More often than not, at least one of your favorite kitchen knives is of European origin, German to be precise. But as popular as Western knives are, Japanese knives have long been touted for their superior craftsmanship and razor-like sharpness. It also explains why they’re much sought-after in recent years, despite their rather hefty price tags.
Read on for our buying guide and reviews of the best Japanese knives to complement your kitchen tool arsenal. By the end of this article, you’ll be in the best position to make the most informed purchase for yourself.
Buying Guide for the Best Japanese Knives
Back in the day, the exotic Japanese knives were exclusively reserved for pro chefs running high-end restaurants or sushi bars. But that niche is no longer: now any aspiring cook can purchase and learn how to use them. Granted that there will be challenges along the way, you’ll get the hang of it with enough time and practice.
Since the perfect Japanese knife is a matter of subjectivity, there’s no one-kind-fits-all. Nonetheless, there are several qualities that a well-made knife should have. And you’d better keep those in mind before committing to any purchase. That way, you can narrow down options and improve your chance of finding the right knife when navigating the market.
Different Japanese Knives Styles
A rookie mistake among new cooks is using one knife for several jobs. Save for the multipurpose chef’s knives, it’s hard to find an all-rounder of a knife that truly does everything with great results. Each type of Japanese knife has its workload cut out for it, handling specific tasks and ingredients that others cannot. Here are a few notable examples with their distinctive characteristics.
- Gyuto: With its slim profile and razor-sharp profile, this is a textbook example of a Japanese knife. To an extent, you can think of it as the shorter version of the Western chef’s knife you’ve been using. Its workload covers a wide array of ingredients from meat and fish to greens and veggies.
- Santoku: Another general-use knife that works well with just about anything thrown in its way. For new cooks, this multipurpose knife qualifies as a great option to practice the fundamentals. In addition, the blade often has indentations to lower friction and prevent food sticking.
- Nakiri: This double-beveled knife resembles a butcher knife, with a flat rectangular blade and rounded tip. Its specialties are veggies and hard roots. Another variant is the single-beveled usuba.
- Yanagiba: Literally translated as willow blade, this sword-like knife makes paper-thin slices of raw fish for sushi rolls or sashimi. Its curved tip and extended profile are designed for skinning, descaling, and deboning fish. Its regional variant, the takohiki, is more appropriate for octopus.
For new cooks with little to no prior experience using Japanese knives, sticking with all-rounders is your safest bet. That said, there are other specialized Japanese knife types, though you won’t get much chance to use them on a regular basis:
- the deba and hankotsu for filleting tuna and salmon,
- sujihiki for carving meat,
- honekiri for deboning chicken,
- udon kiri and soba kiri for cutting noodles,
- unagi kiri and hamokiri for gutting eels, and
- pan kiri for slicing bread.
Size, Blade Length, & Balance
As a rule of thumb, the blade can be anywhere between 3.5 and 10 inches depending on the task. For most general-purpose knives, the blade is about 5 or 7 inches long, which should suffice for everyday chopping and cutting. But longer doesn’t necessarily translate to better: the key thing here is to select the appropriate knife for the job.
It’s obvious that long blades (8 inches plus) allow you to carve out large chunks in one smooth stroke. However, the blade sometimes may wobble from its own weight. This results in the cut may not come out as you’d hoped, if not completely ruined. Meanwhile, a short blade sacrifices a portion of its length for extra control and maneuverability, especially around tight corners.
The thing about commercial chef’s knives is that they can strain your wrist after cutting and chopping for a while. However, Japanese knives are typically lighter than their Western counterparts, thus more appropriate for non-stop slicing and dicing. Even just by a fraction of an ounce, cooks with small or weak hands should find the lighter weight noticeable.
Classic Japanese knives are single-beveled with the cutting angle grounded and angled on only one side of the blade. That leaves the remaining facet of the blade untouched, which is predominantly the left side to accommodate right-handed cooks. While the asymmetrical blade is indeed sharper, only well-versed cooks can make the best use out of it.
