Japanese knives are renowned for how sharp they are, and though “sharpness” may seem like an all-too-obvious measure of a knife’s worth, it’s for good reason! Because traditional Japanese knives are extremely sharp, they allow their weilder tremendous control over their work. When a knife is sharp, it can cut quickly, cleanly, and precisely through, say, raw tuna, or daikon, a type of giant Japanese radish. But the sharpness of Japanese knives is not just about process: a sharp knife and its precision cuts mean less tugging and ripping and less breakage of the cellular structure of a chef’s ingredients. The sharpness of a knife doesn’t just mean easier cooking and cleaner-looking presentation: it actually changes the very taste of the ingredients!
A few hundred words can hardly do justice to the topic of Japanese knives, so this will be the sparest of primers. Should it whet your appetite, we encourage you to hop down the rabbit hole. Please go forth and study the history of Japanese blacksmithing, swordsmanship, and how the outlawing of some traditional Japanese crafts (such as carrying swords) forced tradespeople to transfer their skills to other endeavors (such as kitchen knife-making).
Traditionally, Japanese knives have single bevel edges. This means that, unlike Western knives, they are sharpened on only one side. The double bevel edges of Western knives make for easier sharpening but also for a duller blade. This one detail—the single bevel (or angle)—is what allows for the microthin edges of Japanese knives.
For centuries, tamahagane was the steel of choice in the manufacturing of Japanese swords. Today, Japanese knives are made of a wide range of steels. Nonetheless, tamahagane (which takes up to three days to produce from iron sand!) remains a highly-prized raw material for the production of kitchen. At its best quality, tamahagane is bright silver, something you’ll surely encounter if you go shopping for Japanese knives.
Traditional Japanese knives come in many shapes and materials and are intended for very specific uses. Because of how expensive and coveted Japanese knives are, however, these large sets of knives are impractical for the amateur cook. Instead, the at-home chef benefits from some of the modern developments of the Japanese kitchen knife, which often blends the best of European and Japanese knife production and use. The santoku bocho, or “three uses” knife, is the perfect example of this manner of global cutlery. Santoku bocho can chop, dice, and slice not only meat, but also fish and vegetables. To the modern cook accustomed to knives descended from European traditions, this versatility might seem a given. When a knife comes from centuries of Japanese knives dedicated to specific materials (a knife made to cut boned fish, for example, would be used alongside the knives dedicated to vegetables and noodles), a “multiuse” knife is nothing short of a revelation. As it happens, Bokksu sells a santoku bocho knife, about which you can learn more here.
At risk of sounding like a sales pitch, we’ll actually be using the Damascus Steel Santoku Kitchen Knife henceforth; one knife is an excellent touchstone for further exploration of Japanese knives. Its city of origin, appearance, and composition all reflect the past and present of Japanese knives. We may as well demonstrate using the knife we at Bokksu know best. That said, let’s begin with perhaps the most confusing part of the name: Damascus Steel!
Today, Japanese knives are made of a variety of metals. This is nothing new; swordsmiths of the 1200s were already layering hard and soft types of steel to create sharp blades both tough and flexible, resistant to breakage. For fear of traveling too many sidequests, let’s avoid the history of the katana and return to the contentious origins of the material at hand: Damascus steel. Some claim the name comes from its city of origin in present-day Syria, while others refer to the tough, distinctively-patterned metal as “water steel.” (In Arabic, damas means water). The Damascus Steel Santoku Kitchen Knife has a beatiful, tide-like patterning reminiscent of the intricate Damascus steel, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate the actual use of Damascus steel.Today “Damascus” is often used as an adjective to describe the beauty of a knife’s pattern, perhaps where this knife gets its title.
A recap: this modern-day knife, designed after the western “multi-use” model, references a steel produced in the Middle East and South Asia. It remains a thoroughly Japanese knife in several ways, however. Its composition (33 layers of durable VG-10 steel) is remarkable because of the steel’s reputation. Knife enthusiasts of the world consider VG-10 an exceptional steel due to its ability to sharpen to a very fine blade.
Though the Damascus Steel Santoku Kitchen Knife was produced in the storied “Sword Town” of Seki City in the Gifu Prefecture, it is actually composed primarily of a composite steel created in Ekizen City, Fukui Prefecture. and where and how it was created. The two cities today are about a three-hour drive apart, but just one century ago, this transfer of resources would have required an extraordinary journey. The movement of the “journey” actually serves as a good analogy for Japanese knives, the way they continue to change with technology and time, and the many ways in which they remain close to their centuries-old origins.