The History of the Japanese Knife-Making Process

by Ryan Shaffer June 21, 2020 4 min read

Close up of Damascus Japanese knife blade

Any culinary journey worth its salt will inevitably lead you to Japanese knives. Like your trek through the vast world of cuisine, Japanese knife-making is a process. The results speak for themselves, with the artistry and dedication of centuries of tradition flowing through each razor-sharp blade.

Understanding the heritage of Japanese knife design adds an extra dimension to your kitchen skills. Appreciation for these tools and the time-honored tradition of their creation is inspiring and opens your world to even more flavors and textures.

The legacy of these knives also serves as an education when searching for new kitchen cutlery options. Though the world of Japanese knives seems daunting, understanding their history is one way of making the decision process easier.

To help educate and make informed choices, let’s explore the history, design, process, and materials of Japanese knives. With a firm grasp of how they arrived from ancient Japanese tradition to your kitchen, you’ll confidently reach for their handles.

Japanese Knife-Making History

The Japanese knife-making process began with the ancient craft of sword-making. For centuries, swordsmiths manipulated steel into katanas used by samurai. Their artistry plays a rich role in the country’s heritage. Many regions in Japan have roots in swordsmithing that date back over a thousand years.

In the late 19th century, the Meiji Restoration period began in Japan. This era focused on modernizing the country and would spell the end of samurai culture and the demand for most swordsmiths’ work. However, the skill of these artisans soon found a new outlet in Japanese knife design.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and from the ashes of warriors and the wisdom of metal workers came a new tradition of excellence. Applying the techniques and metals they once used to craft swords, Japanese blacksmiths began a new tradition of making the highest quality kitchen knives.

Today, nearly 90% of professional chefs use Japanese blades. They are renowned for their balance of precision and power, making them a welcome addition to any kitchen.

Sakai Knife-Making Process

Artists in Sakai know practice makes perfect—their Japanese knife-making process is well over 600 years old.

In the 16th century, Sakai became famous for producing tobacco-cutting knives. These skills came from technological advances Sakai workers made in the 5th century while building Japan’s largest burial mound.

Knife maker works to create a blade


With so much experience, these artisans have finely sharpened their skills into a process that makes Japanese knives unique; multiple artists work on a single tool. Rather than one knife maker starting and finishing a knife, a blacksmith forges the blade, a sharpener specializes in refining and finishing the shaping, and a polisher finishes the blade. For some knives, like the high-end Honyaki, the polishing process requires over 60 steps.

Yanagiba knife next to sheath

Japanese KitchenKnife Design

Japanese chef knives come in two distinct handle styles to satisfy the skills and aspirations of the chef. The one you’ll reach for depends on your culinary journey ahead.


The western style features a full tang (the knife’s metal) that goes through the handle to the butt, along with a double bevel blade. This edge type is sharpened on both sides, creating a cutting V shape (see Santoku pictured below).

Those just beginning their culinary journey will appreciate this Japanese knife design’s familiar weight, balance, and cutting style.


The traditional design of Japanese-style knives utilizes a partial tang with an oval or octagonal handle. These handles have a unique balance and feel, guiding the user’s hand in anticipation of the knife’s intended use.

The blade’s shape is different, too. The traditional Japanese knife-making process forges the edges into a single bevel, looking like a chisel: レ. A single bevel knife only pushes food away from one side as you slice. As a result, this style of knife is either right-handed or left-handed. The benefits of the Japanese knife-making process take some getting used to, but their results make them the knife of choice of chefs worldwide.

Japanese Kitchen Knife Metals

From swords to kitchen knives, the process of making Japanese blades revolves around high-quality steel. Great chefs know that a knife should be an extension of your body. High-quality steel helps in that transformative cooking process.

Japanese kitchen knives primarily use one of two metals: stainless steel or high-carbon steel. Both are made of iron and carbon, making their edges precise and powerful. However, each has specific strengths to consider.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is an alloy with a high level of chromium. This mineral is used in the Japanese knife-making process because it provides a layer of protection between the blade and moisture. Rust and corrosion are less of a concern with stainless steel, making their maintenance easier than high-carbon knives.

Their ease of upkeep makes them an excellent choice for those taking the first steps in their knife journey. They’re also great companions for culinary enthusiasts who want a workhorse blade that needs less care.

High-Carbon Steel

High-carbon steel is naturally stronger than stainless steel and has excellent edge retention thanks to its higher levels of carbon. This means its blades are sharper and last longer. The higher the carbon level in an alloy, the harder the metal.

However, knives become brittle with a higher carbon level, increasing the danger of chipping. They also run the risk of corrosion. These concerns mean only those willing to take on carbon knives’ extra care should keep them in the kitchen. However, cooking professionals and enthusiasts will appreciate the challenge and reward of these knives. 

Final Word on theJapanese Knife-Making Process

The Japanese process of making knives is unparalleled. Its rich historic roots anchor it to a culture that honors the past while embracing the present. Pulling its handle from your saya links you to centuries of heritage.

High-quality materials and innovative design ensure that these knives are beloved in Japan and worldwide. Because they preserve the texture and flavor of the food, they reside in the kitchens of gourmet restaurants across the globe.

Santoku knife on wood table


For more details, shop Hasu-Seizo’s selection of authentic, hand-forged Japanese kitchen knives:

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