For chefs buying their first Japanese knives, navigating the seemingly endless selection of different knives can be a daunting task.
There are so many different shapes, sizes, handle types, and materials to wrap your head around, that is is easy to get overwhelmed. Don’t worry. After reading this guide, you will be able to distinguish and choose the best knife type for yourself!
To simply things, Japanese made knives can be first put into two main categories: traditional Japanese knives, and Western style knives.
The main difference between traditional Japanese and Western style knives is the grind of the blade. Traditional Japanese knives are sharpened on one side of the blade only. They are thus known as single-bevel blades. The bevel is typically tapered to the right side, making it suitable for right hand use only. Left-handed Japanese style knives are rare, and must be custom ordered.
Western style knives have a double bevel blade, which means they are sharpened on both sides. Typically the bevel tapers equally on both sides, although some knives may have a steeper angle on one side.
Western style knives generally have more all-around usage, which makes them the most common knife types found in typical households. Traditional Japanese knives are more specialized, and thus often only found these days in professional kitchens.
Japanese style knives usually thinner, sharper, and lighter than Western style blades. This makes them more appropriate for preparing traditional Japanese cuisine (i.e. washoku), which requires more detail and intricate cutting techniques. The single sided blade also requires different skillset to use, and maintain / sharpen.
Let’s take a deeper look at each style.
After World War II, Western style foods, and meat especially, started to become popular in Japan. Traditional knives were not as suitable for cutting meat, so Japanese knife producers began to craft double bevel blades based on French and German knife designs. The Japanese-made Western style knives are generally thinner, lighter, and sharper than their European counterparts.
Western style knives can feature a Western-style handle or traditional Japanese handle. If using a Japanese handle, the prefix “wa-” is sometimes added to the name. So, a “wa-gyuto“ would be a gyuto with a traditional Japanese handle.
Below is a full list and description of commonly found Japanese-made Western style knives, as well as typical sizes you will find them in.
An all-rounder, the Japanese equivalent of the classic French chef’s knife. Recommended for all chefs to have. Can be used for meat, vegetables and fish. The pointed tip also makes it useful for detailed work. The name gyuto literally means “beef-sword”, as it was originally designed for cutting chunks of meat.
Size: 210–270 mm.
True to its name that means “three-uses”, the santoku is an all-around knife that can be used for meat, vegetables and fish. The design is sort of a mix between a gyuto and nakiri. Traditionally has very flat blade profile, although recently companies have begun making more curved blades to cater to Western habits. Its convenient size and versatility makes it the most common knife found in Japanese households. Sometimes also known as “bunka-bochou”, which literally means “culture knife”.
Size: 150–200 mm.
Japanese version of a paring or utility knife. Good for peeling and slicing fruit, smaller vegetables, and chopping herbs. Sort of shaped like a small gyuto.
Size: around 150 mm.
Very small knife for peeling and carving fruits and vegetables. Unlike Petty knife, it is meant to use in hand, not on the cutting board. Many different types of blade shapes can be found depending on intended usage.
Size: 50–130 mm.
The Chinese chef’s knife adopted by Japanese chefs for making Chinese cuisine. With its rectangular blade and robust handle, it’s another great all-around knife for chopping, crushing, mincing all types of ingredients. Some heavier blade versions can be used to chop bone, and protein.
Size: 180–220 mm.
Popular knife with a thin rectangular blade, used for chopping and mincing vegetables and fruit. Quick and efficient. This is a lightweight knife and not to be used for heavy duty chopping (despite its resemblance to cleaver). Flat blade profile makes it perfect for push-cutting technique.
Size: various, 165–180 mm.
The ultimate slicing knife. Its long, narrow blade makes it good for slicing fish and meats, as it can cut smoothly without sawing and damaging fibers. Sort of a double beveled version of the traditional Japanese style sushi knife, yanagiba.
Size: 230–300 mm.
Distinguished by the pointed tip, this knife was specifically made for taking apart poultry by cutting through the joints (not breaking through bone). Sometimes used for filleting fish. Can also be found as single-bevel version.
Size: 140–150 mm.
Bulkier version of the Honesuki. Used to break down larger poultry and cuts of meat.
Size: 175–190 mm.
Recognized by its long, serrated blade. Originally created to cut bread and baked goods without crushing them. They are also very useful for cutting things like large melons, and cooked meat.
Size: 200–360 mm.
A shorter, stockier knife with very pointed tip. Designed for cutting chops and other butchery tasks but not for cutting through bone. Best used for cutting apart hanging meats.
Size: ~ 150 mm.
Heavier, western-style version of the traditional Japanese-style deba. The more durable edge and heavier weight makes it suitable for heavier tasks like butchering chicken, fish, shrimp, lobster, and crabs.
Size: 165–240 mm.
For separating fish flesh from bones (i.e. filleting). Japanese fillet knives come in a huge variety of blade designs which vary in flexibility, thickness, length, profile, grind, and materials. Alternative to more traditional debas, which are also used for filleting fish.
Size: 150–280 mm.
