8 Things You Didn’t Know About Japanese Kitchen Knives
What do you think of when you hear the words “Japanese kitchen knife,” called “hocho” in Japanese? Perhaps it invokes images of a samurai’s katana? Or does it bring to mind a high-quality tool used exclusively by professional chefs? Or perhaps you even picture a giant cleaver, like the ones often used in Chinese cooking? In this article, we will attempt to fix all those misconceptions with these eight facts that you should know about Japanese kitchen knives.
Feb 02 2021 (Mar 02 2021)
1. Japanese Kitchen Knives Trace Their Roots to Japanese Swords
Compared to European swords, Japanese swords like the katana put more emphasis on sharpness rather than size. It’s been proposed that the reason for this is because Japanese people are rather small. (Between the 3rd century BC and the 19th century AD, the average height of a Japanese male adult was 155 – 160 cm. Today, it’s 170 cm.) Because these smaller men weren’t able to swing around hefty European-style swords but still needed a lethal weapon at their disposal, the much sharper, more agile katana was invented.
The history of Japanese swords is long. Prior to the 3rd century, the country produced bladed weapons made from iron, which were straight instead of curved like the katana. The so-called “sori” curve—which allows the katana user to cut while they pull the sword out and inflict as much damage with as little effort as possible—only started to appear around the 10th century. Japanese swords continued to grow and evolve until the 1876 Haitorei Edict that prohibited the owning and carrying of swords by ordinary people. Up until then, katana were already forbidden items to anyone below the rank of a samurai, but this edict limited the right to carry swords to just soldiers and other privileged few. Today, dedicated craftspeople continue to make katana, but owning bladed weapons is limited solely to Japanese swords that have been certified by the government. And, of course, it’s illegal to carry one around with you.
However, the technology and skills that went into making Japanese swords so sharp have found a new home in the production of kitchen knives. It’s why they continue to be praised around the world for their sharp edge. Also, because Japanese kitchen knives trace their history back to Japanese swords, they’re excellent for slicing while pulling the blade.
2. Japanese Chefs Use the Single-Bevel “Wabocho” Kitchen Knives
The modern wabocho kitchen knife has a similar history to that of the Japanese sword. It first appeared around the 10th century and was improved and experimented with and perfected between the 18th and 19th centuries.
Compared to a double-bevel kitchen knife, the single-bevel wabocho requires more precise techniques. For example, if you want to cut something with a double-bevel knife, you just bring it down vertically and can cut straight with no problem. However, with a single-bevel knife, it takes practice to make straight cuts. For this reason, wabocho are actually quite difficult to use. However, as mentioned before, Japanese knives are best suited for “pull slicing.”
One of the reasons for this is because, up until quite recently, the Japanese diet used to primarily consist of vegetables and seafood. Beef only started to become widely consumed in Japan in the 19th century. Now, the basis of Japanese cuisine (registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage) is the idea of emphasizing the ingredients’ natural flavors. This in turn is connected to the type of knives Japan uses. Take, for example, famous Japanese dishes like sushi and sashimi, where the fish needs to be cut thinly and precisely. Science has proven that if you use a double-bevel knife to push cut the fish, you’ll mush it out of shape and damage it on a cellular level, negatively affecting its taste. As for sashimi, which is really all about the presentation, it can only be cut neatly with a single-bevel blade, so a wabocho and the “pull slice” technique is necessary.
Then again, double-bevel wabocho knives do exist, such as nakiri (also called usubocho). These knives are mainly used for vegetables as they are much better suited for peeling or chopping leafy greens when compared with a single-bevel knife. These also remain a favorite of Japanese chefs to this day.
3. Wabocho Japanese Kitchen Knives Come in Endless Varieties
Broadly speaking, there are 10 main types of wabocho knives, but that’s not counting the many other categories of specialty blades. For example, there is a type of tuna knife with a 1m-long blade used for cutting whole tuna (pictured above). Also called a filleting knife, it comes in many different varieties, differing in blade length and application, each one favored by different craftsmen for different reasons. Then, there is the belly knife used specifically for opening the bellies of freshly-caught tuna; or the cleaver most often used on ships which has a blade much wider than a typical kitchen knife. In summary, many different types of blades were developed in different locations to meet the needs of the local craftsmen, which is why today we have so many different types of Japanese kitchen knives. Additionally, different regions may or may not count a double-bevel wabocho as a separate knife or have different names for the same knives depending on what materials and techniques went into making them, as these can give the knives themselves completely different properties. This makes it nearly impossible to count all types of Japanese kitchen knives that exist.
On the other hand, there are still many more types of knives that were lost to history after falling out of use due to developments in fish refrigeration and farming technology.
4. Sakai Uchi Hamono: the Wabocho Knife Used by 90% of Japanese Chefs
Sakai Uchi Hamono (Sakai Hand-pounded Knives) are knives produced in Sakai, a suburban neighborhood of Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city (Tokyo being the first). The blades have a long history that spans roughly 600 years and traces back to Japanese sword-making techniques. The most distinguishing feature of Sakai Uchi Hamono is the high level of specialization that goes into making each knife. The blades are produced in a special forge, sharpened on a blade-edging device, inscribed, and then attached to a handle. Each of those jobs is entrusted to a different skilled craftsman. Even today, Sakai Uchi Hamono workshops produce each blade by hand, preferring to work with single-bevel knives that require the much more difficult method of production known as forge welding.
It’s this level of technique and sharpness that has made Sakai Uchi Hamono the preferred knife of 90% of Japanese chefs.
