A Japanese knife is not just for creating sashimi; the sharpness of these light weight knives and their ability to cut finely and intricately are just some of the reasons they are becoming popular across the globe. Japanese knives are often more pleasing to the eye than their Western-counterparts, showing off some of the artisanship that evolved from the forging of samurai swords.Today’s Japanese manufacturers have recognized that the traditional single beveled Japanese knives are not always as suitable for Western cooking techniques and so they now produce Japanese knives which fuse Japanese materials and techniques with Western knife styles. In this article, we look at Japanese knives created when East meets West and what these can bring to our kitchens. We also look at how to use a Japanese knife properly and how to care for it to reduce the risk of corrosion and damage to the blade. We also review some of the best Japanese knives to help you to select the best one for your slicing and dicing needs.
The Shun Classic 8" chef’s knife with its Damascus-look finish and extra tungsten for a sharper edge is our best pick of the Japanese knives.
The Global Classic 8" chef’s knife made from CROMOVA 18 steel is our budget pick with its steep bevel for a sharper blade which stays sharp for longer.
Quick Comparison: Top 10 Best Japanese Knives
1. Shun Classic 8" Chef’s Knife
The Shun Classic 8" chef’s knife is constructed from the proprietary VG-MAX steel which contains extra tungsten for a sharper edge, extra cobalt and carbon for durability and strength, and more chromium for better resistance to corrosion. This all-purpose forged chef’s knife also has a slightly curved blade with a Damascus-look finish comprised of 67 layers of VG-MAX alternated with steel. The triple riveted handle is ebony pakkawood, made from hardwood with resin to give a water resistant finish.
This is a lighter knife than Western style knives and as a Japanese knife there is more risk of chipping to the blade as well as risk of damage to the tip. This knife should not be placed in the dishwasher as this will also increase the risk of chipping and the logo on the knife will also start to wear off over time and with use.This Japanese made knife comes with a lifetime limited warranty and can be sharpened through the manufacturer’s sharpening service based in Oregon. It does not come with a sheath or a case.
2. Global G-2 - 8 inch, 20cm Chef's Knife
Made from molybdenum/vanadium stainless steel (CROMOVA 18) in Japan, the Global Classic 8" chef’s knife has a steeply ground (‘face ground’) double bevel and helps to give a sharper forged blade which will stay sharp for longer. This knife is precisely balanced with its sand-filled hollow stainless steel handle. The handle is also dimpled for safe gripping and molded for comfort.
Like all Japanese knives, this is a lighter weight knife and because of its lighter weight, it does not contain a bolster between the handle and blade; instead, it has a finger notch between the blade and handle, which a small number of buyers have found a little uncomfortable when using it for any length of time. This does not come with a sheath and as this knife has a smaller handle if you have larger hands, you may struggle to use it as safely as you should be able to.This knife should only be hand washed and it has a lifetime limited warranty against breakage and defects. A small number of owners have found that the knife begins to rust quite soon after purchase.
3. Ginsu Gourmet Chikara Series Forged 12-Piece Japanese Steel Knife Set
Made with premium Japanese stainless steel, the knives in the Ginsu Gourmet Shikara Series 12 piece Japanese knife set (07112DS) are full tang blades with black handles. Presented in a bamboo block, the set also contains an 8" chef’s knife, 7" Santoku knife, 5" serrated knife, 5" utility knife and a 3.5" paring knife. All of these double beveled knives are forged.
The set also includes shears, four stamped steak knives and a honing rod. Some buyers have found that these knives are not as good quality as older ones they have owned from this manufacturer. Although these knives do come with a lifetime limited warranty, some owners have found that the manufacturer’s customer services have been less than responsive when they have tried to make claims under the warranty.
These knifes are at risk of developing rust spots and the odd owner has found that the blade can break away from the handle. These are also made in PRC rather than Japan.
4. Mac Knife MTH-80 Professional Hollow Edge Chef's Knife
The light weight MAC Knife Professional 8" hollow edge chef’s knife (MTH-80) is made in Japan from heat treated AUS8 steel. The blade has a hollow edge to aid the knife when cutting through stickier foods and its triple riveted black handle is made from pakkawood. This knife should only be washed by hand and it does not come with a sheath or guard.The odd buyer has recently been disappointed with the quality of this knife and it can be prone to start rusting sooner than expected; even when washing and drying straight after use. The logo printing on the blade can also start to wear off over time. This does come with a 25 year limited warranty when purchased through an authorized retailer.
