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Knife Thrills, Part I: Scouting

Peter Hertzmann - November 18th, 2013

Peter Hertzmann, author of Knife Skills Illustrated, witnesses the art of traditional knife forging in Sakai, Japan.

The building in Sakai, Japan, looked similar to others on the narrow street: two stories high with a faux Meiji-era front. Once inside, I could see that this building was unique. In the back was a coke-fired forge set so low that the blacksmith stood in a well to use it. Scattered around the room were three decades old–electric drop hammers and a couple of grinding wheels. The drop hammers were also set so the user had to stand in a well to use them. (I suspect that in older times, these tasks were performed while sitting cross-legged on the floor.) There was little wasted space, and most surfaces had a black coating of grinding dust and soot. Near the entrance was a rack of steel bars waiting to be transformed into what eventually would become traditional Japanese knives.

I learned that this shop, Kokajikai, is just one of a number of forging shops in the city. A number of other shops take the forged and hardened knife blanks to perform the finish grinding and sharpening, while other shops only make knife handles. Finally, the knife blades and handles are married in another shop by a finishing master who corrects any straightness issues and performs any required engraving. This last craftsman turned out to be the source of work for all the others.

Crafting traditional-style knives in Sakai may be a vanishing skill. As I visited the various shops fashioning parts of the knives, I noticed that the Kokajikai shop was one of the newest. (Even here, the master was in his late 40s, with no young apprentices in sight.) Speaking with Osami Takeyama, the mayor of Sakai, I learned that the city is considering sponsoring one-year apprenticeships to create a supply of future craftsmen.

The knives made in Sakai mostly fit into the three style categories of traditional Japanese knives: deba, usuba, and yanagi. The deba is the chef’s fish filleting and boning knife—its heavy spine and heft make it ideal for separating a fish's head from its body. The usuba is a knife used for slicing and shredding vegetables. The yanagi is the all-around knife seen in sushi bars thinly slicing fish fillets. All three knife-styles are available in multiple lengths, thicknesses, and materials. The variety seems endless. Compared to multipurpose, Western-style knives, these knives seem to have a single intended purpose, such as a takobiki, a variant of the yanagi, used for straight-cut sashimi. Or the nakiri, a thinner version of the usuba, described by some references as for home rather than professional use.

Most of the knives produced in Sakai are traditional in that the thick, uniform-thickness blades are beveled on only one side. This makes each knife right- or left-handed, depending on which side the bevel is on. The backside of each blade, the side without the bevel, is slightly concave along its length. This feature facilitates sharpening. The geometry of these knife blades makes it possible to have cutting-edge bevel angles in the order of 10 to 12 degrees. This angle, which is one-third to one-quarter the cutting-edge bevel angle of most Western-style knives, combined with the use of harder steels, makes these knives much sharper than the ordinary knife produced outside of Sakai.

These knives, and all their variations, have evolved to be the ideal knives for preparing Japanese foodstuffs. But therein lies the problem we face back in the United States: Cooks buy traditional Japanese knives and attempt to use them the same as Western-style knives. All knives cut in a direction equal to the mid-plane between the edge bevels. In a Western-style knife, that direction is parallel to the central plane of the blade. In a traditional Japanese-style knife, that direction is a few degrees off the central plane in a direction opposite the handedness of the knife. This is confusing for someone trained in a Western kitchen. Recognizing this issue, Japanese manufacturers located mostly outside Sakai also produce Western-style knives with thin-wedged blades, Western handles, and equally angled cutting edges, but these cannot be called traditional Japanese knives.