An Expert Guide to Japanese Knife Sets

Published on 12/30/2023 · 11 min readSlice with sophistication! Our expert guide on Japanese knife sets highlights the finest in craftsmanship, precision, and kitchen elegance.
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

Mincing up veggies with a Santoku knife. Photo by Conscious Design

TL;DR: When searching for a Japanese knife set, consider what knives you want in the set, what material the blade is made from, and if the knives have a full or partial tang. A Japanese knife has a Japanese design, like a Nakiri or Santoku, and is usually made in Japan. The majority of these knife sets contain a few must-have knives, like paring knives and chef’s knives.

My love for all types of knives came from my dad, who, when I was a kid, happily helped me create my collection of pocket knives. My mom fostered my love of cooking, as I helped her out in the kitchen when I was growing up. This naturally led to my interest in kitchen knives, and my knife collecting now focuses on cutlery rather than pocket knives.

Having the right knives for the right tasks is so much easier and gives you a better result, especially when using Japanese knives. The improvements I’ve seen after making sure I was using the right tool were dramatic, and I’ve been inspired to share what I’ve learned to help make other people’s lives easier.

What Is a Japanese Knife Set?

Photo by Shark Pae CNX

There are two primary styles of knives in the United States: Western (sometimes referred to as German style) and Japanese. Japan has long been known for its steel working and knife and sword-making techniques, granting their knife manufacturers success domestically and abroad.

Due to the fact that Japan is known for its excellent steel, Japanese knives tend to be premium products. The main difference between a Western and Japanese knife is that Japanese-style knives prioritize sharpness while Western-style knives prioritize durability. That means that the former uses a harder steel to allow for a fine edge, and the latter uses a softer steel that is very unlikely to chip.

Even if you aren't familiar with Japanese knives, you’ve likely encountered a few, such as the Santoku. Japanese-style knives are made of a harder steel than their Western counterparts, which allows for the blade to be hammered thinner, allowing for a lightweight, razor-sharp knife. Most of them are also beveled on one side, meaning that the sharp edge is only on one side of the blade. This allows for precise cuts. The reason for that involves the physics of cutting, but there are two main aspects that aid in smooth slices. The single bevel allows for a sharper edge than a double bevel knife, and because the sharp part is uneven, the knife moves away from you as you slice, resulting in a cleaner cut.

However, this also makes the knife right-handed (unless it’s sharpened on the left side, which all lefties know is unlikely). It doesn’t make it impossible for left-handed people to use it, it just takes some finagling.

What to Consider When Buying a Japanese Knife Set

Japanese knife makers typically make high-end products, so their knives can be expensive. Purchasing a set is a bigger investment than just a single knife as well, so make sure to ask yourself these questions first:

A petty knife is great for medium-sized tasks. Photo by Beth Macdonald

What Should the Blade Be Made From?

Japanese steel is renowned for making knives. It’s highly unlikely you’ll find a Japanese knife that isn’t made out of steel of some type. Here are the most common alloys.

  • Carbon steel: This alloy was used in knives before the invention of stainless steel. Knife aficionados still buy knives made of this material because it’s such a hard steel with high durability, allowing it to be honed to a razor edge. The reason it’s been largely sidelined, though, is because of how easily it rusts, meaning that it can never go in the dishwasher, and you need to dry it right away after each wash.
  • Stainless steel: While stainless steel can’t hold as sharp an edge as carbon steel, it doesn't rust. Japanese knives prioritize harder steels, meaning that even a stainless steel knife will hold a fine edge.
  • High-carbon stainless steel: For the best of both worlds, this alloy has edge-retaining abilities of carbon steel and adds the corrosion resistance of stainless steel. They usually aren’t as rust resistant as plain stainless steel, but it depends on the exact alloy.
  • Damascus steel: A very long time ago, Damascus was considered a premier steel working city. The process they used back then, of folding layers of steel over one another and hammering them together came to be known as Damascus steel. This is a forging process rather than an alloy, and it’s still prized because of the beautiful patterns that it leaves on the blade.

