I have been fascinated with Japanese culture since the 60’s. I spent time on the island of Okinawa in the Vietnam war and fell in love with the culture and the people. Many years later in my professional career I began to see Japanese knives show up in the kitchens where I worked. At first it was just an occasional Santoku, and then one day a fellow chef brought in a whole set of Shun knives that he had purchased. These were fascinating because I had never seen a single bevel knife before and here was a set of them. I tried one and fell in love with it, like having a razor blade with a handle.
Japanese knives have a long history. Dating back to the 15th century these knives are mostly manufactured in Seki or Sakai City in Osaka Japan. “It is said that a foundation from which forging technologies could develop was already in place in Sakai due to the manufacturing during the fifth century of tools for building the city’s many tumulus burial mounds. The subsequent cultivation of tobacco brought from Portugal in Japan in the second half of the sixteenth century spurred heavy demand for knives capable of cutting tobacco leaves, and Sakai became the first area to produce the new “tobacco knifes.”” (www.city.sakai.lg.jp/foreigner_en/sangyo/sangyo1.html) Sakai is also famous for it’s Katana Swords and interestingly the “Tea Service” was first introduced here. The process of getting a very sharp edge on a blade has changed very little in that time.
The knives that come from Sakai are still being made by hand by highly skilled artisans who have spent years learning their craft. They can only produce a limited number each day, (10 to 15) and I read recently that the art itself is in danger of being lost as fewer of the younger generations show interest in joining the apprentice programs. Their knives are prized by chefs all over Japan and now that fame is spreading worldwide. There are basically 5 different main types of Japanese knives (Hocho) and then numerous styles depending on the knife makers art.
- Yanagi A long slicing style of blade used to cut boneless fish for sashimi. Designed to make a cut in one long stroke.
- Gyuto A western style of blade that could be stamped or forged, similar to the “Chef’s Knife” but usually without the traditional bolster the thinner blade can be sharpened at a steeper angle.
- Nakiri or Usuba A blunt tipped knife usually single bevel edged for cutting vegetables. This the knife you will see used to get the paper thin slices of daikon. The Nakiri blades tend to have wider blades more like cleavers.
- Deba Looking much like a chef knife this blade is much heavier on the spine. Single beveled, and used for cutting through bones of chicken or fish.
- Santoku The western styled knife with the rounded tip. Often this blade will be hollow ground (dimpled) to keep food from sticking as you cut.
The culture and foods have influenced the shapes of the knives. Unlike the US where beef is the order of the day for most of us, here the seafood reigns supreme. As such the knives are designed to be used with seafood; for Tuna, Eel and Octopus. For an aspiring Japanese sushi chef the training will last as long as ten years, and he will be required to spend several months developing his skills with just one of the knives listed above. Beginning with the Usuba he will develop his ability to slice vegetables. As he masters this knife then he will move on to the Deba learning to break down poultry and fish. Finally to the show knife the Yanagi the Sashimi knife or Willow Blade to demonstrate his skills as a master.
To give you a sense of what I mean regarding culture, here is an excerpt of an interview with a master Sushi Chef:
HOTELS: How is working as a sushi chef in the United States different than doing so in Japan?
FUJITA: The biggest difference of being a sushi chef in Japan and America is that in Japan the chefs will go through many steps (maybe 10 years worth) and gain much experience in many other areas before becoming a sushi chef. The Japanese sushi chef will respect the ingredients more and understand the changing of the seasons. In America the process is a lot quicker (maybe 2 or 3 years), and once someone becomes a sushi chef he/she is not able to go backwards and learn those things that the Japanese sushi chef has learned.
For example, in Japan, the chef will cook rice for three years, and during that time he will gain an appreciation for the rice and how it changes over the year. In America there is no time for a cook to be cooking rice for three years, so that quality is lost.
Chef Fujita is probably right but as western chefs we really appreciate the knives from his country.
You can see a tremendous number of these beautiful knives at Chef Knives To Go