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Japanese Knives 101Posted 06/11/10 • Last updated 05/08/13 • 12462 views • 1 comment
There are several wiki articles here presenting classic basics of knives, but thus far they’re all out of date. Something has changed lately — something big. That’s the advent of high-quality Japanese knives. This wiki is intended to give you some fundamental information about these knives. There are a number of people on this website who know a great deal about Japanese cutlery, who ought to join in and fix or add things.
Table Of Contents [if anyone can figure out how to make this clickable to skim through, please do so!]
What’s The Difference?
Knife Shapes: Or, Why Should I Buy A Santuko?
Single and Double Bevels
A Note On Opening
Types of Steel
Japanese Steel Types (Carbon)
Living With Carbon Steel
Japanese Forging Styles
Stainless and Semi-Stainless Alloys
Damascus, Suminagashi, Etc.
Japanese Knife Brands
How Japanese Knives Are Made (Business Aspects)
Other Purchasing Methods
What’s The Difference?
The steel in Japanese cutlery is generally a good deal harder than in Western cutlery. This means that when they cut or run against a board surface, the edge will not bend easily. This means, in turn, that the knives stay sharper longer. But there are a lot of intricacies.
The edge of your knife looks, under a microscope, like a saw: it has little teeth. Imagine that you have two knives, one made of tinfoil and one made of glass. Now imagine tapping the edges gently against a board. Obviously the tinfoil teeth will bend out of the way, and the glass ones won’t. If you tap hard, the tinfoil will still bend, but the glass teeth will break off.
You probably know about “steeling” (properly speaking honing) a knife on a “steel.” This is for soft (tinfoil-like) teeth on Western cutlery. Properly done, the honing will bend those teeth back into line with the blade. Of course, over time this ceases to be helpful: to use a different analogy, take a paper clip and bend it back and forth again and again, and as you know it breaks off. Same thing with the teeth: after bending the teeth while cutting, then bending them back with a hone, then back and forth, eventually the teeth come off.
At this point, with the teeth broken off the hard (glass-like) blade and off the soft (foil-like) blade, the knives are identical. They’re what’s known as blunt. And at this point you have to sharpen them by grinding the metal to bring up a new edge, which is to say new little teeth. And then you start over.
So thus far, we can see one difference between Japanese and Western cutlery: Japanese steel will hold an edge longer, because it is harder, and you get less mileage out of honing. (There is no absolute rule here: some Japanese knives benefit from steeling, some don’t.)
Let’s go back to our analogy with foil and glass. If I want my edge to be at all durable, and I make it out of tinfoil, I’m going to need quite a lot of material behind my edge to support it. To put that differently, if I try to cut with a single sheet of tinfoil, I’m out of luck, but if I make a fat wedge of foil I can probably make some headway. By contrast, I can cut with a very thin piece of glass, the only danger being that if it’s too thin it will crumble too easily.
The result is that Western cutlery, with its softer steel, must be rather thicker than Japanese cutlery needs to be. It’s fairly common to grind mainstream Western cutlery at about a 20 degree angle on each side, which means that the total profile adds up to a 40-degree edge. By contrast, a Japanese usuba is ground at around 10 degrees on one side, and is completely flat on the other — a total of a 10-degree edge. If you tried that with you favorite mainstream Western knife, it would crush as soon as you tried to cut anything. To be fair, you have to be pretty careful with an usuba to prevent chipping, but with decent technique you can cut carrots with that thin edge.
Now assuming you want to use a chef’s knife, paring knife, or the like, why would you want a thin edge? Two reasons. First, because the knife will not “wedge”: if you cut a thick carrot with a fat knife, it will tend to split the vegetable rather than just cutting it cleanly. Second, because the knife will weigh a great deal less. People have believed for years that a very heavy knife is a good thing because it does the work for you, but it turns out this isn’t so — everyone who has really used a good Japanese knife has discovered that it’s actually easier and less tiring to wield a light knife than a heavy one.
You might be wondering, how come Wusthof and so on don’t just harden their knives more? If it’s such a great advantage, why not shift over? Lord knows those guys aren’t incompetent, and if they wanted harder steel, they could harden it. So why not?
