In the western world, many people would say “3 knives will do the job in your kitchen” - the chef’s knife, the petty knife and the serrated knife.
In Japan, a knife collection can extend to 30 knives and beyond. The guide below is written to explain what each knife is used for (fairly succinctly).
There is one warning - In the land of Japan, there are lots of different knives. These knives are for many different purposes. If you shop without some guidance the first time you buy a Japanese knife there’s an 92.3% chance you will buy the wrong one.
I've written the brief Japanese Knife guide below partially for my own benefit (when I write things I'm more likely to remember them) and for those looking to get a better understanding of what Japanese Knives are available and what is each used for. For some knives, where relevant, it's also handy to know the history of the knife as it relates to the history of Japan.
To simplify the guide, the knife guide has been split it into 2 sections:
- The Western Japanese Knife Guide.
- The Japanese Knife Guide
The Western Japanese Guide is definitely the place to start (if you don't have a decent understanding of Japanese blades) - it gives a quick overview of the utility of each Japanese knife that can now be (relatively) easy to find in the countries of the western world (Australia, US, UK, France, etc). To be clear these are knives that have come from the west and are now commonly used in Japan. For this section, in the Western Japanese Knife Guide below we have added 12 knives.
The Japanese Knife Guide is perhaps the place where the hands and mind get a little dirty - there is a larger number of knives where many of them are highly specialised. For this section, we try to keep the overview brief and the purpose of the knife clear. For this section, the Japanese Knife Guide, there are 20 Japanese Knives listed below.
All knives are sorted (roughly) in how often they are used.
The Western Japanese Knife Guide
1. The Gyuto Knife
"The All Purpose Chefs Knife"
The Gyuto knife is the most commonly used Japanese knife and it has diverse usage for cutting, slicing and chopping vegetables, meats and fish. It's found in both home and commercial kitchens. The Gyuto knife was introduced in the period Japanese started to eat meat (a special day in1872) and with the translation being the "Cow Sword".
2. The Bunka Knife
"Hefty All Purpose Chefs Knife"
The word Bunka means "culture" or "civilisation." It is similar in shape to a Santuko knife however it has a sharper drop at the tip (santoku is curved) and tends to be heavier. For hefty work on any cuisine, this is often the knife of choice. The Bunka kitchen knife is not a particularly common knife in Japan but a common knife as westerners as they transition the knives they use to Japanese. They are also emerging in Eastern Europe in place like SharpEdge Shop.
3. The Petty Knife
"Mini Chefs Knife"
The Petty Knife is similar in shape to the Gyuto knife but smaller. It is used for intricate tasks like peeling fruit. The Petty Knife is commonly found in most kitchens in the world (both Japanese and Western) as every needs a little version of the chefs knife (when making kids lunch for example).
4. The Kashiraotoshi Knife
"Pig Head Remover"
The Kashiraotoshi was originally made to be used when removing the head of a pig. This is no longer a task for home kitchens. Even butcher factories now mechanised this process. For those that have them laying around, they can now use it to remove the head of an oversized tuna.
5. The Honesuki Knife
The Honesuki knife is a “boning” knife. To be clear this is a knife to help cut around bones - not through them. If you want to chop through a bone you need a meat cleaver. If you want to remove meat from the bone this is the knife for you.
6. The Sujihiki Knife
"Fish Slicer - Western Style"
The Sujihiki slicer is basically a Yanagiba made with a double bevelled edge - a Japanese fish slicer in a Western Style (most westerners are not familiar with blades that only curve down on one side).
7. The Kawahagi Knife
"Hunters Skinning Knife"
This knife is used for removing skin from the meat. For hunters it is awesome however for most home chefs you will never use this knife.
8. The Chosaki Knife
"Intestinal Tube Cutter"
The Chosaki Knife is used for cutting intestinal tubes. Most people will not need this knife in their home kitchen. Where I live maybe the Croatian and Italian community would welcome this knife as they often make sausages at home which use the intestine as the coating. In order to poke through the tube the tip of the blade is rounded.
9. The Kashiratori Knife
"Chicken Head Slicer"
This blade is used exclusively for cutting the heads off chickens. Again, most people will not need this knife in their home kitchen.
10. The Yo-Deba Knife
"All Purpose Japanese Knife - Western Handle"
“Yo” refers to the handle. This is the commonly used Deba knife with a western style. Given there is more detail in the Japanese knife section of this guide we will keep it brief - it’s an all-purpose knife.
