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Ultimate Breakdown: 4 Best Japanese Knives For Sushi

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Sushi chefs spend years perfecting their skills and understanding the art of sushi, but all this hard work can’t be done without some good tools. They need to have sharp knives that will easily slice through fish and vegetables. Not just any knife will do for these purposes. There are not many knives that can compete with Japanese knives in this application. 

There are many Japanese knives that are suitable for making sushi, but the ones most suitable for the job would be a set of 4 knives that include a Yanagiba, a Deba, and Usuba, and a Sushikiri knife. Single bevel knives are preferred for their cleaner and neater slicing of the ingredients.

Making sushi involves preparing rice, vegetables, and fish, and true to Japanese knife form, there are multiple knives that are purposefully designed for preparing the vegetable and fish ingredients. Once the sushi has been made, you then need a quality knife to slice the sushi for the perfect presentation.

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).

Best Japanese Knives For Sushi
Best Japanese Knives For Sushi

Do You Need A Special Knife For Sushi?

Japanese cuisine demands precision and perfection in both the preparation and presentation of the food. The high standards expected of this type of food preparation include the preparation of sushi.

Sushi involves the preparation of fish and vegetables and then also the slicing or the portioning of the sushi. Each of the stages in the preparation will require the use of knives that are specific to the task at hand.

Essentially, the main requirement for a sushi knife is sharpness, so any sharp knife will do the job. However, the design of the Japanese blades is such that the precision of the cut adds to the visual appeal of the food and thus, affects the presentation.

If you want to prepare sushi in the traditional methods, you will require a set of knives that are designed to process the ingredients that will be used in the sushi and a knife that is suitable to slice the final product for the best presentation of the food.

4 Best Japanese Knives For Sushi

To cut to the basics of sushi preparation, you will need a set of knives to cover the entire process of preparing the ingredients and finally slicing the sushi.

The main knives that you will need for the process and that you should include in your sushi knife set are the following.

  • Yanagiba. 
  • Usuba.
  • Deba.
  • Sushi-Kiri

Our choice: Are you interested in buying a set of Japanese knives for sushi? Find below our recommendation:

Set of Japanese knives for sushi (Amazon link)

This set made by Hayate Yoshihiro is quite expensive but definitely worth its price. You will get a high-quality set of Japanese knives for sushi in a uniform and beautiful design.

The Yanagiba Knife

Yanagiba: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi
Yanagiba: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi

The Yanagiba knife is the knife that you will be used to prepare the fish for your sushi. Typically, the fish would already have been filleted and deboned since the Yanagiba is designed to slice through bone-less fillets with ease and precision.

The full name of this knife is the Yanagiba bocho, which literally means willow blade knife due to its long, thin appearance.

However, the nature of the Yanagiba knife is such that it can be used to remove the fillets from the fish if you are presented with a whole fish for the preparation of your sushi.

The Yanagiba is a knife that traditionally has a long blade that is designed to cut through fish and meat with a long pull-stroke rather than a backward and forward sawing motion.

A Yanagiba is actually a sashimi knife, not a sushi knife, and as such, it is designed to be very sharp and to make very clean, very thin cuts of fish, which are traditionally used in sashimi, but later were incorporated into sushi dishes.

The Yanagiba is traditionally a single bevel knife, which means that the backside of the knife that rests against the food is flat, and the side that is on the cut side of the food is the one that has the bevel.

A traditional Yanagiba Japanese knife is normally created with the following characteristics.

  • Blade length

Yanagiba knife blades are typically between 8-inches and 14-inches long. A blade of this length allows the sushi or sashimi chef to cut a piece off a fish fillet in a single pull-stroke. This creates a clean-cut edge on the fish, which is perfect for the presentation of the dish.

  • Blade thickness

The steel directly behind the cutting edge of the knife is very thin. This design aspect combined with the extremely sharp edge allows the cut to be made mostly with the weight of the knife alone rather than exerting a lot of force to make the cut. This allows the cut to be made without the risk of bruising or tearing the fish, which would be the case if the knife were thicker and more force was required to make the cut.

  • Nonstick design

The back face or side of the knife called the urasuki is not completely flat. This “flat” side has a slightly concave profile to break the surface tension between the steel of the knife and the food, essentially preventing the knife from sticking against the surface of the food being cut. The bevel side of the blade, called the shinogi, is shaped to promote the piece of the fish that has been sliced off, falling away from the blade and the cutting edge.

  • Properties of the steel

The Yanagiba is often made from laminated steel, with softer steel surrounding a central high carbon steel core made from traditional Japanese high carbon steels. This type of construction produces a blade that has overall toughness with some flexibility but retains the hard central core, which allows for an extremely sharp, hard cutting edge. From a traditional point of view, the steel used for these knives is usually Hitachi blue or white steel.