The principal reason that concerns us is the quality of the steel. The harder and thinner the steel is tempered and ground, the less tolerant it becomes of certain kinds of irregularities. Imagine you’re building a wall out of stones. If you want a thin wall to stand up, the stones need to be precisely cut and precisely laid, but a really thick wall can be made out of rubble. Well, in essence the more precise and even you want the various elements of the steel, like the stones in the wall, the more expensive that steel is to produce. So if Wusthof started using really high-grade steels that would tolerate great hardness and thin grinding, the prices would have to go way up.
This is one reason Japanese knives tend to be quite expensive. But on the other hand, because really good Japanese knives are not made by large factory companies, they have relatively little overhead, few executives, and no advertising to speak of. If Wusthof really wanted to produce superlative Japanese-style knives, from fabulous-quality steel, they certainly could — but chances are the results would be more expensive than the Japanese ones. For what it’s worth, this is the main reason why Shun and Global and the like get disdained by people who are serious about Japanese cutlery: they’re factory-made knives with big international overheads, and thus you don’t get as much knife for your money as you do with other Japanese knives.
Last, and anything but least, all of these many qualities combine to produce superior edges. You can grind a good Japanese knife very, very precisely and produce a razor-sharp edge that it will retain well. When I say “razor-sharp,” this is not rhetoric: you should be able to shave with it. When you combine a screaming-sharp edge with a light, thin, well-balanced blade, you have a knife that will simply outperform any mainstream Western cutlery in the kitchen.
Why Should I Buy A Santuko?
You shouldn’t. And that’s santoku, pronounced “sahn–toe–koo.” Let’s talk about knife shapes.
The main Western-style knives everyone traditionally needs are: chef’s knife, paring/petty knife, slicer, bread knife. Professionals should probably have some kind of boning knife.
Every knife design has an ideal size range for its principal purposes. A chef’s knife should be 8" to 12", with most professionals gravitating to about 9 or 10. Under 7" and a chef’s knife simply will not work right. A paring or petty knife should be short — maybe 2.5" to 4" — with petty knives on the long side and paring on the short. A slicer should be as long as possible, but over about 12" they can become unwieldy if you don’t have a lot of countertop real estate. A bread knife should also be long, as long as a chef’s knife, but it doesn’t matter all that much. Boning knives are generally around 5"-6", depending on what flavor you like.
The main Japanese knives you are likely to run into are called: chef’s knife, gyuto, santoku, Asian chef’s knife, nakiri, petty knife, deba, yanagiba, and possibly usuba and kiritsuke. Let’s start with simplification and definition:
Gyuto literally means something like “cow blade,” and it is simply equivalent to the French-style chef’s knife. As a rule, Japanese-made chef’s knives (gyuto) are less deep-bellied than their German equivalents, and are more akin in profile to French-made knives (e.g. the many Sabatier lines). These knives are double-beveled, meaning that both sides of the edge are ground at an angle to the center-plane of the edge (see below on single and double bevels).
A santoku is essentially a Japanese housewife’s knife, and became popular in roughly the 1930s or so — fine details on this are unclear, and it could be as late as the 1950s. The term “santoku,” which means “three virtues” and is intended to sound Buddhist-y, is advertising copy and means very little other than that the knife is supposed to be an all-rounder, doing more or less everything the housewife would usually want from a knife. It has precisely one virtue by comparison to the chef’s knife: it’s short. If the ideal range for the chef’s knife is 8"-12", the ideal for the santoku is about 6.5", which makes it less scary and rather handy if you have a teeny-tiny kitchen counter. In every other respect it is less good, for every appropriate purpose, than a chef’s knife. So, to answer your question, you should buy a santoku if you are absolutely terrified of an 8" knife and you have a very, very shallow countertop (well under the US standard depth, for example). Otherwise, don’t.
“Asian chef’s knife” means nothing consistent. Probably it’s something like a santoku, but possibly not. Don’t buy it unless you have other reasons to do so. Anyone trying to sell you something by saying it’s “Asian” is trading on ignorance and romanticism or exoticism.
A nakiri is an old-fashioned Japanese housewife’s knife, the one superseded or supplanted by the santoku. It has some slight advantages over the santoku when it comes to chopping vegetables, but it loses out for every other purpose. These days you often see them on Japanese TV when they’re trying to give a sense of old-fashioned rusticity, perhaps in a period drama or to indicate that we’re way out in the boonies with grandma or something like that. Nakiri are double-beveled, although some are ground so asymmetrically that they are similar in many respects to single-beveled knives.
