Japanese Chef Knives : What are they and why do I need one?

Colorful vegetables on a dark wooden surface next to a nakiri knife

6'' Nakiri Knife | Phantom Series | Dalstrong ©

What is a Japanese Chef Knife?

Japanese chef knives are the perfect tool for all your slicing, dicing, chopping, and cutting needs. A major reason why some chefs prefer to keep at least one Japanese knife in their roll is that they are easier to sharpen than western or European knives and provide better edge retention when looked after with care.  

A yanagiba knife slicing through orange raw fish on a white surface

9.5'' Yanagiba Knife | Phantom Series | Dalstrong ©

Content Gallery

  1. What is a Japanese Chef’s Knife?
  2. Japanese Chef’s Knife VS Ordinary Chef’s Knife
  3. Things to keep in mind before buying a Japanese Chef Knife
  4. Introduction to Damascus Steel
  5. Different types of Japanese knives
  6. Top 5 high-quality Japanese knives
  7. Frequently Asked Questions

Curious why Japanese knives are regarded as the finest culinary tools? In today’s blog, let’s take a close look at the different Japanese kitchen knives and what makes these beauties a cut above the other knives available in the market. 

1. What is a Japanese Chef’s Knife?

A chef with tattoos slices through a red pepper on a white cutting board with a Santoku

7'' Santoku | Shogun Series | Dalstrong ©

When we speak of Japanese knives, it cannot be forgotten that they were greatly influenced by the technological development of Japanese swords. It is no secret that the Japanese are master blade crafters and knife makers.

This is because of this that Japanese kitchen knives or Hōchō have a strong cult following of passionate chefs and cooks across the globe. With its well-renowned reputation for the most well-crafted kitchen implements in the world, Japanese knives offer strength, beauty, and durability. 

The primary reason that these knives are so desirable is the fact that they are made with hard carbon steel and still have a light, thin, and super sharp edge. This makes these knives the perfect tool for all your slicing, dicing, chopping, and cutting needs.

Another reason why chefs prefer to keep a Japanese knife around is that they are easier to sharpen than western or European knives and provide better edge retention when looked after with care.  

Your kitchen may have a wide array of tools and equipment, from cookware to accessories like a sturdy cutting board and aprons. But, if you are in pursuit of upgrading your kitchen knife collection and equipping your home with the holy grail of knives, a Japanese knife set is well worth your investment.

Every Japanese knife can range in price depending on the type of steel used and the methods adopted to craft and sharpen it, and choosing can get overwhelming, especially if you’re new to building your kitchen knife arsenal.

But don’t sweat it! I’m here to walk you through the characteristics that set these knives apart from normal chef’s knives and get down to the nitty-gritty of finding a Japanese blade that works for your kitchen. 

2. Japanese Chef’s Knife VS Ordinary Chef’s Knife

Is it time for you to buy a high-quality knife for your kitchen but you don’t know what to pick? 

After some research, I have identified some stark differences that make it easier for you to understand why Japanese knives are so sought after. 

Key Differences

Japanese Chef‘s Knife (Gyuto) 

Ordinary Chef’s Knife

Origin

Originated in Japan

Originated in Germany and France

Size

7-8 inches

6-12 inches

Blade

It has a wide sheepsfoot blade with no tip (a dull back spine that curves down to meet the straight-edged front blade).

Some blades also have hollowed-out indentations that make it easier to release food.

It has a broad blade that curves upwards to form a tip (spine is thicker to add weight)

Blade Sharpness

These knives can be sharpened to an approximate angle of 10 – 15 degrees.

These can be sharpened to 15 to 20 degrees on both sides

Bevel
(the surface that has been ground to form the knife edge)

It can be single (one-sided) or double (both sides) bevel

Usually only found in double bevel

Bolster
(the piece of metal between blade and handle)

Usually no bolster

Has a bolster

Best Use

  • Downward movement and forward/backward motions
  • Faster, thinner, precision slicing and peeling with easy food release
  • Works best when dealing with delicate foods like fruits, soft vegetables, seafood, chicken, and cheeses
  • Mincing meat or herbs
  • Scooping food from the cutting board because of its wide blade
  • Ideal for smaller hands
  • Rocking motion technique or “rock chop”
  • Thicker slicing for heavier food types and disjointing meats
  • Works best when handling denser meats, fruits, root vegetables, and nuts
  • Complex or versatile cutting
  • Good for all sized hands

Weight

Lighter to hold

Heavier to hold


3. Things to keep in mind before buying a Japanese Chef Knife

 

Horizontal yanagiba knife on a marble cutting board in front of several sushi pieces of different colors

The Ronin Series 10.5" Yanagiba & Sushi Knife - Single Bevel Sushi Blade

Just like your kitchen needs, even Japanese knives are very different from each other. This makes it very important for you to understand what to look for when buying a Japanese knife so you can determine which knife is best suited for your kitchen needs.

