long drawing motion from these blades gives a precise cut and protects the food while it is being cut. These single-edge knives are extremely sharp.
Our Recommendation: Yoshihiro VG-10 Stainless Steel Yanagi Knife
A combination of high-carbon steel and stainless steel gives a sharp blade, edge retention, durability, and longevity. This knife is easy to care for, lasting for many years and is easy to sharpen when it becomes blunt.
The single-edge blade is 11.8” long with a completely flat grind on the front with a concave ground and flat rim on the back. The simple and elegant design offers a light and balanced feel and is 100% made in Japan.
11. Usuba (Vegetable Knife)
With a thin rectangular blade, an Usaba knife is designed to cut vegetables. The blade is chisel-ground and comes with a classic Japanese handle. If you cook with vegetables, and we are sure that you do, then this knife is essential in your kitchen.
Our Recommendation: Nakiri (Usuba) Vegetable Chef Knife – Damascus Steel
Forged from a solid piece of steel, this Japanese knife has a full tang for increased durability. The steel is hardened using a cryogenic nitrogen cooling process, producing one of the hardest blades on out list. With 33 layers of Damascus steel on each side and a wonderful pattern ingrained into the metal, this knife is both functional and beautiful.
The 8-12 degree angle on each side creates a sharp blade allowing you to slice, pare, and do everything else to your vegetables. A rounded handle provides you with a comfortable grip and balance, allowing you to use the knife or a long time.
Prepare a lot of vegetables? Then, you need this knife.
12. Nakiri (Vegetable Knife)
This rectangular Nakiri knife is similar to the Usuba knife. It is thinner than the Usuba knife and is found more in home kitchens. Nakiri translates as ‘knife for cutting greens’ and is essential for handling vegetables. It can have a Japanese or European handle, the length usually ranges from 6.5”-7.1”, and it features a double bevel.
Our Recommendation: Shun Cutlery Classic Nakiri Knife
Traditionally used for vegetables, this Nakiri knife has a 6.5” blade and is clad in 68 layers of Damascus stainless steel. The knife is swift and sharp and can be used to slice, dice, chop, julienne, trim, pare, and peel.
The wood handle is comfortable to hold and the blade is corrosion-resistant. Take care of this knife and it will last you for a very long time. Made in Japan, this is a beautiful knife that you will love to have in the kitchen.
How to Use Japanese Knives
Watch the video below to learn how to expertly use every style of Japanese knife.