There is an astonishingly wide range of Japanese knife types, each with its own distinct traits and applications. They generally fall into the following two main categories: modern Japanese knives and traditional Japanese knives.
Modern Japanese knives
Modern Japanese knives, also known as Western-style Japanese knives, are those that were introduced during the Meiji Period (1868–1922), when Japan opened up to western science, art, and culture, and even western dietary preferences and cooking techniques. These knives are more similar in profile and function to Western chef’s knives. Some examples of Western-style Japanese knives include:
- Gyuto/Gyutou 牛刀: A gyuto knife is a Japanese variant of a chef’s knife. The literal translation of “gyuto” is “beef knife.” The word “beef” was not chosen at random, as beef was not part of the Japanese diet until the Meiji period’s opening up. As there were already specialised knives for every possible Japanese ingredient, this imported knife shape was given the name “Gyu / beef” as traditionally there wasn’t any knife specially designed for beef. Gyuto is perhaps the most popular Japanese knife sold outside Japan today. It is typically 210–270 mm long and great for slicing, dicing, and mincing meats and vegetables. It is also useful for producing thin, precise cuts. The blade is commonly composed of high-carbon steel of high hardness, which provides for a long-lasting sharp edge.
- Kiritsuki-Gyuto/Gyutou 切付牛刀: The kiritsuke-gyuto is a variation of gyuto with a cut off kiritsuke tip. The word “kiritsuke” (切り付け) literally means “cut is applied”. The more profound tip gives more sturdiness towards the tip, and is useful for knife works involving incision via the tip. Kiritsuke-gyuto is often simply referred to as “Kiritsuke”. However it is important to distinct the Kiritsuke-gyuto from a true Kiritsuke, which is a type of traditional single bevel Japanese knife that is rarely seen outside a professional Japanese kitchen.
- Santoku 三德: The santoku knife is an all-purpose knife based on the design of a chef’s knife, but with a shorter, flat blade edge and a sheepsfoot blade that curves down at an angle approaching 60 degrees at the point. The term “santoku” translates to “three virtues,” alluding to its capacity to excel at three tasks: slicing, dicing, and mincing. Typically 165–180 mm in blade length, Santoku knives are the most popular household knives in Japan today. They are rarely, if ever, used by professional chefs in Japan.
- Bunka文化: Bunka knives are sometimes called Kiritsuke-Santoku. Their blade length, cost, and intended use are very similar to santoku. Instead of the Santoku’s curving down blade tip, it has a tip that is cut off to form a sharp point.Other than the profile of the tip, Bunka shares all characteristics with a Santoku.
- Petty ペティー: A petty knife is a tiny, all-purpose knife that is ideal for intricate chores like peeling and trimming. Typically 90–150 mm in blade length, petty knives are useful tools to have in the kitchen for making small, accurate cuts.
- Sujihiki 筋引: A sujihiki is a long, thin knife comparable to a Western slicer knife that is used for slicing meat and fish. Typically 240–300mm long with a much shorter blade height, it is ideal for creating precise slices of meat and is a vital tool for any cook who regularly deals with meat.
- Honesuki 骨スキ: A honesuki is the Japanese interpretation of a boning knife, that is specifically designed for breaking down poultry and other meats. It has a triangular-shaped blade with a sharp, pointed tip and a sturdy handle, making it well-suited for precise cuts through joints. In addition to being used for breaking down poultry, the honesuki knife is also versatile enough to be used for a wide range of tasks, including trimming and portioning meats.
Traditional Japanese knives
Traditional Japanese knives, on the other hand, have been used in Japan for centuries. These knives were invented prior to 1868, during Japan’s Edo era. Knives from this period are highly specialised, in the sense that each knife is designed to handle one type of ingredient or perform one specific task. These knives are still being used by professional Japanese chefs today, and in certain restaurants such as an edomae sushi restaurant, chefs use only traditional Japanese knives. There are a few dozen types of traditional Japanese knives, the most popular of which include:
- Yanagiba 柳刃: A yanagiba is a long, thin single bevel knife used for slicing raw fish for sushi and sashimi. It features pointed blade that enables for simple and precise slicing. The word “Yana” literally means bamboo, the shape of the blade resembled a bamboo leave. Typically 210-330mm in blade length, the yanagiba is believed to have originated from the Kansai area (Osaka) but is used throughout Japan today. Knives like the Yanagiba, Takohiki and Sakimaru Takohiki are typically sharpened to have the most refined edge, ensuring the smoothest cut with the utmost precision and least amount of cellular damage to the cut surface.