5. Shun Cutlery Premier 8” Chef’s Knife
With a VG-MAX cutting core, the Shun Premier 8" chef’s knife also has 34 layers of Damascus cladding on each side and has been hand sharpened to a 16 degree double beveled edge. The blade also has a hammered tsuchime finish to assist easy food release.The handle is walnut-colored and contoured pakkawood and the end cap is embossed. Like other Japanese knives, the blade is very fragile, and care should be taken with handling to reduce the risk of the damage to the blade. Made in Japan, this knife comes with a lifetime limited warranty and a protective heavy duty card sleeve although it states that this should not be used for storage of the knife.
6. Yoshihiro VG10 16 Layer Hammered Damascus Gyuto Japanese Chefs Knife
The Yoshihiro 8¼" gyuto chef’s knife is a versatile chef’s knife made with a three layer construction of VG-10 Japanese stainless steel center core with HRC-60 for edge retention, sharpness and durability. Hand crafted in Japan, this knife is also finished as a 16 layer design, giving a Damascus-look. The handle of this full tang knife is premium mahogany, and it should only be hand washed.
As this is a wooden handle, there can also be a risk of warping with exposure to moisture and it may need regular oiling to keep it in condition. Unlike other premium Japanese knives this only comes with a short limited warranty for manufacturer defects, however, any damage to the blade can usually be repaired by the manufacturer (a charge will apply).
7. Shun Cutlery Classic 6.5” Nakiri Knife
As a traditional Japanese knife for preparing vegetables and produce, the Shun Classic 6.5" nakiri knife is made from a VG-MAX steel core clad with 67 layers to give a Damascus-look finish. This knife has a black water resistant pakkawood handle which will better suit smaller hands.This knife is not suitable for cleaning in the dishwasher and it comes with a lifetime limited warranty. Like any Japanese knife, there is an increased risk of the blade chipping and as a nakiri knife, this does not have a pointed tip and so may limit your cutting needs. The odd buyer has also had to sharpen this Japanese-manufactured knife on opening.
8. KUMA Professional Damascus Steel Knife
Made from Japanese steel with a VG-10 core and 67 layers to give a Damascus-look finish, the KUMA Professional 8" chef’s knife has been hand finished with V-Sharpe sharpening technology. Although manufactured from Japanese steel, this is made in China by expert bladesmiths.This knife has a triple riveted black lightweight handle. Some buyers have found this knife was not as sharp as expected out of the box and it does not come with a sheath.
9. TUO Cutlery Cleaver Knife - Japanese
The TUO Cutlery Fiery Phoenix 7" cleaver has a Japanese AUS10 high carbon steel core with 66 layers of steel to give a Damascus finish. This is a narrow blade which has been cryogenically tempered for strength and flexibility, and with a Rockwell Hardness of 56+2, it also offers long lasting sharpness.
This full tang cleaver has a pakkawood curved ergonomic handle with a very distinctive woodgrain effect. This cleaver also comes with a satisfaction guarantee but does not come with a sheath to protect the blade. The odd buyer considers that the edge of this cleaver is not thin enough and others have found that the handle can be slightly slippery when wet.
10. Zelite Infinity 7" Santoku Knife
The Zelite Infinity 7" Santoku knife is made from Japanese AUS10 stainless steel to give long lasting performance. This knife has a Damascus layered finish and as a hollow ground blade, its helps reduce the risk of food sticking to the blade when slicing thinly.
This is a full tang blade which is double beveled and sharpened to an edge of 12 to 15 degrees. It also has a Rockwell Hardness of 61+1. The ergonomic and triple riveted handle is made from military grade G10 which makes it resistant to heat, moisture and impact and the bolster is tapered to perfectly balance the knife. This also comes with a lifetime limited warranty.Like any blade containing high carbon, it can be prone to rusting if not washed and dried thoroughly straight after using. This is also a heavier blade, so some users may start to struggle with it, especially if using for larger cutting jobs.
Things to Consider Before Buying Japanese Knives
Japanese knives have increased in popularity in recent decades, not only though globalization, but also the sharpness of their blades. The sharpness of the blade is perhaps the most popular feature of Japanese knives, but the way that the blades are forged means that they are able to remain sharp for longer before they will need re-sharpening. It is usually the high carbon content of the steel that gives Japanese knives these properties.
Although traditional Japanese knives are still made and available in the US, increasingly, we are seeing more Japanese-made Western-style knives. These use traditional Japanese forging techniques and materials to make Western-style knives such as chef’s knives.