Both santoku and nakiri have one tremendous advantage over other Japanese knives, however: they’re dirt cheap. You can pick up a perfectly respectable santoku or nakiri at the local hardware or home supply store for, oh, let’s say $15.... in Japan. Good luck finding such a knife at this kind of price in the US! No, in the West, they market these knives as some kind of special traditional exotic piece of wonderfulness, made by the masters who made samurai swords, blah blah blah, and charge you an arm and a leg for them. Don’t be suckered.
A petty knife is basically a slightly longer paring knife. They’re quite useful, but they can be expensive by comparison to paring knives. On the whole, the petty is probably a better design, but not by so much that you should pay a lot for one.
All of the above knives are double-beveled; those below are single-beveled. See the end of this section for further discussion of this distinction.
A deba is a fish-butchering knife. It’s for breaking down whole fish. It is massive and stiff. A deba requires a fish-cutting technique that is radically different from the French system, so if you are familiar with the latter you should not purchase a knife like this unless you're planning to re-learn completely. If you do buy one, 180mm is a good length for normal usage; old-fashioned Japanese pros lean toward 210mm or so, because they use the heel of the knife to mince things, but if you have a chef’s knife of some kind that will work just fine and a shorter deba will be easier to manipulate. They are mildly tricky to sharpen and keep that way.
A yanagiba, sometimes in Western forums and such called (erroneously) a yani, yanagi, yanigaba, or yanigiba, is a slicing knife for slicing raw fish to make sashimi. It has no other function in life, although people quite good with them do use them for other slicing jobs. The ideal length is about 300mm; knives like this made for home use will generally run about 195mm, and are workable but soon frustrating. A decent yanagiba is quite expensive: serious professional equipment will run upwards of $300, minimum, and can easily reach twice that. They are quite tricky to sharpen and keep that way.
An usuba is a professional’s vegetable knife. You pretty much never see these used by home cooks. The edge is die-straight, which is something to watch for: sometimes you see something called a “nakiri” in one place and an “usuba” in another, or called nakiri/usuba, as though these were the same thing, in which case almost invariably the edge will be just slightly curved. That means it’s a nakiri, not an usuba, almost certainly -- the other principal difference being that an usuba is truly single-beveled. An usuba is fairly tricky to sharpen and keep that way. Good length is about 210mm, give or take. It comes in square-tipped (Tokyo-style) and sickle-tipped (Kyoto-style). It is about the most awkward, irritating knife you are ever likely to use, and in the hands of a master can do frightening, beautiful things. A decent one will run you about $200 minimum; do not buy a cheaper one just to try, because it won’t work right, can’t be sharpened right, and will drive you bonkers. If you’re going to buy one at all, spend the cash. Why should you buy a good one? Because you’re already truly nuts and want to spend months fiddling. Otherwise, don’t.
A kiritsuke is a peculiar half-breed professional’s knife that is sort of like Japan’s answer to the chef’s knife. Some people love them, many hate them. It’s supposed to be an all-rounder, like the chef’s knife, but a lot of serious knife people think that it ends up being just a little bit mediocre in every way. Do not buy one unless you are something of a connoisseur, i.e. unless everything already said about the knife in this wiki has been old news to you. Good length is about the same as for a chef’s knife, i.e. 240–300mm.
The traditional Japanese professional’s set includes three and sometimes four knives: a 210mm or 225mm usuba; a 210mm or 225mm deba; a 150mm or 165mm deba known as an ajikiri, for cutting smaller fish; a 300mm or 330mm yanagiba. Many professionals prefer to use a single deba somewhere around 180mm to 195mm. Specialist knives for particular purposes include a hankotsu for meat butchering, a garasuke for poultry butchering, an eel knife (several regional terms and shapes for these knives), and a hamogiri for shearing the bones in a pike conger eel (hamo).
Today, use of these knives depends enormously on the type and location of the kitchen. Sushi chefs in Tokyo have embraced the petty knife and chef’s knife (gyuto), and retain the usuba primarily for peeling sheets of daikon, carrot, and cucumber (katsura-muki). Kyoto kaiseki chefs commonly retain the traditional set, and some disdain the use of any double-beveled knives; serious Kyoto chefs also have a lot of use for hamogiri in season, as hamo (pike conger eel) is a favorite summer fish in Kyoto and unusual elsewhere. Santoku and nakiri are almost exclusively used in home cooking and the occasional low-end professional kitchen.