The sharp, stiff blade of a Santoku makes it great for veggies. Photo by Conscious Design

What Knives Should Be Included in the Set?

There are certain knives that are must-haves, and these are usually in every set. Depending on the size of the knife set you get, a number of other knives can be included. Here are the ones you’re likely to encounter and what they’re best for.

  • Gyuto knife: This type of knife should be in every basic set. They’re sometimes called Japanese chef's knives, and they excel at the same jobs as a Western style chef’s knife. They can dice, mince, slice, and even cut through joints, though the hard steel means they’re easier to chip, so it's better to avoid bones or hard vegetables.
  • Paring knife: Many experts say that all a home cook needs is a chef’s knife and a paring knife. These three to four-inch long knives are excellent for delicate or small tasks, like coring strawberries, peeling kiwis, and mincing garlic.
  • Santoku knife: Santokus are another multipurpose knife that are great for both meat and veggies. The stiff blade curves on the spine rather than the blade, giving it a larger cutting surface.
  • Petty knife: Another highly useful knife, petty knives tackle jobs that are too big for a paring knife and too small for a chef’s knife. Their blades aren’t deep (unless they’re chef’s knife style), making them light and easy to handle. In Western markets, they’re more often referred to as utility knives.
  • Bread knife: These long knives have a serrated blade. The teeth allow it to grip the bread so that it ends up cutting it instead of just tearing it. They’re also great for clean slices of other baked goods, like cakes, and keep a hold of slippery fruits, like tomatoes or citrus – though a bread knife might be a bit long for a small fruit like a lime.
  • Nakiri knife: This is uncommon in knife sets, but they are a well-known Japanese knife. If you haven’t heard the term Nakiri, you may have seen them referred to as a Japanese vegetable knife. They have a 5 to 7-inch square blade that makes them ideal for slicing vegetables like carrots and potatoes – though they can also be used on meat. The extremely sharp blade allows for very thin, even slices.

Do I Want a Full or Partial Tang?

When looking at Japanese kitchen knives, one of the specs you’re sure to see is if it has a full or partial tang. When a knife is manufactured, it has a metal part that juts off the back of the blade as a way to attach it to a handle. That’s the tang.

Full tang

A Shun paring knife with a visible tang

In almost every circumstance, a full tang is the way to go. What this means is that the entire handle is attached to the tang. Most of these knives will have a visible tang or a cap on the end to show that it has a full tang.

The reasons it’s preferable are that it makes the knife more durable and better balanced. The metal piece running the full length of the handle disturbs the weight so that the center of balance is at the heel, right where it attaches to the handle. Strain is also more evenly distributed on the tang, making the knife less likely to fail.

Partial tang

A Western paring knife with a partial tang. Photo by Di Doherty

A partial tang extends part of the way down the handle. This isn’t inherently a dealbreaker, as a well-made knife with a partial tang will last a long time and be very light. Overall, though, if you’re looking for a durable, high-end knife, get a full tang.

Features to Look for in a Japanese Knife Set

There are certain things to look for in knife sets that make them better deals than their competitors. Not all of these are necessary to ensure it’s a high-quality knife set, but they’re aspects to consider before making a purchase.

Knife Block

Photo by Andriiii

A knife block is a way to store your Japanese cutlery. Knife blocks are usually made out of wood or bamboo and have slots hewn into them to store specific knives. While it doesn't need to be a standard knife block (it could be a magnetic knife block, a case, or even a sheath), it’s important to have a way to store them.

Benefits:

  • Protects both you and your knives.
  • Is an attractive storage device.

Be aware:

  • Knife blocks can be bulky and take up a lot of counter space.
  • They require care and maintenance, too, particularly if they’re made of wood.

