We need knives to do anything in the kitchen. From a simple sandwich to the most intricate dish, there is hardly any recipe that will not require you to chop, mince, slice, or cut an ingredient.
It is important to understand that not all knives are the same. While some were made for general use, several others are designed to do niche tasks extremely well.
Every feature and characteristic represents a purpose, a function, and a story.
In this article, we will be looking into an array of knives that hail from a nation whose supreme craftsmanship in blade-making was once poured into the creation of weapons for their most esteemed warriors: the samurais. Today, the best Japanese knives for chefs around the world continue to carry this tradition of artistry.
Let’s zoom into these exquisite blades and discover what makes them so widely coveted.
The Slice on Japanese Knives
Japanese knives are known for their beauty and functionality. Made thinner, sharper, and lighter compared to their Western counterparts, they allow for precise cuts that help preserve ingredients' freshness and allow for a beautiful presentation.
While most Japanese knives fare well for general cutting, others specialize in specific tasks. Such characteristics are defined by the features they are built with.
Knife blades typically come in carbon steel or stainless steel.
Stainless steel is the recommended choice for most people because it does not stain. It requires less or barely any maintenance, unlike carbon steel. It is also less brittle.
Carbon steel knives are often preferred by professionals because it is known to be sharper and easier to re-sharpen. An important characteristic of this blade is that it tends to darken over time because it reacts to its environment.
While this may look unattractive to most people, knife enthusiasts appreciate this as it gives the knife character, making it unique in the world.
Knife hardness is measured with a Rockwell scale: a higher number equates to harder steel.
Japanese knives are typically harder than European knives. In the Rockwell scale, European chef knives usually go from 52-56 HRC (Rockwell Hardness) based on the C scale. Most Japanese knives, on the other hand, go for as high as 60-64.
Harder knives require less sharpening. Even without frequent maintenance, they retain their edge. A downside, though, is that they tend to be brittle.
Tempering will reduce the hardness of steel and toughen it up against chipping but this comes at cost of sharpness
The shape of a knife helps determine the optimal cutting techniques to be used when it is in use. Round bellies allow a knife to see-saw back and forth when cutting with a rocking technique. Straight-edge knives are better for up-and-down slicing and push-cutting.
Some Japanese knives are built with a sheep’s foot tip. This serves as a safety feature to avoid accidentally piercing anything at the tip of the blade.
Single Bevel vs. Double Bevel
The bevel refers to the part of the blade that is ground to form the cutting edge. Some knives possess bevels only on one side of the knife (single bevel), while others have bevels on both sides (double bevel).
Single bevel knives are preferred by many chefs because they are extremely sharp. They are, however, more difficult to maneuver as its slice tends to skew to one side. To be able to fully enjoy its benefits, it is important to be familiar with the necessary techniques for its use.
Double beveled knives are easier to maintain and maneuver for the regular user. They cut straight down. They are also more robust and easier to sharpen.
Finally, double bevel knives are ambidextrous, unlike single bevel knives which are generally made for right-handed users.
The common length for an all-around knife is 8 inches. Larger ones that go from 9-10 inches are preferred by professional cooks. Handling its weight requires more skill, but it can be more efficient as it allows for more ingredients to be cut at once.
Although often overlooked, smaller knives are best for smaller spaces. They also allow for more control, especially at the tip. They are also more affordable and are economical options for the general user.
Hidden Tang vs Full Tang
Hidden tang refers to handles where the steel extends only partly into the handle. Knives with a full tang, on the other hand, allows the steel to extend all the way through. These knives are tougher than those with a hidden tang.
Wa vs Yo
Japanese knife handles can have 2 styles: wa and yo.
Wa handles are based on traditional Japanese knives. They are commonly octagonal, with some that tend to be D-shaped or oval. Knives with wa handles typically have hidden tangs.
Yo, on the other hand, was adapted from Western handles. It shares several characteristics of wa, except that its grip is more ergonomic and is usually used for knives with full tangs.
Similar to bevels, left-handed users need to be careful when considering knife handles. Oval or octagon handles are ambidextrous. D-handles are mostly for righties.
The balance point of a knife can be determined when you place it on top of your extended index finger, touching the part where the handle and blade meet. You’ll see that some knives balance more towards the handle, some at the middle, and some towards the blade.