Single and Double Bevels
If you picture a knife looked at point-on, you can draw a line passing through the very edge and running parallel to the core of the knife, in a plane. If you draw angled lines flaring outward from both sides of this plane, this is a double-beveled knife. With a single-beveled knife, there is one angled line (the primary or main bevel), and the other side runs straight along the plane for about a millimeter, curves into a shallow curve toward the primary bevel (forming a concavity), and returns to the plane by the spine. Note that this concavity in the back makes these knives not technically “chisel-ground,” i.e. ground on one side and not the other; so-called single-beveled nakiri are generally chisel-ground, effectively double-beveled knives with a 0-degree bevel on one side.
A double-beveled knife can be ground symmetrically or asymmetrically. If it is symmetrical, the two angled lines flaring outward, forming the two bevels, are at the same angle from the plane. If it is asymmetrical, those bevels are at unequal angles. Any double-beveled knife may be ground this way if desired. There is some debate as to whether, and under what circumstances, there is anything much to be gained by doing so. It is fairly usual in Japanese double-beveled knives.
A single-beveled knife has advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages: The flat bevel means that sharpening is less a matter of hand stability, which allows a great deal of precision grinding. The hollow knife back tends to refuse to stick to food. This shape works well to produce relative blade strength despite a very thin total included angle (the total of the two bevels’ angles from the plane).
Disadvantages: Single-beveled knives are very tricky to set up initially (see below). They are expensive. Sharpening requires special care to avoid having the flat bevel stick to the stone, making the edge jump toward one’s hand. They are very strongly “handed,” meaning that a lefty and a righty knife are mirror-images of one another and will not work at all the same for both cutters. Lefty knives (for those who need them) are far more expensive. The knives tend to “steer” in a cut, something requiring considerable technique to overcome.
A Note On Opening
A single-beveled knife must be “opened.” That is, it must be ground the first time to set it up for use. If you are expert enough to do this yourself, you are getting very little out of this wiki. If in doubt, you don’t know enough. This is very hard to do well, and you will regret it if you don’t do it well. If you know someone who really is an expert, who will do the work for you, that’s the best way to go. If you don’t, you must buy the knife from a dealer who can do it for you, and you will pay for that privilege. Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish: if you skimp now, your $300 knife can be ruined. Pay the man.
Types of Steel
The old rule that carbon takes an edge better is still true, all things being equal. Take two equivalent high-end knives from top-notch Japanese companies, at precisely the same price-point, one in carbon and one in some kind of excellent stainless alloy. The carbon will sharpen more smoothly and easily, but will tend not to retain its edge quite as well. Unfortunately, all things are never equal.
Japanese Steel Types (Carbon)
Yellow (or yellow #3), white #2, blue #2, and white #1 are the steels you’re likely to see mentioned. The colors refer to the wrapping paper in which the steel comes wrapped when it arrives at the knife-maker’s. The number is basically a grade: #3 is the lowest, suitable for okay home knives; #1 is the highest, suitable for knives as works of art. Don’t buy non-professional-grade steel (e.g. yellow steel) for professional-style knives — for example, a yellow steel usuba will never be satisfactory. In general, yellow steel knives, often marked kairyo-kasumi, should be avoided unless they are quite inexpensive. By contrast, #1 steel is so expensive, and #2 so good, that you should only buy #1 if you have very deep pockets and a collector’s fetish.
White steel is generally slightly more flexible than blue. The general rule is that blue is slightly superior if you are using the knife constantly during a long shift at the cutting board. Some experts swear by white steel for everything. Blue is slightly harder to sharpen.
Living With Carbon Steel
Carbon steel can rust easily; stainless can rust, but not easily. With time and contact with food, carbon steel will patina: it will react with onions and other acidic foods and start to turn a dull, blue-gray color. Once this patina has formed, it will not discolor your onions. Some people force a patina, and there are a number of methods for doing so, generally involving an acidic paste and a controlled exposure — for example, spreading prepared mustard on the surface for a given time and then washing it off.
