Japanese knives are made in many different shapes, sizes, steels and forging / cladding techniques depending on their use. Below you will find all the information you need to know about the Japanese Knives and why they are superior.
Japanese vs Western
Compared to the Western ones, Japanese knives – called Wabocho – have very significant differences and many advantages in comparison to their relatives.
Traditionally Japanese knives are “half tang” constructed, that means that the metal from the blade goes inside the wooden handle and not all the way to the end of the knife with scales attached like in the Western knives, something that provides better balance.
They are usually “single bevel” (grinded on one side, see picture below) which means that they can offer better, more delicate cuts. In recent times, there are also double bevel versions too, to satisfy all tastes.
They use harder steels and that means that their edge can support very lower sharpening angles leading to greater cutting ability.
There are more than 130 different knife types which means that there are many types of knives designed and constructed based on specific needs and tasks.
In a nutshell, Japanese knives are made to be sharper, lighter, more balanced and give to the cook more options than the rest.
Double bevel vs Single bevel
What is a knife bevel? A knife bevel is the area that has been shaped by grinding to form the knife’s sides down to the edge. If there is on both sides, then it is a double bevel knife. If there is on only one side, then it is a single bevel knife. The smaller the angle of the bevel the better the cutting ability of the knife.
Caution, the bevel is not the edge of the knife. The edge is the sharpest end part of the bevel that makes the cutting possible. Bevel is the “sides”, the angled area that leads to the edge.
As mentioned above, most western knives are double bevel while traditionally Japanese knives are single bevel. That means that the one side of the blade is flat up to the edge (actually slightly concave), while the other is grinded to form the angled bevel. Single bevel knives usually have better cutting ability than the double bevel ones due to the lower conclusive final angle (see picture above) but require technique and experience to use them properly, as they have the tendency to “turn” towards the flat side during cutting. There are also different for right or left-handed people as the grinded side has to be on the external side of the knife as we use it (on the right for the right handed and on the left for the left handed).
Knives shapes and uses
Below you will find a small, conclusive, list of the most common types of Japanese knives and a small use discription.
Usual Size 180mm – 240mm
Can be found on Single and Double Bevel
Meaning “Beef knife” in Japanese, the Gyuto the most common and basic of all knives, is the Japanese version of the classic Western Chef’s knife. It is a knife that is used as a multi-purpose knife, suitable for a wide range of tasks and with a variety of different cutting techniques. Is shaped for cutting the vast majority of meats, fishes, vegetables and fruits. Can be used with almost all different cutting techniques (see cutting techniques).
Usual Size 165mm – 190mm
With a tall blade and rounded nose, the Santoku is a versatile, all over, knife that is suitable for cutting meat, fish, or vegetables. The name Santoku means “Three-purpose” (virtues). Used mainly with chopping and push cuts.
Usual Size 165mm – 180mm
This knife type that looks like a small cleaver is specialized for vegetables. The Nakiri is a double bevel knife and has a tall, thin blade. It is a very popular knife throughout Japan. Feels nimble in the handle despite its size and its thin blade is designed for precise cuts. Perfect for chopping, slicing and push cuts.
Usual Size 165mm – 180mm
This single bevel version of the Nakiri knife type. As in the case of nakiri, it is designed for cutting vegetables that are usually served raw. With its thin sharp blade, produces the minimum cell damage and minimizes the possibility of discoloration and flavor change due to oxidization. It’s the knife used for the famous “Katsuramuki” (Peeling technique used widely in Japanese kitchens for radishes, cucumbers and many more). Perfect for push cuts.
Usual Size 240mm – 330mm
Double bevel slicer for boneless meat and fish. The name translates to “muscle cutter”. It is usually long and thin with a low profile and the purpose of it is for cutting in one single slice in order to create minimum cellular damage (That preserves the original texture and flavor of the protein). Perfect for slicing and back draw cut motions.
Yanagi (or Yanagiba)
Usual Size 240mm – 330mm
The single bevel version of Sujihiki. Like it’s brother it has long, low profile but performs better long and delicate cuts especially when it comes to use on sushi and sashimi. Used almost exclusively for slicing and back draw cuts.
Usual Size 75mm – 135mm
One of the most commonly used knives in the kitchen. A small, general-purpose knife used for peeling, shaping, and slicing fruits and vegetables, chopping herbs, and making garnishes that also can be used in handheld cuts.
Usual Size 150mm – 160mm
A small knife specifically created for filleting chicken. It’s the Japanese equivalent to the boning knife with a flatter and higher profile. This design makes it easy to chop through the joints of the chicken (rabbits etc) when you ‘re filleting them. The tip of the knife is usually thin, so it can glide easily through flesh. The heel of the blade is used for hard bits, and the tip is used for articulate slicing.
