5 Best Japanese Chef Knives

Published on 01/09/2024 · 8 min readExplore the pinnacle of culinary craftsmanship with our guide on Japanese Chef Knives, showcasing the best for unrivaled precision and performance.
Grace Vogel, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Grace Vogel

Japanese knives come in all shapes and sizes! Photo by Robby McCullough

When I first started working in professional kitchens, my initial challenge was finding the right kitchen knife I would be comfortable chopping, mincing, slicing, and dicing with for hours every day. There are so many options. My personal preference is for Japanese knives, rather than Western knives, because of their light handles and impeccable craftsmanship. Now I’m here to share what I’ve learned about Japanese chef knives with you!

What Is a Chef Knife

I think many people wonder what exactly characterizes a chef's knife. There are many different types, but the main traits that qualify a knife as a chef’s knife are its shape and length. Chef’s knives have a broad, tapered shape with a fine, sharp edge. They can range in length from 6-12 inches but are usually around 8 inches long. I prefer chef knives that are around 10 inches long because they allow me to process more material. Additionally, chef’s knives have a subtle curve that allows you to use a rocking motion when cutting food.

A Little Background

First, let’s start with a little history of the Japanese chef knife. According to Josh Donald, co-owner of Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco, the Japanese chef knife was developed in the 19th century as a result of open trade with the West and the introduction of Western vegetables and proteins. The debut of different protein types necessitated a studier knife than those often used to process seafood, often for sushi.

Japanese chef knives were highly influenced by Western chef knives, as Japanese knife makers studied the techniques of Western knife makers. Through his research, Donald found that most Japanese chef knives throughout history have been made with a Western-style handle. However, in recent years, Japanese knife makers have turned to hand-forged, Japanese-style handles.

Japanese knife maker, putting the finishing touches on their blade. Photo by Beth MacDonald

You might ask: What makes a Japanese kitchen knife different from a Western knife? Home cooks in the US are usually more familiar with Western-style chef knives, which are noted for their durability. Western-style knives have symmetrical stainless steel blades, with handles composed of two pieces of wood secured with rivets.

On the other hand, professional chefs often prefer Japanese knives. Japanese chef knives are typically made of harder steel with a higher carbon content, making them slightly more brittle than Western blades. This high-carbon steel content means that they can have higher edge retention. Japanese cutlery typically has less of an angle to the blade than Western knives, necessitating a pulling-style slicing motion rather than a rocking one.

Unlike Western blades that can often be sharpened using a honing rod, Japanese chef knives require a whetstone when sharpening. This is because they are prone to chipping when used on hardy ingredients. Don’t let this deter you! Learning how to use a whetstone is much easier than it seems, and it is a fantastic investment in preserving the quality of your blades for a lifetime. If you’re interested in learning how to sharpen your knife using a whetstone, Japanese chef knives are the right choice for you.

Now I’m excited to share my five most recommended Japanese chef knives with you!

A Japanese chef knife with a wooden handle. Photo by Nima Izadi

Best Everyday Knife: Mac Knife 8-Inch Chef’s Knife

The first Japanese knife set I bought myself when I started working in professional kitchens was the three-piece Mac Knife set, which featured the Mac 8-inch chef knife. This is an affordable knife that is perfect for everyday use. I love my Mac chef knife because of its lightweight grip, despite the blade being strong stainless steel.

The Mac chef’s knife has some crossover between the Japanese and Western chef knife styles with a razor-sharp blade that does not deteriorate easily. Its blade is also sharpened on both sides and can be used with comfort by left or right-handed users. The dimpled, thin blade reduces friction when cutting vegetables, making for clean and easy cuts without sticking to the blade.

The only drawback of the Mac Knife is its susceptibility to rust if not properly dried right after use. While Mac knives do not require frequent sharpening, they must be well maintained to reduce discoloration on the blade. I recommend investing in a saya, or knife sheath, to help protect the blade in between uses.

Best Gyuto Knife: Tojiro Classic Gyuto Chef’s Knife

A gyuto is one of the most versatile knives you can invest in for your kitchen. Gyutos resemble the Western-style chef knife, with a rounded blade that allows you to rock the knife while chopping. The Tojiro gyuto has a long, thin blade that is perfect for use with vegetables, fish, and meat. Like most of the knives in this list, the Tojiro gyuto should not be used when butchering anything with large bones. That necessitates a cleaver or deba.