To take care of carbon steel, simply wipe it with a damp cloth every time you switch ingredients, and as soon as you are done cutting for a while, rinse it very well in hot water, dry thoroughly with a dry kitchen towel, and then put it up in a rack or the like, out of the way, to “rest” for about half an hour — during this time the trace moisture will evaporate, leaving the knife bone dry. Now you can put the knife in the block or sheath or whatever. Scouring a knife with a ScotchBrite pad and detergent, in place of simply rinsing with hot water, is also workable, and probably a good idea when dealing with meats of any kind.
As a rule, the best single-beveled knives are made of carbon steel.
Japanese Forging Styles
Kasumi means “mist.” It refers to a misty line on the blade, down near the edge, on a single-beveled knife. This arises because the knife is a sheet of steel welded to a sheet of softer iron. The edge is steel, the part up the bevel from the foggy line upward is iron.
Many makers distinguish between kasumi and hon-kasumi. This normally means nothing technical: it is a grading, such that hon-kasumi is higher grade than kasumi. Both are made the same way.
Honyaki means “true-forged” or something like. It means that the entire knife is made of steel, not steel and iron welded together. Honyaki knives are much more expensive, a little less consistent, and tend to hold their edge fractionally longer.
Some high-end professionals insist on honyaki knives for certain applications, notably for their yanagiba that slice raw fish. This is because they retain their edges a little longer. Every time you grind the knife, it produces just a little bit of metal in the first several cuts, and thus if you don’t have to grind it as often, your sashimi will be that little bit better. (Note: very few people can actually tell the difference in the flavor or texture of the sashimi.) Bear in mind that this assumes you’re dealing with the finest fish, have superlative technique, and will grind your knives every single day on a fine polishing stone; otherwise it’s largely irrelevant.
Some high-end professionals, by contrast, claim that honyaki knives are quite inconsistent, in the sense that two honyaki knives in the same line from the same maker or brand vary, and as a result they prefer to use the very consistent kasumi knives.
For suminagashi and mirror-polishing, see below.
Stainless and Semi-Stainless Alloys
[left blank for someone who knows what they’re talking about]
A “clad” knife consists of a core of carbon steel surrounded by a jacket of another metal usually stainless. These knives are made in several ways. They are easier to care for than pure carbon steel (or kasumi knives with iron and carbon steel welded together), but harder to care for than pure stainless knives. Some experts find these knives “dead” to the touch, meaning that the vibrations that pass along the knife as you cut with it are deadened by the cladding, but others maintain that this is an illusion or a myth.
Damascus, Suminagashi, Etc.
Some centuries back, a number of regions of the world made certain blades by a complex process of folding the blank again and again. The process was supposed to make the blades better, for one reason or another. The technical details of how these various processes were accomplished, in one region or another, and how they should be termed, are exceedingly complex and in some cases contested by experts. In addition, the question of these blades’ superiority is very problematic — for one thing, superior to what, according to what criteria?
These days, with very, very few exceptions, what you see labeled Damascus or Suminagashi (ink-swirl) knives are not made this way at all. These knives consist of an etched cladding (see above) wrapped around the blade core. The etching produces the swirly “damascene” appearance. These knives are difficult to sharpen without scratching the cladding, and because the etching lies there, one must be very careful to avoid damaging the appearance. It is common to swaddle the cladding in thick tape while sharpening in order to avoid this problem. This cladding has no positive effects on performance, and some think it is detrimental.
Another attractive effect is produced by polishing the entire surface of a knife with such fine abrasives that it is impossible to see the scratches. The resulting surface looks like a mirror. Some find that mirror-polished knives resist patinas and slide very smoothly off the surface of food. It is possible to mirror-polish a knife yourself, but it is a tricky, time-consuming, and not entirely inexpensive process.
Handles on Japanese-made knives come in three basic varieties: Japanese-style, Western-style, and custom.
Wa-Handles: Japanese-style handles are normally made of ho wood (Japanese magnolia), which does not become slippery when wet, and requires little maintenance. These handles come in various profiles, but all are essentially little more than wooden rods to which the knives are affixed. The term "wa-" in some knife titles means it has a handle like this, e.g. a wa-gyuto is a chef's knife with a Japanese handle.
Yo-Handles: Western-style handles are what you expect, more or less: shaped, grip-formed handles. They may be affixed to the knife in various ways, depending on the maker and design. There is no longer much truth in the notion that a full tang is necessary: an excellent Japanese knife maker's blades will not fall out any more often than those from your favorite Western maker. Sometimes the term "yo-" attached to a knife title refers to a handle like this, but not always. Most notably, the term yo-deba means a very heavy, tough knife -- like a deba -- that is double-beveled (thus yo, Western-style). The handle of a yo-deba is whatever the maker chooses to put on it.