Type of steel

  • This is probably the most important element to look for. The type of steel can make or break a knife. Japanese knives are known for their fine grain structure and hard carbon steel. What you need to keep in mind is that the greater the hardness, the finer the bevel angle, and the sharper the edge. When it comes to Japanese knives, you have a choice of options to pick from, namely high-carbon steel and stainless steel. 
  • Stainless steel blades are rust-resistant, easy maintenance and have excellent sharpness and edge retention. However, these blades require professional sharpening. 
  • On the other hand, high-carbon steel blades combine the advantages of stainless steel and carbon steel to create a superior blade. The premium quality of the steel and sharpness of the blade make this steel highly durable and easier to sharpen. 

Type of handle

  • Getting a good grip on your knife is very important to make clean, smooth cuts and for that purpose, you need a handle that works for you. A knife handle should not be heavier or lighter than required and its shape should sit well in your hands. By chance, if you have a knife that feels uncomfortable, it is bound to perform poorly, regardless of the blade quality. Japanese knives come with 2 types of handles, mainly the traditional Japanese style handle or a western-style handle. 
  • Western-style knife handles are heavier and sturdier, which is why it is preferred for tougher tasks. On the other hand, Japanese-styled handles are usually made of wood, making them lighter and more nimble to work with.

Usage

  • Determining the intended purpose of use is of utmost importance. That is because different blades have different strengths. So before you make the purchase, ask yourself “For what purpose do I intend to use the knife?” For example, if you’re looking for a knife that will come in handy when you are chopping and slicing vegetables, you would want to go for a knife with a curved edge that will allow cutting with a rocking motion. 
  • Similarly, if you need a knife to cut raw fish or meat, you would want to go for a knife with a straight-edged blade as it allows for push-and-pull strokes.
  • The length of the blade matters too. For instance, a shorter blade works wonderfully when cutting small vegetables, however, you will need a longer blade to slice open a whole fish.

Single bevel or Double-bevel 

  • First, let’s understand what ‘bevel’ means. A knife bevel is a surface that has been ground to form the knife’s edge. A close inspection of a knife will reveal a slight angle on either 1 or both sides that runs down to the edge. That is the bevel. 
  • If there is one on both sides, it is a double-bevel knife and if there is one on only one side, then it is a single bevel knife. 
  • Generally, western knives are double-beveled while Japanese ones are traditionally single-beveled. However, you can get a premium-quality Japanese knife in either style. 
  • While professional chefs prefer single-beveled knives for their higher precision cutting, it is not easy to handle and is harder to sharpen. If you are buying a knife for your home kitchen, a double bevel is more favorable. 

4. Introduction to Damascus Steel

A razor sharp nakiri knife next to green vegetables against a dark surface

6'' Nakiri Knife | Shogun Series X | Dalstrong ©

Japanese kitchen knives have a rich history stemming from centuries of crafting Samurai swords. Japanese steel is forged painstakingly by hand and folded many times to create a blade that is both strong and durable, something every kitchen needs. Some Japanese knives are known for their beautiful styles along with diverse functions.

The distinct beauty and strength of these blades put Japanese knives in a different league altogether. Damascus steel knives are crafted with Damascus steel along with wavy patterns. This steel, in general, comprises high carbon steels with tempering and hardening properties fused into one.

When the mixture is heated, it produces a visible crystalline structure. The crystals form a water-like or wavy pattern when cooled down. The use of Damascus steel produces knives that a strong and long-lasting and works beautifully when you have to perform kitchen tasks like slicing through vegetable or meats. This steel produces a razor-sharp blade, which is why lots of care must be exercised when using this blade, especially for amateur cooks and chefs. 

