The Japanese are well known for their attention to detail when it comes to preparing and presenting their dishes. This quality can also be seen in Japanese kitchen knives which are loved by chefs all over the world for their sharpness and their ability to retain it for years. What’s more, the Japanese have created several types of these knives to help them bring out the best in their ingredients.
So what are the different types of Japanese kitchen knives? Well, there are more than a hundred types of Japanese kitchen knives if you include their regional variants. However, the yanagiba, deba, and usuba are essential to a basic Japanese knife kit. Other common knives include the nagiri, santoku and gyutou.
The history of Japanese knives can be traced back to the days of the samurais. In fact, the same blacksmithing techniques are used to forge samurai swords and Japanese knives. Most knives even use stainless steel which is what samurai swords are made of.
Here you can see how a Japanese knife is made:
Because of this craftsmanship, Japanese kitchen knife exports have been on a rise since 2004 according to the Japanese Ministry of Finance. These knives continue to stand out for their toughness, sharpness, edge life and quality, and ease of sharpening.
The Three Essential Knives of Every Japanese Chef
To start, there are three types of knives every Japanese chef working in professional kitchens most likely possess. They are specialized to do certain tasks, and do them well.
Best For: Slicing and Deboning Fish
The yanagiba is a must-have for sushi chefs. Also known as the sashimi knife, it can create clean edges when pull cutting. It can even be used to skin, scale and debone fish types like salmon. Aside from fish, a lot of Western chefs use the yanagiba to carve meat and thinly slice vegetables.
This long and narrow Japanese knife has a blade length of 270 to 330 mm. It has a pointed tip and a single bevel that is usually placed on the right. However, if you’re left-handed, you can still get a left-bevel yanagiba by making a special order.
For a quality yanagiba, check out the Yoshihiro Hongasumi Yanagi Japanese Knife. It boasts of a Hongasumi high carbon steel blade that is incredibly sharp and that can hold its edge for a long time. It’s also beautifully constructed with a rosewood handle and a double ebony bolster.
Best For: Butchery
The deba is the second of the three basic knives of Japanese cuisine. It has a blade length of 120 to 210 mm and a height of 38 to 51 mm. They have a gentle curve and a single bevel. These knives are also thick and heavy since they are mainly used for rough tasks like meat butchery, cutting poultry and filleting fish.
There are several types of deba:
- Hon-deba – This is the thickest and heaviest deba variant and is considered to be the real deba.
- Ai-deba – Compared to the traditional deba, the ai-deba is thinner and narrower.
- Yo-deba – This means “Western deba”. It features a European handle and double-beveled edge.
- Ko-deba – A smaller deba, it is usually used for small fish.
- Kanisaki-deba – A special type of deba that is used for crabs and lobsters.
- Mioroshi-deba – Thinner and longer than standard deba knives, this is usually used for filleting fish.
- Funayuki – This is a smaller deba with a pointed tip. It is often used by fishermen.
Add a deba knife to your collection with the Yoshihiro Shiroko Kasumi Deba Japanese Knife. It has a strong and durable blade which comes up at 62 HRC in the Rockwell hardness test. It also features a magnolia handle and water buffalo horn bolster.
Best For: Cutting Vegetables
The Usuba, the professional cook’s vegetable knife in Japan, is the thinnest among the three basic knives. With a general size of 180 to 240 mm and a flat edge profile, it can be used for push cutting and to make precise vegetable cuts like dice and julienne. It is also ideal for katsuramuki which is to thinly slice vegetables like daikon.
This single-edged knife can either have a rounded tip or a square tip. Those that are from the Kanto region have a square tip while usuba that are from the Kansai region have a rounded tip.
If you want to buy an usuba knife, look no further than the Shun Pro Usuba Knife. It has a razor sharp high carbon steel blade and comfy D-shaped wood handle.
Other Types of Japanese Kitchen Knives
Now, let’s take a close look at some of the other common Japanese knives, all of which can be found in Japanese homes. I’ll talk about their length, type of blade and ideal usage.
