With centuries’ old history rooted in the forges of swordsmiths, Japanese knives are revered around the world not only for the craftsmanship, but also the shapes and styles of blades available.
From the massivemaguro bōchō used for butchering bluefin tuna and other large fish, to thefuguhikiknives crafted specifically for working with the delicate meat of the pufferfish, Japanese knives come in all shapes, sizes, and applications. While some are clearly more well suited for those in particular lines of work, there are a variety of general-purpose Japanese knives that have a place in a home kitchen as well.
Finding the Right Japanese Knife for the Job
One thing to consider when looking to purchase a Japanese knife is that Japanese knives are traditionally crafted with a single bevel blade, meaning they are sharpened only on one side—the right side to be specific—rather than the double bevel of Western-style knives. While most of the knives you’ll find in home kitchens in Japanese homes have the Western-style double bevel, more specialized and traditionally crafted knives are not made with left-handed chefs in mind.
With that in mind, here are a handful of knife shapes and styles for both home and professional kitchens alike.
Considered the Japanese equivalent to a classic French chef’s knife, thegyūtō, literally meaning “beef-sword,” is an all-around knife that can be used for vegetables, fish, and meat. It also features a sharper point than the other home chef’s knife we’ll look at next, making it perfect for more precise knifework as well.
Roughly translating to “three uses,” thesantoku knife is perfect for just that, cutting vegetables, fish, and meat. Its size and versatility make it the most common knife in Japanese home kitchens, earning the monikerbunka bōchō, roughly the “culture knife” or “knife of civilization.” The blade has traditionally had a flatter profile like a cross between our next knife thenakiri and the previousgyūtō,giving it a striking cross between Japanese and Western style knives.
Another popular choice for home kitchens, thenakiri is a thin rectangular blade made for cutting vegetables and fruits. Although it looks like a small cleaver, it isn’t made for that kind of heavy-duty chopping. Thenakiri is also the Western-style version of the traditional Japanese knife known as theusuba, a professional single bevel blade for thinly slicing vegetables.
One of the more versatile traditional Japanese knives, theyanagiba is a long, slender blade made for slicing sushi and sashimi. Its length is perfect for using the “pull-cut” technique to minimize the risk of damaging the fish.
Requiring a great amount of skill to wield, thekiritsukeis almost like a hybrid-style traditional knife combining the length of theyanagiba and the height of theusuba. This makes it a perfect all-purpose knife for traditional Japanese cuisine if you know how to use it.
Coming in a large range of sizes and styles, thedebais a heavier, more robust knife made for breaking down and filleting whole fish. The added weight allows it to chop through thin bones, even being used to butcher whole chickens, and the thin point makes more precise cutting easy as well.
From octopus sashimi knives to massive noodle cutting knives, the list of styles and shapes goes on to include more specialized and hybrid-style blades combining shapes, applications, and regional variations. Whichever job you have, there’s no doubt there’s a Japanese knife for the job!
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!