Sharpening Steel

Photo by Nito

Many larger knife sets will come with a sharpening steel to help care for your knives. Sharpening steel can also be referred to as a honing rod or honing steel. A sharp knife’s edge will curl from being used. This makes the knife feel dull when using it, but it doesn't mean that it’s lost its sharp edge. A good way to tell if your edge is curled is to run the blade of the knife gently along your thumbnail. If the edge isn’t smooth, it’s curled.

The purpose of sharpening steel is to straighten that edge out and keep your knife sharp for longer. Honing rods don't actually sharpen your knives like a whetstone or knife sharpener, which grinds the blade down. They just straighten the blade out, making it easier and safer to use. Most experts recommend honing your knives weekly, but you can do it every time you use them if you prefer.

Benefits:

  • Honing rod handle will match the knife set.
  • Ensures you have what you need to keep your knives sharp all in one place.

Be aware:

  • The honing rod may not be as high quality as one you’d purchase yourself. This will depend on the quality of the knife set and if you’re looking for a high-end ceramic honing rod or something else specific.

Kitchen Shears

Photo by Ozgur Coskun

While not actually a knife, a number of knife sets will include kitchen shears. These scissors are excellent for trimming fat or skin off of chicken, snipping sprigs of herbs, and opening packages.

Benefits:

  • More precise than a knife for small tasks like removing stems from herbs.
  • Good shears come apart so that they can be washed, unlike most scissors.

Be aware:

  • Some shears don’t match the knife set they come with directly, as they’ll have metal or plastic handles rather than wooden ones (for wooden handled knives).

How To Pick the Best Japanese Knife Set for You

A Gyuto knife after slicing some veggies. Photo by Kevin Doran

Japanese knives aren’t known for being accessible due to their high price point and relative rarity. In order to make the choice easier, I’m going to describe three people and what I’d recommend each of them purchase.

Nicky: Home Cook Looking for Knives that Are Easy to Handle

Nicky has small hands, and her family has a history of arthritis, so she’s looking for lightweight knives that won’t put too much strain on her hands and wrists. She wants well-made knives that can hold a keen edge for a long time, so they aren’t too much of an effort to use.

Features to look for:

  • Smaller knives that are easier to handle.
  • A set that covers all the basics, like a chef’s knife, paring knife, utility knife, and bread knife.

Japanese Knife Set Examples: Shun Classic Essential Block Set, Global Takashi Knife Block Set

Aurora: Hobbyist Who Wants to Upgrade her Knife Collection

Aurora is passionate about cooking, and she’s been looking to get better equipment. She doesn't want to drop too much money at once, but she’d like to upgrade her most used knives to something high-quality. She’s been looking at starter sets to replace her inexpensive chef’s knife, utility knife, and paring knife.

Features to look for:

  • Knife sets with only a few knives, so there’s less sticker shock.
  • Mid to lower range lines in the brands so that they’re still high quality, but not as expensive.

Japanese Knife Set Examples: Shun Classic Starter Set, Cangshan Haku Series Starter Set

Selling fast

Ian: Knife Collector Who Wants a Showstopper

Ian has loved knives for his whole life. He now has a good income and wants to spend it on a gorgeous set of knives. He’s heard that Japanese knife makers tend to make excellent knives, so he’s inclined in that direction.

Features to look for:

  • Handles made of wood for their comfort, durability, and beauty.
  • Hand-hammered finishes or Damascus steel for a standout blade.

Japanese Knife Set Examples: Miyabi Artisan Knife Block Set, Shun Premier Professional Block Set

Find the Best Japanese Knife Set for You

Picking out a knife set can be a difficult task due to the number of options and the expense. If you’re curious about brands, types of knives, or even just to talk about how cool Japanese knives are, chat with a Curated Kitchen Expert! Every one of our Experts is ready to share their expert recommendations so that you can find the Japanese knife set that’ll become your next favorite — all for free!

Curated experts can help

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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