How to Choose Your First Japanese Kitchen Knife: Exploring the Art of Japanese Knives

by Ryan Shaffer July 17, 2023 7 min read

How to Choose Your First Japanese Kitchen Knife: Exploring the Art of Japanese Knives

Welcome to the world of Japanese cutlery, where your kitchen knife becomes your trusted partner, enhancing your culinary experience.

The vast array of options available may seem overwhelming at first glance, but fear not! This guide will help you navigate through the choices and transport you to the essence of ancient Japan.

When selecting your first Japanese kitchen knife, there are several factors to consider: feel and balance, steel type or handle material, price, and style. Let's delve into the process of choosing the perfect knife and discover the unique qualities that define Japanese cutlery.

Understanding the Uniqueness of Japanese Kitchen Knives:

Japanese knives are renowned worldwide for their exceptional quality and craftsmanship. While some Japanese knives can be quite expensive, there is a wide range of options that offer excellent value and quality. The higher cost of these knives can be attributed to several factors:

  1. Master blacksmiths spend decades honing their skills, resulting in high demand and expensive craftsmanship.
  2. The use of high-grade materials, both for the blade and handle, adds to the overall cost.
  3. Japanese knives are typically made using traditional methods, requiring years of training and expertise.
  4. Blacksmiths may specialize in different aspects of knife production, such as forging, sharpening, polishing, or handle installation.

Japanese knives stand out from their non-Japanese counterparts due to their construction. Most Japanese knives incorporate two types of metals forged together: a steel core for the cutting edge and a lower carbon iron for added malleability and rust resistance. This fusion creates knives of exceptional quality, combining strength with razor-sharp precision.

Types of Japanese Kitchen Knives: When starting your journey into Japanese cutlery, you'll likely begin with one of three popular types: the Gyuto (Chef's knife), Santoku, or Petty. The Nakiri is also commonly used for vegetable preparation. However, there are approximately 200 types of Japanese kitchen knives, each tailored to a specific purpose. These knives are indispensable in Japanese cuisine, enabling precise cuts for various ingredients, including fish and vegetables.

Let's explore a few popular Japanese kitchen knife types:

  1. Japanese Santoku Knife: The Santoku knife, meaning "three virtues," is a Japanese version of the chef's knife. With a blade length of approximately 160-180mm (6.3"-7"), the Santoku is a versatile multi-purpose knife initially designed for home kitchens. Its balanced design allows for chopping, slicing, and dicing of meat, fish, and vegetables. Today, the Santoku has gained popularity in both professional and home kitchens.

  1. Japanese Gyuto Knife: Gyuto knives are the Japanese interpretation of the European chef's knife. The term "Gyuto" translates to "cow sword" in Japanese, reflecting its Western influence. With a general blade length of 180-300mm (7"-11.8"), the Gyuto features a slender form, a long, pointed blade, and a narrow width. This all-purpose knife excels at cutting large meats and vegetables, making it ideal for various culinary tasks. However, it may not be the best choice for slicing large produce or delicate work.

Gyuto knife

  1. Japanese Nakiri Knife: Nakiri knives are primarily designed for vegetable preparation. The name "Nakiri" translates to "greens cutter" in Japanese. These knives feature a rectangular blade shape without a sharp tip, typically ranging from 150-180mm (5"-7") in length. With an even blade width, Nakiri knives effortlessly cut through hard and large ingredients with minimal force. They are especially convenient for slicing large vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, and Chinese cabbage. Another vegetable knife worth mentioning is the Usuba.

Japanese Damascus Nakiri on cutting board with vegetables


Japanese Sushi Knife:

The sushi knife, or sashimi knife, is a long, slender knife specifically designed for filleting and slicing fish. There are several types of sushi knives, including:

  1. Yanagiba Knife: The Yanagiba knife is a single-bevel knife with a long, thin blade. It is commonly used for slicing sashimi and creating clean, precise cuts. The blade length of Yanagiba knives typically ranges from 210mm to 360mm (8.3" to 14.2").
  2. Takohiki Knife: The Takohiki knife has a single-bevel similar to the Yanagiba knife but features a squared-off tip. It is often used for slicing sashimi and can be used for other delicate cuts. The blade length of Takohiki knives is usually between 240mm and 300mm (9.4" to 11.8").
  3. Shobu Knife: The Shobu knife is a variation of the Yanagiba knife, characterized by its unique shape with a curved back. It is commonly used for slicing sashimi and has a blade length similar to Yanagiba knives and is also a single-bevel knife.
  4. Sujihiki Knife: The Sujihiki knife, also known as the slicing knife, is a double-bevel knife used for slicing various ingredients, including meat, fish, and even sashimi. It has a long, narrow blade with a pointed tip. The blade length of Sujihiki knives typically ranges from 240mm to 300mm (9.4" to 11.8").

Japanese Deba Knife:

The deba knife is specifically designed for cutting and filleting fish. It is a heavier knife compared to others, as it is used for cutting through fish bones. The blade of a deba knife is wide and thick, often with a fairly obtuse-angled edge. Deba knives are available in various blade lengths, ranging from as small as 90mm to as long as 300mm (3.5" to 11.8").

