Unveiling the History and Tradition of Japanese Kitchen Knives

Unveiling the History and Tradition of Japanese Kitchen Knives


Throughout history, the kitchen knife has held a position of utmost importance in the culinary world. It is an integral part of any chef's arsenal, regardless of their cultural background.

Different countries have developed distinct styles of kitchen knives based on their culinary traditions. The most prominent ones include Western-style knives, Japanese knives, and Chinese knives.

Japanese knives, in particular, have garnered immense adoration for their exceptional sharpness and distinctive aesthetics. For centuries, these knives have enjoyed an illustrious reputation among professionals. Skilled artisans infuse their passion and expertise into every meticulously crafted blade, resulting in knives of unparalleled quality.

Nevertheless, the vast array of types, steel materials, and craftsmanship can be overwhelming for aspiring chefs, leading to hesitation and fear of choosing the wrong knife due to limited knowledge.

This article aims to demystify the world of Japanese knives from a professional standpoint. It will delve into the various types of Japanese knives, explaining the design principles and functionalities behind them. We hope that, armed with the knowledge gained from this article, you will be able to find a kitchen knife that perfectly aligns with your expectations.


History of Japanese Kitchen Knives

To begin our exploration of kitchen knives, let's gain a comprehensive understanding of the historical background of Japanese kitchen knives.

In the Japanese culinary context, kitchen knives are referred to as "Hōchō." These Japanese kitchen knives can be broadly categorized into three main groups: Wa-bocho (Japanese-style knives), Yo-bocho (Western-style knives), and Chuka-bocho (Chinese-style knives).

Each major category has a further classification of knife styles, which we will explain in more detail later in this article.

First and foremost, "Wa-bocho" pertains to the realm of traditional Japanese kitchen knives that originated during the mid-Edo period. On the flip side, "Yo-bocho" and "Chuka-bocho" represent types that have been influenced by Western and Chinese cultures, respectively.

Interestingly, most traditional Japanese kitchen knives, have been specifically crafted for the meticulous handling of seafood and vegetable ingredients. This is a result of the historical prohibition on meat consumption in ancient Japan, thereby directing the focus of kitchen knives towards the preparation of seafood and vegetables.


The Meat Prohibition Decree

It might surprise you, but Japan, a country known for its rich culinary traditions, actually has a remarkable history of meat prohibition that spans over 1200 years.

In ancient Japan, the foundation of Japanese cuisine largely revolved around seafood and vegetables, heavily influenced by the principles of Buddhist vegetarianism.

This practice can be traced back to the 6th century Asuka period when Buddhism first made its way to Japan in 538 AD. Initially, it didn't have a significant impact on the local culture.

However, everything changed in 675 AD, when Emperor Tenmu issued the famous "Meat Prohibition Decree." This decree strictly prohibited the consumption of various types of meat, including beef, horse meat, dog meat, monkey meat, and chicken.

Although initially this prohibition was not widely embraced by the majority of the population, the tide began to turn over time as Buddhism gained prominence. Gradually, the culture of abstaining from meat became more prevalent, reflecting the evolving era.

Ever since then, Japanese people have predominantly relied on seafood and vegetables as the mainstay of their diet. This very choice might be one of the contributing factors to the prosperous state of Japan's fishing industry today.


Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration entails a series of reforms implemented in Japan during the Meiji era, marking the country's shift from a feudal samurai system to a capitalist society. These reforms were driven by intricate political circumstances, which won't be delved into here.

With the end of Japan's isolationist policies, Emperor Meiji actively promoted the adoption of Western influences, including food culture. He even lifted the long-standing ban on meat, which had endured for 1200 years. Consequently, Japanese people began embracing Western foods like milk, beer, bread, and beef. This paved the way for the emergence of what we now recognize as "yoshoku" (Western-style cuisine), a fusion of Japanese culinary traditions and Western fare. Popular examples include curry rice, hamburgers, and omurice.


Traditional Knife-Making Techniques

Japanese traditional kitchen knives- 和庖丁 (Hocho) are primarily used for seafood and vegetable preparation and come in a wide range of styles.

Unlike Western-style knives, Japanese traditional knives boast distinctive designs and follow a more intricate production process.

In Japan, there is also a "Chinese-style knife," which is essentially a Chinese chef's knife. Today, we'll briefly introduce several common types of Japanese traditional knives and Western-style knives.

But before we delve into the various types of Japanese traditional knives, let's explore the meticulous craftsmanship behind the manufacturing of traditional kitchen knives.

Crafting Japanese kitchen knives using the traditional method is not only complex but also highly refined. Below, you'll find a table outlining the key production steps:

1. Forging  - Heat the soft iron and meticulously shape it by removing any excess material.

- Securely bond the hard steel to the soft iron by applying borax and iron oxide powder as adhesives. Continuously hammer until they are tightly fused.

