Though it might seem fine to pick up any old chef’s knife when you’re just learning how to cook, it doesn’t take long to learn how important this tool really is.
A good knife should handle meat, fish, veggies, fruit, even cakes. A great one? It should do everything with permission and ease.
Enter Japanese kitchen knives. They are better, sharper, longer-lasting… And that celebrity chef or a home cook with mad slicing skills? They probably own at least one.
If you’re also in the market for a good santoku or gyuto but don’t know where to start, here’s a quick guide.
Table of Contents
- 1 Japanese knives types
- 2 Why are Japanese knives so good
- 3 Why are Japanese knives sharpened on one side?
- 4 Why are Japanese knives expensive?
- 5 Top Japanese Knives
- 6 Best Affordable
- 7 Mid Range
- 8 High End
- 9 The Best Japanese Knives Brand – Oishya
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Japanese knives types
The easiest way to illustrate the difference between classic western and Japanese knives is to compare it to the difference between a home and a professional tool kit.
At home, you don’t need more than a couple of screwdrivers, a hammer, pliers and a wrench. However, a professional repairman will have to own multiple types and sizes of each item.
Walking into the world of Japanese knives is like walking into a tool shop – you can find something reliable for home and/or amateur use, or you can find something suitable for that super-specific job that requires ultimate precision.
And since discovering a new world can be very confusing, here are some of the better known and more often used types.
With the name that translates to “three uses”, this knife is the most comparable to the standard chef’s knife.
At first sight, their shapes are also very similar, but at closer inspection, a chef’s knife is curvier and has a pointer tip.
This difference in shapes indicated the difference in how they should be used. A chef’s knife is designed to be used with rocking motions, while a santoku is more suitable for slicing and chopping.
This knife can be used for meat, fish, and vegetables, and it can do everything your regular knife already does, except mincing.
Gyuto knives are like KitKat – something Japan got from the West and then made it better.
It’s another all-purpose knife that is supposed to do everything that a classic chef’s knife does. The shape is almost the same, with gyuto often being slightly longer and with a more prominent point.
It’s suitable for chopping, mincing, slicing, filleting, etc. Though it can be used on all food, it’s slightly better with fish and meat. It would be better to supplement it with another knife designed for vegetables – like the nakiri.
The name translates to “the vegetable knife”. It’s shaped like a narrow meat cleaver, and it’s designed to cut through sturdier items like daikon, carrots, and potatoes.
The tip of the knife is often rounded for safer use. And most models will not have perfectly smooth blades – they will have some form of texture or indentation to prevent the veggies from sticking.
Nakiri is used with a straight up and down motion, just like the santoku.
If you are a beginner I will highly suggest you start with this knife. It’s highly versatile. I own a Nakiri (the one in the picture above) and it’s my favorite kitchen knife!
Deba is the Japanese version of the filleting knife. It can be the same size as the santoku, but it’s a lot more curved. They are perfect for slicing fish, or for removing meat from the bone.
Some of the types of this knife are hon-deba (true deba), ko-deba (small deba), as well as typed designed to work with specific kinds of fish like ceviche.
Yanagiba (aka Shobu)
Aka the sashimi knife. Or if you are in the mood t be more romantic about it, “the willow blade”.
The art of sashimi is the cutting of the fish and there are different types of cuts that can highlight the texture of the flesh. There are three distinct cutting techniques – hirazukuri or the vertical cut, usuzukuri or the thin vertical cut, and sogizukuri or a cat at an angle. A well-made yanagiba can perform each cut smoothly and with precision.
This knife is also used for removing skin from fish and deboning salmon, tuna, etc.
This one is an import from China. It may look like a meat cleaver, but it has more uses. Though it might not be the best tool for filleting, it can be used for almost any other job – slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing, and even cutting through bones.
Why are Japanese knives so good
It might be magic, or it might be a perfect combination of materials and design. Most likely it’s both, with magic being the one coming from the hands of master craftsmen.
We can make an argument that it boils down to the forging. There are two distinct methods – honyaki and kasumi.
Honyaki knives are of the highest grade and more expensive of the two. They are made from a single material with the same method used for making katanas. It takes a lot of time and work to produce a single blade, but the result is an exceptionally strong and enduring product.
Kasumi knives are more affordable and easier to maintain. They are made by combining two different types of steel – hagane carbon steel for resistance, and jigane iron for flexibility. In any case, they are also incredibly sharp and more than perfect for home use.
Why are Japanese knives sharpened on one side?
Not all of them are, but having a single bevel is one of the major “selling points” of Japanese knives.
Single bevel means that the blade is flat on one side, and sloping on the other. There are two benefits to this.
First, the blade doesn’t bend out of shape. Have you ever seen a chef or a butcher sharpen a knife before cutting? The tool they are using is called a honing stick, and it’s not sharpening the knife but honing the blade. With repeated use, the edge of the blade bends to one side. The honing whips it up into place, keeping everything nice in tip-top shape until the next stone sharpening.