5. Different types of Japanese Knives

A sharp santoku knife on a cutting board beside sliced carrots and peppers

7'' Santoku Knife | Quantum 1 Series | Dalstrong ©

When it comes to the art of making knives, Japanese knifemakers tend to focus their attention on specialization and task-specific designs. These knives are the cream of the crop in the culinary world and have a wide range of blades under them. 

Here is a list of some of the most important Japanese kitchen knife styles you need to know:

Santoku Knife

The most common style of Japanese knives, a Santoku knife is a multipurpose chef’s knife. What sets this knife apart from your ordinary chef’s knife is the blade which is shorter in length, about 5-7 inches long, and features a straighter edge and a “sheep’s foot” shaped tip. Typically, these knives come with a double bevel blade, making them easier to handle. 

This knife gets its name from the term “Santoku” which essentially translates to “three virtues”. In the case of a Santoku knife, it can be used to cut meat, fish, and vegetables or perform 3 important kitchen tasks, namely, chopping, slicing, and dicing. 

Nakiri Knife

No matter what vegetable you need to cut, a Nakiri knife will do the job with great precision. 

The large, rectangular blade of these knives resemble a western cleaver but are not quite the same. Nakiri knives are too thin to cut through animal bone and are typically used for chopping, slicing, and dicing delicate vegetables and other greens. This is because the knife can produce ultra-fine cuts through a guillotine cutting motion, also called the “push-pull” cut,  rather than a rocking motion. 

Forged in high carbon stainless steel, the blade length is similar to that of a Santoku knife, but with a totally straight edge for chopping veggies. The hard steel of this classic knife also lends excellent blade retention, meaning you spend less time sharpening the blade and more time putting it to use.

When picking a Nakiri knife for your kitchen, make sure you choose one with an ergonomic handle for extra comfort while cutting and mincing. So if you’re someone in love with your greens or are a vegetarian who spends a lot of time in the kitchen, a classic Nakiri knife is a must-have. 

Usuba Knife

Look-wise, Usuba knives may be very similar to a Nakiri knife but are recommended for expert knife users. An Usuba knife is a single-bevel knife with a thicker spine and tall, thin blade made for slicing vegetables precisely and thinly. This knife works so delicately on veggies and fruits that it minimizes damage to the skin, making it the perfect tool if you’re planning on serving raw. 

The single bevel Usuba knife comes in either left-handed or right-handed options and is recommended only for professional/experienced users. Inexperienced knife users are more likely to injure themselves without proper training. 

Yanagiba Knife 

Also called the Yanagi knife, Yanagiba knives are traditionally used for slicing sushi or sashimi. 

This knife features a long, narrow blade that ensures paper-thin slices of fish and other meats. The ultra-sharp blade sails through fibers in the flesh preserving its integrity and texture. The blade of this knife is also thicker than standard kitchen knives to provide heft, rigidity and push the sliced piece away from the fish or the meat. The single-beveled blade with a hollowed back offers support when cutting and allows for easy passage through fish. 

These blades were most popular among Asian chefs but have now made their way through western kitchens and it used extensively for boneless proteins such as poultry slicing, flank, hanger steak, pork tenderloins, and other moist and tender meats. Although this master-slicer is most well-known as a sushi or sashimi knife, it is a great tool to have in a kitchen even for an amateur sushi enthusiast. 

Kiritsuke Knife

A true symbol of status, experience, and expertise, a Kiritsuke knife is mainly used by head chefs or cooks with extensive kitchen experience. This versatile, multi-use chef knife has the ability to function as both, an Usuba knife and a Yanagiba knife, however, it can get difficult to perform both the functions unless the chef has considerable experience. 

This sword-shaped knife features a straighter edge than a Yanagiba knife for chopping, dicing, and slicing vegetables, and a longer blade than an Usuba knife for slicing fish with great ease. 

Typically a single bevel knife, you can also find a double-bevel knife to make it easier to work with and maintain. 

Deba Knife

Are you someone who cooks a whole lot of fish and poultry? Then, a Deba knife is the perfect addition to your kitchen arsenal. Deba knives are sturdy with a somewhat petite blase and are used primarily when working with fish. Finish mongers use Deba knives to scale, behead, and filet fish without damaging the flesh. 

The blade of this knife ranges anywhere between 5-13 inches and is strong enough to cut through small and medium-sized bones with ease and precision. However, it is not recommended when working with large bones as it can chip or crack the blade. 

