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Some basics on Japanese knife history (LONG)

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 
In a thread on the Ultimate Minimalist Kitchen, inventivefficie mentioned the santoku and how it's especially good for fish. I disagreed, leading to the reply:I'd like to give some basic sketch here, because this question comes up again and again. This is a long post, so get a cup of coffee. :beer:

Note: I haven't seen the new Nozaki book, but if he doesn't talk about this history then there is probably no really good source in English to explain. Here's the basics.

Until about 1650, the culinary knives used in Japan were essentially unrecognizable, not in any way comparable to the ones developed later. After that, with the rise of Edo "pleasure culture" and a number of other complicated factors (decline of the feudal aristocracy as such, rise of urban elites, etc.), you get three basic categories in Japanese culinary knives: ceremonial/elite, restaurant/elite chef, home. The first category basically stops dead and doesn't change thereafter; the knives used for the rare performance of shikihocho now are in every way the same as they were hundred of years ago. Nobody but nobody uses them for anything else. So the two categories that matter are the restaurant/elite chef knives and the home knives.

Within each category, you have what we might call a vertical division, between "flesh" and "non-flesh." These never, ever mix. So a knife used to cut fish is not used to cut vegetables, and vice-versa.

Roughly speaking, if we use somewhat later terminology and allow for considerable variation regionally, this leads to a breakdown, around say 1700, like this:

Fish: deba
Vegetable: usuba (technically one of several predecessors)

Fish: deba (often a double-beveled close cousin)
Vegetable: nakiri

Now in the 18th and 19th centuries, urban restaurant culture expands very rapidly, and this leads to a concomitant expansion in knives. The principal development here is the rise of fish-slicing as a specific specialty unto itself requiring a special knife. From this develop a number of different knives. Roughly speaking, we can divide the survivors of this by region:

Kanto (Tokyo-area): takohiki / takobiki (some variations in pronunciation)
Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka-area): yanagiba

In this same period, the usuba as such arises, but retains regional specificity in the shape of the tip:

Kanto: square-tipped
Kansai: sickle-tipped
Kyushu: diamond-tipped

There is also considerable development of specialty knives, which again tend to be regional, as with the various kinds of eel knives.

In the background are the various butchering knives. You must understand that officially, nobody ate meat of any kind, but in point of fact lots of people -- including lots of aristocrats -- did so. On the whole, meat was probably largely limited to game, perhaps especially winged game. Nevertheless, because of the official bans (associated with a range of purity issues and so forth), butchering knives were not in significant use in most homes or restaurants or elite kitchens. Our knowledge is apparently rather limited on these, because they don't show up in the great encyclopedic works of the day (modeled on the Chinese biji tradition, for those who care).

Okay, so now Admiral Perry shows up and "opens" the country. Quite quickly you get all sorts of major changes, because the Edo-era bakufu government was a mess and this just accelerated the inevitable. You get the Meiji Restoration, various kinds of Westernization, and on and on. Very, very complicated subject. But for our purposes, the point at issue is that in the late 19th and early 20th century, you get a number of major changes that affect knives:

1. People start eating meat openly and in quantity. Chicken restaurants begin, for example, in about 1870.
2. "Western" becomes associated, for many middle-class women, with "modern," with associations like convenient, quick, intelligent, scientific, clever, up-to-date, chic, etc.
3. Western cuisines, especially British and French, arrive in Japan in complicated, mediated forms; this leads to such inventions as "curry rice" (based on British curry, based on Indian curry, bearing little clear relation to either), "tonkatsu" (deep-fried pork cutlet -- katsu is a transcription of "cutlet" -- with Worcestershire sauce because the Japanese were under the impression that Worcestershire was to British cuisine what soy is to Japanese), "doria" (rice gratin -- don't ask, it's complicated), and so on.

In the professional field (which now means restaurants almost exclusively), what immediately appears is a range of butchering knives plus two crucial standbys of the French chef: the chef's knife and the paring knife.

The former (chef's knife) gets called gyuto -- cow (bovine) knife -- and it's not at all clear whether this is because it was thought of as a butchering knife, a knife for cutting steaks, a Western knife (and Westerners of course are cow-eaters, whereas there was almost no official eating of these animals in Japan because of the minimal herds and the prohibitions and all that), or what. Some have claimed that this knife preexisted and was simply revised slightly to parallel the French chef's knife. I think this is very unlikely, but I suppose anything is possible.

