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A photograph of a person sharpening a traditional Gyuto knife using a whetstone

The history of Japanese knife making

Image Credit: | Above: A person sharpens a traditional Gyuto knife using a whetstone

‘Japanese chefs believe our soul goes into our knives once we start using them.’ So said Masaharu Morimoto, former executive chef of famed restaurant Nobu, highlighting the unique resonance that kitchen knives have in Japan’s culinary culture. It’s not simply that a well-designed blade is crucial to the precise preparation of sashimi and other classic dishes in the Japanese repertoire. It’s also the fact that knife craftsmanship is a proud part of the country’s heritage, bound up with centuries-old rituals and the weapons once wielded by the samurai.

Still with us today, and stored at the famous Shoso-in treasury in the Nara region of Japan, are some fascinating examples of carefully crafted cook’s knives from around 1,300 years ago. It was at some point around that time – during the Heian period which ran from 794 to 1185 – that knives took on a special, almost holy aura, at least in the aristocratic classes. We can deduce this from the existence of the hocho-shiki knife ceremony, which evolved as a way to present fish and meat dishes to Koko, the 58th Emperor of Japan.

The ceremony involved slicing up and serving the food using only a knife and chopsticks, the chef’s fingers never making direct contact with the food. Requiring incredibly deft hand movements and an assertive approach, it enabled mere mortals to present food to the Emperor without ‘contaminating’ the meal with their human touch. Hacho-shiki still has its extravagantly-attired practitioners today, who keep the ritual alive for spellbound audiences.

The ritual would influence the direction of cuisine in Japan. As the chef and food historian Hideo Dekura has said, ‘Appreciation of food forms the foundations of hocho-shiki. Each and every beautiful, meaningful motion of the ritual shows respect towards food; and the detailed, thorough cuts of the knife are symbolic of the mentality to waste nothing. I believe this philosophy has been passed through the 1,300 years leading to the present and is reflected in the spirit behind modern Japanese cooking.’

The Heian period ended in the 12th Century – the same era which witnessed the rise to prominence of the samurai as a warrior caste. The samurai would loom large over Japan’s political and cultural landscape until as late as the 19th Century, becoming renowned for both bushido (their code of honour) and their iconic armoury. The swordsmiths who crafted the samurai’s forbidding weapons would, over time, turn their skills to also creating the kinds of precision-honed, hand-forged knives that would gain a glowing reputation the world over.

The 16th Century would prove to be pivotal in the history of Japanese knives. It was during this era that Portuguese traders began to sail to Japan with wares including guns and, importantly, tobacco. As tobacco became increasingly popular and Japanese farmers began growing their own crops, there was an increased demand for good knives which could be used to cut fresh leaves and finely shred the dried product. As a result, more and more bladesmiths began to specialise in super-sharp knives, further enhancing the fame and prestige of Japanese knife craftsmanship.

Not only did Japanese bladesmiths ramp up the quantity and quality of their products, but they also made a permanent mark on the history of kitchen knives by popularising the single-bevel style of blade. These kinds of blades taper down to the sharp edge on one side only, as opposed to most Western blades which taper down on both sides, symmetrically. Single-bevel blades are immensely sharp, maximise the force of the incision, and continue to be popular with professional chefs who need to make long, smooth, gliding cuts into fish, and razor-thin slices of vegetables like daikon radishes.

An even more significant milestone in the history of Japanese knives came in the 19th Century, when the Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought about the end of the feudal system and the total restructuring of Japanese society. It heralded the end of the age of the samurai – a fact that was hammered home by the Sword Abolishment Edict of 1876, which outlawed the carrying of swords in public.

The abrupt lack of a market for swords forced droves of bladesmiths to move with the times and specialise in kitchen knives full time. This shift would cement the place of knife-making as a cherished and esteemed industry in Japan, with the best Japanese knives regarded by chefs and foodies almost as works of art. That’s literally true when you consider the sumptuous rippled designs of Damascus-style blades, is another example of how modern Japanese knife-making techniques continue to blend practicality with beautiful design, maintaining a rich heritage that reaches back well over a thousand years.