Best For: All-Purpose
If Western cuisine has the chef’s knife, then the Japanese has the gyutou. Compared to a chef’s knife, the gyutou blade is thinner and can hold an edge better. Its standard length ranges from 210 to 270 mm and its blade thickness is about 1.5 to 5 mm. It is also double-bevel and sharp on both sides.
The pointed tip of this all-purpose knife can be utilized in making precision cuts while the blade’s flat heel allows for rock-chopping. Push cutting and pull cutting are also possible with the gyutou thanks to its design.
This versatile, lightweight knife can be used for kitchen tasks like cutting, slicing, chopping, and mincing meat, fish, vegetables, and fruits. However, it isn’t suitable for ingredients that are dense or large.
The Dalstrong Shogun Series Gyuto is a great choice for people looking to purchase a reliable gyutou. It features a durable and perfectly balanced blade and a beautiful ergonomic handle.
Best For: All-Purpose
The santoku is a general purpose kitchen knife as well. In fact, its name means “three virtues”. This refers to its ability to cut meat, fish, and fruits and vegetables. The santoku is typically double-beveled with a size that ranges from 165 to 180 mm.
Compared to the gyutou, the santoku has a taller blade profile, making it the better choice for up and down chopping motions. Also, this Japanese knife has a flatter edge and a less pointed tip so you can comfortably use it without having to raise your shoulder as high.
You can use it for chopping, mincing and cutting but it doesn’t do well when it comes to slicing meat and fish because of its shorter blade length.
You might want to check out the Mercer Culinary Granton Edge Santoku Knife which has a lot of raving reviews. It’s an extremely sharp santoku knife which gives you great value for your money.
Best For: Cutting Fruits and Vegetables
The chukabocho is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese cleaver. It has a short handle and a large, rectangular blade. The blade is usually about 177 to 203 mm in length and 101 to 127 mm in height.
Despite its name, it isn’t made for preparing bone-in meat. Instead, it is used for cutting produce, spices, and herbs. You can use it for peeling as well thanks to its thin blade.
The Shun Chinese Vegetable Cleaver is one of the best chukabocho in the market today. It has excellent edge retention and a wood grain pattern that makes the blade durable and stain resistant.
Best For: Slicing Fish, Meat and Poultry
The suijihiki is the Japanese version of the European slicer. However, the sujihiki has a thinner and harder blade so that it can stay sharp for years. The long blade is usually 240 to 300 mm in length and has a double bevel that is honed at a steeper angle. This allows it to make a precise cut in a single drawing motion.
It is used for slicing, filleting and carving fish, meat, and poultry. You can expect reduced friction as well even when cutting fatty meat since its short height gives it less surface area.
The Tojiro DP Sujihiki Slicer is a good example of this Japanese knife. It is made of stain-resistant cobalt alloy and can hold its edge well even with daily use.
Best For: Slicing Fish
The takohiki or takobiki is a variant of the yanagi that originated from the Kanto region. Unlike the yanagi’s pointed tip, the lighter and shorter takohiki has a blunt, square tip. Sushi restaurants in Tokyo often have tight spaces so the takohiki’s blade is preferred for safety purposes. Japanese chefs also use it to scoop up the sliced fish.
The takohiki is also thinner and flatter than the yanagi. It has a very sharp single edge which makes it ideal for slicing fish, octopus, and eel.
Best For: All-Purpose
The kiritsuke is a Japanese hybrid knife that takes the yanagiba’s length and combines it with the usuba’s angled tip. It has a long, single-beveled blade that ranges from 240 to 300 mm.
Its size and flatness make it quite difficult to use. This is why, traditionally, only Executive Chefs were allowed to use it.
This multipurpose knife is ideal for slicing and push cutting cooked meat. It can also be used for cleaning and slicing raw fish and thinly slicing fruits and vegetables.
The Dalstrong Shogun Series Kiritsuke Knife is a good choice for a kiritsuke. It’s a work of art with its exquisite blade pattern. It is also easier to use than traditional kiritsuke knives since it has a double bevel.
