The Best Japanese Knives (Review) in 2020
Getting serious about how you chop in the kitchen? That butcher’s block that you got from your housewarming party five years ago is nice and all, but it’s not cut out to be your last set of cutlery. Serious chefs use serious equipment, and if you want to filet, dice and mince like Ramsey and Flay, then it’s time to give your kitchen gear a little resurgence.
No matter what knives you purchase, you’re always going to find references to Japanese steel, and the way their knives are simply superior. From the precise angles to the thin, durable steel that slices through nearly anything, Japanese knives are top-of-the-line kitchen cutlery that you, a serious chef, should have in your kitchen. Blade length, weight, handle shape—you name it, and we’re about to cover it in our guide on the best Japanese knives on the market.
High HRC rating ensures longer blade retention
German stainless steel construction
Solid wooden handle
Long time in between each sharpening session
Solid birchwood handle
100-layer steel for top-tier blade retention
Perfect weight distribution from tip to hilt
Finger relief reduces abrasions from extended use
Finger inlays for better grip
Certified lifetime warranty from the manufacturer
Perfect bevel for right-handed or left-handed use
Durable stainless steel construction
The Best Japanese Knives
Imarku is a brand that produces Japanese knives, which technically puts them on this list, but this number one knife is actually made out of German steel despite having a Japanese design.
What I mean by a Japanese design is that this is a Japanese brand and construction, but they’re just using German steel instead. While this can be off-putting to some, Imarku clearly measured the difference between Japanese steel and German steel, and saw this as the superior option in this case. This 8” gyutou knife works for just about everything in the kitchen, from boning to fileting. It works great, but you do have to be careful when it comes to the handle. The wood might need to be resealed from time to time, while the creases between the handle and metal hilt can get jammed up with food scraps. All the issues reside in the handle though. It doesn’t rattle like some bolt-on plastic handles on full tang knives, which is definitely a plus. The versatile design and high HRC scale means you get the best blade retention, plus an average of 150% more carbon included in your steel (0.75% vs. average of 0.30%). From top to bottom, from the inexpensive price to the high quality design, I would recommend this for beginners and experienced chefs alike. Imarku just gets it.
8” total blade length
Ergonomic handle narrows before blade hilt
Comes in an individual storage box (great for display)
I think that getting a high-end Japanese knife is an investment, but we can all agree that some investments have a more daunting price tag than others. Zelite has a lot to ride on, which justifies the cost, but it just isn’t for everyone.
First and foremost, they guarantee everything is safe from defects for life. That’s a big promise, and they live up to the expectations that come with the territory. An HRC scale tells you how hard/dense the steel is, which tells you how long your blade retention will be. The longer your blade retention, the less often you need to sharpen it, and the longer the knife lasts. Zelite has a very high HRC 61 rating, making it one of the hardest stainless steel knives on the market. It’s built with 67-layer stainless steel, and a natural finished look to it. I love the ornate packaging that it comes in, but it doesn’t do much for protection. It just looks good to store it in. What isn’t good is the plastic blade protector tip they include in your package; it’s worthless. I like to keep those and continuously protect the blade, but this one isn’t worth it. The handle stays in place perfectly, and the blade itself is sharp as they come. While we chose an 8” gyotou chef knife, they also have bread knives, boning, honesukis and other types of blades available from the same sales page.
8” total blade length
Comes in an ornate case for safe storage
Includes a lifetime warranty against manufacturer defects
Japanese chef knives come in so many different types, but one of the main ways that Japanese cutlery is used is for cutting meat, fish, and poultry. You need a solid cleaver-style knife to handle the bulk of it, such as cleaning fish.
For that, it’s important to have the right side and design. TUO did a great job at making this cleaver nice and big, but the grooves on the side don’t exactly help deflect the suction that you get when you cut into a slab of meat—suction being the way it sticks to the side of the knife. A quick wiggle will get it done, but it’s not something you should have to worry about. They did something truly unique with the handle, though; it’s made out of African pakkawood, which is something you don’t find everywhere. It has a rich color, and the handle itself is nice and durable. The weight distribution on this cleaver is, well, not the best. It’s a cleaver—it’s not meant to be perfectly balanced, but it is noticeably heavier in the front during use. Be cautious of that. In terms of the build you get high HRC steel with over 60 layers, which gives you some seriousness toughness. Blade retention is the amount of time that your blade stays sharp without needing to actually be sharpened, and TUO gives you the best run for your money.
