6 Types of Japanese Kitchen Knives that Are Better Than Westerns

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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, and 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. 

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.

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Santoku

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

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.

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

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.

Chukabocho

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 are the most 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. A standard chef’s knife edge can be between 20 and 30 degrees, while a yanagiba knife often goes as low as 10 degrees. The smaller the angle, the 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 which is at 52-56 on that scale. Japanese knives are up to 10 points higher on the same scale. 

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 you it will look way more breathtaking in real life. The blue handle is soooo 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.

They come with a lifetime guarantee – which means you are investing 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.

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. 

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