  • Single bevel

Most Japanese single bevel knives have the flat side (slightly concave) on the left side of the knife, and the angles bevel towards the cutting edge is on the right-hand side of the blade. The single bevel design allows for a greater degree of sharpness than a double bevel blade and promotes the nonstick properties of the knife.

  • The direction of cut

Generally, western-style kitchen knives are designed for push cuts, but the Yanagiba is designed to work most effectively with a pull cut, which is a cutting action that is sometimes strange for western chefs.

A very sharp knife is the key to not only preserving the look of the food but also preserving the flavor. A sharp knife will not cause bruising of the food or crush the food and allow moisture and flavor to drain from the food. 

A Yanagiba knife is, therefore, the perfect knife for slicing the delicately thin slices of fish that are needed for making great sushi!

Our choice: Are you interested in buying a Yanagiba knife? Find below our recommendation for Yanagiba – Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi:

Yoshihiro Shiroko High Carbon Steel Kasumi Yanagi Knife 270mm/10.5” (Amazon link)

The Usuba Knife

Kamagata Usuba: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi
Kamagata Usuba: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi

This knife is more correctly named the Usuba bocho, which means thin knife, which is traditionally the knife used in a Japanese kitchen for the processing of vegetables.

The name also draws attention to the fact that these knives are thinner than most of the other knives that are used in the kitchen.

As with most traditional Japanese kitchen knives, the Usuba is ground to have a single bevel or chisel grind on the blade

As with the Yanagiba, the Usuba has a flat, slightly concave grind on the lefthand side of the blade and the angled bevel is on the righthand side of the blade. The blade is also tall and has a relatively straight, flat cutting edge, with very little curvature. 

The additional height of the blade allows you to easily chop vegetables on a cutting board or countertop without your knuckles getting in the way and bashing into the chopping surface. 

The height of the blade and the thin, straight, sharp edge of the Usuba make this knife the ideal choice for performing specialized cuts on vegetables such as katsuramuki

This is a cut which is a rotary cutting or peeling technique that allows for the cutting of cylindrical vegetables such as carrots and daikon into wafer-thin sheets, which are ideal for certain sushi dishes.

The Usuba bocho is very similar to the Nakiri bocho knife, but the major difference between the two knives is that the Nakiri is a knife with a double bevel blade rather than a single bevel, and it is considered to be a multi-purpose vegetable processing knife.

The single bevel on the Usuba gives a much cleaner, precise cut, which is why it is preferred over the Nakiri in a professional kitchen and why it is used in the processing of vegetables for sushi dishes. The Nakiri is considered a knife that is more appropriate for the home kitchen rather than a professional kitchen.

Our choice: Are you interested in buying an Usuba knife? Find below our recommendation for Usuba – Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi:

Yoshihiro Shiroko High Carbon Steel Kasumi Edo Usuba Knife 195mm/7.5” (Amazon link)

The Deba Knife

Deba Bocho: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi
Deba Bocho: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi

The Deba bocho Japanese kitchen knife is a knife that is traditionally used to cut fish but is also sometimes used in the slicing of meat.

Deba knives come in different sizes, the most common sizes are between 4 and 6 inches, but some can be as large as 12-inches in length.

The most common and versatile of the sizes would be a Deba with a blade of about 7-inches. This is a sturdy knife that tapers to a sharp tip on the blade.

The Deba is a knife with a relatively thick spine in comparison to the other knives we have discussed, which adds some weight to the feel of the knife as well as additional strength to the blade.

The Deba is traditionally a fish processing knife and was created to be sturdy enough to behead whole fish and yet light and dexterous enough to fillet the fish too. 

The sturdy characteristics of the knife mean that it can also be used as a multi-purpose knife in the kitchen, and it is often used in the processing of poultry as well as fish.

Even though this knife is sturdy, it is not intended to be used to cut through bones, even chicken bones, and attempting to do so will in all likelihood damage the cutting edge of the knife.

A with most traditional Japanese kitchen knives, the Deba is made of carbon steel, which gives the blade its strength and sharpness but does require proper maintenance to ensure the knife stays in good working order for its intended tasks. 

The application of the Deba in the preparation of sushi dishes would be to cut fillets down to more manageable pieces before the Yanagiba is used to slice the chunks into the thin sashimi-style pieces to be used in the sushi.

The Deba would also be used to process the fish, should you be presented with a whole fish for the production of your sushi.  

Our choice: Are you interested in buying a Deba knife? Find below our recommendation for Deba – Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi:

Yoshihiro High Carbon White Steel Kasumi Funayuki Deba Japanese Sushi Fillet Knife (Amazon link)

The Sushikiri Knife

Sushikiri: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi
Sushikiri: Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi

The Sushikiri knife is one that does not get much coverage when sushi knives are discussed. This is a large knife that is similar in shape to a cleaver. The name means sushi slicer, and that is exactly what this knife is designed for.