Single bevel knives don’t have to be honed as often. Also, that flat edge allows for the knife to be sharpened at a smaller angle. In fact, two times smaller. Standard chef’s knife-edge can be between 20 and 30 degrees, while a yanagiba knife often goes as low as 10 degrees. Smaller the angle, sharper the blade.
Why are Japanese knives expensive?
Unlike their Western counterparts, Japanese knives were not swept up in the waves of the industrial revolution.
This is true of the most “Japanese things” – kimono, carpentry, pottery, etc.
It’s almost like an unwritten rule – if it’s just a thing made in Japan, it can be made in a modern hi-tech facility. Yet, if it’s a traditional item, traditional methods and practices rain supreme.
A person making your knife is not there only to operate the machines – there is someone personally handling each item during each step of the manufacturing process.
Not only do we have to mention that hand-made items will always be expensive, but we have to take note of who is making them. Skill and experience will always come at a premium.
Let’s put it like this, there is a big difference between a McDonald’s cook and a Michelin star chef. Reputable manufacturers are not in the habit of hiring McDonald’s cooks – their skill will come at a certain price and they will pass on that cost to you.
Also, this is Japan that we are talking about. Artisans are recognized as national treasures. If an establishment has been around for generations, they are even treated like aristocracy.
And even before modern production, Japanese forging techniques were superior to the Western ones. For centuries, they have been known to produce blades that are strong, durable, and sharp, despite being thin and light. When you buy a Japanese kitchen knife, you are paying for the same technology that went into the production of famous samurai.
Finally, there are the materials. To put it simply, you are getting a better deal.
Rockwell’s scale is used by metallurgists to define a piece of steel’s hardness. American and European manufacturers usually make their blades from steel that is at 52-56 on that scale. Japanese knives are up to 10 points higher on the same scale.
Now on to the fun stuff… Let’s see what are the best Japanese knives to buy in 2021.
Top Japanese Knives
This is still not your average budget buy, but it’s still an investment worth making. It’s the less expensive of the list that still worth the money.
The knife is made in Taiwan, but with imported Japanese steel – the VG-10 Damascus steel is sourced from Takefu Special Steel Co, Ltd in Japan. It’s rated at 60-62 on Rockwell’s scale, and the blade is extremely sharp and easy to maintain.
The wood handle is shaped in style to western kitchen knives – it makes it easier to transition to this type of knife without having to deal with the unfamiliar handle as well. It’s made out of pakkawood, a wood/resin composite that is very strong and durable. While it’s very smooth to the touch, it’s not slippery and allows for a firm grip.
The hammered pattern is both very attractive in that wabi-sabi way, but also prevents foods from sticking. The blade is sharpened at 15 degrees, and a lot of users report that they didn’t have to re-sharpen it for a very long time.
However, the blade is double-sided so it will have to be honed from time to time.
Like all other Zhen knives, this santoku comes in a handcrafted box. It’s not only a nice touch if you plan to buy it as a gift, but it also ensures that your knife will arrive intact if you’re buying it online.
This knife is our top pick because it gives amazing performance for the best price.
This guy is the part of the Alpha Roya Series, a blended collection of both western and eastern knives made with Japanese methods and materials.
At first glance, this santoku looks very western. It has a familiar ergonomic black handle with 3 rivets.
But pay attention to the one in the middle – it’s not like the other girls. There is something very charming in this decorative detail, especially if you compare it with the fact that old swordmakers used to sign their work with engravings of flowers.
All knives from the collection are made in China from Japanese VG10 Super Steel 67-layer Damascus imported from Takefu in Japan. The edge is sharpened at a 15-degree angle, slightly tapering to 12 degrees at the tip.
Another detail that adds to a more modern look is the scalloped grooves near the edge of the blade – they are placed there to prevent food from sticking, especially when dicing and julienning fruits and vegetables.
If you’re someone who likes their kitchen gear to match and you’re satisfied with the performance of this santoku, the Alpha-Royal Series has almost every single type of a knife you might need.
Shun is a very reputable and trusted name in the knife industry. They even had the gear-geek Alton Brown as their spokesperson. You know, the man who made his own food dehydrator just because buying one was a waste?
The Shun classic chef knife is a gyuto, aka a Japanese spin on the chef’s knife. It’s available in three sizes – 6, 8 and 10 inches, with an option for custom engraving if you’re feeling fancy. Shun also sells a diamond and ceramic sharpener that is designed for use with this type of knives.
Shun knives are made in Japan in Seki City, but are distributed by Kai USA Ltd. This is good news because Shun knives also come with a lifetime free sharpening service.
Speaking of sharp things, blades from this collection have a VG MAX core that is sandwiched between 69 layers of stainless steel. VG MAX is the company’s trademark “super steel” and is known to keep very narrow edges for long. And this knife comes with a 16-degree edge that can complete any task in the kitchen.
The handle is made out of pakkawood for a good grip and durability. However, it’s not ergonomic and it has a traditional Japanese shape. New users will find it takes a bit to adjust their grip.
