The Complete Guide to Japanese Knife Types
Japanese knife types are like an assortment of painter’s brushes; there are shapes and styles that serve perfectly for every culinary need.
Having high-quality, high-precision kitchen knives is a must for a budding chef. This is especially true in the world of Japanese cuisine, where the modern chef’s knife utilizes techniques that originated with the creation of katanas used by the samurai in warfare.
The array of Japanese knife types is broad and specific, with special blades that handle everything from peeling the tissue-thin skin from tomatoes to heavy cleavers for splitting beef cuts and whole chickens. Considering the myriad Japanese knife styles available — and the expense of adding them to your collection — it can be overwhelming to know how to choose the right knife for the right job.
Which Japanese knife types are most helpful for your general cooking needs? And which should you have on hand for those unique gourmet functions you may only encounter every so often? Below, we’ve gathered a list of the most useful Japanese knife types to have in your kitchen, with an explanation for how to use each one.
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- Udon Kiri
- Caring for Japanese Knife Types
This Japanese knife type has a gently curved blade with a rounded top and pointed tip, a shape commonly referred to as a sheep’s foot. Its name translates to “three uses,” which refers to its intended ingredients (meat, fish and vegetables) as well as its cutting capabilities (slicing, dicing and chopping). It makes a perfect all-around kitchen knife, great to have on hand for general cutting needs.
With its classic butcher-knife blade and familiar handle profile, the deba is the most easily recognized of the Japanese knife styles. The blade will easily fillet a whole fish without damaging the flesh.
Smaller bones should be no problem, but cutting through larger bones should be avoided — this knife isn’t intended to be used as a cleaver and won’t stand up to rough use on a butcher’s block.
A straight edge and broad, flat profile make this Japanese knife style similar to that of a cleaver. It’s a perfect choice for chopping, slicing and dicing vegetables. Its thin body is light and flexible and makes for great push-cutting as well as sliding food from the chopping board into a bowl or pan.
Although you might not have known the name, you’ve seen a yanagi if you’ve ever watched a professional sushi chef at work. This Japanese knife type is a classic tool for cutting sashimi and nigiri.
With a long, thin blade of nonstick carbon steel derived from traditional Japanese sword-making techniques, a yanagi (Japanese for “willow blade”) is weighted to slice evenly through a block of fish using the pull-cut method, as opposed to similar knives of Western design that utilize push-cutting.
This Japanese knife style is considered a status symbol among chefs in the restaurant industry in Japan, generally used only by a head chef due to the precise skill required to use it.
Its design is a hybrid of a gyutou and a yanagi, with shared functions similar to both. The edge comes with a single- or double-bevel, which broadens the functionality to include tap chopping. Possibly a better choice for an advanced home chef, though it’s certainly a contender for your personal kitchen, where you’re the one in charge!
A Japanese knife type that makes a perfect all-around cutter, slicer and chopper, a gyutou has a thinner blade than a deba but retains the length and roundness that makes cutting meat, fish and vegetables an easy task.
The shape and thickness of a gyutou’s blade is achieved by methods used in creating samurai swords, which slice the fibers of the food rather than crushing them. This makes it a highly useful knife for preserving the freshness of meat and locking in its flavor.
With its short triangular blade equal to the length of its handle, the honesuki is the Japanese knife type favored for boning and skinning small animals. It was originally used with rabbits and poultry but can also be highly functional on fish and larger meat cuts.
While it shouldn’t be forced through bones while cutting, it’s perfect for breaking through any cartilage and tendons you might encounter.
A long narrow blade with a double edge that slices through vegetables and meats with equal ease, the sujihiki is the Western version of a yanagi. Like the gyutou, it preserves the integrity of the food it cuts and is a great Japanese knife type for making long slices through fish skin or for separating fat from muscle in larger meat cuts.
An usuba is perfect for slicing raw fruits and vegetables without creating oxidation or browning that compromises appearance and flavor. While the tall, rectangular blade of this Japanese knife type can be used for chopping larger vegetables such as heads of lettuce, it can easily be damaged by hard pits found in the center of stone fruits.
This slicer is a favored Japanese knife type for sushi chefs who found the rounded blade of a yanagi longer than safely advised for use in close cooking quarters. Its thin profile, squared-off end and extremely sharp edge bear a striking resemblance to a barber’s straight razor, qualities that make it a great choice for slicing raw fish and vegetables.
If the serrated edge and long blade look familiar, it might be because this Japanese knife style is the Eastern cousin of a standard Western bread knife and is used for the same purpose.
Its savage sharp-toothed ridge, elongated blade and elegant shape make an easy task of sawing through crust without smashing the tender fibers within the loaf.
This small, handy Japanese knife type is the slightly larger equivalent of a traditional Western paring knife found in a standard knife block. It’s agile enough to slice fruit, chop herbs and tackle general peeling and paring tasks. It also makes a great starter for anyone unaccustomed to the shape and sharpness of a larger knife such as a gyutou.
When you picture this Japanese knife type, picture the intricate decorative fruit and vegetable carvings created with it. The blade shape is similar to an usuba, though it’s much smaller and thinner, and serves equally well for general kitchen uses such as slicing and paring softer ingredients.
It’s a must-have Japanese knife type for any aspiring chef hoping to include artful garnishes and elegant produce displays among their culinary skills.
14. Udon Kiri
As the name asserts, this Japanese knife type is dedicated to the creation of udon noodles, which require a unique shape in which the blade takes up less than half of the handle length.
This is necessary for creating the distinctive noodle shape, though the kiri comes in soba and kasha variations, too, where the blade-to-handle ratio is slightly different, determined by the various noodle shapes. All three versions bear a long, straight blade with no curve, which allows for cutting straight to the board when pushing through dough while retaining a clean edge on every slice.
Caring for Japanese Knife Types
There are a few important things to know about the use and care of Japanese knives. While Japanese knife types are lighter and sharper than their Western counterparts, their tips can break and their blades can chip.
Be careful not to flex or twist the blade while you're cutting, which can cause cracks. You should also always use a proper wooden cutting board while you're working rather than attempt to chop on metal, stone or glass surfaces — even bamboo and plastic cutting boards should be used cautiously. And finally, Japanese knives are generally not dishwasher safe. Wash and dry them by hand before putting them away.
With the right care and maintenance, you'll be able to prolong the life and usefulness of all your Japanese knives.
There’s an entire family of Japanese knife types with individual members whose roles are as distinctive as their shape, size and weight.
If you favor vegetarian and vegan cuisine, a multi-functional nikiri would make a great starter knife. You could easily add an usuba for slicing softer fruits or a mukimono to try your hand at whimsical garnishes. If you’re an aspiring sushi chef, a yanagi or takobiki would be perfect Japanese knife types to add to your cutlery collection. And if meat and poultry dishes are your specialty, a santoku or honesuki would be a perfect fit, with a sujihiki making a great follow-up when you’re ready.
For even more ways to elevate your kitchen, check out chef-recommended cookware in the Cozymeal Shop.
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