While it is ordinarily efficient to choose a knife that balances towards the blade or the middle, the best balance lies primarily on the user’s preference.
Best Japanese Knives for Chefs
Some Japanese knives are made for multi-purpose functionalities, while others excel on specific cutting tasks. In the next section, we will be looking into these in detail, along with products I would recommend per knife type.
Usually measuring between 8-12 inches, the Gyutou is the Japanese equivalent of a western chef’s knife. It effectively slices through vegetables, fish, or meat. Lightweight and versatile, it is an ideal choice for general use.
Imarku Pro Kitchen Knife
Flawless and stunning, this multi-function Gyutou is made with stainless steel with higher carbon content than its competitors. This results in steel that is 2x harder. Adding in chrome to its metal composition, the blade is corrosion-resistant as well.
This knife has a blade length of 5 inches. With its ergonomic Pakka handle, its total length is 13 inches.
Pakka is a material that originates from Africa known. It is known to provide comfort, strength, and stability. Its comfortable grip allows for less fatigue even after extended use.
The Imarku Pro Kitchen knife is well-loved because of its quality feel and balance. This makes it an impeccable choice for normal people, and even one of the best Japanese knives for chefs as well.
Santoku vs Bunka
Both the Santoku and the Bunka are general-purpose kitchen knives that can handle a wide range of kitchen duties. Measuring about 5-8 inches, they are smaller and easier to handle than the Gyutou. The Bunka, however, tends to be smaller and thinner than the Santoku. They are also often more expensive as they are not as common as the Santoku, even in Japan.
Mercer Culinary Santoku Knife
The Mercer Culinary Santoku Knife comes in high-quality Japanese steel that requires minimal maintenance but delivers superb results. It is stain-resistant, rust-proof, and not prone to corrosion or discoloration.
It boasts an ergonomic handle which is made with a combination of Santoprene for comfort and polypropylene for durability. Its texture makes it easy to grip, making it feel good in your hand.Finally, Mercer Culinary is proudly certified by NSF, an international provider of public health and safety-based risk management solutions.
The blade of this Mercer Culinary Santoku knife is so sharp it can cut through bread without producing crumbs. Complete with its ergonomic handle, this knife provides immense value for its price.
Nakiri vs Usuba
Nakiri and Usuba are marked by the straight-edge blade that is perfect for slicing, dicing, and chopping vegetables. These blades are ordinarily 5-7 inches long.
Their names are sometimes used interchangeably because of their shared resemblance to a small cleaver. Still, they have subtle differences.
The Nakiri is more suited for ordinary users. Unlike the Usuba which is made with a single bevel, the Nakiri has a double bevel, making it easier to maneuver and sharpen. The double bevel also allows it to be conveniently used by both right-handed and left-handed individuals.
Yoshihiro Nakiri Vegetable Knife
The Yoshihiro Nakiri Vegetable Knife is loved because of its elegance and superb performance. The beautiful wavy patterns because of its Damascus cladding and the beautiful texture produced by its hammering elevates this blade to a work of art.Looking into its performance, it is made with hard VG-10 steel. This makes it extremely sharp, durable, and able to retain its edge even after several uses. The divots produced by the hammering also allows for better food release and reduces drag.
This Yoshihiro Nakiri Vegetable Knife is a durable blade that requires very little re-sharpening. Still, care is required to keep it from being scratched. Hand-washing is recommended when cleaning it after use.
This blade retains its sharpness after months of regular use, but should the need arise, be sure to only sharpen it with water whetstones.
Yoshihiro Kasumi Traditional Vegetable Knife
Proudly made in Japan and not mass-produced, the Yoshihiro Kasumi Traditional Vegetable Knife is crafted by master artisans with White Steel #2 and a high hardness level of 62-63 in the Rockwell Scale.
Elegantly handcrafted with a traditional wa style rosewood handle, it is as beautiful as it is ergonomic. The single bevel edge is extremely sharp. It performs exceptionally well around any texture or density of fruit and vegetables.As it is made with carbon steel, this knife requires effort to maintain its edge. Whetstones and water are the only things that can be used to sharpen them. It is also advised to keep it dry and oil regularly to prevent oxidation.
This Yoshihiro Kasumi Traditional Vegetable Knife is a hand-crafted work of art. Requiring more expertise to handle and maintain, it can be more thoroughly appreciated by professionals and knife enthusiasts.