* In order to meet modern demands, double-bevel knives are now also sometimes produced.
The video shows Yamawaki Cutlery craftsmen edging and attaching handles to Sakai Knives. Sakai Uchi Hamono use a very specialized production process, so there aren’t many workshops that do both the edging and handle-attaching processes.
5. There Are Right Handed and Left Handed Wabocho Knives
Among single-bevel wabocho, which are typically right handed, there are also left handed knives with the edge on the opposite side. You can see the right handed knives in the second picture from the top of the article, where the sharp part of the blade is clearly located on the right side of the knife. Now compare them to the picture above this paragraph showing left handed wabocho with the edge on the left side. These are the knives that left handed Japanese chefs use.
6. Japanese Kitchen Knives Can Be Mass-Produced or Handmade
An example of a company that mass-produces Japanese knives is the KAI Group, based in Seki, Gifu Prefecture. Over the years, the company has sold more than 5 million of its “Shun” series knives around the world. Shun knives are mass-produced using stainless steel presses and electric furnaces. However, we cannot forget that, just like Sakai, Seki also has a long history as a city of forges that have produced many uchi hamono (knives made by hand-pounding and tempering iron and steel). By using this knowledge acquired through the centuries, the company was able to create extremely hard blades using powdered high-speed steel and powdered high-carbon stainless steel. These knives are easy to use, stay sharp, and don’t rust easily.
The above picture shows a high-end “santoku” from Seki that features “honwari” steel from running all the way to the knife’s spine. Santoku knives are all-purpose kitchen knives that were developed after beef became popular in Japan. They have double-beveled blades that, in addition to vegetables and fish, can also cut through meat. They come in many different varieties and are made with the addition of stainless and semi-stainless steel. It has been suggested that they originate from a place called Tsubamesanjo in Niigata Prefecture.
On the other hand, modern professional chefs cannot stop singing the praises of knives made using traditional techniques by trained craftsmen, such as the Sakai Uchi Hamono. Unlike mass-produced knives, these are made with hand-pounded steel and are more geared towards professionals, which makes them somewhat difficult to use.* They are also made by hand, so no two knives are ever the same. Besides Sakai Uchi Hamono, other famous knives of this type include Niigata Prefecture’s Yoita Hamono, Fukui Prefecture’s Echizen Uchi Hamono, Hyogo Prefecture’s Banshu Miki Uchi Hamono, and Kochi Prefecture’s Tosa Uchi Hamono.
Every chef has their own opinion as to which knife is the best.
* Lately, rust-resistant semi-stainless steel knives which are easier to use have also started being produced.
7. The Pinnacle of Japanese Kitchen Knives Are the Difficult-to-Make, Difficult-to-Use “Honyaki”
“Honyaki” are knives made only with steel. While most knives are produced by forge welding steel and soft iron, honyaki are pure steel. They have amazing sharpness, but it comes at a price as the knives are incredibly hard to produce and can only be made by the most skilled of craftsmen. They are also very difficult to use by novices, making them suitable for only the most experienced Japanese cuisine chefs out there.
The above picture shows a Goh Umanosuke Yoshihiro series kitchen knife made by Yamawaki Cutlery introduced in the video in section 4. Its honyaki blade is made entirely from high-grade white steel #2, and its technical name is a “yanagiba” or a “yanagiba hocho” (a term used primarily in Kansai (western Japan) to refer to a sashimi or sushi knife). The handle is made from the rare and noble “kurogaki” black persimmon tree, about which it’s said that only one in a thousand is ever harvested. The knife is without a doubt a true masterpiece.
8. Summary: Are All Japanese Kitchen Knives Amazingly Sharp?
We’re sorry to say but the answer is “No.” Japanese kitchen knives aren’t all amazingly sharp. In reality, it is more honest to say that many on the market don’t actually cut very well. Let us explain.
If you’ve read the entire article up until now, you probably already know why some Japanese kitchen knives are so sharp:
• They trace their history back to Japanese swords which put a great emphasis on sharpness.
• Japanese kitchen knives had to be sharp in order not to spoil the food’s natural flavors.
• They are made by seasoned craftsmen using skills and technology developed over a long time.
Yet, many Japanese kitchen knives on the market aren’t amazingly sharp. Why is this?
There are many theories as to why this is the case, and one of them says that the indirect cause of so many dull knives being available in Japan is the fact that people simply don’t use them as much anymore. If you go to a supermarket, you can easily pick up perfectly cut fish, packaged sashimi, or vegetables conveniently sliced and diced into perfect bite sizes. Many households also prefer to supplement home cooking with ready-made meals, instant food, and frozen products. Consequently, there are less and less chances for a regular person to actually use a kitchen knife, so fewer and fewer producers care about their sharpness. The result is a flood of dull knives or cheap stainless blades that don’t need maintaining.
If you’re in the market for a sharp kitchen knife, don’t just look for one that was made in Japan. Use this article as a guide and look at where in Japan it was produced, in what workshop, and using which materials and techniques. Only then decide on your purchase.
If you take care of a well-made Japanese kitchen knife, you will be able to pass it down to your grandchildren. So, the next time you’re in Japan, visit Tokyo’s Kappabashi Shopping Street, or the Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street in Osaka. They are full of utensil and kitchenware specialty shops, including ones that specialize in knives. If you find one that you like, make sure to hold it in your hand and ask the salesperson about it. This way, you’re sure to find a Japanese kitchen knife that is perfect for you.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.