The latter (paring knife) manifests in Japan primarily as a slightly larger knife called a petty knife, either from the French petit or the English petty (as in petty officer or petty crime), it's not clear which. The Japanese term is petti-naifu, so you can't go by that.

In the home field, you get an interesting development, known in the West these days almost exclusively as the santoku. The history of this knife is ill-charted, but here's my basic reconstruction.

At base, this knife is an attempt to create a hybrid of the French chef's knife (gyuto) with the traditional home vegetable knife (nakiri). The idea is to produce a home knife that can also cut meat, which a nakiri does not do well -- and traditionally it would never, ever do. From drawings in magazines from about 1900-1930 or so, it appears that this knife is imagined or actually used (hard to know which) in conjunction with a deba, possibly a double-edged deba, which would serve its traditional purpose of filleting fish.

Now there are two established terms, both still in use and without any particular regional dominance that I can detect, for this knife: santoku and bunkabocho. Both appear to be advertising terms dating back roughly to the turn of the century.

Santoku, properly santoku-bocho: "santoku" means "three virtues," in reference to the Buddhist notion of three principal virtues (parallel to the Christian 7, etc.). Not that there are not several other sets of Buddhist virtues, but "santoku" is a not uncommon term in mainline Japanese Buddhist catechizing; in at least one reading, the virtues in question are specifically feminine, which sounds right to me but I have no good evidence. In any event, the point seems to be that using this knife is virtuous, feminine, traditional, thrifty, wise, and generally a good thing. In essence the knife was marketed as simultaneously excitingly new (read Western) and reassuringly traditional.

Bunkabocho means "cultural knife," except that it doesn't: in that period (Meiji-Taisho), bunka can mean "culture/al" but it can also mean modern, efficient, clever, chic, Western, etc. So here you've got a term that seems aimed at younger women and/or more urban ones. This knife isn't the boring, stupid old nakiri that Grandma used, that's for old people, not young, smart people like you. No, this knife is modern, up-to-date, and efficient! Buy one now!

In either case, notice the notion of thrift and efficiency. The point is simple: instead of having multiple knives, you only need this one. Cut your meat and your vegetables with the same knife! Fish too, of course, though probably you'll do that with a deba like your mother taught you -- fish is too important to mess around with.

Then comes the War, and we get a little more overhauling. The big thing is that the deba is on the decline in the home kitchen, because of the rise of refrigeration technology and because increasingly it was just easier and cheaper to buy cut fish at the market. The home kitchen may now take up a short yanagiba -- a slicing knife -- to cut sashimi from store-cut fish slabs. But now the dominant home knife, at least in urban areas, is the santoku or bunkabocho (same knife).

Meanwhile, in the restaurants, you've got a divide. The sushi revolution gets all kinds of money flooding into Tokyo street food masquerading as haute cuisine (sorry, editorial sniping, my bad!), and this leads to a change in the way people around the world and in Japan start thinking about cutting. Tokyo sushi chefs, increasingly the public mouthpiece of Japanese cuisine, do everything important with two knives: the deba and the yanagiba. For other things, they want something easy and forgiving that requires minimal care, and they may serve some meat and/or poultry, so they are quite likely to use a gyuto and quite possibly a petty knife. In Kyoto, the old guard hold out for the traditional set, because vegetables dominate everything and meat is still a rarity in Kaiseki, the hautest of the haute Japanese cuisines. In Osaka, anything goes, so long as you fry it (sorry, another editorial snipe).

So, the modern breakdown is roughly like this:

Santoku: half Japanese, half Western; all-purpose knife; ill-designed for fish
Deba: for filleting fish, if the cook is a hobbyist
Yanagiba: for slicing fish, if the cook is at least a bit of a hobbyist

Japanese Restaurants, Tokyo
Deba: for filleting fish
Yanagiba: for slicing fish
Gyuto: for various cutting and heavy work
Petty: for various small work
Sujihiki: if the restaurant does a lot of meat, this heavy slicer may replace or supplement the gyuto

Japanese Restaurants, Kyoto, High-End
Deba: for filleting fish
Yangaiba: for slicing fish
Usuba: for all vegetables

Obviously I've said nothing significant about the butchering and specialty knives, but I hope this sketch overview is helpful and clarifies some basic points.
post #2 of 3
Fantastic post, Chris. Already assimilated into my internal knowledge base. I really liked the way you snuck up on the subject of santokus. You are the Natty Bumpo of knives.

The only niggling suggestion I have is to change the word "war" into "postwar."

post #3 of 3
Very nice, Chris. Quite informative.
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
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