Usual Size 110mm – 210mm
This is single bevel knife traditionally designed for filleting small and medium size fishes. Nowadays, it is used by many to break down and filleting small poultry too. Its heavy, sturdy structure allows it to easily cut small bones of fish and poultry but is not recommended on larger bones as it may chip. There are different versions of the Deba knife depending on its specific use:
- Hon-deba (true Deba) the thickest and heaviest deba
- Ko-deba—smaller, designed for cutting small fish
- Kanisaki-deba—specially designed for cutting shellfish like crabs and lobsters
- Miroshi-deba—has a thinner, longer blade for filleting fish
Usual Size 180mm – 240mm
Comes in both single or double bevel versions. A combination knife to perform both the tasks of a slicer (like Sujihiki) and all-rounder (like Gyuto). The most part of the belly is flat to be used with push cuts and with a slightly curved, “K tip” nose it is perfect for small slicing and precise cuts. Recommended mainly for push cut, slice and chopping.
Usual Size 165mm – 210mm
A multi-purpose knife and similar to Nakiri with usually a higher profile and a slightly different nose shape. Recommended mainly for push cut, slice and chopping cutting techniques (see cutting techniques)
Usual Size 240mm – 330mm
A variation of the Yanagi from the Kanto region (Tokyo), this single bevel knife performs the same tasks but can also be used for cutting the curled tentacles of octopus (“Tako” means octopus and “hiki” means to pull). The urban myth says that in the Edo period the chefs of the Kanto / Tokyo region used to point their yanagibas towards their noble clients and as that seemed a threat, they decided to square off the tip of their knives.
Usual Size 270mm – 330mm
This single bevel knife is the closest in profile to the original Katana swords. Similar to the Takohiki in looks and uses, but with a small curve towards the nose and a different, Katana like tip.
Chukabocho (Chinese cleaver)
Usual Size 180mm – 220mm
The favorite and sometimes the only knife used by Chinese chefs as well as the favorite of many home cooks around the world. They come in a variety of blade thicknesses and weight depending on their targeted use. Lighter, thinner ones are used for chopping large or small vegetables and herbs and the heavier, thicker ones for butchering. Recommended mainly for push cut, pull cut, slice and chopping.
Usual Size 120mm – 180mm
The traditional single bevel knife of Japanese fishermen (Funayuki means “going on boat”). The shape looks like the Deba but this knife is lighter, thinner and more agile. Suitable in boning small to medium fish and break down poultry. Recommended mainly for push cut, and pull cuts but could be used for rocking motion as well.
Usual Size from 400mm – to 1500mm
The largest Japanese knife. Can reach up to 1.5 meters and is designed for filleting and cutting whole tuna fish.
Less common and specialized knife types:
- Menkiri – Special knife for cutting noodles
- Unagisaki – Special knife for filleting eels
- Sushikiri – Special knife for sushi rolls. Shaped like Nakiri but curved edge
- Garasuki – Basically a larger version of Honesuki
- Hankotsu – Butchering knife
- Reito – Strong, sturdy knife, usually with serrated edge to cut through frozen food.
- Fuguhiki – Special knife to make sashimi from puffer fish
- Mukimono – Small knife specialized for designs and garnishes
Manufacturing and Cladding Methods
There are two basic manufacturing techniques in Japanese knives:
- Honyuaki 本焼 (means true fired) – Forged by one piece of high carbon steel (Hagane) semi covered with clay to create a hamon (softer spine and harder edge in order to act as shock absorber and withstand hits without breaking) is closer to the traditional forging technique of Japanese swords nihonto than anything else.
- Kasumi – Forged from two steels by joining a piece of soft iron (Jigane) with a piece of high-carbon steel (Hagane). The carbon steel forms the blade’s edge, and the softer iron is used as cladding to the carbon steel. The cladding steel can be either again carbon steel but softer and with much lower carbon content or stainless steel to protect the core from rusting.
There are different Kasumi techniques for the use of the two steels:
- Ni Mai – used in single bevel knives, the Jingane is placed on the one side of the blade up to where the bevel starts, while in the other side the Hagane is exposed.
- San Mai – used in double bevel knives, the Jingane covers both sides of the blade almost up to where the bevel starts but leaves the top part of the Hagane – the spine – exposed
- Warikomi – used in double bevel knives, the Jingane covers both sides of the blade almost up to where the bevel starts but also covers the top part of the Hagane – the spine.
There are hundreds of different steels that can be used in Japanese knives.
The most common ones can be categorized in 3 main categories
High Carbon steels
Corrosion resistant or stainless steels
|White Steel No.1 and No.2 (Shirogami)||
VG – 10
|Blue Steel No.1 and No.2 (Aogami)||
ZDP – 189
HAP – 40