Given that the majority of cooks are right-handers, left-handed knives are few and far between. These rare knives have to be ordered and custom-made. However, the emergence of double-beveled Japanese knives after World War II has simplified things for everyone, including ambidextrous cooks.
A typical Japanese knife usually measures 12° to 17° per edge, far sharper than its Western counterpart (19° to 22.5° per edge). Thanks to this extra bite, cooks don’t have to overexert themselves and struggle with tough items. Instead, they can apply as little effort as a wrist’s flick to gracefully fillet salmon or snip off strawberry stems.
With an exceptional edge-retention rate, you don’t need to sharpen Japanese knives as often as you would with Western knives. That said, a little bit of fine-tuning and straightening with a honing rod once in a while never hurts. That way, you can restore the blade to its original form and perk it up without sacrificing any material in the process.
For good measure, some Japanese knives have a series of dents running along the edge lengthwise known as Granton indentations. If you think about it, these scallop-shaped hollow points are similar to air pockets. They reduce friction and prevent soft items from sticking to the blade, making the cut as swift as you intended.
Unlike the precision-forged and laser-calibrated Western knives, artisanal Japanese knives are hand-forged from top to bottom. It’s the same traditional method used to make swords for samurai warriors, at least until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The blade is either carbon steel or stainless steel, each of which makes a fine pick on its own.
As the name suggests, carbon steel has a certain amount of carbon in its iron alloy to increase durability and strength. Compared to stainless steel, carbon steel is sharper, harder, and easier to care for. But on the downside, this brittle material isn’t as tough and rust-prone when exposed to moisture.
As for stainless steel, it’s an iron alloy with various other components added into the mix, chromium among them. That way, this material is virtually impervious against rust and discoloration. While stainless steel is tough and less likely to chip upon impact, its sharpness and edge-retention rate are inferior to carbon steel.
A high-quality knife is more than just its keen blade: the handle is just as important. The material choices are endless, so don’t limit your options. But regardless of your personal preferences, there’s no wrong answer here.
Natural woods like birch and yew can accentuate any knife, but they’re easy to splinter or wear down over time. If you prefer synthetics, you may want to consider laminated plastic, fiberglass-reinforced nylon, and engineered wood composite. Their durability and water resistance will be handy for cooks with sweaty palms, but they won’t hold up well against high heat.
Japanese knives come in different prices, which can jump from $30 to $300 per piece. Cooks need to set their priorities straight. Are you willing to invest a considerable amount of money, time, and effort on a knife? Or do you prefer quick purchases with little commitment and hassle-free maintenance that you can pick right off the shelf?
Premium Japanese knives often come in gift boxes with a lifetime warranty to vouch for their longevity. And to further sweeten the deal, bladesmiths may offer repairing and re-sharpening service on the house as well.
But when it’s all said and done, a compromise between price and use is all that should matter to you. Don’t let anyone else guilt you into purchasing something you’re uncomfortable with. Whichever knife it is that you choose in the end, make sure it feels right for you.
Reviews of the Best Japanese Knives in 2021
Here are our picks for the best Japanese knives to purchase this year.
- Shun Premier Chef 8” – Best to Buyin 2021
- Tojiro DP Gyuto – Best Value Japanese Knife
- Miyabi Gyuto Birchwood SG2 – Best Japanese Chef Knife
- Mac Superior Santoku SK65 – Best Japanese Santoku Knife
- Kyoku Samurai Yanagiba – Best Japanese Sushi Knife
- Dalstrong Shogun Series x 5 Pieces – Best Japanese Kitchen Knife Set
Read on for our in-depth analysis.
1. Shun Premier Chef’s 8” – Best to Buy in 2021
To kick things off, the all-rounder Shun Premier Chef’s 8-inch makes our first pick for all the right reasons. As a general-purpose knife, it expertly handles all sorts of food from meat to fish and veggies. Plus, this versatile workhorse is a harmonious blend of style and substance all in one piece with plenty to offer.