Both the Nakiri and the Usuba are great knives made especially for cutting vegetables in straight-up-and-down motions without the need for any horizontal pushing or pulling.
The Nakiri is more recommended for normal users as the Usuba requires more skill to handle, being the single-bevel and heavier-duty counterpart to the Nakiri. The latter is also typically more pricey than earlier.
Although they are called "bread knives", these blades can cut more than just bread. Made with razor-sharp serrated edges, they can easily slice through tomatoes, sponge cakes, and other soft food without producing crumbs, disfiguration, and potentially crushing fresh, airy bread.
While the design of bread knives are not originally from Japan, the country churns out some the best of its kind in the world because of their superior craftsmanship.
Shun Classic Bread Knife
The Shun Classic Bread Knife is equipped with a 9-inch serrated blade that cleanly slices through bread and soft fruits and vegetables without squishing or sawing motions. This is paired with a D-shaped Pakka wood handle.
Stubborn ingredients such as sourdough and baguettes are also no match for this knife’s blade. Despite its toughness, it remains capable of delicate tasks such as slicing bananas, bread, pastries, and others.
This knife is made with VG-MAX steel which is Shun’s proprietary formulation that allows the blade to be strong, durable, corrosion-free, and extra sharp even after several uses.
All bread knives, regardless of price point, are challenging to re-sharpen because of their serrated edges. Choosing one that retains its edge longer are the best investments for this category. The Shun Classic Bread Knife is one such knife.
A Deba’s blade is usually 6.5-8 inches but can be as small as 4 inches. Its blade is thick and stout and made with a single bevel and a flat backside. This makes it slice through soft fish perfectly when filleting or butchering which makes it a perfect replacement of western butcher knives. It also works well when cutting up poultry or vegetables.
This is not to be confused with the Yo-Deba (Western Deba) which is used for heavy-duty cutting for chicken or beef joints and seafood (crabs, lobster, shellfish) shells.
Kai Wasabi Deba
Hailing from Japan’s famous knife capital, the quality of Kai knives is uncontested. Its high sharpness allows it to effectively create thin slices through fragile membranes without destroying them.
The blade is made with Daido 1K6 steel. Although it's stainless steel, this type still requires proper handling to avoid acquiring blemishes. This can be done through hand-washing instead of dishwashing, as with other pieces of cutlery.
Nevertheless, remedying tarnishes for this knife is quite simple with the use of rust erasers, or high-grit sandpaper.
The Kai Wasabi Deba is a quality choice for durable and reliable fillet knives. Built with a single bevel, it requires a little practice to maximize. It’s also ideal for right-handed users, and not recommended for lefties because of its handle and bevel.
Paring knives are compact blades designed for delicate, handheld tasks such as peeling fruits and vegetables. It is usually 3.5-8 inches in length, but its blade length also tends to vary. They are usually made with double bevels and western handles, similar to their western counterparts.
Kyocera Advanced Ceramic Paring Knife
Kyocera ceramic cutlery prides itself on its blades that are 50% lighter than its counterparts. Because of this, artificial weights on the handles are unnecessary. This makes cutting with these knives smooth with minimal resistance.Ideal for first-timers to the brand, the 3-inch Kyocera Advanced Ceramic Paring Knife is easy to handle and good for everyday use. Slicing fruits, vegetables, and boneless meats are tasks that it executes excellently. Garnishing is also one of its special uses because its size allows for detailed trimming, peeling, and mincing.
The Kyocera Advanced Ceramic Paring Knife is a small and lightweight knife perfect for meticulous tasks. Made with the company’s proprietary zirconia material produced in Japan, it stays sharp at least 10 times longer than its traditional counterparts.
Comparison: A Knife For Your Every Kitchen Need
What it’s best used for
Bread and soft food
Soft fish, poultry, vegetables
Delicate tasks such as peeling fruits and vegetables
The Final Verdict
The best Japanese knives for chefs carry a rich heritage of excellent form and function. When choosing the best one for you and your own needs, it’s important to first ask yourself what you will use the knife for.
Multi-purpose blades that are easy to sharpen and maintain are practical choices for most of us. If you’re looking for specialized knives to elevate your experience in preparing particular dishes, on the other hand, the other options mentioned in this list would be excellent options to consider as well.