7” total blade length
Solid wooden handle
KUMA doesn’t offer the best Japanese knife set out there, but it does give you the ability to build up your Japanese knives, piece by piece. You can get a three-pack, but you don’t really need three of these knives.
When you take a look at the edge of this blade, you’re going to see two things: it’s very flat, and it’s branded as can be. KUMA’s logo on the side of the blade is a bit distracting to the point that you feel like you’re holding a billboard for them while you chop meat and vegetables. And that’s another thing. Because the blade is so flat, cutting through red meat and vegetables builds a lot of suction to the side of the blade. It’s easy to knock it all loose (and it makes cleaning a breeze), but it’s something to consider. But you know what KUMA is fantastic at? Keeping a rust-free, high-quality stainless steel blade without charging you an arm and a leg for it. They’re even less expensive than Imarku, which was our top pick for this list. If you look below the finger point at the base of the blade, you’ll notice it’s nice and smooth. One common issue chefs run into is abrasions on the tops of their fingers from the rough hilt of the knife as you cut, but KUMA thought of that ahead of time.
8” total blade length
Ergonomic grip gives you a steady hand at all times
Sturdy plastic handle
Japanese cooking knives come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but one absolutely critical part of your cutlery set is a paring knife. It’s crucial for sushi and poultry, and Shun offers one of the best paring knives on the market.
With their VG-MAX stainless steel proprietary blend, you get what’s called Damascus stainless steel with 68 separate layers. That makes for shorter sharpening sessions, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to sharpen less often. This 4” paring knife is half the size of your common utility knife, meaning you’re going to run down the edge twice as fast as your standard knives. The good thing is, sharpening this is a cakewalk. The only thing that I would seriously change about Shun’s design is upgrading the seal on the pakkawood handle. Pakkawood is an African wood that’s very sought-after in culinary tools, but the thing is, it’s harder to maintain than most woods. It’s nice, it’s smooth, just a bit harder to handle.
Includes a lifetime warranty against manufacturer defects
VG-MAX steel proprietary design
4” total blade length
I want to hold my Japanese knife, cut with precision, and know that my food is going to look sexy when it’s all done. Kessaku makes that easy, because this perfectly weight-balanced knife just feels like it’s always belonged in your hand.
From the ergonomic grip to the etched high carbon steel, this knife has just about everything you want without charging an insane price. I will say one thing though: I don’t like overly large branding on knives. I want the knife to perform well, I don’t want people focusing on my knife brand when I’m entertaining. So while Kessaku paints their logo on the side of this knife like a billboard, it does blend in with the handle design, so that’s nice. Speaking of the handle, this pakkawood handle comes with a seriously dark and thick layer of sealant on it, which is a good thing. You can wash this over and over again (hand wash only, by the way) without it degrading at all. With an 8” blade length, it’s a lot of ultra-sharp power in your hands. Once you hand dry this and let it air dry for 30 minutes, you can deposit it into the ornate gift box included with your purchase for safe and secure storage to retain that blade edge.
8” total blade length
Comes with a lifetime warranty against manufacturer defects
Comes in a premium gift box for protection
Simple Song isn’t a brand you often hear about, and it’s because they’re not really one of the top peddlers in the culinary supply world. They’re a good choice, but there’s a reason that they’re on the bottom half of our list.
To start, you get a single bevel, 15° high carbon stainless steel blade, which gives you some absolutely serious power. It limits this blade to right-handed or ambidextrous users only though.
With that power you’re able to slice through meats and vegetables without even applying much pressure to the back end of the knife. It’s solid, but it does require constant honing with such a precise and thin blade edge. Blade edge retention is down, which can be a big downer, but the biggest problem is the weight distribution (or lack thereof) from the handle. It’s a gorgeous rosewood handle, but it’s lightweight and you can feel the ultra-sharp blade tilting down too far in the front. Not good. When you look at it, you get an authentic Japanese inscription on the edge of the blade. If you’ve read each review so far, then you know I’m not a fan of having big branding on the side of a blade, so this is a good way for the company to keep some form of lettering without killing the aesthetic appeal. It’s a relatively affordable knife, sharp, but a bit tougher to maintain. The high carbon stainless steel should last you a lifetime, but unfortunately as there’s no warranty information available, we don’t know if it’s designed to last a lifetime or not.
