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Japanese knives are considered to be the ultimate knife to own and use in the kitchen, and many people are willing to pay a high price to have one of these knives or a set of these knives in their kitchen.
Why are these knives held in such high regard and often revered as the holy grail of knives in a kitchen? What are you getting for the price of the Japanese knife, and is the price worth it? We will look at these issues so you can judge for yourself if you are getting a quality product or simply falling for marketing hype.
Here are 9 reasons Japanese knives are worth what you pay for them.
- Quality of the steel.
- The hardness of the steel.
- They are lightweight.
- Superior cutting ability.
- Superior cutting performance.
- Better edge geometry.
- Better food release.
- Purpose-built knives.
- No bolster.
If you speak to anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen where quality food is prepared, you will hear them speak with reverence about Japanese kitchen knives. These knives are the equivalent of owning a high-performance sports car, compared to a little urban run-about!
Using the same analogy of cars, sometimes a high-performance car is not suitable for use where a truck would be better suited to the job at hand. So are the often significantly higher prices that you pay for Japanese knives warranted, and would it make a difference to your work in the kitchen?
If you are interested in checking out the best Japanese knives (made by Hayate Yoshihiro) we recommend and use you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
Reasons Why Japanese Knives Are Worth Their Price
To find out the answers to the questions about why Japanese knives are expensive and whether this cost is justified or not, we need to examine some of the characteristics and features of these knives to discover why they demand such a high price.
The question as to whether the price is justified or not will largely be answered by the user of the knife and the difference the knife will make to their everyday work in the kitchen. Depending on the benefits the knives offer to the individual will determine their final worth to that person.
We will give you the reasons that people place such a high value on these knives. Some of the reasons are to do with the materials and the manufacturing process, but other reasons will be determined by the use of the knife and the perceived benefit it offers to the owner or user of the knife.
1. Quality Of The Steel In Japanese Knives
Knifemaking is part art and part science missed with a good measure of skill. The science part of the equation is related to the choice of the steel that goes into the making of the knife.
There are certain defining features of Japanese knives that relate directly to the type of steel used as the raw material to fashion these blades.
Japanese knives are characterized by sharpness, the durability of the edge, and toughness. Each of these characteristics of the knife is a direct result of the steel that is used to make these knives.
The steel used to make these knives are generally from two main types of steel: stainless steel and carbon steel.
There are variants within these categories of steel that are combined in different ways to produce different characteristics in the steel that will transfer to the characteristics of the blade.
- Tougher than carbon steels.
- Less likely to chip or crack.
- Not as sharp as carbon steels but hold an edge longer than carbon steels.
- Harder to sharpen.
- Stain and rust-resistant.
- Harder than stainless steel, but this makes it more brittle than stainless steel.
- Carbon steels can hold a sharper cutting edge but need more frequent sharpening.
- Carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen.
- They corrode and stain more easily than stainless steel.
Sometimes, stainless steel and carbon steel are combined to produce knives with particular characteristics. In order to produce knives with the characteristics that we mentioned earlier, the steel needs to not only be of a certain quality and blend, but it also has to undergo processes that bring out certain characteristics of the steel.
These will allow it to be hardened to the necessary standards to produce a high-quality knife with the desired qualities we see in Japanese knives.
The steels or combinations of steel that are used in Japanese knives are generally more expensive and need to go through more precision heat treatment and tempering processes to impart the desired characteristics to the steel.
Thus, the cost of these types of steel and the processes required to produce the characteristics in the steel add to the overall higher cost of these knives.
2. Hardness Of The Steel In Japanese Knives
The hardness of the steel used in Japanese knives allows the knives to have certain advantageous characteristics over western kitchen knives.
The unit of measure to put a value to the hardness of a steel is called the Rockwell scale, and the designation is HRC. The steels that most western knives are made from have a Rockwell hardness scale of between 56 and 58 HRC.
In contrast, the steel that most Japanese knives are made from has an HRC that is above the 60 mark. In the interest of an example, one of the most popular steels for Japanese knives is steel called VG-10, which can be hardened to a level of 60 to 61 HRC. Some of the other Japanese steels used can go as high as 65+ HRC.
The additional hardness of the Japanese steels allows the knives that are produced from these steels to have an edge that can be significantly thinner than with other steels. Thinness equates to sharpness, which is why Japanese knives are generally much sharper than western knives.