Custom Handles: Some purchasers enjoy elaborate handles made of all kinds of things, from rare woods with inlays to lacquer and the like. Functionally, the only issues are (1) weight, (2) hand-feel, and (3) durability under expected conditions. The only one of these that can be commented on in general terms is weight: a long, heavy knife such as a yanagiba or kiritsuke, if used largely on a draw-stroke, benefits from a heavier handle. Standard choices for such handles are itchii (a type of Japanese oak) and ebony, the latter being quite a bit more expensive. This extra weight is not really necessary, but it can be nice. Most knife dealers can arrange handle changes --- for a price.
In general, wa- handled knives (see above) have a ferrule made of water buffalo horn between the blade and the wooden handle. Some makers and dealers offer different colors of horn, but the standard is slightly irregular black. A plastic ferrule is a dead giveaway of a cheap knife.
Japanese Knife Brands
Those with direct experience of particular brands, preferably across a range of knife designs, are encouraged to write their comments here. I divide high, medium, and low here exclusively by price.
Masamoto Souhonten, in Tokyo, is probably the most respected of the relatively large concerns. The knives are excellent in every way, and you’ll pay for it. If you owe a Japanese sushi chef a really, really big thank-you sort of favor, buy him a 300mm Masamoto yanagiba and he will be a friend for life — or possibly just deeply embarrassed, because it’ll set you back about $500 for the lowest-grade knife they make. Masamoto Souhonten owns no storefront properties: you can only buy through a dealer of some kind. Masamoto Tsukiji, in Tsukiji market, Tokyo, is not the same firm at all. Masamoto Souhonten's knives are OEM, apparently made primarily in Sakai.
Aritsugu in Kyoto (in Nishiki Market) is an old, well-respected company with a beautiful shop. Their knives are quite expensive, and they do not sell online, by mail, or in any other way outside their shop, except for a very limited distribution through Takashimaya Department Store, Kyoto Branch. They grade professional knives ordinary, superior (上), and honyaki; the former distinction is what others call kasumi / hon-kasumi. Homestyle knives are available cladded in stainless and also uncladded. They sell no other stainless knives, though they do some retail work selling stainless (and brass, copper, etc.) cookware -- but not knives -- for other Kyoto artisans. They do not make their own knives any more; all are made in Sakai.
Aritsugu Tsukiji, in Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, split from the Kyoto firm in the late 1920s. Since that time, they have had no official connection. Their knives are excellent and highly respected. They sell them through their website, as well as through various dealers and in their shop in the market. Their lines are (from the top down) honyaki, suminagashi, blue steel, white steel. Sometimes there are additional divides (blue suminagashi, white suminagashi, etc.). Their A-Series is a proprietary semi-stainless steel that is inexpensive and impressively indestructible. Prices through US dealers tend to be quite high compared to prices in the market or through the website. Website purchases require a wire transfer or a check drawn on a Japanese bank.
Aoki Hamono / Sakai Takayuki is the most distinguished modern Osaka/Sakai brand. It is a collective, selling a large number of lines and brands, of a wide range of quality. For information on what they sell, see their website. All these products are sold exclusively through other dealers and through their Sakai-city "museum."
How Japanese Knives Are Made (Business Aspects)
Factory brands (e.g. Shun, Global, etc.) are made the same way as mainstream Western brands. The company has one or more brand names corresponding to particular aspects of the knives; thus Shun knives are made by Kai, a company based in Seki that also makes some very low-end knives. There are no great mysteries here. But people often have questions about how so-called handmade knives are made, and one runs into terms like “OEM” in this context.
There are a number of brands, large and small, of “handmade” knives; famous examples here are Masamoto Souhonten, Sakai Takayuki, and Aritsugu. There are also many knife makers, in the sense of individual men who do the principal work. Then there are knife dealers, who may or may not have brick-and-mortar shops. These three parts should be kept separate for understanding, although in individual cases two or more of the three may be the same.