8” total blade length
Authentic Japanese inscription on the blade
Single bevel edge at 15°
You need a Japanese chopping knife? Well, Miyabi has one, if you’re willing to pay. They’re one of the most-recognized brands of authentic Japanese knives, and they know what they’re doing when it comes to constructing them.
I mean it when I say there’s no reason that this shouldn’t last you for the rest of your life. You could even pass this down. There’s 100 layers of micro-carbide stainless steel, giving you so many sharpening sessions in the future without grinding down this blade. It’s pricey, and it’s heavy. At 1.2 lbs, it’s a weighted knife, and while the weight distribution is pretty good, it’s still going to slow your movements with your knife. Be careful. The 8” blade length pairs well with the 5.4” handle, and if you want, there are other knife sizes available for you to mess with. One sign of a good knife is the finger abrasion relief behind the hilt, and Miyabi has it. I would say that if you’re a chef, you’re in the culinary career track, or you’re a collector who wants to invest instead of purchase knives every ten years, Miyabi could be the best blade you’re ever owned.
8” total blade length
Long 5.4” handle for good weight distribution
Available in multiple knife sizes
Can you imagine chopping veggies with a 12” knife? It’s outside of the real of your standard 6” to 8” knife, but technically, that means you have extra blade length to sharpen over time and get more out of this knife.
That would be good, but despite being a high carbon stainless steel design, we don’t know how many layers this steel is, or the HRC rating for its hardness. After using it, honestly, it doesn’t perform the way that I initially thought.
It’s good, and it’s lightyears better than any butcher’s block knife you’re going to get in a cheap set, but compared to the top eight knives on this list, it’s right where it belongs. Semi-frequent sharpening is going to happen. The biggest issue here is with the handle. While it has excellent weight distribution with the blade (and I don’t know how since it’s such a long blade), it’s made of polypropylene, which is a fancy was of saying low-grade plastic. The handle will hold up, but the finger grips on the side are going to wear down after a couple of years, even if you stick to the hand wash only directions laid out by the manufacturer. It’s a solid knife, it’s very inexpensive, but just don’t expect it to last forever.
Massive 12” blade length
Textured finger points on handle work well for the time that they last
Relatively inexpensive blade with a ton of length
While they didn’t make the top of the list, Tojiro is just another one of those top-tier brands that create stunning cutlery; we just didn’t have room to give everyone the gold standard, you know? Tojiro’s 6.7” blade is the perfect size to be an all-purpose utility knife in the kitchen, but it does come with its fair share of problems.
The bolts in the handle get a little wobbly after repeated washing, even if you hand wash (and you should always hand wash your Japanese knives). Under no circumstances should you put this in the dishwasher, or you’re going to accelerate this process. As far as edge retention goes, the stainless steel design keeps things nice and sharp. It’s designed with a 50/50 bevel, which means you can use it with either your right or left hand without issue. If you’re ambidextrous, you’re in luck. If you’re a lefty that’s sick and tired of only seeing single-side bevel knives, well, you’re also in luck. The brushed finish makes this easy to clean, but keep in mind that the black lettering on the blade isn’t going to last forever. After a few washes, it’s going to wear down a bit, but the marking on the handle will stay the same. These can get expensive. Tojiro isn’t a basic brand, and while their quality shows (especially when you look at the price for this single knife), I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner-level Japanese knife.
6.7” length blade
Stainless steel design
Brushed finish is easy to clean
Best Japanese Knives Buying Guide
Features to Consider When Buying a Japanese Knife
Choose the Type: Below, we’ve listed the most common types of Japanese knives. While there are some not covered here, they’re used in traditional Japanese cooking or are rarely in practice by anyone in a culinary career. The type of knife you get is going to largely depend on what you enjoy cooking, and if it’s for professional or personal use.
Handle: You need an ergonomic grip if you’re going to get anything done. Japanese knives are sharp as can be, and the last thing you want to do is cut yourself on a 15° steel bevel. Make sure there’s enough room on the handle to get an even grip.