11. The Pankiri / Bread Knife
“Pan” means bread and “kiri” means slicer. This is a bread slicer or serrated edge knife. These are now used in Japan and as you would think they arrived when bread arrived.
12. The Chinese Cleaver or Cai Dao
"Chinese Vegetable & All Purpose Chopper"
Japanese knife collections have 20+ knives and western knife collections approach 10. A Chinese knife collection typically has 2. A heavy weight chopper and the Cai Dao Knife - the light weight chopper which is used for just about everything.
After all that palaver, we move to the main event, the home of the world's finest kitchen knives - the Japanese Knife Guide...
The Japanese Knife Guide
1. The Deba Knife
"All Purpose Chopper"
The Deba Knife is the Classic Japanese Knife chopper. It's a single bevel knife with a relatively short blade and thick spine which can be used for chopping fish or vegetable end to end. It can also be used for cleaning fish and chopping through the bones of the fish - hence the thick blade spine which imposes its power.
When originally crafted the Japanese community would often buy whole fishes at the market which made this an indispensable and required blade. Whilst in the western world there are limited options, there is a cavalcade of Deba knives in 15mm increments - the larger the fish to be prepared, the larger the Deba.
*Warning. It’s a single bevel knife. Meaning it has a camber on one side and a concave on the other. If you’ve never used a single bevel chopper before your first few slices will be on a curve.
2. The Yanagiba Knife
"Raw Fish Slicer"
The Yanagiba. Yanagiba specifically means “willow leaf blade” and it is specifically used for the slicing of raw fish. It has a single bevel (one-sided blade) which is used to prevent contact of the steel with the fish when chopping.
The Yanagiba is a long narrow knife - a blade length in between 240mm and 360mm (the blade can be longer than your ruler).
If you want to prepare Japanese grade sashimi at home (i.e. raw fished, sliced with a single movement, with limited steel/fish contact) this is the knife to use.
3. The Usuba Knife
"Vegetable Knife" (Single Bevel)
After a fish has been prepared with a Deba knife we move to vegetables to accompany the fish - enter the Usuba Knife. The Usuba Knife is a vegetable chopping knife with a single bevel.
For those that prepare vegetables, the Usuba can be a go-to knife - however, most westerners would prefer the Nakiri - it does the same thing but has a double bevel blade (like all other western knives).
4. The "K-Tip" Yanigaba
Much like the Deba or Usuba, this is a very common knife in Japan but somewhat slim on options and stock beyond. The Yanagiba is the ultimate fish slicer used to make sashimi. Much like the Deba knife, there is a range of lengths for the Yanagiba knife, based on the fish they are being used to slice. To prevent the steel of the knife from touching the fish, the Japanese Yanagiba knife has a single bevel with concave inner steel. This also makes it very sharp!
5. The Kiritsuke Knife
"All Purpose Knife"
The Kiritsuke Knife is an all-purpose knife. The tip at the end, known as the K-tip, means that it has a deeper blade near the tip. This means that the tip has more weight and strength than other knives. It is most popular in the Japanese region of Kanto.
6. The Fujuhiki Knife
"The Pufferfish Knife"
Have you ever sat down and enjoyed a pufferfish? In Japanese, a "pufferfish" is called a "Fugu" which helps explains the name of the knife. However, there is a bit more to it.
Pufferfish are a rare delicacy however, like anything unique there is a catch - their liver has a highly concentrated deadly poison known as tetrodotoxin. So given the danger of their liver packed with poison the Japanese knife masters have created a unique knife for this purpose - "The Fujuhiki Knife" AKA the pufferfish knife.
7. The Nakiri Knife
"The Vegetable Chopper"
The word "Na" is vegetable and the last four letters "Kiri" means slicer. So you most probably guessed it - this is the "vegetable slicer"! In recent times the joy of eating local fruits and vegetables has escalated and as a result, so has the production and consumption of the Nakiri knife.
8. The Wa-Gyuto Knife
"Chefs Knife with Japanese Handle"
The Gyuto knife is a recent introduction to the Japanese knife collection and is originally a Japanese version of the western chef’s knife. This is probably why it's the most commonly purchased knife by westerners looking to invest in Japanese knives and vice-versa.
9. The Wa-Petty Knife
"Mini Chefs Knife"
As previously stated "Wa" simply means the knife is a Petty knife with a Japanese Knife handle - the "half tang" which is where the blade is tucked into the wood (as opposed to the western knife where you see the steel on the spine of the handle).
