An Expert Guide to Japanese Knives

Published on 12/31/2023 · 11 min readUnveil the excellence of Eastern cutlery! Our expert guide to Japanese knives covers their unique craftsmanship, precision, and culinary impact.
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

A gyuto knife is ideal for dicing zucchini and other vegetables. Photo by RDNE Stock Project

TL;DR: A Japanese knife is a knife that features a Japanese design and is generally made in Japan. When buying one, consider what you want the blade made out of, what you want the handle to be made from, and how much it should weigh.

I’ve been a dedicated home cook for almost two decades, having grown up learning to cook from my mom, but I inherited my enthusiasm for knives from my dad. As a kid, I acquired quite the collection of pocket knives, and I now own a wide variety of kitchen knives as well as a pocket knife and a Bowie knife.

Most of my knives I’ve received as gifts, but I’ve also picked out a few of my own and even rescued a few nice-looking knives from a thrift store so I could restore them. I’ve used stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic knives, so I have a good idea of what works best for what task.

What Is a Japanese Knife?

In the USA, there are two primary styles of knives: Japanese and Western (sometimes also called German style). Japan is known for its high-quality knifemaking and steel, which is why their knife manufacturers are so successful in the West as well as domestically.

Several kinds of Japanese knives are common in Western kitchens, the santoku being one of the most popular. Their design makes them better suited to certain tasks than Western knives, such as precision cuts. The hard steel makes it so that Japanese-style knives hold an edge better, allowing them to cut wafer-thin slices. So if you want a knife that’s lightweight and can make extremely thin, clean slices, you want a Japanese knife.

Japanese-style knives are typically made of very hard steel, which allows the blade to be very thin and lightweight. Additionally, they’re usually only beveled on one side, which means that the sharp part is only on one side of the blade, which allows for more precision. Why that is is a matter of physics, but in layman’s terms, the single bevel allows for a sharper edge, and the uneven nature of it has the knife move away from you as you slice, resulting in a cleaner cut. However, this also makes the knife handed (though you can use an opposite-handed knife — it just takes some finesse). The bevel is usually at a sharper angle as well, being around 15 degrees rather than Western knives’ 20 degrees.

What to Consider When Buying a Japanese Knife

Japanese knives are expensive, as Japanese knife makers specialize in premium products. That means you should consider what’s important to you before making a purchase. Here are some questions to ask yourself before buying a new knife.

What Should the Blade Be Made From?

The forging process is one of the biggest factors in making Japanese knives, so you’re unlikely to find ones that aren’t made out of some sort of high-quality steel. Here are the most common types:

  • Carbon steel: This material has been in use for knives for centuries. It’s hard and durable, allowing it to hold a razor-sharp edge for a long time. However, it’s prone to rusting, which means that you need to be careful to dry it right away, and some even recommend oiling the blade to protect it while storing it.
  • Stainless steel: If you don’t want to worry about rust, then stainless steel is the way to go. Stainless can’t hold as fine an edge as carbon steel, but as Japanese knives tend to use very hard steel, they’re still going to be extremely sharp.
  • High-carbon stainless steel: This material takes the edge-retaining abilities of carbon steel and adds the corrosion resistance of stainless steel. Because it’s more expensive, it’s primarily used in high-end or commercial knives.

What Type of Handle Do I Want?

The handle of your knife is an extremely important aspect, as it needs to be comfortable, offer a secure grip, and hold up over time.

  • Metal: Metal handles are common on inexpensive knives, but that doesn't mean that all knives with a metal handle are cheap. It’s a durable material that’s dishwasher safe, but not everyone finds them comfortable.
  • Wood: Not everyone likes wood for knife handles, as you need to oil it regularly to make sure it doesn't crack or shrink. But wooden handles are comfortable, grippy, and attractive, making them customary in high-quality knives.
  • Synthetic: If you don’t want the fuss of wood but don’t want a metal handle either, then there are a large number of synthetic materials out there. These include composite (part wood, part plastic), fiberglass, plastic, and carbon fiber. Many of these handles are handsome and easy to keep clean, but a lot of it comes down to personal preference.

A Japanese chef’s knife ready to make some fresh avocado egg salad. Photo by Tree of Life Seeds

Do I Want a Full or Partial Tang?

One of the more important terms to know when knife shopping is tang. When a knife is forged, it’s made into all one piece: the blade, and a way to fix it to the handle. That latter part is referred to as the tang.

  • Full tang: A full tang extends the whole way down the knife handle. This is considered superior for two reasons. Because the tang takes the strain when the knife is used, a larger tang distributes that force better and makes the knife more durable. Also, there are more even amounts of metal on each side, making the knife’s center of balance right at the heel, where the blade meets the handle.
  • Partial tang: A partial tang only extends partway into the handle. While generally viewed as inferior, knives with a partial tang are lighter than their counterparts with a full tang. Also, unless you’re very rough with your knife, a partial tang will last quite some time.

Types of Japanese Knives

There are many types of Japanese kitchen knives, so I’ll only cover the ones that I consider excellent additions to a home cook’s kitchen.

Gyuto Knife

A gyuto knife ready to mince some fresh herbs. Photo by Kevin Doran

More commonly referred to as a Japanese chef’s knife, gyuto knives are similar to Western chef’s knives in that they’re great for dicing, chopping, and slicing. They tend to be the same size as well, with most of them being 6 inches or 8 inches.