The majority of brands contract with a number of individual makers to forge knives that match the brand’s particular specifications. Most makers these days are in Sakai, a suburb of Osaka. Some of these makers also sell their own brand, in small numbers, which may or may not be of higher quality than those of the large brands with which they contract. Under normal circumstances, the names of individual makers who work for a brand will not be public knowledge; this is only the case when the individual maker has some particular fame or reputation upon which the brand wishes to capitalize. For example, Sakai Takayuki is a brand that contracts with a number of Sakai makers whose names are not public; Sakai Takayuki also markets a few lines, such as their Shiden line, whose makers’ names are part of the advertising: Shiden knives are hand-ground by Tosa Hirotsugu, with assistance from Sugihara Keido. Doi Keijiro, an elderly and very distinguished knife-maker who is part of this collective, sells some knives under his own name, which can command a considerable price.
In essence, the claim of a brand is that you don’t need to know who the maker is, because if you buy a knife of this brand in a given line, you will always get the same knife. To achieve this result, it is important that the brand not be run by desk executives: they are serious experts, and in some case may be knife makers (or retired makers) themselves. If a knife does not meet expectations, it will be returned, possibly deliberately broken, to the maker; if a maker cannot consistently meet expectations, he will be dropped from the brand’s list. This is a disaster for the maker: since most professionals buy knives from particular brands, the best way for a maker to have a consistent income is to have an open contract with a respected brand. For example, if you have an open contract to make honyaki white steel knives for Masamoto, you are a top-notch maker, and may well be selling knives that match your preferences under your own name. But for every knife you can sell under your name, you can sell a great many more as Masamoto.
Knives made this way, by an unknown maker under contract to a brand, are known as OEM knives.
When an individual maker completes a knife for a given brand, he engraves the brand into the side of the knife and sends it to the brand’s offices for inspection. Often, the maker is part of a small collective, sometimes a family collective, which includes an engraver and a handle-maker as well as the requisite blade and steel guys (forgers, grinders, and so on). In this case, the collective may send completed knives to the brand’s offices.
There are not many makers’ collectives like this outside Sakai these days. There are a few, of course. Some of these have particular specialties: for example, the collectives around southern Shikoku specialize in Tosa-style knives (Tosa being the old name of the province), which are black, country-style knives, but they make other knives as well. Significant regions include Sakai, Miki, Seki, and southern Shikoku.
As a knife-making city, Seki today is principally the center of factory knife-making. Although it was once a center of sword-making, it is now not an especially significant center of hand-made knives.
Knife dealers come in three major types.
There are brick-and-mortar storefronts operated by a given brand, as for example Aritsugu Tsukiji and Aritsugu Kyoto. In neither case are the knives made on-site: they’re OEM knives made in Sakai. These shops are generally quite high-end places with excellent (and expensive) merchandise and merchants with extensive knowledge of the products. There are no such shops in the United States. There are a very few such shops at which knives are still made in the back somewhere, or in a workshop around the corner.
Then there are brick-and-mortar shops that sell a range of wares — kitchenware, hardware, whatever — and happen also to sell knives. Most such places sell only one or two brands, and the shopkeepers may or may not know much about them. Some are largely knife shops, with shopkeepers who can do expert sharpening and repair work; others sell knives in the same way as Crate & Barrel or Williams-Sonoma does. There are a few of the former type of shops in the West, namely:
[please list here names, addresses, and contact information for these shops! --- I've never bought from these people, e.g. Korin in New York]
Last, there are online dealers, some of whom may also be brick-and-mortar shops of one kind or another. These places are quite individualistic: you have to deal with the particular place to know what they can and cannot do with an order (for example, opening, sharpening, polishing, handle work, name-engraving, repairs, etc.). Such places exist in Japan and outside it.
[please list here names, addresses, and contact information for these shops! --- I've never bought from these people]
In Japan, the advantage is principally price, which is much lower; the disadvantage is generally that these places do little or no knife work, but rather simply mail knives (inspected for damage or major flaws, of course) to purchasers. Since professionals traditionally want to open and sharpen their own knives, this is a very desirable system.
Outside Japan, these dealers are very often the only reasonably convenient way to acquire hand-made Japanese knives. If you deal with such a place as a non-expert sharpener, be sure they can open any single-beveled knives and can put a good edge on double-bevels. Unfortunately, because these dealers are also importers, they charge a considerable tariff, making most prices a great deal higher than in Japan. But, of course, they’re a lot cheaper than the price of the knife plus a ticket to Japan!