The edge on the Japanese knives will last longer than the edge on a western knife, but the edge will be more brittle and prone to chipping and cracking, especially if the knife is used inappropriately.
3. Japanese Knives Are Lightweight
Japanese knives are generally much more lightweight than western-style kitchen knives. This is largely due to their construction, and in particular, the construction of the handle.
Most western-style kitchen knives have a full-tang design for the handle of the knife. This means that the metal of the knife goes all the way through the handle.
The handles are usually in two parts, called scales that are secured onto the metal handle of the knife. The additional metal on the knife handle that passes all the way through the handle makes for a heavier knife.
Because the western-style knife is heavier, the profile of the handle is often smaller in an effort to reduce the weight of the handle. This results in western-style knives having less surface area than the handles of Japanese kitchen knives.
Most Japanese kitchen knives use a hidden-tang design. This means that the metal handle of the knife is not visible in the handle of the knife, and the metal of the knife only extends into the wood handle for a distance of about one-third of the length of the handle.
This significantly reduces the amount of steel that is incorporated into the handle of the knife, producing an overall lighter knife.
The different handle construction types also affect the balance of the knife. Western-style knives are usually evenly balanced, with the fulcrum or balance point of the knife at the ricasso, where the handle stops and the blade begins.
With Japanese knives, the knife is usually blade heavy, which means that the balance point is further forward on the blade of the knife.
Why are balance and weight important considerations in a kitchen knife? A kitchen knife generally gets used for longer periods of time, performing repetitive tasks.
A lightweight knife will produce less fatigue when the knife is used for long periods of time and when performing repetitive tasks.
The balance of the knife will affect the cutting action of the knife. Western knives generally have a curved blade, which in conjunction with the balance of the knife, makes the traditional rock and roll cutting method easier with this knife.
Japanese blades tend to have a straight cutting edge, which, in conjunction with the balance point of the knife is being on the blade itself, lends itself to the push-cut cutting action that is typical of these types of knives.
4. Cutting Ability Of Japanese Knives
Japanese knives have superior cutting ability to western-style knives because of the sharper edge that is on the Japanese knives.
This means that Japanese knives slice through the food with much less effort or pressure being applied to the knife.
This makes using a Japanese knife safer since if less pressure is used to cut the food, there is less likelihood of the knife slipping and cutting the knife user.
In kitchens where a lot of food needs to be processed rapidly, the ease with which the Japanese knives cut allows a chef to cut and slice faster and safer. This is another aspect where the lighter weight of the Japanese knives also plays a role.
The thin sharp edge of the Japanese knives does, however, have a downside. If you are processing food, and you inadvertently cut it into something hard, the edge of the knife has the potential to chip or crack, or at the very least, become dull.
This is especially the case where you are processing meat, and you accidentally cut into the bone in the meat that you did not notice.
Thus, extra care needs to be exercised when using Japanese knives that there is nothing in the food being processed that could compromise or damage the blade of the knife in any way.
TIP: Japanese knives are most often sharpened with whetstones. But can you use steel for sharpening Japanese knives? Find out the answer in the article below:
5. Cutting Performance
Japanese cuisine is not simply about how the food tastes, but a lot of effort is expended in the care taken regarding the visual appeal of the food.
Much of the visual appeal in the food that comes out of a Japanese kitchen is clean and precise cuts of the food that enhances the visual appeal aspect of the dish.
Because of this attention to detail in the visual display of the food, the knives used to produce these precise cuts need to be very sharp and cut cleanly through the food without distorting any edges of the cut.
The cutting performance of the edge is, therefore, a highly valued characteristic of the knife, especially in a kitchen where Japanese food is prepared.
A cutting edge that provides this level of precision and clean cutting performance can only be achieved with the particular steels and heat-treating and tempering processes that are used in the production of Japanese knives.
Western-style kitchen knives, although sharp, do not achieve the same level of purity and neatness in the cut as can be achieved with a Japanese knife.
6. Edge Geometry
The edge geometry of a knife not only refers to the angle of the cutting edge of the secondary bevel on the knife but also incorporates the primary bevel and the grind on that bevel that imparts certain cutting characteristics and edge retention characteristics to the blade.