- Reasonable price
- VG-Max core with Damascus pattern
- Full tang with partial bolster
- Pakka wood handle
- Lifetime warranty & free sharpening
- No Granton indentations
- Slightly heavy
When it comes to quality and performance, artisans at Shun don’t cut corners or do things half-heartedly. For starters, the VG-Max steel core boasts tremendous hardness and durability. Plus, 68 micro-layers of Damascus cladding help strengthen the core and protect it against oxidation and daily wear and tear.
Upon closer examination, the 8-inch blade has a curved belly that creates rocking motions on the board, albeit not much. Since there’s no Granton indentation, the hammered tsuchime finish thankfully steps in and prevents food from sticking to the blade. That way, you can cut and slice things in smooth strokes even without using too much wrist movement.
But there’s more to a knife than just its blade: the handle is just as well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing. For cooks with sweaty palms, the synthetic moisture-resistant Pakkawood handle has a fine-grained surface that gives you a comfortable grip. Granted, it’s no natural wood, but it’s close enough for us.
Instead of using rivets, the handle friction-fits and encases the entire tang snugly. Meanwhile, the bolster joins the blade and handle into one seamless and solid piece, preventing the parts from wobbling. In addition, the metal butt further adds balance toward the handle. While most people are okay with or don’t notice the extra ounces, cooks with weak wrists beg to differ.
As sharp as the 16° edges are, they will blunt from brute force and hard items like bone and frozen food. To complicate matters, dishwashers can take a heavy toll on these edges, rendering the whole blade dull and unsafe to use. As part of the customer service, Shun offers a free sharpening service upon request with terms applied, much to everyone’s delight.
With meticulous craftsmanship, the exquisite Shun Premier Chef’s 8-inch can do no wrong in terms of appearance and performance. This knife makes for a good long-term investment that may last for years to come, provided you take good care of it.
2. Tojiro DP Gyuto – Best Value Japanese Knife
It makes little sense to splurge on an artisanal Japanese knife if you prioritize simplicity over bells and whistles. The Tojiro DP Gyuto qualifies for a quick purchase that doesn’t require much care or commitment in the long run. It should get down to business and hit the ground running straight out of the box.
- VG-10 steel core with cladding
- Triple rivets with partial tang
- Low maintenance
- Limited lifetime warranty
Right off the bat, the VG-10 steel core is a solid start, which is as good as it gets. But to further strengthen and reinforce its integrity, the blade has extra chrome cladding and goes through a decarburization treatment. That way, the 8.2-inch blade is well protected and thus won’t succumb to chips and fractures easily. However, there’s no official description for the edges.
Meanwhile, the handle comes with a full tang and partial bolster, all of which are secured in place with rivets. Although bolsters and rivets aren’t parts of a typical Japanese knife, they help narrow the gap between Western and Asian kitchen knives. That way, new cooks can make the switch from one to the other and vice versa if they choose to.
The user-friendly Tojiro DP Gyuto makes a great entry-level purchase for new cooks with limited experience wielding Japanese knives. Once you’ve built up enough confidence and mastered the fundamental techniques, you can move on to something else. But let’s not cross that bridge until you get to it, and in the meantime, this knife should suffice.
3. Miyabi Gyuto Birchwood SG2 – Best Japanese Chef Knife
You can already tell the premium Miyabi Gyuto Birchwood SG2 means serious business with lots to offer from the get-go. If well taken care of, this exotic knife could serve you for years and even decades. And who knows, you could even pass it on to the next cook as a collectible item.
- Multi-layered blade with Damascus pattern
- Natural wood handle
- Full tang with partial bolster
- Balance weight distribution
- Lifetime limited warranty
When it comes to top-tier craftsmanship, blademasters at Miyabi go to great lengths to make sure that nothing is substandard. With no expense spared, the 8-inch blade is hand-forged from start to finish using micro-carbide MC63 powder steel. It’s further reinforced with another 100 layers of cladding using two other types of steel, followed by the Cryodur treatment.