As we have said already, it looks similar to a cleaver, but it differs from a cleaver in that the cutting edge of the knife has a distinct, pronounced curve to it.

This knife is a double bevel blade, which means that both sides of the knife have a bevel that tapers towards the sharp cutting edge of the knife.

This knife has a bit of weight to it, which, when combined with the sharpness of the blade, allows the knife to cut through a sushi roll with only using the weight of the knife. This allows the sushi roll to be cut without crushing the roll, and the ric in particular, and thus improves presentation.

The length of the blade on the Sushikiri knives is usually between 8 and 9-inches. The pronounced curvature to the cutting edge allows a sushi roll to be sliced through with one rolling action of the knife blade.

These knives are fairly rare in the western world and are mostly used in Japan for the cutting of sushi rolls. However, these knives should receive much more credit for the job that they do.

These knives do not crush the soft rice grains as they slice through the roll, but the rolling action of the sharp blade makes a clean cut through the rice grains and other ingredients.

Many western sushi chefs do not use a Sushikiri knife to cut sushi rolls and simply use their Yanagiba knife in this roll of their sushi preparation. However, in Japan, this practice is frowned upon as the Yanagiba is not intended for this function.

Budget TipBecause the Sushikiri knife is such a specialized knife, this s the one knife that you could leave out of your sushi knife set if you are working to a budget. However, professional kitchens would probably make use of this knife because of the superior quality of the final cut of the sushi rolls for the sake of quality presentation.

Our choice: Are you interested in buying a Sushikiri knife? Find below our recommendation for Sushikiri – Traditional Japanese Knife for Sushi:

Sakai Takayuki Sushikiri 240mm/9.4″ (Amazon link)

Are Sushi And Sashimi Knives The Same?

In the western world, there is often confusion between sushi and sashimi, and the terms are often used interchangeably. They are, however, completely different, and, therefore, the knives are different.

Many people call the Yanagiba knife a sushi knife because it is often used in the creation of sushi. A Yanagiba knife is actually not a sushi knife but a sashimi knife. 

Essentially, sashimi is thinly sliced raw fish. Sashimi is usually eaten on its own with a soya sauce or wasabi sauce as a dip. There are usually no additional ingredients. 

Sushi incorporates raw fish, but it is more often than not combined with other ingredients to produce the dish, rather than the raw fish alone.

Because sushi incorporates the use of raw fish that is often cut in the sashimi-style, sashimi knives are generally used in the creation of sushi dishes. This has led to sashimi knives being incorrectly called sushi knives in the western world.

The Yanagiba knife is not the only sashimi knife, and any of the other sashimi knives could be used in the place of the Yanagiba knife.

Other sashimi knives include the following.

  • Takohiki

The name of this knife means “octopus-puller” and looks similar to the Yanagiba but is a little shorter and does not have a point. The end of the blade is squared off. The Takohiki originates from the Tokyo region, and the squared-off end is useful for slicing the curled-up tentacles of an octopus.

The square tip is also used to easily slide under the sliced fish to transfer it to the plate. Takohiki knives are typically ranging in length between 8-inches up to 13-inches. The most popular lengths are 10.5-inch, 11.8-inch, and 13-inch size knives.

  • Fuguhiki

Fugu, when translated, means Blowfish, and this knife is designed to cut really thin slices of Blowfish, which is a popular fish used in sashimi dishes. The shape and blade profile of the Fuguhiki is very similar to the Yanagiba knife, but it is much thinner and more flexible.

Blowfish Sashimi is called Tessa, and typically the slices of Blowfish need to be thin enough that the design and pattern of the plate are visible through the thin slices of fish. The technique used to cut slices of fish this thin is called the Usuzukuri technique and is only possible with the purpose-designed Fuguhiki knife.

When serving Tessa, the fish is arranged in such a way so as to accentuate the pattern on the plate. These knives come in the same size ranges as the Takohiki knife sizes.

  • Unagisaki

The full name of this knife is Unagisaki hocho which literally means eel filleting knife. It is a relatively short knife with a very sharp point, and the cutting edge angles up very sharply towards the very sharp point. The end of the knife is, thus, very angular.

The very sharp point is inserted into the eel just below the head and then run down the entire length of the eel to open the fish up to gut it and prepare it for filleting.

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:

Comparisons of Different Types of Japanese Knives

Characteristics To Look For In A Sushi Knife

Not all Japanese kitchen knives are suitable for sushi knives because Japanese knives are all created for a specific purpose as are thus really good for the tasks they are designed for, but not great for other tasks. 

When selecting a sushi knife, you may be able to find cheaper alternatives in western-style knives or use more common Japanese-style knives to accomplish the tasks, but there are a variety of factors to consider when making your selection. 