We will talk about the cutting edge of secondary bevel first. On Japanese knives, the edge is normally sharpened to an angle of 15-degrees. Western kitchen knives are typically sharpened to between 17 and 20-degrees.
The reason that the Japanese knives can be sharpened to this shallow angle and still retain strength in the fine edge is a testament to the hardness and durability of the steel that these knives are made from.
The shallower the angle that the knife is sharpened too, the sharper the knife will be, but the composition of the steel will play a large part in the edge retention of a knife that is sharpened to this degree.
The softer steel that western-style knives are made from makes it impractical to sharpen the edge so thin. The steel will simply not hold up to the stresses on the thin edge.
The grind on the secondary bevel and whether there is one or two bevels are the second component to the edge geometry of the knife.
Many Japanese knives were traditionally single bevel knives, which means that only one side of the knife blade tapers towards the sharp edge.
The opposite side is ground flat, or a slight concave grind is placed on this site to assist with food release. The single bevel knife is more prevalent in Japanese-style cuisine, where cutting methods require the single bevel knife.
Western cuisine seldom requires a single bevel knife, and thus most western-style knives are double bevel knives. A double bevel is where the blade slopes on both sides of the knife down to the sharp edge of the blade.
The double bevel western style has been incorporated into many Japanese knife styles to cater to the western style of cutting and to appeal to this market.
The difference between a double bevel on a western knife and a Japanese knife is the bevel is much flatter on the Japanese knife. This is usually because the entire steel of the knife blade is generally much thinner in Japanese knives than in western knives.
This has the advantage of bringing the superior sharpness of Japanese knives to western styles of knives used in the kitchen. This is why many western-style chefs prefer the use of expensive Japanese knives in their kitchens.
The Japanese knives that have double bevels on the blade and, therefore, the ones that are most sought after in the western world are as follows.
- Gyuto. This is the Japanese version of the chef’s knife.
- Santoku. This knife is sometimes referred to as the Bunka bocho and is mostly used to prep vegetables and fish.
- Nakiri. This is a vegetable processing knife.
- Petty. The petty is the equivalent of a paring knife in the western kitchen.
- Hankotsu. This knife is for processing or butchering large hunks of meat.
- Sujihiki. This is a long blade knife, and the name means muscle cutter. It is intended to slice meat using a long draw cut.
TIP: Do you know how to sharpen a hollow edge knife? Sharpening a hollow edge knife is not easy. Find out how to do it properly in 5 steps in the article below:
7. Food Release
Food release is an important part of the efficiency with which a knife can be used in the kitchen. We have all experienced the occasions where the ingredients we are slicing pile up and stick to the flat part of the knife.
This can cause a problem in that it impairs your ability to see the edge of the knife clearly, which may result in your cutting yourself.
The ingredients sticking to the knife blade cans also affect your cutting accuracy, which could be a problem if you are cutting fast or need neat, precise cuts.
Japanese knives often include features on the blade to help with this particular problem and break the surface adhesion between the blade and the ingredients being sliced to allow the ingredients to fall away from the blade once it has been sliced.
This can sometimes be in the form of forging hammer blows left on the surface of the knife to leave a dimpled effect that is both decorative and functional.
In some knives, it is the angle or the bevel on the knife that is ground to a specific angle to promote the ingredients moving away from the blade.
8. Japanese Knives Are Purpose-built
The fact that Japanese knives are purpose-built can be both an advantage and a disadvantage for someone looking to get Japanese kitchen knives.
The inherent attention to detail and precision that is intrinsic to the Japanese culture has been carried over into the design and manufacture of their kitchen knives.
This character of the Japanese culture combined with the type of steel used in the knives has resulted in many of the types of Japanese knives being made for certain purposes.
Multi-purpose function in knives is a western trend for knife building, but with the Japanese philosophy, a multi-purpose item will do many jobs at an average level of performance. In contrast, a purpose-built knife will perform the tasks it was created for with excellence.
It is for this reason that different knives with different designs, features, and strengths were created for specific tasks in the kitchen.
The purpose-built nature of Japanese knives comes with some side effects.
- More knives are required
You will need more knives in the kitchen to cater to multiple knife-related tasks.
- Risk of damage
If you use a Japanese knife for a function it was not intended for, you could seriously damage the knife to the point of it requiring extensive and expensive repair work to restore to full functionality.