Let’s talk numbers and specifics. Dubbed Cryodur, this hardening process helps strengthen the blade at a freezing minus 320.8°F. It also explains how the blade yields 63 HRC on the Rockwell hardness scale, which is astounding on all accounts. Even without any serrated teeth, the Honbazuke honing process fine-hones the edges to 19° per side for an extra bite.
And as the name suggests, the ergonomic birchwood handle is as beautiful and natural as it comes. This handle tucks itself snugly into the palm of your hand, while the round butt has a metal end cap. Although this detail may seem insignificant, it actually balances the assembly by tipping the weight toward the handle.
In exchange for the perks, a lot of hard work is involved to keep this knife in tip-top condition. Other than routine tweaking and sharpening, you have to rinse the whole thing by hand and dry thoroughly before storage. And unless you’re willing to allocate time and effort on knife maintenance, our advice is to purchase something less demanding.
If money’s no object, the Miyabi Gyuto Birchwood SG2 is a purchase well worth considering for aspiring cooks and chefs. More than just a novelty piece, this knife is also a major upgrade over the conventional kitchen knives you’ve been using.
4. Mac Superior Santoku SK65 – Best Japanese Santoku Knife
For cooks switching from using Western knives to Japanese ones, the Mac Superior Santoku SK65 makes a great starting point. It’s a santoku knife with distinctive traits commonly found on Western chef’s knives. To a degree, you can think of it as a hybrid knife that combines all the best qualities into one piece.
- Easy to use
- Triple rivets
- No bolster
- No rocking motion
Contrary to popular belief, the 6.5-inch stainless steel blade is just about the appropriate length for most chopping duties. It’s neither too long to be intimidating for new cooks nor too short to be uncomfortable. Too bad that the blade doesn’t have Granton indentations to prevent food sticking, otherwise it would be the complete package.
Similar to other santoku knives, there’s little to no backward or forward rocking motion on the chopping board. Nevertheless, the double-beveled edges manage to make sweet cuts, just as you’d expect. Thanks to the knife’s slim and lightweight profile, you can slice and dice tirelessly without stressing your wrist.
Moving on to the bottom half: the grippy synthetic handle makes it easy to grasp within the palm of your hand. You’ll also notice the rivets that join the blade and handle into one cohesive piece, preventing everything from coming loose. Even though a bolster is dearly missed, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
The Mac Superior Santoku SK65 can save you plenty of time spent on knife upkeep. While there’s room for improvement in certain departments, this knife nonetheless gets the job done. For the time being, you should settle for this hassle-free knife until you’re well-versed and ready for something more advanced.
5. Kyoku Samurai Yanagiba – Best Japanese Sushi Knife
If presentation is your priority, the slender Kyoku Samurai Yanagiba is cut out for high-precision slices like sushi and sashimi. This knife makes decisive and clean cuts in smooth strokes, giving cooks total control over how the result turns out. However, you may have a tough time finding storage space for it within the cabinet or wooden block.
- Slim profile
- High-carbon steel blade
- Firm wenge wood handle
- Comes with gift box
- Partial tang
- Takes up space
Right out of the gate, the 10.5-inch high-carbon Japanese steel blade is nothing short of impressive. It undergoes a cryogenic treatment to further enhance toughness and durability against corrosion, registering about 57 HRC. On top of that, the edges are fine-honed to 12° per side to carve salmon and tuna with high accuracy.
While the partial tang isn’t exactly a minus point, it does shift the balance toward the blade. But on the whole, it feels surprisingly light and steady within the clutch of your hand and fingers. Meanwhile, the partial bolster provides a smooth transition from the wenge wood handle to the blade. And as an appreciative token, the whole thing arrives in a gift box.