Benefits:

  • Have a stiffer and thinner blade, making them extremely light
  • Hard steel allows them to hold a razor’s edge

Be aware:

  • Thin blade makes them more brittle, so they aren’t good for dealing with bones or hard fruits and vegetables

Nakiri Knife

Slicing fruits and veggies is a nakiri knife’s speciality. Photo by Ron Lach

Sometimes called a Japanese vegetable knife, nakiri knives have a very square blade excellent for slicing. Like all Japanese-style blades, they’re made of harder steel, meaning that they have excellent edge retention.

Benefits:

  • Simple to use as they only require a chopping motion
  • Good choice for those with beginner knife skills

Be aware:

  • Specialized knife that has limited utility beyond slicing vegetables

Santoku Knife

Santoku knives are heavier and stiffer than gyoto knives and are meant for heavier tasks, such as cutting up a ginger root. Photo by Kim Cruikshanks

If anything rivals a chef’s knife for versatility, it’s a santoku knife. These are stiff knives that have a curve in the spine, rather than the cutting edge, leaving them a long cutting surface. They’re great for slicing, dicing, and chopping.

Benefits:

  • Stiff blade makes them excellent for slicing
  • Great for cutting up chickens, mincing, and chopping

Be aware:

  • You can’t do a rocking chopping motion with one

Some santoku knives are designed to chop using a rocking motion. They’re primarily a Western invention, but some Japanese manufacturers make them to appeal to a Western audience.

Petty

Petty knives are great for slicing and chopping tasks that would tax a paring knife. The Forge to Table Core Combo

The Japanese equivalent of a Western utility knife, a petty is around five to seven inches long. These knives are ideal for tasks that don’t require a chef’s knife but need more than a paring knife. They can slice meat and cut up herbs, veggies, and cheese. Most Japanese manufacturers call these knives “utility knives” for their Western audiences.

Benefits:

  • Excellent option for tasks too big for a paring knife but too small for a chef’s knife

Be aware:

  • Don’t have the depth of a chef’s knife, so less clearance for your knuckles

Paring Knife

Japanese-style paring knives can create wafer-thin slices. The Miyabi Artisan 3.5" Paring Knife

It’s said that the only two types of knives you need to own are a chef’s knife and a paring knife. Paring knives are three- or four-inch knives used for small or precise tasks, like coring strawberries, deveining shrimp, and peeling apples.

Benefits:

  • Made of extremely hard, sharp steel
  • More choices for 4-inch knives than most Western brands

Be aware:

  • Harder blades can be prone to chipping

Steak Knife

Japanese-style steak knives can cut thin, smooth slices of meat. The Cangshan Haku Series Fine Edge Steak Knife Set

This type of cutlery is meant to be used on the table, like a butter knife, meaning that they usually come in steak knife sets. While their primary purpose is to cut pork, lamb, or beef at the table, steak knives can also be used in place of a utility knife.

Benefits:

  • Extremely sharp
  • Excellent craftsmanship

Be aware:

Features to Look For

As with almost every product, certain features make some stand out from the competition. If you’re trying to decide if the knife is worth your money, look for these features.

Forged

One way to tell if the knife you're looking at is a quality knife is if it’s forged. There are two primary ways to make knives:

  • Stamped: This is a cheap way to produce knives and results in a less durable knife with more flex. Most Japanese knives won’t be stamped, though some Global knives are.
  • Forged: A forged knife is shaped while in molten form, which harkens back to how blacksmiths used to make knives. This process results in a sturdier, better-balanced knife that can hold an edge better.

Sheath or Case

Does a knife not coming with a case or sheath mean it’s a low-end knife? Absolutely not. However, Japanese-style knives are very hard, making them brittle and easy to chip or damage. Having a safe place to store and protect your knife can be a major asset.

Granton Edge

If you’ve ever seen a knife, most likely a santoku, with small divots or hollows on the side, then it had a Granton edge. This creates pockets of air so that food is less likely to stick to it. Not every knife needs to have a Granton edge to be a good knife, but it does add benefits.

Another feature of high-end Japanese knives is a hand-hammered finish. This has the same effect as a Granton edge and has the benefit of being gorgeous.

How To Pick the Best Japanese Knife for You

Because of their high prices and relative rarity, Japanese knives aren’t the most accessible. To help you decide what will be best for you, I’m going to describe three people and what my top picks for them would be.

Angel: Home Cook With Smaller Hands Who Wants a Light Knife

Angel has small hands, so she finds bigger knives difficult to handle. She wants something light and well balanced but still holds a fine edge so that she doesn't have to put too much force into her cutting and chopping.

Features to look for:

  • Knives with shorter blades that are easier to handle

Recommended products:

Sylvie: Knife Collector Looking for a Functional Showpiece

Sylvie has been collecting knives for a while now and is looking to expand her collection again. She wants a beautiful knife that she can show off but also one that’s fully functional. She’s willing to devote extra time to knife care and isn’t concerned about the price.

Features to look for:

  • Wooden handles for comfort and beauty
  • Damascus or hand-hammered steel to make the blade stand out

Recommended products:

Jake: Young Professional Looking to Expand His Knife Collection

Jake has recently moved into his own apartment and is looking to build up his cooking collection. He has all the basic knives, but he’s looking to fill in some gaps and upgrade to some higher-quality cutlery.

Features to look for:

  • Useful knives that aren’t in basic sets, like utility knives

Recommended products:

Find the Best Japanese Knife for You

Ron Lach

Finding the perfect knife can be a time-intensive task. If you’re looking for pointers, suggestions, or even just to talk about how cool Japanese knives are, chat with one of the Curated Kitchen Experts! Every one of our Experts would love to help you out and point you to the Japanese knife that’ll become your next favorite — and it’s completely free!

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Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

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