The traditional Japanese knife or Wa-Bocho dates back to samurai warriors and the same hand forging techniques used to produce samurai swords are also used to make kitchen knives.
In Japanese cuisine, the skills of a chef are highlighted, amongst other ways, by their intricate knife skills when preparing and presenting dishes. A Wa-Bocho is usually a single bevel blade or kataba, which means the edge is only ground on one side of the blade. The kataba allows delicate ingredients to be cut quickly and precisely without damaging them, unlike a Western knife which is double beveled for cutting through tougher foods such as meats.
Many of the Japanese-made Western-style knives are double beveled, although double beveled blades did not start being produced in Japan until after the Second World War. If you do choose to use a single bevel blade, it can take some getting used to, but if you want to do detailed cutting then it is worth the time learning to use one properly.
Japanese knives are also in demand for their aesthetics. Japanese knives are often Damascus-look, a wavy pattern which is achieved by layering two steels to create a visual pattern along the length of the blade. Some blades are also tsuchime finished, which is when dimples are added to the finished blade (often by hand) to create a hammered and irregular finish that helps stop food from sticking to the blade.
The Difference Between Japanese and Western/European Style Knives
A Japanese knife is considerably lighter in weight and has a thinner blade than its Western counterpart and the fact that it is often made without a bolster – the metal between the blade and the handle – also keeps its weight down and allows the balance of the knife to shift more towards its tip for precision control. The bolster on European knives balances the weight of the blade and provides extra weight behind the knife edge for extra strength when cutting.
A Japanese knife should never be used for heavier-duty cutting tasks such as chopping through tough vegetables or bones as this will usually chip or even break the blade, while a Western or European knife with its thicker and more robust blade is more suitable to cutting through harder foods although it will also need more frequent sharpening to keep its edge sharp.
The Japanese knife better suits precise and detailed cutting and its relatively flat blade with a curve towards the tip allows it to make long and clean slices compared to the curved profile of a Western blade that allows it to be used in the ‘rocking’ style of chopping.
A typical European steel knife will have a Rockwell hardness of between 52 and 56, while a typical Japanese knife has a rating of between 58 and 65. The harder the steel, the longer the edge will last before it needs sharpening.
A Japanese knife is ground to a finer edge of between 10 and 15 degrees compared to Western knives which will often have an angle of around 20 to 22 degrees. The smaller angle on the Japanese knife means that it will cut through food easily with less pressure needed from the hand.
However, the harder the blade is, the more brittle it becomes which is why Japanese knives are prone to chipping.
Types of Japanese Knives
Traditional Japanese knives have oval, octagonal or D-shaped handles (wa-handle) often made of exotic woods while Western knives manufactured with Japanese techniques often have a triple riveted Western handle also known as a yo-handle which also adds some weight to the knife.
A santoku is an all-purpose Japanese knife that allows users to slice, dice and mince. A gyuto knife is versatile like a Santoku knife and similar in appearance to a Western chef’s knife but lighter in weight and sharper. The gyuto is usually used for cutting meat in Japanese cuisine but is suitable for other cutting tasks such as vegetables and fish. A deba knife is a more robust knife for fish butchering and can also be used for poultry although care should be taken not to cut through thicker bones as this will chip the blade.
The nakiri or ‘vegetables cutter’ has a rectangular blade like a small cleaver and often a single bevel blade, it is designed for vegetable preparation using a push-cut cutting technique. It can also be used for peeling larger vegetables. A yanagiba or ‘willow leaf’ knife is shaped as a willow leaf and its narrower blade is for preparing fish fillets and sushi as it can cut through a block of fish in one clean pull-cut which does not damage the texture or appearance of the fish.
Like its Western counterpart the carving knife, a chutoh is for slicing fish and meat and a shotoh is the Japanese version of a paring knife and is used for peeling and cutting fruit and vegetables.
Japanese Knife Forging
Japanese knives are made of hagane or carbon steel using forging and grinding techniques used historically for making samurai swords.
Many knives are manufactured in the city of Sakai which was making samurai swords back in the 1400s. After the Meiji restoration of 1868, creating and possessing Japanese swords (katana) was banned; taking way jobs from artisan swordsmiths who knew no other trade and whose knowledge and skills had been passed down from their previous generations.
In response, the swordsmiths quickly learnt to create knives for the home using their skills and equipment because knife sales were not restricted like swords were and they still sold for a high price. It is this traditional artisanship that is still used in Japanese knife production today.