The sleek-looking Kyoku Samurai Yanagiba is a compelling purchase which is on par with premium sushi knives. For chefs running sushi bars or working with seafood on a regular basis, this knife should make prep work easier.
6. Dalstrong Shogun Series x 5 Pieces – Best Japanese Kitchen Knife Set
A complete knife set can be a huge waste of money if you don’t actually use all of the knives. Meanwhile, the Dalstrong Shogun Series includes nothing but the most essential knives for everyday kitchen tasks. This complete package makes a great housewarming gift or a present for newlywed couples as well.
- Reasonable price
- AUS-10 steel blade with Damascus pattern
- Rivets and full bolster
- Wooden knife holding block included
- Comes in gift box
Cooks often rely heavily on their multipurpose knives while the rest are used sparingly, if not left completely untouched. That’s why this knife set forgoes the lesser-used specialty knives and instead focuses on the practical knives. These include:
- an 8-inch bread knife with serrated teeth to minimize crumbs,
- an 8-inch chef’s knife for everyday use,
- a 7-inch santoku knife for cutting meat and veggies,
- a 6-inch utility knife for detailed fine-slicing garnishes, and
- a 3.5-inch paring knife for peeling fruit skin and other intricate tasks.
All blades are precision-forged from the Japanese AUS-10V steel with another 40 alternating layers of high-carbon stainless steel. For good measure, these blades go through another nitrogen-induced hardening treatment to increase hardness and strength. And thanks to the Honbazuke honing technique, all the edges are razor-sharp at 8-12° edges per side.
For the handles, the synthetic G-10 garolite is similar to non-porous fiberglass, which is highly resistant to heat and moisture. While comfortable to wield, these handles aren’t exactly suitable for cooks with small hands. At the expense of concealing the tang, the bolster, rivets, and end cap further add some extra ounces.
As part of the purchase, the Acacia wood knife holding block is sturdily built to house the knives safely. If you give this knife set to someone else as a present, the accompanying gift box will make things easier.
The Dalstrong Shogun Series comes in a set of five different essential knives to serve different purposes. With mesmerizing blade patterns and scalpel-like sharpness, these knives are easy to use and beautiful to look at.
Comparison Chart of the Best Japanese Knives in 2021
|Name||Blade Length (inches)||Edge Angle||Material & Hardness (HRC)||Warranty|
|Shun Premier Chef’s||8”||16° per side||VG-Max steel cutting core||Limited lifetime|
|Tojiro DP Gyuto||8.2”||–||VG-10 steel cutting core with chrome cladding||Limited lifetime|
|Miyabi Gyuto Birchwood SG2||8”||19° per side||MicroCarbide MC63 powder steel with Cryodur hardening|
|Mac Superior Santoku SK65||6.5”||–||Stainless steel||25 years|
|Kyoku Samurai Yanagiba||10.5”||11-13° per side||Carbon steel with cryogenic hardening|
|Dalstrong Shogun Series x 5 Pieces||3.5” - 8”||8-12° per side||AUS-10V Japanese steel (62+ HRC)||Limited lifetime|
Japanese Knife Brands
One can always turn to established brands like Shun, Miyabi, Yoshihiro, or Mac, whose products rarely disappoint, if ever. And it goes without saying that these knives aren’t going to be cheap. Unless you’re committed to a hefty knife with long-term upkeep, it’s easier to choose something low-maintenance and less demanding instead.
While there’s nothing wrong when you want to play things safe with trusted names, other on-the-rise brands are also popular. They’ve been gaining recognition in recent years and there’s no sign of slowing down. For buyers on a budget, there’s always something in store for you without splurging, much to everyone’s delight.
Finding the best Japanese knives for yourself is no easy feat if you have no frame of reference or guidance. While there are key pointers to bear in mind, your personal preferences and comfort are also worth taking into consideration. Hopefully our buying guide and product reviews have been informative and helpful for you.