Price: These aren’t going to be the cheapest knives you’ve ever bought, but they’re also not going to cost you an arm and a leg. You can buy them one at a time to save money in the short-term, though it’s always advised to get a full set all at once if it’s an option. If you are just looking to test and see if Japanese knives are for you, then there’s no problem with getting one in the meantime. Japanese knives are going to cost more than your standard kitchen butcher’s block.
Steel Type: There are so many grades of stainless steel to choose from (and not all Japanese knives are made with stainless steel, by the way). Ideally, you want stainless steel when available because it doesn’t need to be sharpened or honed nearly as often. Stainless steel is also extremely easy to keep sanitary.
Manufacturing Origin: Not all Japanese knives come from Japan, or use traditional Japanese manufacturing methods. Manufacturers in the United States can just make a knife and call it Japanese based on the bevel, handle, and overall design. While they can still be good knives, the very best are Japanese-made.
Japanese Knife Types
There are more Japanese knife types than most people really think about. They’re most commonly:
- Sujihiki: Typically used for fileting or very fine cuts. Sujihiki knives are extremely long and are usually made from denser steel to contribute to better blade edge retention.
- Takobiki: If you’ve ever been to a real hot pot-style restaurant, you’ve seen these. Long, sharp, but with a flat and dull edge at the end (to keep the experience safe for customers sitting around the table), takobiki knives are used for high-volume slicing and dicing. Sashimi and sushi are often prepared with takobiki knives.
- Hankotsu: You may notice a similar design to a lot of western knives here. These blades thin out as you approach the tip, and include a light drop-off point. These are used for boning or fileting tougher meats.
- Honesuki: With an imbalanced bevel, honesuki knives are best for deboning and slicing poultry (which is usually more difficult than red meats). The uneven bevel helps with this. You can use these as utility knives, or you can use the thick, blunt size as a simple kitchen knife with a long edge retention.
- Nakiri: Double-edged knives with a 50/50 bevel, these are designed for cutting vegetables with fine precision. You can also cut into fibrous fruits and vegetables, such as pumpkin, butternut squash, or root vegetables with ease.
- Yanagi: Thin and precise, yanagi blades are typically designed for finer work with sushi and sashimi. These generally have the sharpest angles of any Japanese knives.
- Gyutou: Perhaps the most iconic look for any knife ever, the gyutou is what many western knives were based off of. Sharp and universal, you can use a gyutou for just about anything in the kitchen. Some tasks just might be harder than others.
- Petty: Sometimes called a paring knife, petty knives are small utility knives that are best at chopping up soft fruits, herbs, and spices.
- Santoku: Another multipurpose blade similar to the gyutou, santokus are inexpensive and universal, they just aren’t designed for any specific tasks.
Japanese vs. German Knives
It’s important to know the difference between Japanese kitchen knives and German knives, especially if you’re going into a culinary career (or you just want to master your kitchen at home to impress your friends).
German knives are a bit more industrialized, while Japanese knives take a hands-on approach (literally).
German knives will be sharpened in a factory, and while there’s laser precision involved, it’s not overseen by a human. There’s more room for error. Japanese knives are almost exclusively sharpened on stones, by hand, to ensure absolute perfection before it ever goes in the box.
There are so many different grades of stainless steel that it’s hard to keep track, and Japanese knives use a different grade than German. This is for a reason.
German knives will typically have a bevel of 20°, while a Japanese knife may go as low as 15° to 17° on average. In short, the thinner the bevel, the sharper it is and more cleanly it will cut (think of traditional Japanese-prepared sushi), versus thicker bevels that don’t require sharpening nearly as often, but they’re also not as sharp.
Our Top Pick
Imarku simply provides the best blend of value, trust, and design—it’s a trifecta of all the best things that you want in a brand-name Japanese knife. Ironically, it’s actually made with German stainless steel, but it just goes to show that Imarku is focused on quality over quantity, and clearly saw German steel as a better option in this scenario.
Between the sleek handle and glorious design, this high carbon stainless steel knife gives you an ergonomic grip like no knives you’ve ever used before. Sharpening isn’t easy, but the edge does hold for an incredibly long time. From cost to cutlery power, Imarku was the winner, hands-down.