- Kiritsuke Yanagibi 切付柳刃: an adaptation of the Yanagiba originated from the Kanto region, with a cut off kiritsuke tip instead of the bamboo leaf like pointy tip. The more profound tip gives more sturdiness towards the tip, and is useful for knife works involving incision via the tip. Like Yanagiba, the Kiritsuke Yanagiba is a single bevel knife specialised in slicing raw fish.
- Takohiki 蛸引: The takohiki is also a single bevel sashimi knife with a long blade. Compared to Yanagibi’s pointy tip, the Takohiki has a straight, squared-off tip. The shape of the blade is almost like an elongated rectangle. “Tako” in Japanese literally means octopus, the name suggests that the design of the blade shape may have something to do with its ease of use with cutting octopus tentacles. However many believe the reason for a straight and squared-off tip is so that the chef pointing the knife outwards towards customers sitting at the counter appear less threatening. Originated from the Canto region of Japan, Takohiki is less popular than its counterpart from Kaisai. The adapted version – Sakimaru Takohiki – is far more popular today.
- Sakimaru Takohiki 先丸蛸引: Originated from the Kanto area, the Sakimaru Takohiki is a hybrid of Yanagiba and Takohiki. Since its blade shape resembles a Japanese katana, this single-beveled sashimi knife is often used at sushi counter for its striking aesthetic value.
- Deba 出刃: A deba knife is a hefty, thick-bladed single-bevel knife used for filleting and deboning fish, as well as slicing through small fish bones. When cutting through dense materials, the large blade adds stability and strength. Typically 165-210mm in blade length, the deba knife is an essential tool for any cook who often works with fish.
- Nakiri 菜切: Before Meiji restoration and the introduction of Santoku, Nakiri was the most popular knife type in Japanese household, preferred by housewives and home cooks much like today’s Santoku. A nakiri is a rectangular-shaped knife that is particularly intended for chopping and preparing vegetables. It was one of the rare double-beveled traditional Japanese knife from the Edo era. It boasts a narrow, sharp blade that generates clean, accurate slices, allowing for uniform and consistent slicing. “Nakari” literally means “vegetable cutting”. Typically 165mm in length, the knife’s form makes it simple to rapidly and efficiently cut through big amounts of veggies. Nakiri knives are rarely, if ever, used by professional chefs in Japan.
- Usuba 薄刃: The usuba is a traditional Japanese knife specifically designed for cutting and preparing vegetables. Its name, which translates to “thin blade,” highlights the blade’s unique characteristics. Its thin blade allows for smooth and easy slicing, making it a popular choice among professional chefs who specialize in vegetable preparation. Usuba knives come in several regional variations, with the most common ones being the Kanto-style (Tokyo) and Kansai-style (Osaka) usubas. The Kanto-style usuba has a more square-shaped tip, while the Kansai-style usuba has a slightly rounded tip. The usuba’s thin blade makes it possible to perform various intricate cutting techniques, such as katsuramuki (creating paper-thin sheets of vegetables like daikon radish) and decorative cuts for garnishes.
- Menkiri 麺切: Menkiri, which translates to “noodle cutter,” is a traditional Japanese knife specifically designed for cutting noodles such as udon and soba. This specialized knife is characterized by a flat, rectangular blade with a straight edge, which enables precise and even cuts for creating uniform noodles. The menkiri knife typically has a blade length of around 240-270mm, allowing the user to cut through a wide sheet of dough in one swift motion. The blade’s thickness and heft provide stability and accuracy, ensuring that the noodles are evenly cut without tearing or sticking together.