- Frequent change of knives
We all have the tendency to use the knife that is on hand rather than goes to the trouble of getting a different knife out for a change in task. This urge must be suppressed if you are using Japanese knives. Take the time to get out the appropriate knife for the job.
TIP: All Japanese knives are purpose-built. And that is why there are so many types of Japanese knives. Many people often confuse different types, so we have prepared articles comparing different types of Japanese knives. Check them out in the link below:
9. No Bolster On Japanese Knives
Some may think that Japanese knives not having a bolster where the blade meets the handle is purely an aesthetic or artistic choice on the part of the designer, but it actually servers a particular purpose.
Many western-style kitchen knives have a bolster incorporated into the design of the knife. While this looks pleasing to the eye for the lines of the knife, it can be a hindrance when trying to sharpen the knife.
The fact that Japanese knives do not have a bolster that could potentially get in the way during the sharpening process makes it easier to keep the knife flat on the sharpening stone to get an even and consistent edge along the entire length of the blade.
Don’t Be Fooled By Fake Japanese Knives
If you are scanning the marketplace to buy a Japanese kitchen knife, you need to be discerning when you are researching the knife to buy. Not all knives that are advertised as Japanese knives are indeed authentic Japanese knives.
Because of the popularity of Japanese knives in the western market, many unscrupulous manufacturers elsewhere in the world have started making Japanese-style knives as if the knives are made in Japan.
A genuine Japanese knife made in Japan can be identified by the following characteristics.
- Location verification
The name of the region and city that the knife was made in will be displayed.
- Knife steel
A true Japanese knife will list the cladding and core steel that the knife is made from. If the type of steel is omitted from the description of the knife, the knife is probably not a genuine Japanese knife.
- The price
A genuine Japanese knife will never sell for $20 or $30 or be marked as on a sale with a huge discount.
- VG-10 steel is made in Japan
VG-10 is stainless steel that is formulated in Japan. If it is made elsewhere, it is not a genuine Japanese knife.
TIP: The internet is full of fake Japanese knives. Therefore, many people prefer a personal purchase. But are Japanese knives cheaper in Japan? Find out the answer in the article below:
Should You Buy A Japanese Knife?
Does everyone who works in a kitchen need a Japanese knife? The answer to that is probably no. If you are not a chef producing Japanese-style cuisine or a very experienced chef, then the cost of a Japanese knife is probably not warranted, and a cheaper western-style knife would probably be more appropriate.
As with our analogy to a performance sports car, a Japanese knife also requires more care and sometimes more expensive care than other knives. This is particularly true when it involves the sharpening of the knives.
Sharpening a knife on a whetstone is a skill that takes time to learn, and you can potentially mess up your expensive Japanese knife on a whetstone if you don’t know what you are doing.
For this reason, many chefs who use Japanese knives outsource their knife sharpening to professionals who are skilled in this field. This, of course, is an expense factor that the knife owner should take into account.
Of course, it is possible to learn the skills required to sharpen your own knives on a whetstone; just be sure to practice your skills on cheaper knives before attempting to sharpen your high-priced Japanese knife.
If you are in the kitchen for a significant amount of time each day, it is worthwhile having a Japanese knife to have the experience of how these knives perform and the benefit that they bring to food processing in the kitchen.
BTW: If you want to know more about Japanese and other knives and their sharpening, check out the books listed above. These books are recommended by professional sharpeners and knife makers (Amazon links):
- Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes
- The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives
- Knife: The Culture, Craft, and Cult of the Cook’s Knife
- Sharp: The Definitive Introduction to Knives, Sharpening, and Cutting Techniques, with Recipes from Great Chefs
Even though a Japanese knife may not be suitable for all kitchens, once you have used a knife of this caliber, you will understand what the furor is all about around these knives.
There is no getting around it; they are simply a pleasure to use. If you are using knives every day, even if it is in your home kitchen, then it would be worthwhile to have at least one Japanese knife in your kitchen.
Even if it is for no other reason than to experience the joy of using one of these knives to effortlessly process your ingredients.
TIP: Real Japanese knives are expensive. But they are worth it. When you buy a Japanese knife, it is important to take care of it properly. Check out the ultimate guide on the care of Japanese knives in the article below: