The carbon knife consumer was forged as a result of a Felix culpa of the new non-Japanese retail knife entrepreneurs. Prior to their arrival fifteen years ago, the five or so Japanese retailers of Japanese knives were Japanese (1).
These new knife retailers set out to confirm that Japanese knife history, technology, innovation, approach to craft, materials, manufacturing methods and culture was just as the web said it was. While the Japanese knife makers presented what they thought the Gaijin (Gai = outside/ Jin = person, Japanese word for non-Japanese) would want, their interpretations of Western knives. Surly this is what they wanted to use in their Western kitchens.
While the Gaijin thought that all of what they where being offered was ancient in use and manufacture; very sure these where better than anything made in their home countries. On top of which 95% of these new Japanese knife retailers where born after 1965, which meant they had all grown up in a stainless steel culinary world with little to no direct experience of carbon steel.
Between the cultural confusion and projections on both sides the first culinary Japanese knives presented by these new entrepreneurs were stainless steel. These offerings where delivered with promises of superiority in materials, manufacture and performance. High money processes abounded like, folded steel and Damascus steel everything handmade. All of which was packed into the two stage closing power of their visual beauty and the mystery of the Japanese Samurai sword.
What was ignored was that the Japanese makers had drawn on their historical traditions and patented a mechanized production system to replicate the Hamon (a critical indicator of a process in sword making) on the sides of double beveled culinary blades (2). Which is known in Japan as a visual homage only.
Like all cultures Japan was shaped by its place; a volcanic mountainous nation with limited quantities of high quality raw materials especially for steel production. This meant that these limited resources had to be used with great wisdom and this shaped the end results. The finest example of this wisdom was that Japan did not solve the age-old problem of; hardening steel (stainless or carbon) increases its brittleness. Japan’s centuries old insightful solution was not metallurgical. Japan freed itself from the problem of increasing hardness increases brittleness, by making their edged tools “pull” when you cut rather than the familiar western preference of “pushing” when you cut. This pulling or tension cutting can be seen throughout a whole range of edged tools such as saws, plains and especially swords.
It is this critical difference in approach, which has allowed the contemporary Japanese culinary knife makers to create significantly thinner, hyper sharp blades ground at angles not used by western culinary makers (11 to 15 degrees (3). This fact (pull cutting) is still overlooked by the new Japanese knife retailers all of whom sold/sell their culinary knives as superior to anything made by western knife makers. This also ignores the underlying difference regarding food and its preparation. Many of the raw materials that in western kitchens we use our knives for are considered fundamental, while in Japan many of these same materials are treated with a different sense of care in their preparation. This makes the knives work well in Japan and be fragile in North American kitchens when processing the same exact materials.
The facts are that the Gyuto and Petty range of culinary knives where developed to fill a need based on the western kitchen’s growing presence in the contemporary Japanese home during the last quarter of the 20th century. These interpretations did not evolve in relationship to the food they where to process or their ability process the food materials in the kitchens of North America but to meet a marketing goal aimed at the Japanese consumer. Hence the use of the designed names Gyuto and Petty (which is also true of the Suntoku which was a rebranding/shaping of the Bunko blade whose origin is most likely China.)
To the Japanese consumer while these interpretations looked like they came from somewhere else, they operated like they where Japanese. They where designed to cut when you pulled them. But their names confirmed their newness which was chosen to example everything western… you can’t get more western than a BEEF! John Wayne, eat a steak… short of wearing a cowboy hat it couldn’t be a more Western thing for the Japanese home.
The Beef knife, a knife referring to an animal that had been illegal to eat for over 1,200 years in Japan. A Beef knife in a country, which has always eaten more pork (wild boar where called mountain whale) than beef (4). A Beef knife, which has no cultural or culinary history in Japan until the 20th century, but is perceived to be an example of everything western, or as the Meiji Restoration defined it “civilized”.
PART TWO: YOU HAD ME AT HELLO (Jerry Maguire 1996)
1. Prior to the explosion of Japanese knife shops beginning in North America and Europe about 20 years ago we could only find a few: SOKO hardware store in San Francisco, Anzen Hardware Los Angeles, Korin New York, Lida’s Honolulu and in Sanko Trading Toronto all of which are still operating today.
2. Mechanical lamination or “cladding” is capable of producing the multiple layers of “jigane” steel ( or what visually looks like a cloud like pattern or the Hamon) on each side or its core “hagane” cutting steel. This process is created by a patented machine at http://www.e-tokko.com/clad_metal.php?lang=en. This process is falsely promoted as Damascus steel or folded steel inferring a handmade process promoted by retailers in full knowledge that it is not hand done nor folded and while technically correct steel is welded to steel it is not a true Damascus process.
3. The Japanese use 10º and 15º as sharpening angle depending on material and the edged tools, manufacturing method and knife type. When a knife is sharpened at these angles by an expert approximately 2mm is removed during each sharpening. For the family of double bevel knives ten to twelve sharpening sessions reduce a blade’s depth which can remove most of the original hagani steel shown at the beginning of the knifes life. This usually occurs approximately 5 years after purchase which is the standard life of a knife in Japan before it is recycled. However, many of the new Japanese knife sharpening experts remove up to 4mm per freehand sharpening consuming the blade edge even faster and distorting the original blade angle. Most commonly evidenced by changing the original curve of the blade into a more straight edge and giving rise to the current new trend of “thinning blades” which is a north Americanized trend in an attempt to extend a blades life after having over sharpened it or refused to accept that the blade was designed for a limited life span by grinding down each full side of the blade (the Jigani). Which only serves to make the blade more fragile because the Jigani was applied to buttress the fragile nature of the hagani steel in the first place.
4. Japan has always consumed more pork than beef so why is the Japanese Chef’s knife called a Gyuto (Beef sword)?
- Abbott and Costello …… The Naughty Nineties 1945