Types of Japanese Knives
A Useful Guide to Their Traditional Blades
By Bobby B. | March 7, 2020 | Blog
Traditional Japanese knives have been hand-made by skilled artisans for centuries in areas of Japan like Sakai and Seki City. Their culture produces and uses knives that can be quite different than ours here in the Western part of the world. However, Americans are growing more fond of certain types of Japanese knives and finding that they are quite useful for certain tasks in the kitchen.
In this digital age we live in, it’s much more likely that the average home chef will run into pictures or stories of a traditional Japanese knife. Beyond that, with the invent of online shopping and the global aspect of it, it’s exponentially easier to purchase them from the comfort of your own home.
There are many different types of traditional Japanese kitchen knives. Here’s a larger list with pictures to give you an idea, but we’ll focus just on the more popular ones in our discussion below.
Japanese Knife Types
Purpose: Whole Fish Butchery
The Deba is a knife often used in the butchery of whole fish in Japan. Its blade is thick and heavy duty for the tough tasks given to it. A Japanese Deba knife is most often called upon when cutting through the head and bones of a whole fish during the filleting process, but it can be used on meat as well.
The Yoshihiro Shiroko Kasumi Deba is a great example with its thick, durable blade. it uses very hard (62 HRC) white steel 2 and includes a saya cover.
Purpose: All-purpose Chef Knife
The Gyuto knife is Japan’s version of the Western chefs knife. A prefect all-purpose knife for numerous tasks around the kitchen. Unlike the Santoku knife, the Gyuto has a slightly curved blade so it can be used in more of a rocking motion. Gyuto knives are very versatile and can be used for chopping meat or vegetables as well as cutting fish.
Check out this Enso 8″ Gyuto. Made in Japan and featuring VG10 hammered Damascus stainless steel, this knife will be the envy of your kitchen.
Purpose: All-purpose Knife
The Kiritsuke knife is quite unique looking with its angled tip. Some of the longer ones can almost look like a short sword! Kiritsuke knives do a great job of slicing cooked meat. They are well-known for being difficult to use and thus, in traditional Japanese culture, only executive chefs in a restaurant are allowed to used it.
The Shun DM0771 Classic Kiritsuke is a curved twist on the traditional blade that makes consumers go wild. Buy one for your own kitchen so no one can keep you from using it.
Purpose: Cutting Vegetables
The Japanese Nakiri knife is popular among home chefs for precise cuts like the julienne for vegetables. They also work well for harder product with thick skins like potatoes and squash. Nakiri knives are almost a Western twist on the Usuba knife. It has a double bevel, making it easier for home chefs and beginners than the more complex Usuba.
The Shun Premier Nakiri is a great choice. You’ve got to check out the positive reviews online for this beautiful 5-1/2″ vegetable knife.
Purpose: Fruit/Vegetable Paring
A Petty knife is a small utility or paring knife that’s used by Japanese chefs for the delicate work on small fruits and vegetables. Very similar to a Western paring knife, a petty can be used for both styling fruits in a presentation manner or as a utility knife for preparing meals. This makes the petty very multipurpose and important to have around.
The Dalstrong Shogun 6″ Petty is made of AUS-10V Damascus steel and is prefect for many jobs throughout your kitchen. You can feel comfortable with your purchase as Dalstrong offers a money-back guarantee.
Santoku knives are used for all sorts of tasks around the kitchen. They are used to cut meat, fish, and vegetables. They have a rounded tip and flat blade so they can be used more in a chopping motion than a rocking motion like the Western chef’s knife. Like other Japanese knives, the santoku knives have strong, thin blades.
America’s Test Kitchen recently put 10 santoku knives to the test. Just as it did when it won their 2004 test, the MAC SK-65 Superior Santoku wowed the judges. This time around, the picked it as their “Best Buy” due to its affordable price.
Purpose: Slicing/Filleting Meat, Fish and Poultry
A Sujihiki knife is made with a long thin blade, typically with a double bevel. Similar to a Western slicing knife, but with a thinner, harder blade that requires less sharpening. The edge angle is also sharper, which is made possible because of the harder Japanese steel. This slicer makes quick work of meat, fish, and poultry.
The Tojiro DP Sujihiki Slicer is double beveled, so it works for both right and left-handed chefs. This also makes it popular amount Westerners.
Purpose: Vegetable Cutting
The Usuba knife is used for intricate vegetable cutting, like julienne and dicing. They are single-bevel and thus take more skill to use than a Nakiri (Nakiri vs Usuba). But, once perfected, they can make thinly-sliced magical cuts. Most have a squared tip, but Usuba knives from the Kansai region are rounded at the tip.
For a true hand-made, traditional Japanese knife, take a look at the Yoshihiro Hongasumi Edo Usuba. Its blade is made of super-hardened Blue Steel #2. A note to beginners: true, single-beveled Usuba knives like this one are very difficult to use and master. You might be better off with a Nakiri if you’re not familiar with single-beveled knives.
Purpose: Slicing Fish / Sushi & Sashimi Knife
The Yanagiba knife is very long, very sharp, and very hard. It’s a high-end knife popular among sashimi chefs as it makes the best sushi knife. Their length allows them to slice through almost anything with a single, long slice rather than a back and forth motion. This, paired with a traditional single-bevel, give the user a very clean looking cut.
For a high-end sashimi knife experience at home, consider the Yoshihiro VGYA240SH. It’s made of high-quality materials and has a traditional Japanese look and feel.
Japanese Knife Characteristics
There are a few features of Japanese knives that make them unique from Western knives. Reasons for the distinction range from traditional knife making processes to the difference and variety in foods from that region of the world. Not only are the foods different, but how they’re prepared contrast our styles here in the West.
Steels & Hardness
The Japanese people use harder steels with higher carbon content that most of the rest of the world. There are pros and cons to this however. The benefits of this are increase blade retention, meaning less sharpening. However, this also means their blades are more brittle and can chip under certain conditions if not used properly. Also the higher carbon content means the possibility of rust or corrosion if not kept clean and dry immediately after use.
Asian knives tend to have sharper angles than Western knives. This is made possible by the harder steels mentioned above. In addition, it’s not uncommon to see single-bevel knives in Japan. This is rare in the West.
Their blades are thinner, in part because of the sharper angles, but also because Japanese Chefs do more finesse work with their knives. Also, their diets consist more of fish and poultry and less of beef and other tough meats with large bones.
Most of the time, you’ll see traditional Japanese knives using a flat blade. This assists them in the chopping motion that they use often in their cooking, whereas American chefs like to use more of a rocking motion with a curved blade.
Japanese Knife Comparisons
With all the different types of Japanese knives available, it can get confusing for us Westerners to keep track which knife is used for what and why. We’ve put together quick comparison pages for each of these combinations of Japanese knives. They were specifically selected based common errors in distinction between the two knives.
Japanese Knife Brands
There are literally thousands of Japanese knife brands, and even more kitchen knife brands that make Japanese-style knives in other parts of the world. Here are a few of our favorites. For those that have clickable links, we have brand reviews where you can learn more about the brand’s history and processes.
Other Traditional Japanese Knife Types
Trying to identify a traditional Japanese knife type that you didn’t see on our list above? Or maybe you’ve heard a name, but weren’t sure what it looks like. Here’s a more comprehensive list of Asian-style knives, many of which are much less common than the ones we discussed above.