Honesuki Knife

​​Honesuki knives are also known as Japanese boning knives and are primarily used to butcher poultry and fish. The stiff blade and pointed tip are designed specifically for the purpose of deboning and breaking apart meats and fish with precision. 

These knives are best used for cutting through connective tissues like the tendons and cartilages rather than through large bones. Its thick heel is also great for scraping meat from bones while its thin and sharp tip can make delicate cuts with maximum efficiency. 

Bonus Japanese Knives: 

Other than the 7 knife styles listed above, here are some other options that would fit perfectly in your kitchen’s knife collection: 

Gyuto Chef Knife

Did you know that the word ‘Gyuto’ translates to ‘cow sword’? Created with the original purpose of cutting and breaking down beef, today a Gyuto knife is used as a true jack of all trades. This highly versatile, double-beveled, sharp-tipped knife can cut through anything from fresh produce to carving a roasted bird. 

The thin octagonal-shaped rosewood handle will give you ultimate control while working and will prevent wrist fatigue. The hammered texture of this knife also plays a very important role in reducing friction and preventing the food from sticking to the blade. 

Petty Knife

If you are looking for a knife that would work perfectly for small kitchen tasks like peeling fruits and vegetables, creating decorative cuts, or other delicate tasks, then a Japanese Petty knife is the knife for you. 

Petty knives are a smaller and more nimble version of the Japanese Gyuto knife and essentially work as a paring knife in the kitchen. 

6. Top 5 high-quality Japanese knives

1. Santoku Knife

Santoku Knife 5" Gladiator Series | Dalstrong

Santoku Knife 5" Gladiator Series | NSF Certified | Dalstrong ©

This knife is a master of precision work and performs with maximum efficiency when it comes to medium-sized cutting tasks. This knife combines the best of a chef’s knife and a nakiri wrapped in one, giving you the flexibility you need in the kitchen. With a beautiful, ergonomic, and ambidextrous handle, the Gladiator series Santoku knife is carefully designed for max comfort and maneuverability. 

This Santoku knife is perfectly weighted to handle both heavy-duty cuts and more delicate detail work. Another thing that sets this knife apart is the fact that it comes with a hand-polished bolster that adds counterweight and offers finger protection while the triple rivets in the handle ensure the highest level of strength and robustness. 

Pros: 

  • Precision-forged, ultra-sharp, wear-resistant blade made with a single piece of high carbon German ThyssenKrupp Steel at 56+ Rockwell.
  • Painstakingly hand-sharpened blade
  • Full tang for incredible robustness & quality
  • Low maintenance and it cleans easy 

    Cons:

    • The 5-inch blade can prove to be too small for some people. Those who want a slightly longer blade can also go for the Santoku Knife 7” Gladiator Series
    • If you want to work with bulkier meats, you might want to go for a more suitable knife. 

      2. Nakiri Knife

      Nakiri Knife 7" Omega Series | Dalstrong

      Nakiri Knife 7" Omega Series | Dalstrong

      This vegetable-cutting master blade can easily handle all types of vegetables. Combining elements of a chef’s knife with that of a vegetable cleaver, the square tip and flat profile of this blade make it a push cut champion, while the blade's extra width assists with food transfer.

      This knife is perfect for home cooks, vegetarians or vegans, and those who find themselves preparing large amounts of fruits and veggies regularly.

      The ‘Liquid Metal’ pattern on this blade is designed specifically to reduce drag and increase efficiency by allowing you to glide through prep. The G10 woven glass fiber handle is near impervious to heat, cold, and moisture and the full-tang handle gives this knife a good grip and creates a distinct and striking appearance.

      Pros: 

      • Scalpel like blade sharpness at a staggering 8-12°degree angle per side
      • Incredible edge-retention
      • Triple-riveted for added resilience 
      • Low maintenance and it cleans easy 

        Cons:

        • The knife is priced on a slightly higher side
        • This knife only works well with fruits and vegetables. To work with meat, you would want to opt for one of Dalstrong’s other knives

          3. Kiritsuke Knife

          Kiritsuke Chef's Knife 8.5" Shadow Black Series | Dalstrong

          Kiritsuke Chef's Knife 8.5" Shadow Black Series | Dalstrong

          Designed to be a sleek, aggressive, muscular looking and effective knife, the Dalstrong Shadow Black Series stands out from the pack. The menacing design and exceptional craftsmanship of this knife make it a high-performing, cutting-edge tool, created to complement the unique sense of style as a chef. 