When it comes to the precision required for sushi making, blade construction, shape, and cutting edge become important aspects to examine in a knife that would be suitable for the tasks at hand.

The knives that you choose for each task should as far as possible match the characteristics of the traditional knives that were created for the job

Quality Of Steel

Because sharpness is of paramount importance to be able to get a fine, very sharp cutting edge, the steel that the knife is made from needs to be hard enough and durable enough to support the thin sharp edge.

Usually, carbon steels are the best choice to be able to get the sharpest edge possible, but you may be able to get similar results for a high-carbon stainless steel material, which is often the steel used in western-style knives.

Stainless steels have the advantage in that they are easier to clean and do not stain as easily as high-carbon steel blades.

This means that whatever knife you choose to go with is not going to be cheap since cheap usually implies lower-quality materials, which will mean a sub-standard knife for the task.

Buying cheap will lead to dissatisfaction with the performance of the knife and the results, and you will find yourself looking for a better knife in a short space of time.

TIP: It is really important to take care of the knife steel property. The best to sharpen Japanese knives for sushi is using traditional Japanese whetstones. But choosing the right one can be tricky sometimes so that’s why we wrote a complete guide about buying whetstones. Find out more in the article below:

How To Choose And Buy A Whetstone: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide

Blade Length

To find an alternative blade for the Yanagiba, you should look for a knife that has a blade length of at least between 9 and 12-inches and with a similar blade profile. 

As a replacement for the Usuba, many people opt for a Nakiri, which is often cheaper to purchase and is more commonly available.

The Nakiri can do most of what the Usuba does, but the main difference between the two is that the Usuba is a single bevel blade, and the Nikiri is a double bevel blade.

This means that the Usuba will always provide a straighter, cleaner cut, but if you can live with the difference, as is most often the case in a domestic kitchen, the Nakiri will perform admirably.

An important design in a vegetable processing knife is the height of the blade so that your knuckles will be high enough above the chopping board to allow comfortable chopping of the ingredients.

The Usuba and the Nakiri are also very similar in blade size. Thus the Nakiri will not limit you from that point of view.

The Deba-style knife is a fairly common kitchen knife, but if you don’t have one, and knife that has a similar shape blade and a blade length within the 7 to the 8-inch range would be a suitable substitute, as long as the knife is sharp.

As we have mentioned before, the Sushikiri knife is quite rare, and therefore, you could always substitute this knife with any sharp knife to slice your sushi rolls.

Handle Design

Not many people consider or understand the importance of the handle design in the performance of a knife. Many people consider all the performance capabilities of the knife to be in the characteristics of the blade.

However, this is the part of the knife that your hand will be in contact with the most and the point of control with which you will use the knife. A poorly shaped handle can most certainly adversely affect the performance of a knife.

The handle needs to be ergonomically shaped so that it feels comfortable in your hand and you are able to use the knife without your hand becoming fatigued or high spots on the handle becoming uncomfortable and potentially even causing blisters. 

Hardwoods make the best wood for knife handles, but many modern kitchen knives are opting for synthetic materials that are more resistant to the harsh wet conditions in a kitchen. On Japanese knives, the traditional handle material is wood.

TIP: The handle of traditional Japanese knives is most often made of quality natural wood. This material may wear out over time or be damaged in other ways. For this reason, it is good to know how to replace the handle yourself. Find out the DIY guide in the article below:

7 Simple Steps: How To Replace A Japanese Knife Handle

Left-handed Knives

Single bevel knives can sometimes be a problem for left-handed people . Back in historical times in Japan, left-handedness was considered taboo, and people who were left-handed were sometimes even killed for this reason.

As a result, all single bevel knives were made for right-handed people, with the lefthand side of the blade being the flat side and the righthand side of the blade being the one with the bevel.

In modern times, much of the taboo around being lefthanded has dissipated, and the Japanese manufacturers do make limited numbers of their single bevel knives in the lefthanded orientation, but most of these knives are for export to the western world.

Thus, if you are lefthanded and you are looking for single bevel knives, make sure you source ones that are correctly orientated for your preference.

BTW: If you want to know more about Japanese and other types of knives and their sharpening check out the books listed above. These books are recommended by professional sharpeners and knife makers (Amazon links):

Conclusion

Although any sharp knife will work for making sushi, once you have experienced the joy and pleasure of using Japanese knives for the purpose for which they are intended, you will experience the joy and pleasure that these knives bring to the kitchen. 

There is a good reason why they have become popular for use in the kitchen, even in the western world, and if you want to prepare sushi in the traditional way and have a perfect presentation, then there is no other way to go than to use Japanese knives for making your sushi!

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:

How To Care For Japanese Knives: The Complete Guide

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Sharpy_-_Stainless_knives