Sturdy blade, specifically designed for cutting frozen foods. Most versions have a serrated edge which can be used to saw through foods. Others have flat edge, and are more like a sturdier, thicker gyuto.
Size: 200–350 mm.
Before the influence of Western culture and foods, Japanese diet consisted mainly of fish and vegetables. Traditional knives were specifically designed to prepare these ingredients.
For example, the preparation of sushi requires the use of a special, thin, long single bevel knife (i.e. yanagiba) to make the necessary fine, clean, and precise cuts across the fish fillet. This helps to preserve the texture, and flavor of the fish, while also giving it beautiful appearance.
Almost every Japanese knife is meant for a specific task. They can also differ slightly in design by regional preferences. As a result, there is a HUGE variety of traditional Japanese knife types. Fortunately, these days, the majority of traditional Japanese knives will only found in professional kitchens.
The three most essential traditional Japanese knives to know are yanagiba, deba, and usuba. Below is a list and quick description of commonly found traditional Japanese style knives.
Yanagiba is the most popular, and commonly found, sashimi-bocho (i.e. sashimi knife). Its long, slender blade is perfect for preparing sashimi without damaging the fish. It is typically used with pull-cut technique to make a single clean cut through a fish fillet. The name yanagiba literally means “willow leaf blade” in English, and is in reference to the the long, slender blade. Part of the essential kit of a Japanese chef.
Size: 210–360 mm.
Thick, more robust knife that is traditionally used for filleting whole fish. Some users have adapted it to taking apart poultry. Its weight allows it to chop through thin bones. Thin pointed tip allows for more delicate work, and perfect for filleting. Comes in a very large range of sizes and variations, to be used depending on size of the fish.
Very small versions (100-120mm) are known as ko-deba (i.e small deba) or aji-deba/aji-kiri (aji is type of small fish in Japan).
Professional chef’s version of the nakiri. Very thin, rectangular shaped blade makes it perfect for preparing thinly sliced vegetables. The extremely flat blade profile means that it should be used with push-cut technique (not rocking). The tall blade is great for preparing larger vegetables (e.g. cabbages), and also allows the chef to places his knuckles against it as a guide. Usuba is used to perform the katsuramuki peeling technique.
Size: 180-240 mm
Kama-usuba or Kamagata Usuba is the Kansai (Osaka) variation of the Usuba. Distinguished from the more common usuba (from Kanto/Tokyo) by its sickle-shaped tip, which is more useful for decorative and precision cutting techniques.
Size: 180-240 mm.
In Japanese fugu means “blowfish / puffer fish”. The lean long blade of the fuguhiki knife was designed specifically for making sashimi slices out of the delicate fugu. Narrower and thinner than the yanagiba sashimi knife.
Size: 240–330 mm.
Funayuki literally means “going on boat”. It is a very versatile knife, that was traditionally used by Japanese fishermen to clean and fillet fish. Also suitable for cutting meat, and vegetables as fishermen would often use it to prepare their meals on board.
Size: 120-195 mm.
Length of a yanagiba, and height of a usuba. A general purpose knife for preparing traditional Japanese cuisine. As essentially a hybrid of two knives that have very different purposes, it requires great skill to use. Can also be found in double bevel versions, known as kiritsuke gyuto.
Size: 210–270 mm.
With its thin, slender blade it’s perfect for filleting fish but can also be used for cutting sashimi. It is considered a hybrid between a deba and yanagiba, as it can perform both knife’s tasks, though not quite as well as each individual knives. The blade is thinner than the classic deba, but thicker and shorter than a yanagiba.
Size: 165 to 330 mm.
Named after the Japanese art of creating artistic garnishes, this knife has an angled tip which can be used to make decorative incisions in vegetables. Also sometimes used for general purpose peeling and cutting of fruits and vegetables.
Size: 75–210 mm.
Long and straight with a distinctive squared off tip, this sashimi knife specializes in preparing octopus (“tako” means octopus in Japanese). Originally from the Kanto/Tokyo region (yanagiba is from Kansai/Osaka region).
Size: 210–330 mm.
Combination design of yanagiba and takohiki sashimi knives, that can be used for the same purposes. Easily identified by its unique samurai sword like blade tip.
Size: 270-300 mm.
Filleting knife for preparing eel. The very sharp pointed tip is able to penetrate tough eel skin. Many different variations in design depending on region (Kanto, Kyoto, Nagoya, Kyushuu). The name “unagi” means eel in Japanese.
Size: 150—210 mm.
A knife with an extremely long blade, used for cutting tuna and other very large fish. Its flexible blade can adapt to the curve of the spine of the fish, thus avoiding waste. Usually only found in wholesale fish markets, not in restaurants. Its extremely long length often requires two people to use at once.
Size: 400–1500 mm.
Knives specially made for cutting noodles like udon and soba. Very unique shape, with a completely flat blade extending all the way to the bottom of the handle. Front of blade is meant for scooping up noodles once cut.
Size: 200 – 300 mm.
There are even more traditional Japanese knives than on this list, but you get the idea. There is basically a knife for everything: mochi knives, tofu knives, jelly cutting knives, sushi-roll (maki-sushi) knives , and more!