Anyone interested in cooking has likely heard about the rivalry between Japanese knives and Western-style blades. For a serious chef, understanding the differences can be very helpful if you’re hoping to craft a truly excellent meal. While the difference is often pared down to a variation in the blade angle, the deviations between Japanese kitchen knives and German ones are actually more complex.
In broad strokes, German knives tend to be thicker, blunter, and heavier — good for roughly chopping and hacking through bones. They typically have a wider, symmetrical sharpening angle (around 17.5 degrees), whereas Japanese blades are only sharpened on one side, creating a razor-sharp edge (closer to 10-15 degrees) that’s actually slightly concave on the back side. Known as a chisel edge, this Japanese style is easier to sharpen, which makes it better for more precise jobs in the kitchen.
German knives are often made with a lower HRC (this is the Rockwell scale, which denotes how hard steel is relative to other steel alloys). Thus, Western blades are easy to sharpen but also easier to dull through regular use. On the other hand, Japanese knives tend to utilize higher HRCs, which make for sharper — albeit more brittle — blades.
Having the right knife makes a world of difference when attempting certain cooking techniques. You’ll find it easier to prepare authentic Japanese food recipes (think of the paper-thin slices of fish and vegetables required for sushi). Japanese kitchen knives are often the gold standard when it comes to precision in the kitchen — but how did they attain that status?
Japanese kitchen knives have origins in the tradition of katana-making in samurai-era Japan. In the early 14th century, Japan broke its trade isolation and began trading with China, effectively kicking off international interest in Japanese blade crafting. It wasn’t until much later, in the 1850s, that Western powers demanded the same trade policies.
Then, after WWII, U.S. General MacArthur banned katanas in Japan. In response, many skilled swordsmiths turned their knowledge toward smaller blades, crafting beautiful, quality kitchen knives. Japan overturned the katana ban within seven years, but the seeds for a tradition of high-caliber carving utensils remained.
Guide to Present-Day Knives
Today, there are myriad styles of Japanese knives for every purpose you can imagine. Sub-categories denote the materials and methods used in their construction. Craftsman create Honyaki blades entirely from one material, while kasumi are composites. Of course, there are also names for the various shapes that determine how you should use the knife. The following are a few of the most common styles of Japanese kitchen knives based on their intended purpose.
Gyutou is not necessarily a traditional Japanese knife, but it is common as a Japanese-style version of a Western all-purpose chef’s knife. Good for cutting meat, fish, or vegetables, the gyutou is sizable but has a classically thin blade.
The deba is designed for butchering whole fish. One of the most common types of Japanese knives, you’ll find a deba in most households as well as at butcher shops and fish markets. Thicker and heavier than most Japanese knives, the deba could almost be thought of as analogous to a cleaver. However, it has a fine blade meant to be used in a slicing motion, rather than hammering it down, which prevents damaging the flesh of the fish.
Usuba knives are meant for slicing vegetables. They have especially thin, sharp blades designed to prevent the knife from breaking down the vegetables cell walls, which can discolor ingredients and change their flavor. The original usuba style originated in the Kanto region, but there is also a kamagata usuba style. The latter originates in the Kansai area and has a more pointed tip meant for delicate work and decorative carving.
Also hailing from the Kansai region is the yanagi, designed to cut boneless fish fillets into thin slices. Having more pointing edge than usubas, you should use yanagis in one long stroke. Their sharpness means you only have to use slight pressure on the flesh of the fish, which again is to preserve the structure and taste of the ingredient. You can use different cutting techniques to enhance certain flavors of the fish, in addition to offering a different aesthetic. Within the yanagi umbrella, there are several variations, including the kensaki yanagi and the maguro yanagi, which are both more elegant styles that serve largely similar functions.
The takobiki is another style of yanagi. It has a blunt, square tip, best for cutting eel and octopus. (In fact, the name actually means “octopus cutter.”) The takobiki, sometimes spelled takohiki, originates in the Kanto region, as well.
The kiritsuke is something like a cross between a yanagi blade and a usuba. It excels at everything but requires skill to wield it correctly. In fact, traditionally, kiritsuke knives are exclusive to executive chefs; this is due to the difficulty of use and also the kiritsuke’s role as a status symbol in the culinary world.
The unique menkiri style is meant for cutting noodles. It has a wide, rectangular blade that helps cooks slice through squishy noodles without smashing them.