Types of Japanese Knives: Everything You Need to Know

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There are over a dozen types of Japanese kitchen knives but we can safely bet most people have only heard of or used one or two in their lifetime.

Fortunately, several brands hailing from Japan are trying to break through the Western cutlery market which is dominated by European and American companies.

This move allowed more people to get to know more about Japanese and Asian-style tools which are arguably better in form and function than their counterparts in the West.

A Brief History of Japanese Knives

When it comes to craftsmanship, remarkable endurance and durability, and functional beauty, almost nothing beats the bladesmiths of Japan and the knives that they create.

This is owed to their long history of creating the exquisite and extraordinarily incisive katana, the weapon of choice of samurais.

But when they were outlawed in the late 1800s, craftsmen had to shift their sights and skills towards something that people would use for more domestic purposes – the kitchen knife.

We’re not saying that knives were only invented in the 19th century in this part of the world; of course locals already used this tool for preparing food hundreds of years before this.

What we are saying is that this was the time when artistry came into the picture – when they created knives that aren’t just practical but also beautiful.

Traditional Vs Modern Blades

As aforementioned, there are numerous kinds of Japanese knives. All these can be classified into two main categories: traditional ones which have been used before the country opened its harbors to the West and modern ones which only came up in the late 19th and the 20th century.

Here’s a basic comparative summary of the two:

Traditional Modern
Emergence Since time immemorial Meiji Restoration onwards
Steel Used in Construction High Carbon High Carbon and High Carbon Stainless Steel
Bevel Style Chisel-shaped / Single-beveled or angled on just one side Double-beveled or angled on both sides

Asymmetrical or angled on one, slightly slashed on the other

Left or Right-Handed Use Mostly for right-handed users, Left-handed knives are custom-made For both left and right-handed users
Handle Shape Wa – round or octagonal Yo – flat profile and contoured
Function Usually single-serving Quite versatile
Manageability Takes some skill to use User-friendly
Ease of Sharpening Hard to sharpen Easy to sharpen

Let’s now get to know each, as well as the specific type of knives under it, better…

The Set of Single-Beveled, Single-Serving Blades

Traditional style blades never went out of style and are still made today by many companies in bladesmithing hubs like Seki and Sakai.

Many of the features noted in the chart above are still present in said blades that’s why only a few makes use of these. Now considered a symbol of expertise, you would only see master chefs wield these implements in a professional kitchen.

Deba

Direct Translation: Pointy carving sharp tool

This is primarily for prepping fish – from cutting the head off to sectioning it to pieces or filleting the meat from the bone.

Form: Almost triangular in profile, with a high heel, flat spine three-quarters of the length, and a very pointy tip.

Variations: This knife has the most variations of all Japanese knives since locals eat different types of fish and many kinds of seafood.

Hon-Deba or the true Deba is the most basic.

Ko-Deba is a smaller tool for tinier fish.

Ai-Deba is for medium-sized species.

Kanisaki-Deba is for crabs and lobsters.

Usuba Bocho (Thin edge)

This smaller version of the meat cleaver is pressed incredibly thin so that it can make paper-thin vegetable slices and other delicate cuts. However, this is strong enough to halve hard root veggies and fruits like pumpkins and watermelons.

Form:

Rectangular in shape, with its high heel parallel to the flat tip and a straight spine and belly.

Variations:

The Mukimono with its downward slanting tip (instead of the flat one) is used for decorative purposes.

Yanagiba (Willow leaf blade)

This thin long piece, considered to be one of the must-haves for preparing Japanese cuisine, is specifically used for slicing fish filets for sushi, sashimi, and nigiri.

Form:

Resembling a spear, this has a very short heel, a straight spine, and a belly which curves only to meet at a very pointed tip. This blade is quite long, measuring 8 to 14 inches

Variations:

Kensaki has a reverse tanto for precision slicing.

Takohiki, with its flat tip, is for octopus preparation.

Sakimaru Takohiki is also for octopus prep but has a rounded tip.

Fuguhiki, slightly more flexible, is for blowfish.

Kiritsuke (To slit open)

A cross between the Yanagiba and the Usuba, this is probably the most versatile of all the knives in this category.

Slightly rectangular like a vegetable cleaver, this is great for vegetable prep. It’s also perfect for slicing sashimi because of its reverse tanto tip.

Form:

The heel of this blade is slightly high, in between the aforementioned slicer and the veggie chopper. The spine and the belly are both straight and parallel to each other. However, the spine is shorter and clips down to an angle to meet the belly (which is the reverse tanto).