          Along with striking angles and life-long durability, these knives come with a midnight black ergonomic, fiber-resin, and military-grade handle that is impervious to heat, cold, and moisture. Each knife comes with unforgettable styling, sophistication, and functionality, making heads turn in any kitchen.

          Pros: 

          • Precision-forged, ultra-sharp, wear-resistant blade made with a single piece of high carbon German ThyssenKrupp Steel at 58+ Rockwell.
          • Tapered design for hardness and flexibly 
          • Multi-use chef’s knife used for chopping, slicing, and dicing vegetables and cutting through fish

            Cons:

            • The narrow blade doesn’t allow you to scoop food from the board to the pan as well as other knives. 
            • When working with tougher meats, you will want to use another knife shape. 

              4. Yanagiba Knife

              Yanagiba Slicer 9.5" Phantom Series | Dalstrong

              Yanagiba Slicer 9.5" Phantom Series | Dalstrong

              The ultimate Sashimi slicing master, Dalstrong’s Yanagiba Slicer features a long and narrow blade that cuts through fish and other meats like butter, ensuring paper-thin slices.

              The Yanagiba is a single-bevel blade used primarily by Asian chefs, however, they are increasingly popular in the West and used for boneless proteins such as raw poultry slicing, flank, hanger steak, pork tenderloins, and other moist and tender meats. Each blade is painstakingly hand sharpened using the traditional honbazuke method, bringing the edge to a razor-sharp 13-15 degrees, ensuring swift, effortless cuts.

              Pros: 

              • The precision instrument ensures the cleanest cuts imaginable
              • The narrow, precision-forged, ice-tempered steel improves agility and maneuverability 

                Cons:

                • Newbies might prefer to go for a less expensive knife 
                • It is crafted to slice sushi and sashimi and might not work with the same ease on tougher meats. 

                5. Deba

                Deba Knife 6” Ronin Series | Dalstrong

                Deba Knife 6” Ronin Series | Dalstrong

                This is the ultimate Japanese fish butchering knife. Traditionally this knife is used in the preparation of fish, like chopping, gutting, and filleting with precision.

                Over the years, this knife has also proved to be a great blade to part out poultry and vegetables as well.
                The Shinogi surface of the knife runs along the flat surface of the blade to the edge, allowing for a narrow, razor-like profile.

                This allows for a sharper, more precise knife, perfecting softer and thinner cuts as well as proficiency in tasks such as the removal of scales and ribs of small to medium-sized fish.

                Pros: 

                • It is a single bevel blade that is precision-forged from a single piece of ultra-premium Japanese high-carbon AUS-10V steel
                • The “Liquid-Kusari” pattern on the blade minimizes drag and stuck on food while maximizing your slicing efficiency
                • Scalpel-like sharpness for exceptionally long-lasting edge retention

                  Cons:

                  • The knife is highly-priced which might not make it the go-to choice
                  • If you are working with bigger and denser bones, this might not be your preferred choice

                    7. Frequently Asked Questions

                    Stainless Steel yanagiba knife slicing through raw fish on a wooden cutting board

                    Gladiator Series 10.5" Yanagiba Knife

                    Why are Japanese chef’s knives so expensive?

                    The high cost of Japanese knives is a result of many factors like the high-end materials cost, extra labor of forge welding together multiple layers, and painstakingly crafted blades that are made by hand.

                    Does Japan make good knives?

                    The Japanese are master knifemakers and bladesmiths. Japanese knives are coveted for their beautiful and detailed design, as well as the cuts they produce. Their blades are typically thin and delicate and prone to breaking if you don't take care of them properly. They allow for thin, precise cuts and beautiful presentation; the ones you’d find in a five-star sushi restaurant.

                    What is the Japanese version of Chef’s Knife?

                    The Santoku knife is the equivalent of the chef knife. The tool typically measures anywhere between 5.1 and 7.9 inches in length. 

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                    Written by Himani Vaid

                    Toronto-based food nerd turned food storyteller, Himani is a connoisseur of all things delish. Currently, busy thinking about what to eat next.