Japanese knife forging starts with the blade material being heated to 2192°F or 2372°F and then shaped either by hand or machine. Forging hardens the blade to make it sharp and strong. After forging, the knife is then heat treated, ground, sharpened, cleaned and polished and the handle attached. Various parts of these processes may still be completed by hand by the highly skilled bladesmiths.
Traditional Japanese knives are categorized into one of two groups; depending on whether they have been forged through honyaki or kasumi.
Honyaki or ‘true-forge’ or ‘true-fire’ is when the blade is forged from a single piece of extremely high carbon steel such as white steel (shirogami) or blue steel (aogami) which gives a high gloss blade. This forging is carried out fully by hand and is similar to how samurai swords were made. As well as being time consuming it can only be done by artisan bladesmiths. Traditional Japanese knives made in this way are the most expensive and they are difficult to sharpen and maintain.
Kasumi forges knives from soft iron (jigane) and high carbon steel or stainless steel. Although the blades are not as sharp as those forged through honyaki, they are easier to sharpen and not as expensive to buy. The name kasumi translates to ‘mist’ which describes the hazy appearance of the soft-iron body of the knife.
Japanese Knife Cutting Tips
If you are new to using a Japanese knife, it is better to take your time and cut slowly until you become comfortable with it.
A Japanese knife should cut in a smooth slicing motion like a handsaw going back and forth through a log rather than chopping ‘up and down’. The knife should be intentionally pushed forward and downwards and then pulled back towards the body.
You should not need to use much pressure with a Japanese knife, if you do, then use a different knife or check the food for hard parts, you should also not wedge or pry with the blade as this will damage the blade edge or break the tip. A Japanese knife should not be used to cut bones, frozen foods, hard seeds or thicker skinned vegetables such as pumpkins or melons.
Granite, glass, ceramic or tile cutting surfaces are too hard for a Japanese knife. Instead, a soft wood cutting board should be used. The easiest way to assess if the cutting surface is soft enough for a Japanese knife is to scratch the cutting board with your thumb nail. If it can be scratched, then the surface is soft enough.
Looking After Your Japanese Knife
Japanese knives, or indeed any premium knife, should never be placed in a dishwasher. Instead it should be washed by hand with a gentle dish soap that does not contain citrus extracts or bleach (as these may promote corrosion) as soon as you have finished using it and dried off with a soft cloth that will not scratch the surface of the blade.
It should not be allowed to ‘air dry’ or ever left soaking in water as this can increase the risk of corrosion as well as causing micro-corrosion which is tiny chips occurring on the cutting edge of the blade.
Humidity also increases the risk of the corrosion to the blade, so if you live in a high humidity environment, there is more risk of a Japanese knife developing rust spots. If the knife has a wooden handle, then moisture will also cause the handle to swell and potentially warp.
Japanese knives should always be stored in a knife case, sheath or block.
Professional Japanese chefs sharpen their knives daily but as a home user, probably once a month will suffice to keep the edge even and the angle correct on the blade. A Japanese whetstone should always be used to sharpen a Japanese knife, and you should never use a metal sharpener as this will damage the blade. Weekly honing will help to keep the edge sharp in between sharpening.
A coarse grit stone (120 to 400 grit) will allow you to remove chips and remedy a dull blade. A medium grit (800 to 2000) can be used for minor chips and regular sharpening while a finishing stone (3000 to 8000) will removed any fine scratches, remove leftover burrs and give the blade a polished finish.
How a Japanese knife is manufactured and whether it is single or double beveled and the angle of its ground edge will affect what techniques are used to sharpen it so you should follow specific advice from the manufacturer on how to sharpen the knife. If you are not comfortable with sharpening it yourself then most premium manufacturers offer sharpening services (and chip repairing) for a nominal cost.
In this article we have looked at traditional Japanese knives as well as the Japanese knives which are a fusion of East and West techniques and styles. Although Japanese knives are renowned for their sharpness and their ability to maintain a sharp edge this also increases the brittleness of the blade, making it more susceptible to chipping or even breaking. Because the blade is also made from high carbon steel, it also increases the risk of rusting.Owning a Japanese knife does require more care throughout its life, however, with most premium Japanese knife manufacturers offering lifetime warranties, it is clear that with care, Japanese knives will last a lifetime. We hope that you have enjoyed reading our article on the best Japanese knives, and if you have not already done so, then you now feel confident to invest in a Japanese knife for your kitchen.