Tojiro is an extremely reliable brand. In my experience, the Tojiro gyuto cut through tomatoes with ease, with no snagging of the skin or mushing of the juices. The Tojiro gyuto is made of VG10, a high-durability stainless steel that maintains sharpness and is easy to maintain. I like the comfort, balance, and edge of the gyuto. The handle is built with comfort in mind, focused on ergonomics and balanced weight.

The Tojiro has the lowest price tag of all the knives on this list and is a solid investment if you are interested in trying out Japanese chef knives to see if they are right for you.

Best Santoku Knife: Global Santoku Knife

Like gyutos, santoku knives are well suited to cutting meat, fish, and vegetables. I recommend the Global santoku knife if you are looking for a long-lasting, multi-purpose knife. Santoku knives are known for their unique sheepshead shape, generally having a slightly taller and shorter blade than traditional chef knives. Santokus are slightly less agile than narrower knives, but they provide a good surface for the knuckles of your free hand to guide the slicing of the blade.

The Global santoku is made exclusively of stainless steel, from the handle to the blade itself. In my experience, the stainless steel handle makes the Global santoku a heavier blade, which makes the blade itself steadier. The blade is also easy to sharpen with the use of a whetstone.

The only drawback of the Global santoku is that the rectangular stainless steel handle can become uncomfortable after long-term use. Global also does not offer a blade sheath that fits this knife perfectly.

Santoku Honorable Mention: Hitohira Hiragana Santoku

If you are looking for a santoku-style knife with a wooden handle, I highly recommend the Hitohira santoku. Hitohira is a well-respected high-end Japanese knife maker that produces knives in Echizen-Fukui, Japan. The Hitohira santoku is made of stainless steel which makes the blade easy to maintain. For those who are hesitant to buy the Global santoku because of the discomfort of the stainless steel handle, this is a great alternative. The blade is just over 6.5 inches, making it light and well balanced.

Best Damascus Steel Blade: Shun Premier Chef’s Knife

Shun is known for their well-crafted knives and is a household name in the US. Their Premier chef’s knife features a 10-inch blade made of high-quality Damascus steel. This knife is perfect for those who prefer a slightly longer, thinner blade that handles just as easily as smaller blades. For a professional chef like me, a 10-inch blade allows me to handle an increased volume of product and move more efficiently in the kitchen.

The Shun Premier chef’s knife has a VG-MAS core, which is a line of super-strong stainless steel that is resistant to wear and corrosion and holds a sharp edge longer. The Shun Premier knife is then clad in 68 layers of Damascus steel, giving the blade a beautiful hammered finish that also supports and protects the core. While the Shun Premier knife comes with a hefty price tag, it comes with a lifetime warranty in case the blade or handle should get chipped or damaged.

Best Artisanal Japenese Chef's Knife: Miyabi Chef’s Knife

The Miyabi chef’s knife is a piece of art, handcrafted from premium micro-carbide steel and birch in Seki, Japan. This 8-inch chef’s knife is perfect for cutting vegetables, meat, and fish. The artisans who craft the Miyabi chef’s knife use an ice-hardening process that locks in the blade’s sharpness, making it incredibly durable as well as beautiful.

While I have never owned a Miyabi chef’s knife, I have been able to test one. The craftsmanship is clear through the completely even balance between the blade and the handle. The knife feels like an extension of your arm, allowing for extremely precise and smooth cuts.

If you are willing to spend big on your next Japanese knife, I highly recommend investing in the Miyabi chef’s knife.

My Note To You

A Japanese chef knife in action. Photo by Angus Chang

Buying a Japanese chef knife is an exciting process, and I am looking forward to helping guide you on that journey. Your purchase depends entirely on your personal preference. Do you like lighter knives? Do you prefer stainless steel or Damascus steel? Do you favor a santoku over a gyuto?

If you’re not sure about the answers to these questions, I recommend you look at the knives that you currently own and pinpoint what you like and dislike about each of them. Then, apply that to the knives that I have recommended here before making your next purchase. If you’re looking for more guidance, feel free to reach out! Curated Kitchen Experts like me are here to help you find the perfect knife for your particular needs.

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