tell me what you eat and i will tell you what you are

DIS-MOI CE QUE TU MANGES JE TE DIRAI CE QUE TU ES

The first in a series of articles on the Japanese knife.

The newest member of the western double bevelled family of culinary knife makers is Japan. Different from the western traditions, Japan has a more artisanal approach to their new culinary cutlery industry.

Throughout Japanese society the skill of the craftsman is recognized, rewarded, and encouraged. No matter if it is woodworking, weaving, pottery, lacquerware, or even blacksmithing, Japan has nurtured craftsmanship too levels unfamiliar to us in the West. In Japan, the very best craftsperson in a given discipline can be recognized as a living national treasure: Ningen Kokuho.

The traditional Japanese fish butchery knives are based on a blade design that has a single bevelled cutting edge (to one side Kataba) and is flat (or slightly convex/Urasuki) on the other. From this blade design comes a great variety of shapes, thickness, lengths, and tip curves/angles for use in their fish butchery trade (given that domestic mammal consumption was illegal from 675 until 1873).  Some of these fish blade designs date back to the late Heian Period, such as the Gishiki Bocho, a fish-filleting knife that is still used in Shinto rituals.

Single bevelled Japanese knives (Wa-Bocho) are, for the most part, designed to cut as you pull (hiki) the blade towards yourself. Western cutlery blades are designed to cut forward or in a chopping/rocking motion using all parts of the cutting edge depending on what needs to be prepared.

In Japan the culinary knife is used more to complete or present while in the west we use the knife more to prepare or at the beginning of a recipe. The focus on sharpness dominates Japan’s knives while failing to appreciate how demanding the “prep” of a western kitchen can be. For example, signs of a process such as hammer marks and blackened blades have been embraced as confirmation of craftsmanship, while in Japan these same signs can indicate a state of incompleteness.

The contemporary Japanese knife making industry is driven by large business concerns, such as KAI, who is equal to the task of competing with large international brands. This is supported by an established network of very skilled medium and small sized companies (of which only a very few can truthfully claim some historical connection with the sword making) and most importantly the independent blacksmiths who are the foundation of today’s Japanese knife makers.

What created the interest in Japan to make western knives (Ryoba) was not a chance occurrence or sudden inspiration, but rather a marketing decision made by its knifemakers responding to market opportunities in late post war Japan. Driven by the food explosion that that had taken place in the 1950’s  the question was what blade shape do these Gaijin (Japanese term for non Japanese) use to process these new to our culture raw food materials and mammal protein (for the first time in the history of the nation).

In the end Japan, embraced the K-Sabatier double bevelled blades of France with their black handles and three rivets and, their slim, long and graceful cutting edge for their Gyuto and Petty knife designs. Of all the Western nations Japan had come to know, France’s demanding terms of preparation of its cuisine confirmed these blades were best suited for this new national market. But like everything transitioned into Japanese culture these knives where converted from “push cutting tools” to “pull cutting tools” like all the other types of edged tools made in Japan.

published 2012 updated 2021 by author.