Other Purchasing Methods
Beyond the regular dealers, there are a few other ways to purchase good Japanese knives. All require considerable knowledge to use safely: caveat emptor indeed! Some require a working command of Japanese language. Some require a Japanese bank account.
Some brick-and-mortar shops in Japan will take orders by telephone, mail, or email, and will ship their products internationally. In most cases, this requires good language skills and a Japanese bank account, the latter because these dealers generally accept only cash or a wire-transfer of funds within the country. It is possible that you could get your non-Japanese bank to wire funds to the dealer, but you will generally pay your bank a hefty fee for this service, you will obviously have to deal with exchange rates, and certainly you will need quite good Japanese to negotiate this with the dealer. The most obvious example of a dealer like this is Aritsugu Tsukiji; others may be found through Rakuten. If your Japanese isn't terrific but you have friends in Japan, it will probably be easiest to mail a check to a friend, have him or her deposit it, place the order, and do the wire-transfer, and then go from there.
Some dealers, in Japan and elsewhere, sell wholly or in part through sites like eBay. Be very sure you know what you are buying, and that you are protected as a customer.
If you have good Japanese, you may be able to register for Japanese eBay; there are a number of other requirements, such as a Japanese bank account, an accepted ID number, and the like. If you have friends in Japan, they might be able to do it for you. Through this or a similar site, you may be able to purchase a slightly used or damaged knife at considerably below market price. Do not do this unless you have an extremely good idea what you are buying and are well-qualified to correct any problems with the knife you receive.
Also through Japanese eBay and similar sites, you may be able to find “no-brand-name” knives. These are generally knives that the maker was unable to sell to his usual brand under his regular contract, usually because the brand or maker mis-estimated demand. You are not supposed to know for whom the knife was made, nor quite who made it, so it is important to get as much other information as possible before purchasing. Generally the price is well below market: the maker invests a certain amount in time and materials for every knife, and if he cannot sell it he takes a loss, so he would rather sell for just above cost than discard it. You may be able to have your own personal “brand-name” engraved, special handles fitted (for an additional fee), and so on. This is a great option if you really know what you’re doing and have access to such sites, but it will likely be impossible for those not fluent in the language.
Rather than include a big list here, a few outstanding (for good or ill) knives are mentioned here. Please add comments on any outstandingly good or bad knives with which you have personal experience.
Masamoto KS Wa-Gyuto: expensive carbon wood-handled gyuto. Runs longer than listed by a bit. Generally considered a competitor for the top 5 non-custom chef's knives in the world.
Using good-quality Japanese knives requires (and allows) somewhat different techniques than are normally taught as French-style classical technique.
It is unwise to be really brutal with these knives, because they are quite thin. They are not fragile, but one should perhaps err on the side of gentleness. For example, rock-mincing herbs should be done with considerable care and not much force: the thin and sharp edge will tend to dig into the cutting board, and the twisting motion can cause chipping. Similarly, splitting whole lobsters and shearing through chicken bones is best undertaken with a heavier, thicker-ground knife. If these tasks come up often, you may wish to invest in a French-style chef de chef or similar large, heavy knife.
A Japanese chef’s knife should be ground thin and sharp enough that you can “push-cut.” This means that you place the edge, at the tip of the knife, on the food, then gently push forward and slightly downward. The knife will drop through smoothly. Some experts with this technique find that it is best not to use the classic pinch-grip, but rather to hold only the handle quite gently. This upsets some classically-trained Western chefs, but experts point to their results.
On the whole, however, barring extreme brutality, a good-quality Japanese chef’s knife will act exactly like a Western one, except that it will be easier and smoother once you get the hang of it.
The best way to learn to use these is, of course, through personal instruction. However, there are also some good books and videos available.
- The only good source in English is Nozaki Hiromitsu, Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes (Kodansha, 2009).
- An excellent Japanese book, primarily pictures and thus quite usable for non-Japanese speakers, is 包丁の使い方 [How To Use Knives]. ISBN 978-4-8163-2849-7. List price ¥2000. Available through Amazon.jp, but not Amazon.com (US), although there is an English option for Amazon.jp so you can order from them if you're willing to pay the shipping.
- many videos made by “itasan18” at YouTube show excellent deba technique, i.e. how to butcher various fish
- the same source has a video of katsura-muki technique for peeling a daikon in a sheet
- How To Sharpen A Chefs Knife
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