The deba knife is excellent for cutting the head of a fish without damaging the blade due to its thickness. It can also be used for cutting meat. Different sizes of deba knives are used depending on the specific purpose. Smaller and thinner deba knives are sometimes referred to as Ajikiri knives.

The single bevel of the deba knife prevents sticky fish and meat from sticking to the blade, allowing for smooth cutting without destroying the cell structure of the ingredients. This characteristic helps to preserve the umami flavor of the ingredients.

Blade by Material:

There are two main types of materials used for Japanese knife blades: high-carbon steel and stainless steel.

  1. High Carbon Steel: High carbon steel is known for its exceptional sharpness and edge retention. It can be harder to sharpen, but the razor-sharp edge allows for precise cuts. However, high-carbon steel is more brittle compared to stainless steel, which means it is more prone to chipping or breaking if mishandled. One characteristic of high-carbon steel is the development of a patina, which is a natural oxidation layer that forms on the surface of the blade over time. This patina helps protect the blade from rusting and gives it a unique appearance.
  2. Stainless Steel: Stainless steel blades are resistant to rust and corrosion, making them low maintenance and ideal for those who prefer a knife that requires less care. While stainless steel blades may not offer the same level of sharpness and edge retention as high carbon steel, modern advancements have resulted in stainless steel blades that perform admirably in the kitchen. They are more forgiving in terms of maintenance and are less likely to chip or break compared to high-carbon steel.

For first-time users, stainless steel blades are often recommended due to their ease of maintenance. However, if you're willing to invest time in maintenance and want exceptional sharpness and aesthetic appeal, high-carbon steel knives like those made from white steel or blue steel can provide a remarkable cutting experience.

Handle by Shape and Material:

Japanese knife handles come in various shapes and materials, each offering its own advantages and aesthetics.

  1. Shape: Traditional Japanese knife handles are typically round, octagonal, or oval in shape. These shapes provide a lighter and more maneuverable feel in the hand, allowing for precise movements during cutting tasks. In contrast, Western-style handles have a flared-out end and a swelled-out portion that fits in the palm, providing a more substantial grip.
  2. Material: Japanese knife handles can be made from a wide range of materials, including man-made hard plastics, ebony, Spanish mahogany, magnolia, walnut, wenge, and persimmon. The choice of handle material is primarily a matter of personal preference. If you appreciate the beauty of natural wood and desire a unique handle, natural wood handles like ebony or magnolia can be an excellent choice. On the other hand, if you prioritize easy maintenance and durability, hard plastic handles are a popular option, as they are strong and resistant to changes over time.

It's worth noting that Japanese knives typically feature partial tang handles, where the handle steel is inserted into only one-third to one-half of the handle. In contrast, Western-style knives often have full tang handles, where the steel extends throughout the entire handle. While partial tang knives are generally suitable for most cooking applications, full tang handles may offer additional strength and stability, making them ideal for tasks that require more force, such as cutting dense vegetables.

In terms of quality and strength, there isn't a significant difference between the two handle designs for most cooking applications. The choice between partial tang and full tang handles often comes down to personal preference and the specific tasks you'll be performing with the knife.

Japanese Knife Care:

Caring for Japanese knives is crucial to ensure their longevity and preserve their quality. Here are some tips for maintaining and caring for your Japanese knives:


  • Avoid cutting through bone or frozen foods as this can damage the blade. Japanese knives are designed for precise cutting of ingredients, not for heavy-duty tasks like bone cutting.
  • When cutting, try to maintain a straight motion rather than twisting the knife. Twisting can increase the risk of chipping or cracking the blade.
  • Use a cutting board made of natural wood or plastic. Hard surfaces like glass or marble can quickly dull the knife's edge. Ideally, a cutting board using end-grain wood would provide the best surface to help with edge retention.


  • Never put your Japanese knives in the dishwasher. The high heat, harsh detergents, and vigorous water jets can damage the blade and handle.
  • Wash the knives by hand using a soft sponge or cloth, mild soap, and warm water. Avoid using abrasive cleaners or scrubbers.
  • After washing, immediately dry the knives thoroughly to prevent rusting. Do not air dry them as moisture can lead to rust formation.


  • Store your knives in a knife block or on a magnetic knife wall to protect them from damage and ensure they are easily accessible.
  • If storing them in a kitchen drawer, use knife protectors or sheaths to protect the blades from other utensils and prevent accidental damage.
  • When transporting your knives, use a saya (a traditional Japanese knife cover) or a knife protector to keep them safe.


  • The frequency of sharpening depends on usage. For home use, sharpening may be needed less frequently, typically when the knife feels dull. Professional chefs may need to sharpen their knives daily.
  • Avoid using honing rods on single-bevel knives. Instead, use a toishi sharpening stone, which is recommended by Japanese blacksmiths for both single-bevel and double-bevel knives.
  • If you are not confident in sharpening the knives yourself, it is advisable to seek professional sharpening services.

Buying a Japanese knife is indeed an investment, and with proper care, it can last for generations. Remember that Japanese knives are not only practical kitchen tools but also traditional works of art that carry a rich cultural heritage.

Need More Help?

Don’t worry. Let us help! Contact us or just email us directly. All you need to do is tell us the knife you like the most. We are here to help you choose the most comfortable and best Japanese kitchen knife for you.

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