Best For: Boning
Next, we have the honesuki which is a poultry and fish boning knife. Its sharp, pointed tip and stiff blade work well in deboning chicken and cutting cartilage and joints. The honesuki can also double as a utility knife when needed because of its compact size.
It has a short, single bevel blade which ranges from 135 to 180 mm. However, new models are double-beveled so left-handed people can use them.
The Zelite Infinity Alpha-Royal Series Honesuki Knife is a top-notch honesuki which features a blade with a Rockwell hardness of 61 HRC. It also has a rounded handle which makes it comfortable to use.
Best For: Butchery
The hankotsu is a small butchering knife that is often used to separate the meat from the bone. A chef can make a small cut into the meat and then insert this Japanese knife to cut along a bone or connective tissue.
It usually has a blade length of 150 mm and it has a lean profile that makes it easy to maneuver. Though it is double-beveled, it is honed in such a way that it favors the right side. It also comes with an easy-to-grip handle to prevent slipping.
Best For: Cutting Vegetables
The nakiri is a vegetable knife that is popular with home cooks in Japan. It has a square tip and a straight blade that makes it suitable for cutting produce with thick skin as well as making precise cuts like julienne, brunoise, batonnet, and allumette for vegetables. It can even be used to scoop up a good amount of food if needed.
This Japanese knife has a double bevel and a standard length of 165 to 180 mm. Its rectangular shape makes it safer for home use while its counterpart, the usuba, is the vegetable knife preferred by chefs.
The Mercer Culinary Genesis Forged Nakiri Vegetable Knife is a very popular knife as you can see from its positive reviews and high rating. You won’t be disappointed with its performance, durability, and strength.
Best For: Decorative Fruit and Vegetable Cutting
Just like the usuba, the mukimono is a vegetable knife. However, it is thinner and it has a pointed tip, making it ideal for decorative fruit and vegetable cutting. This 150 to 210 mm knife is also used for peeling vegetables.
Best For: Paring
Also known as the paring knife, the petty knife is a small multipurpose knife that is usually used with the gyutou. It has a short length of 120 to 180 mm.
It is used for peeling, cutting and deseeding small produce like apples and potatoes. The petty knife can also be used to devein shrimp while bartenders often use it to make garnishes.
If you’re shopping for petty knives, don’t miss out on the Zelite Infinity Alpha Royal Series Petty Knife. This 6-inch knife is nonstick and resistant to stain and rust. It also has an ergonomically designed handle for a secure grip.
Best For: Slicing Bread and Baked Goods
The pankiri or bread knife is specially designed to slice baked goods. It has a serrated edge which allows it to slice through the hard crust of bread without crushing it.
How to Care for Japanese Knives
If properly cared for, Japanese knives can last you for years. To help you with this task, here are some things that you need to remember.
- Always hand wash and dry your Japanese knife after use so that the food is still soft enough to be removed by a soft sponge. Scrubbers and strong detergent may harm the knife’s finish.
- Unless it is made for this purpose, never use a Japanese knife to cut through bones. There’s a high chance that you’ll chip the blade if you do.
- Use a wooden or plastic chopping board to avoid damaging the blade.
- Use a saya to transport your Japanese knives.
- Avoid cutting frozen food and other ingredients that are too hard.
- Do not twist your knife when cutting hard ingredients like squash and carrots as it can cause the blade to break.
Sharpening Japanese Knives
Never use a sharpening rod, electric sharpener or any sharpening device to hone your Japanese knife as it can ruin the edge of your blade. Instead, use a whetstone to sharpen your knife or to make repairs. You’ll also need a stone flattening device to maintain your whetstone’s original shape.
The sharpening techniques that you’ll need depend on the edge of your Japanese knife. Here are some videos that can help you in sharpening single edge and double bevel Japanese knives.
Single Bevel Japanese Knife:
Double Bevel Japanese Knife:
And there you have it!