If you want all those amazing things we expect from one of these knives, this is the way to go. Yoshiro Gyutos are made in the city of Sakai in Japan by master artisans using traditional tools and techniques.
Hand-forged 46-layer Damascus stainless steel blade is sharpened to a 15-degree angle. The core is made out of high carbon nickel VG-10 steel that is renowned for its edge retention. The Rockwell hardness rating of the blade is 60.
The item has a traditional hammered finish called tsuchime, to prevent food from sticking to it. It’s protected by a very attractive wooden sheath that comes with each knife.
The magnificent craftsmanship is extended to the handle as well. It has a traditional Japanese shape, and it’s made out of magnolia wood with the Water Buffalo horn bolster.
“Proudly made in Japan and not mass-produced.” From the same manufacturer that gave us our favorite affordable traditional knife, comes this offering from the Aogami Super Blue High Carbon Steel Kurouchi series.
The knife has a very distinct kurouchi finish – kuro meaning black in Japanese. The black forged look comes from the carbonized coating created during the heat treatment. It provides good corrosion protection, but it is not stainless.
The blade itself is made from the top class super blue high carbon steel that is rated 64-65 for hardness on the Rockwell scale. It’s sharpened to 10-12 degrees on each side – there is a slight variation because each knife is individually sharpened by hand.
It is a double-sided knife with a 50/50 bevel, with a micro bevel of 30/70 at the very last millimeter of the tip.
Another offering from Yoshihiro, but this gives you a bit more for almost the exact same price because it comes with a cover.
All joking aside, you are paying for the cover, but also for the stainless finish of the blade. Outside of it, it’s almost identical to its previously mentioned cousin.
However, this knife is not a santoku but a kiritsuke – also a multi-purpose utensil with a significant difference in design. It resembles a love child of a santoku and a nakiri with the wide blade and the slanted tip. The body is firm enough for slicing vegetables, while still nimble enough to work with meat.
The only thing that this model is lacking but would make it all-around best buy ever, is the lack of texture on the blade. A scalloped or hammered texture would prevent food from sticking and allow for super speedy work.
Miyabi is a Japanese brand owned by the German knife manufacturer Zwilling J. A. Henckels. German and Japanese manufacturing in one place – you know what you should expect.
In the case of this item, you should expect the blade that comes down to a 9.5-degree angle. The SG2 micro-carbide powder steel is protected by 100 layers of steel. The in-house developed ice-hardening process promises the longevity and sharpness of each blade.
However, just like the Shun knives, you run a risk of encountering knock-off Miyabi knives. And at the price point of $250, you can’t really afford not to buy it from a reputable distributor.
Now, this is the best when it comes to Japanese traditional knives. This knife is the perfect combination of artisan craftsmanship and high technology.
The only bad thing that I can think about this knife is its price. For $370, you’ll have to either have very deep pockets or very high expectations.
Another small issue? You will have to wait for it to be shipped out to you. Each knife is hand-made and it takes a while for them to be made just right. But, it is worth it.
But what your money and patience are getting you is a true work of art from the Sakai’s master blacksmith. The 46 layer steel blade is also hammered giving it texture for a non-stick finish – a fairly unique characteristic amongst gyuto knives. This makes it a perfect all-rounder in any kitchen.
And the thing is very pretty as well. Though all traditional Japanese knives look very beautiful, this one takes it to the next level. You have several choices of maple wood handles. The plain wood is gorgeous, to begin with, but the painted versions look like marble (Green and Blue). It’s something that is rarely seen even with western designer brands.
The Best Japanese Knives Brand – Oishya
This is the manufacturer of our favorite high-end knife. Are there better manufacturers there? Yes. Do they score in each category as high as Oishya? No.
For an overall brand winner, we wanted a good product, at a decent price, that is easily accessible to the average consumer. No taking out the second mortgage to buy a single knife, or going on a pilgrimage to find the reincarnation of Masamune, the legendary swordsmith.
This is the brand that I use personally in my kitchen. I will let you a few photos of my knife and I must tell it will look way more breathtaking in real life. The blue handle is sooooo beautiful and mesmerizing.
Our favorite brand offers well-made and beautiful knives, at a reasonable price for the quality. They also operate online and offer worldwide shipping.
For $860 you can get a complete set of Japanese knives and have it delivered for free. Yes, $860 is very steep but it is not too different than making a set of any other brand’s hand-made knives.
And they come with a lifetime guarantee – which means you are making the investment only once right now, and you never have to worry about kitchen knives for the rest of your life.
You can find them at Oishya. If you want to buy one of these premium japanese knives you can use our code geek20 for an automatic 20£ (20$) discount.
Our runner-ups are Yoshihiro who we also feature in our list, and Shun as a representative for high-quality mass production.
Japanese knives are magnificent tools and clearly superior to their Western counterparts. Even an entry-level santoku or a gyuto can elevate your cutting skills.
Even if you are not in the market for one, the good news is that many Western manufacturers are learning everything they can from the Japanese masters and slowly integrating it into their designs. So, keep an eye on that as well.