10. The Kawamuki Knife
"Knife for In Hand Tasks"
The Kawasaki is a small intricate knife to be used in the hand, for tasks such as peeling fruits or preparing garnish. i.e what ever is being cut is being held in your hand not on the chopping board. It's typically made as a double bevel blade.
11. The Unagisaki Knife
"The Eel Knife"
Sliding like a snake this aquatic beast is slippery and hard to catch - The Eel. Preparing an eel may be even harder to prepare than it is to catch. Enter the "Unagisaki Knife."
Unagi Means "freshwater eel" and this is the blade to conquer this fish (yes it looks like a snake but technically it is a fish). The Unagisaki is the Eel Knife.
There's a variety of Unagisaki knives across Japan based on the eels of their region and the methods used for cutting. Most a short with a deep handle and blade.
12. The Takohiki Knife
"The Octopus Knife"
Did you just catch an Octopus? The Takohiki knife is similar to the Yanagiba however it has a straight drop at the tip which makes it the perfect task such as cutting the curled tentacles of an octopus. It can also be used for fish slicing in a similar way to a Yanagiba knife.
If you love octopus and the process of preparation - the Takohiki is the knife built to prepare your Octopus.
Before we dive into the next four knives you will notice each one has "Kiri" within the name of the blade. "Kiri" means "slicer".
13. The Sobakiri Knife
"The Noodle Slicer"
AKA "The Noodle Slicer". "Soba" Means noodles and as stated above, Kiri means slicer. If you're about to make some 2 min Maggi noodles you probably don't need this blade. However, if you're making homemade noodles, or even homemade Italian pasta, this can be a tool that will take you to the next level (We found this one at SharpEdge Shop).
The Sobakiri is also sometimes referred to as the "Menkiri" or "Sobakiri".
Whatever they call the knife any of these are all about noodles.
14. The Hamokiri Knife
"The Pike Conger Knife"
AKA "Daggertooth Pike Conger" Slicer is a fish Slicer. Unlike most fish slicers this knife has a thick and heavy spine to allow it to chop through the bones in addition to the flesh. It's in a sense, a heavy-duty fish slicer. Whilst it is incorrect translation westerners (aka me) think of it as the "Hammer Slicer."
15. The Sakekiri Knife
"The Salmon Knife"
The Sakekiri has similar jobs as a Deba however it is constructed with a slightly slimmer blade for more intricate duties. The name of the knife comes from the most common fish it is used for - the Salmon. "Sake" in Japanese means "Salmon" with "Kiri" being slicer.
It's the ultimate knife for the preparation of salmon.
16. The Sushikiri Slicer
"The Sushi Slicer"
Have you ever eaten sushi? To be clear "sushi" is the rice, not the fish. A Sushikiri knife is in essence a rice slicer. So if you want a perfectly pre-portioned piece of sushi then this is the instrument for you. Or maybe a gift to someone who makes your sushi :)
17. The Mochikiri Knife
"The Rice Cake Slicer"
The Mochikiri is the rice cake slicer. Japanese rice cakes are pounded and hardened and the Mochikiri knife is the blade used to slice it apart. It typically comes to a slight curvature to make it easier to slice through the hardened rice cake.
18. The Maguro Knife
"The Tuna Knife"
The Maguro Knife is basically the Tuna Knife. "Maguro" Means Tuna :)
Much like the fish itself, there is a huge variance in the size of a Maguro knife. The Maguro starts at the length of a ruler, about 30cm, and can range all the way up to 150cm, a massive blade that looks more like a sword.
You'll notice the last two knives contain the word "Bocho." Bocho is also added to the name of the Bunka Knife ("Bunka Bocho"). Bocho basically means "kitchen knife". A little odd given what is below.
19. The Shime Bocho
The Shime Bocho is specifically used by fishermen or those working at fish farms. The Shime is used to efficiently bleed the fish to keep the fish fresh - the shape of the knife and its handle is made for easy gripping.
20. The Reito Bocho
"Frozen Food Chopper"
Cutting frozen items, including fish, is a big "No, No!". Enter the Reito Bocho. Reito means frozen so this is the knife to wield when looking to prepare frozen goodies - whilst protecting the remainder of your knife collection.
It typically contains lower carbon stainless steel meaning it won't be as sharp however the steel construction makes it less likely to chip.
If you need to chop an ice-block in half the Reito Bohco is the knife to use!
Well, ladies and gentlemen - that is a wrap on the Japanese Knife Guide :) Hopefully, it is/was useful and interesting.