- From the foundational structure of the 庖丁 (Hocho), known as "ni mai gō" (two-piece construction), which entails wrapping soft iron around the hard steel.
2. Rough Shaping - Fine-tune the shaping by removing any remaining excess material.

- Further enhance the particle arrangement by skillfully hammering the knife.

- Add unique engravings to the knife body, giving it its distinct character.
3. Heat Treatment (Quenching) - Apply a special clay mixture to the knife's surface, then heat it to around 800°C before rapidly cooling it with water.

- Quenching enhances the steel's hardness but also renders it more brittle.
4. Heat Treatment (Tempering) - To strike the right balance between hardness and toughness, tempering is crucial.

- Gradually cool the quenched knife by heating it to 150-200°C, thereby increasing its toughness.
5. Finishing - Rectify any bending that may have occurred during the heat treatment process by skillfully hammering the knife with an iron hammer.
6. Grinding - Employ a series of coarse to fine sharpening stones to sequentially grind the blade, refining its edge.
7. Handle Mounting - Finally, attach the handle and make the necessary fine adjustments.

One notable characteristic of 和庖丁 Hocho knives is that many of them are single-edged, featuring a blade on one side and a straight edge on the other, whereas Western-style knives tend to be double-edged.

Single-edged knives have a flatter blade and enable a more direct downward cutting motion. This, combined with specialized knife techniques, allows for precise control of cutting angles and greater accuracy in ingredient handling, which is why professional Japanese chefs prefer single-edged knives. Conversely, double-edged knives are more user-friendly for those without specialized training. However, due to their design, it's relatively easier for the knife to deviate from the intended cutting angle, making it more challenging to maintain ingredient handling precision. For everyday use or when extreme precision is unnecessary, double-edged knives are easier to master.


和庖丁 (Hocho)


The Yanagiba knife comes in various types, but the "Masao" Yanagiba from the Kansai region is the most popular choice nowadays.

The Yanagiba is specifically designed for effortlessly slicing boneless raw fish and other sushi ingredients. Professional Yanagiba knives typically range from 24 to 36cm in length, featuring a slender blade that tapers to a sharp tip, ensuring exceptional sharpness.

Thanks to its long blade, there's no need to exert pressure or pull back when slicing raw fish. Instead, it can be smoothly done in a continuous motion known as "pull cutting," allowing for the most efficient and seamless cuts.

The slim shape of the Yanagiba knife and the technique of pull cutting have been scientifically proven. Experiments demonstrate that using a sharp Yanagiba knife to pull cut raw fish over a longer distance results in incredibly smooth, visually appealing slices with a glossy finish. Although this method requires a higher level of skill and takes more time, it minimizes damage to the texture of the fish slices, while preserving their freshness and natural texture to the fullest extent.

View Our Yanagiba Knife

Compared to the Yanagiba, the Deba knife possesses a thicker and wider blade with a slight curvature. This single-sided beveled knife is specifically designed for cutting and handling fish.

The Deba knife carries a sense of weightiness, making it suitable not only for cutting fish fillets but also for slicing through fish heads and chopping bones. Hence, a single Deba knife is sufficient for processing an entire fish.

The sizes of Deba knives range from large to small, with the smallest sporting a blade length of around 10cm. For everyday household use, a 15cm Deba knife can handle most tasks. However, if you frequently work with smaller fish, a compact 12cm Deba knife would be more convenient.

The Usuba is a traditional Japanese vegetable knife designed specifically for a variety of vegetables. It can be broadly categorized into two types: Kanto and Kansai.

The Kanto Usuba, also known as Higashi-gō Usuba or Edo-gata Usuba, features a square-tipped blade akin to a small Chinese cleaver. In contrast, the Kansai Usuba, known as Kama-gata Usuba, has a square design with an arched upper end, somewhat resembling a Santoku knife.

With its thin and straight blade, the Usuba knife offers exceptional sharpness. It effortlessly cuts through vegetables, ensuring clean and precise slices, even when dealing with hard vegetables like pumpkins and radishes.

One of its most renowned uses is for creating julienne strips from radishes! Fans of the TV series "Midnight Diner" will surely recall the chef's technique for slicing radishes. By removing both ends, peeling the radish, placing the knife against its side, and continuously slicing off even slices, it's like unrolling a scroll of painting and then cutting it into thin strips. This cutting technique is professionally known as "桂剥き/ Katsuramuki." The single-edged Usuba knife plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity and consistent thickness of the radish scroll, preventing any deviation. In addition, the Usuba knife's blade differs from a typical Japanese kitchen knife as it remains straight, ensuring uniform thickness of the radish slices and preventing them from turning into pencil-like strips.


洋包丁 (Western-style kitchen knives


Gyuto / Chef's Knife

Discover the world of Western-style kitchen knives, including the versatile Gyuto/Chef's Knife. These knives were initially introduced to Japan from Western countries and then carefully modified to meet the needs of Japanese cuisine. In line with most Western-style knives, the Gyuto/Chef's Knife typically features a double-edged blade, although there are also single-edged variations available.

