How to Sharpen Japanese Knives

by Ryan Shaffer September 07, 2023 5 min read

Hands sharpening a Japanese knife on a whetstone

If you’ve already purchased a nice set of Japanese chef knives, you obviously consider quality to be something important. Maintaining sharp and pristine Japanese knives is essential to preserve their purpose and investment. Sharpening Japanese knives is as crucial as purchasing a high-quality set, and fortunately, not overly challenging. With proper sharpening, you can ensure your Japanese knives remain effective and serve you well in the kitchen.

Why Buy Japanese Knives?

Japanese knives are a worthwhile investment for any chef or passionate home cook. To protect this investment, it is imperative to take great care of your knives. Sharpening a kitchen knife with a whetstone is an essential part of this process. But it must be done in a particular way to not damage your blades while making them sharp. That’s what this article is here to help you do.

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at why so many people prefer kitchen knives made in Japan. Before you research the best techniques for sharpening Japanese knives, keep in mind that one of the main reasons people love these knives so much is because they are both sturdy, long-lasting, yet lightweight while having an incredibly sharp edge. If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen — whether you’re a professional or simply a cooking enthusiast — this can make a huge difference.

When you use a Japanese knife, you’ll feel like the knife is doing all the work for you — and in a way, it is. The expert design of the knife makes it easy to handle whether you’re slicing, cutting, or dicing. The blades on a Japanese kitchen knife tend to be thinner yet harder, which means they should last for many years to come with proper care.

How Should You Sharpen Your Japanese Knife?

Sharpening Japanese knives isn’t difficult, but it does require performing the task a certain way. Sharpening a kitchen knife with a whetstone is almost always recommended because they are specifically designed to make sure your knife is extra-sharp while not damaging your blade. Dull blades can result in:

  • More wasted food
  • Less attractive food presentation, especially when using raw food
  • An increased chance of an injury
  • Longer prep time

The duller the knife, the more difficult it is to get it nice and sharp again. If you’re not sure if it’s time to sharpen your Japanese knife, take a sheet of copy paper and try to cut it with your knife. Make sure to start at the heel of the knife and slice all the way to the tip. This checks the entire length of the blade. If the job isn’t quick and easy, it’s time for another sharpening.

1. Consider the Type of Whetstone

Whetstones come in different grits. If your whetstone is medium or coarse, you should soak it in water for roughly 15 minutes, but if it is fine, simply rinse it off by hand with some water. If you have a base, make sure you use it because your hands will be more comfortable throughout the process. If you’re sharpening a kitchen knife with a whetstone and no base, make sure to place it on something like shelf-lining paper or even a wet washcloth so it doesn’t move around as you sharpen the knife.

Man sharpening Japanese knives with whetstone

2. Position Your Fingers Properly

For sharpening Japanese knives the right way, make sure your index finger is placed on the knife’s spine and your thumb is on the blade’s flat side as shown in the picture above. The other fingers should be placed around the handle so you can get a good grip on the knife. When looking down at the knife relative to the whetstone, it should be at roughly a 45-degree angle. When sharpening, sharpen the heel of the blade first, and always use the other hand to guide the knife and make sure the blade is always flat against the whetstone. As you sharpen gradually move your fingers pressing down on the edge up the blade to sharpen each section of the blade up to the tip. Japanese knives typically have a 15-degree angle on each side if it is double-bevel, and about 20 degrees if it is a single-bevel.

It can take a few tries to make sure you position your hands and fingers properly when sharpening a quality Japanese knife, but it’s important to get it right so the job is done efficiently and the knife remains sharp for as long as possible.

3. Make Sure Your Body Is in the Right Position

In order to remain comfortable while you sharpen your knife, keep your shoulders square to the whetstone, but make sure your body is nice and relaxed. Otherwise, you can suffer from muscle aches and pains by the time you’re done. You should use your hand holding the knife to push the blade along and lift the knife up afterward, placing it in the correct starting spot before continuing the process.

Once the edge of the blade develops a small burr on the side opposite the side being sharpened, turn the blade over and sharpen the other side. When you’re sharpening Japanese knives, remember to keep the blade of the knife close to the edge of the whetstone at all times. Whenever people are sharpening a kitchen knife with a whetstone, this is a very important tip to remember.

4. Finishing Up the Process

When you have both sides of the blade sharpened, you can either take some sharpening or honing steel and hone it or use a very high grit whetstone and repeat the process so it’s nice and smooth and to make sure you haven’t forgotten a spot. After the honing process is complete, go ahead and rinse the knife well to get rid of dust and grit, then wipe it with a clean dry towel. Once you get to this point, the knife is ready to be used again!

Person slicing salmon with Japanese knife


Sharpening Japanese knives is not difficult, but it does take practice and it is essential to getting the most out of your knives. Without a sharp kitchen knife, the cooking process is a lot more challenging and likely won’t produce the results you were hoping for, which means no one will enjoy the meal as much in the end. For both professional chefs and DIY enthusiasts who love being in the kitchen, learning how to sharpen any type of Japanese cooking knife is imperative if you want results you’ll love.

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