Japanese knives are some of the best and sharpest in the world. This is largely due to the high quality materials that allow them to maintain their sharpness year after year.
In the following article we will discuss the various types of Japanese knives in more detail and provide an explanation with regard to each knife’s general use and purpose.But first we will talk about the difference between traditional Western knives and Japanese Knives, and how those differences change the sharpness and useful of each class of knives.
The Difference between Japanese Knives and Western Knives
Traditional Japanese knives are available for purchase in an extremely wide range of shapes, designs and sizes, each intended to perform a specialized task within the kitchen. These tasks can range from chopping vegetables on a cutting board to filleting fish to cutting noodles, sashimi and eel.
Almost all of the Japanese knives have what are known as “single bevel” blades. What this means is that they are angled only on one side and are therefore right-handed or left-handed (mostly right-handed, which must make left-handed Japanese chefs a little miffed). The blades of Japanese knives then taper down into a tang that’s artfully knocked into a wooden handle by Japanese craftsmen.
Western knives, which were first introduced by the French and Germans, also come in various shapes, designs and sizes—sizes people in the United States are probably very familiar with, with names like paring knife, chef’s knife, utility knife, bread knife, etc. These knives are ambidextrous by design, meaning they can be equally enjoyed by right-handed and left-handed chefs and prep cooks.
With Western knives, the blade is sharpened symmetrically on both sides, rather than the single bevel design of Japanese knives. This gives Western knives a double-beveled edge. In terms of handles, Western knives employ many different materials, including wood, vulcanized rubber and composite materials as well as stainless steel. These materials are then used to sandwich the tang and the handles are then secured with rivets.
Another important aspect that tends to distinguish Japanese knives from those used in Western cooking is the hardness of the steel used to make such knives. Japanese knives, for the most part, employ steel that is somewhat harder than what is used on Western knives. This harder steel is ironically a bit more brittle, but on average the hard steel used in the making of Japanese knives tends to hold an edge longer than the softer steel used in Western knives.
On the flip side, the softer steels used in many Western knives are less fragile, so their micro-thin blade edges can roll to one side or another before they break; a rolled edge can be reset with a honing steel, something that won’t work well with the more brittle, harder steel of a Japanese knife. When it comes time to sharpen up a Japanese blade, you will definitely need a whetstone to handle the job.
Types of Japanese Knives and Their Uses
The Deba Knife is a thick, stout knife that has been used in Japanese kitchens for years. It is primarily used for filleting fish, but some chefs have known to adapt the edges of these knives to accomplish alternate kitchen tasks, such as parting out poultry or preparing vegetables. Still, the knife’s primary effectiveness lies in its ability to excellently prepare fish, which is used in thousands of Japanese recipes.
Most Deba knives are single beveled. What this means is the knife is only grounded on one side, leaving the back side of the knife flat. Knives with single bevels have more precise angles on their blades, which allow them to expertly fillet softer, thinner materials like fish. The only downside is that it takes some practice to learn how to use this knife, and sharpening the knife is a bit more complex and time consuming. There are some Western versions of the Deba knife, but these tend to be ground on both sides. Instead of filleting fish, these heavier Western Debas are often designed to handle laborious tasks, like splitting chickens or gourds.
If the Gyuto had a Western equivalent, it would be what we call a “Chef’s Knife.” These knives can vary widely in terms of design and length, but the typical size range for a Gyuto knife is 210 millimeters to 270 millimeters in length, although smaller models can also be found in Japanese culture.Like the American Chef’s knife, Gyuto knives are typically tall at the heel and have a mostly flat profile toward the heel of the knife. This makes them quite adept at chopping veggies and other foods. The knives also have a belly toward the tip of the blade, used for rock cutting, and a pointed tip for handling more precise tasks.
The Gyuto knife is so versatile that some claim it is the only knife one would ever need in the kitchen. Although specialized knives are definitely better at handling certain chores within the kitchen, in a pinch the Gyuto knife could definitely be used as a substitute with fairly good results.
If your goal is to make Sashimi, you simply must have a Yanagiba Knife at the ready. The Yanagiba Knife, also known as the Sashimi Knife, is a traditional style Japanese slicing knife that generally has a face sharpened edge.This means they are sharpened primarily on one side of the knife, enabling a much sharper cutting edge than double beveled knives. The Yanagiba knife is used primarily by Sushi chefs. They use these knives to thinly slice fish. However, the knife is quickly catching on in Western culture as a way to slice a variety of meats, particularly roast carving.
Although there are other types of Sashimi knives, the Yanagiba knife (or Yanagi for short) has a long slender blade, one-sided edge and a pointed tip.
Like the Yanagi Knife, the Takohiki Knife is a Japanese knife that is used to slice fish and is primarily used by Japanese Sushi chefs. This particular style of knife hails from Japan’s Kanto region, which includes the capital city of Tokyo. The main difference between the Takohiki Knife and the Yanagi Knife is that the former has a squared head. This feature helps chefs and prep cooks easily scoop up slices of Sashimi and arrange them on a plate.
Like the Yanagi knife, the length of the Takohiki Knife and the sharpness of its single bevel blade allow chefs to make one smooth pull of the knife to cleanly slice raw fish and seafood without bruising or producing rough edges on the surfaces of the product.
Another knife of Japanese design and culture is the Petty Knife. These small utility knives can vary widely in both profile and size, with a length that ranges from 75-210 millimeters. The petty knife is very similar in size and design to the Western utility knife or paring knife. Although there is no hard and fast rule regarding where the petty knife and the paring knife differ—or what application they are each best for—the petty knife, at least in Japanese kitchens, is usually considered the perfect choice for smaller and more finite tasks on a cutting board. On the flip side, a paring knife is better employed in the hand, such as when skinning an apple or a carrot.
The Santoku Knife is a Japanese knife that has many purposes in the kitchen, similar to the Western chef’s knife in that regard. This knife typically has a blade length that ranges from 13 to 20 centimeters (5.1-7.9 inches, and has a flat edge and a sheepsfoot blade that curves in an angle approaching 60 degrees at the point. Also known as the Santoku bocho, which is Japanese for three virtues or three uses, the Santoku knife is well adept at performing three primary cutting tasks: slicing, dicing and mincing. The Santoku Knife’s blade and handle are designed to work in harmony with each other. This is accomplished by matching the blade’s width and weight to the weight of the blade tang and handle, making it a very well-balanced and comfortable knife to handle.
Finally, the Butakiri Knife is a rural style knife that is intended for use on larger cuts of meat. In fact, if you break the word down you get an indication of its purpose, as “Buta” means pig in Japanese, and “Kiri” means to cut. These knives can vary in length from between 7.25 inches to 8.25 inches. They hail from the Tosa Region of Japan on Shikoku Island, where expert blacksmiths still adhere to many of the old ways of knife making.
Typically, the maker of this knife hand hammers a layer of high carbon “white steel” between two layers of softer wrought iron. The knives are then tempered to Rockwell c63 and will hold an edge for much longer than similar Western knives. The handles are made from traditional Ho wood, and the blade is intentionally made thick to withstand heavy use.