Let's delve into the details of the remarkable Gyuto/Chef's Knife. Derived from the French chef's knife, the Gyuto/Chef's Knife boasts a subtly flatter blade curve compared to its traditional counterpart. The blade is also relatively thinner, ensuring effortless meat cutting without the need for excessive pushing or pulling. Similar to a sashimi knife used for fish preparation, the Gyuto/Chef's Knife sports a pointed tip, offering precision during cutting tasks. This knife is perfect for effortlessly tackling large meat portions, thanks to its longer blade length and curved design. It also excels at producing clean slices of fish. Nonetheless, it's essential to note that the Gyuto/Chef's Knife should not be used to chop bones, as this may damage its delicate edge.

Go to Chef's Knife



Now, let's explore the Santoku bōchō, which emerged in response to changing dietary habits in Japan during the Meiji Restoration. This transitional period witnessed a shift towards more Western-style cuisine, placing a greater emphasis on meat-centric dishes. The Santoku bōchō emerged in the 1940s, combining elements from the Gyuto/Chef's Knife, vegetable knife, and sashimi knife.

The name "Santoku bōchō" signifies its three virtues: adeptly handling meat, vegetables, and fish. With a typical length ranging from 15 to 20 cm, the Santoku bōchō features a slightly shorter and wider blade compared to the Gyuto/Chef's Knife, making it a breeze to handle. This knife proves its worth in a wide range of kitchen tasks and is particularly popular for home use due to its versatility. If you find yourself faced with a budgetary constraint and can only choose one knife, the Gyuto/Chef's Knife and the Santoku bōchō are excellent options. While the Santoku bōchō may be slightly less efficient at cutting through meat compared to the Gyuto/Chef's Knife, it provides enhanced comfort when working with vegetables. However, it's crucial to remember that the Santoku bōchō should never be used for chopping bones.

View Our Santoku Knife


Moving on, let's explore the Nakiri knife, representing a modernized take on a vegetable knife. It closely resembles the Usuba and is designed primarily for everyday household use. Acting as a lightweight vegetable cleaver, the Nakiri knife boasts a rectangular, straight blade, perfectly suited for various tasks such as cutting vegetable strips and tackling harder-skinned vegetables like pumpkin and zucchini.

Go to Nakiri Knife

Petty / Paring

Next in line is the petite yet mighty Petty/Paring knife. With a blade length typically ranging from 11 to 15 cm, this small-sized knife is ideal for delicate undertakings like peeling, carving, and cutting small objects. These tasks often prove challenging when using larger knives, but the Petty knife brings finesse to the table, effortlessly handling delicate food items and herbs.

Sujihiki / Slicer

For handling large meat portions effectively and separating tendons from the meat, the Sujihiki/Slicer knife takes center stage. Its slender and elongated blade enables precise maneuvering between tendons and meat, making it indispensable in professional kitchens. With its double-edged blade and steeper bevel angle, the Sujihiki knife also excels at slicing and carving tasks.

Honesuki hōchō

To tackle the intricate work of separating meat and bones, we turn to the Honesuki hōchō. Evolved from a Western-style knife and serving a purpose similar to a boning knife, the Honesuki hōchō is designed specifically for dealing with bones in poultry and fish. Thanks to its smaller size and thicker blade, it is less prone to breakage when encountering bones compared to other knives. Nevertheless, the Honesuki hōchō's versatility in various home cooking scenarios is relatively limited, as tasks performed by this knife can be accomplished using the Gyuto/Chef's Knife or the sashimi knife.

Pankiri / Bread Knife

Last but not least, we encounter the Pankiri/Bread Knife. With its unmistakable serrated blade, this knife finds its place in any kitchen. Specifically designed to cut bread and cakes without exerting excessive pressure, the serrations preserve the delightful air pockets and texture intact. Additionally, the serrations minimize wear on the blade, extending its overall lifespan. When handling bread, it is recommended to employ a gentle sawing motion rather than applying excessive downward pressure. This approach allows the knife to effortlessly and naturally slice through the bread, resulting in clean, fluffy slices with minimal crumbs.

View Our Bread Knife

Feeling undecided about which Japanese knife suits your needs? Allow us to guide you through a series of questions that will help pinpoint the perfect knife based on your cooking skills and the ingredients you most frequently wield in the kitchen:

1. How frequently do you find yourself cooking?
2. Which ingredients dominate your culinary repertoire?
3. Are you in search of a versatile knife or a smaller, specialized option?
4. Can you share your favorite dish with us?
5. Lastly, could you kindly let us know whether you identify as male or female?

Don't hesitate to get in touch with us via the chat located in the lower right corner or by sending an email to service@okingjoy.com. We are eager to assist you in selecting the knife that best suits your individual needs.

Back to blog

Leave a comment