Honesuki (Bone knife)

This butcher’s blade used to bone poultry has quite a thick spine so that it can cut through small bones and cartilage. But its spear point makes it easy to maneuver around the bones when fileting it.

Form:

Shaped like a triangle, this has a medium-length heel, a spine that is slightly angled downwards and a belly is angled upwards to meet the marginal reverse tanto tip.

Here are lesser-known, incredibly task-specific blades you may not need in your home but might want to know about:

Unagisaki

Unagi means eel so this is a piece used for preparing eel.

Hamokiri

This is used to slice pike conger, a certain eel variant that is often stewed or grilled.

Magurokiri

Sword-like in length (15 to 60 inches), this is used to segment large tuna.

Sobakiri

From the term itself, this is for chopping soba noodles.

The Pack of Double-Beveled, Multi-Purpose Pieces

When foreign powers from the West entered the country and became involved in Japanese society, a huge cultural transformation began.

This is very much apparent in the local cuisine since more locals started to experiment with their dishes, adding foreign ingredients to their meals. Also, laws against eating four-legged animals were loosened at this time which meant pork, beef, and chicken were on the menu.

This is also changed their kitchen gadgetry, particularly the knives.

Gyuto (Cow sword)

Although this is the second-most popular Japanese knife, it is first on this list because this was ‘invented’ immediately after the entry of American forces under Commodore Matthew Perry in the country.

It was given that particular name because locals started to incorporate a lot of beef in their dishes – something that they got from steak-loving Americans.

Form:

Slightly long at 8 to 12 inches, with the conventional blade shape (slight straight spine and a belly that gently slopes up to the tip), and a contoured and triple-riveted (Yo) handle, this was patterned after the versatile Chef’s (or cook’s) knife.

But compared to the original version, Gyutos are lighter, have thinner spines, and feature more incisive edges.

Nakiri (Leaf cutter)

Another tool for slicing, dicing, mincing, shredding, and chopping a wide array of vegetables, this is just another Usuba except that it is double-beveled.

Form:

Rectangular in shape, with its high heel parallel to the flat tip and a straight spine and belly.

You would find some which have a slight curve to the belly from the bottom part of the flat tip for the rocking slicing technique.

Bunka Bocho (Culture knife)

Its name gives the impression that this has been around forever, but this all-purpose blade is a cross between the Gyuto and the Nakiri. The clipped, angled tip also makes this a great tool for filleting fish.

Form:

The overall look of the Bunka makes it’s the contemporary (double-beveled) version of the Kiritsuke with its medium-length heel, straight spine, and belly that is angled upward to meet the reverse tanto tip.

Petty (Petti Naifu)

Derived from the French word ‘petite’ which means small

If the Gyuto was patterned after the Chef’s knife, the Petty is based on the smaller all-rounder Utility blade.

Compact and incredibly versatile, this is a favorite among cooks with smaller hands and those who work in smaller spaces.

Form:

Just like its western counterpart, this has a low heel, straight spine, and gently curving belly the ends in a very pointy tip. But this is an inch or two longer.

Sujihiki (Muscle cutter)

This is the Japanese version of Western meat carvers. Although this is made for slicing roast beef and baked chicken, some use this as a Yanagiba for making sashimi slivers.

Form:

It has a low heel, a straight spine, and a gently curving belly that meets the slight reverse tanto tip from the spine.

Hankotsu (Rebellious)

Almost like a spear, this is used specifically for trimming fat and tendons or cutting meat from hanging carcasses.

Form:

The knife almost has no heel as the belly juts straight from the bolster or the handle and curves up towards the point. It has an almost imperceptible reverse tanto tip as well.

Santoku (Three virtues)

The most popular of all Japanese knives, the Santoku is not just an all-rounder, it’s also a friendly / not dangerous-looking tool because of the sheep’s foot tip.

This is also the most modern of all as it only came out after the Second World War.

Form:
It has a medium-length heel, gently curving belly, straight spine, and a downward sloping tip.

The Knife That Could Last You a Lifetime

If you’re feeling a bit adventurous and would like to own a traditional Japanese piece, you’ll be glad to know that some manufacturers have eased up on strict customs and created double-beveled versions of the most commonly used ones like the Deba and the Yanagiba.

As you can see, many of the knives noted above – especially those under the ‘modern’ category – are pretty much like the ones in your kitchen block. There is very little difference when it comes to function.

If you’re planning to get a new set, do consider one of these. You won’t regret it.

Last Updated on October 7, 2021

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My name is Andy Wang, and I'm a retired chef. I used to work at the City Vineyard restaurant in NYC. I also had a culinary degree from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. And this blog is where I share my love for knives and cooking with people like you.