A Wabochoh usually features a straight handle made of Magnolia wood with a water buffalo horn ferrule, and a single bevel edge blade made of carbon steel. They are professional knives, designed to do a single task exceptionally well, with the downside of them not being very versatile outside of their intended use. Due to their focus on a very specific use, there is a large variety of them. We focus here on explaining the most common ones, which are also used in private kitchens.
A Yobochoh is not to be confused with a Western knife, although it may look like one, typically with a classical Western 3-rivet handle (although versions with a Japanese handle are also available). First, a Yobochoh is never full bolster, but has no bolster or a half-bolster. More importantly, the blade is thinner, lighter and sharper than a similar looking Western equivalent. They are available in carbon and stainless steel.
Recently, a new category has been created, “Modern” Japanese knives. It’s a merger between a Yobochoh blade with a Wabochoh handle, and made to recreate the look of a Japanese sword, by using a Damascus blade and more valuable looking handles than a typical Wabochoh, so as to look Japanese to a foreign consumer. Those knives were made for international markets and couldn’t even be found in Japan for years after becoming popular abroad. In the past 10 years, they have become available in Japan too, many of them sold to tourists, but also to Japanese consumers, although still minor in share as compared to the traditional Yobochoh and Wabochoh.
These are the most common Japanese blades and their usage:
The Santoku is the Japanese all-purpose knife. Santoku means “three virtues”, and the debate is out whether those are cutting fish, meat and vegetables or performing the task of slicing, chopping and dicing. It has a wider blade and a straighter edge than a Chef’s knife, making it more suited to the push-cutting that is popular in Japan. Thus, it’s by far the most popular blade shape with Japanese consumers, accounting for almost half of knife sales. The blade has recently gained a lot of popularity in Western kitchens and is now the 2nd best sold after the Chef’s knife. The Santoku comes in sizes from 14 cm / 5.5” to 18 cm / 7”, with the latter being by far the most popular.
The Petty knife (coming from the French Petit = small) is the Japanese version of a paring knife, with common sizes from 12-15 cm (5-6”). It’s used in a very similar way to a paring or small utility knife.
The Gyutoh (literally translated as “beef sword”) is the Japanese equivalent of a Chef’s knife. The blade profile is very similar to that of a Western Chef’s knife, and so are its uses. The blade geometry however follows the Japanese blade philosophy, thinner, with straighter grind, very thin behind the edge and with an acute angle of the cutting edge, for best sharpness. The Gyotoh is widely used in professional kitchens for slicing and rock-chopping, but is not as popular for home use, where a Santoku is used in it’s place. It comes in sizes from 18-33 cm (7”-13”), with 20 cm / 8“ being the most popular for home use and 24-27 cm (9”-10.5”) for professionals.
The Nakiri knife is mainly used for chopping vegetables. The shape features a wide blade with straight edge and squared off tips, to allow cutting all the way through to the cutting board in a singe push. A typical size of the Nakiri would be 17 cm / 6.5”. It has a double bevel edge and is not to be confused with its single bevel cousin, the Usuba.
The Sujihiki (literally translated as “pulling sinew”) is the Japanese equivalent of a slicing knife. It’s used for trimming away sinew or fat from meat, finely slicing meat or boneless fish, as well as filleting and skinning fish. It comes in sizes from 21-36 cm (8-14”), with 24 and 27 cm (9.5” and 11”) being the most popular.
Yanagiba or Sashimi Knife
The Yanagiba (literally translated as “willow leaf blade”) is a professional Japanese blade especially made for cutting fish into thin slices, to be eaten raw as Sashimi or on rice as Sushi. The single bevel edge with hollow-grind on one side makes the edge extremely thin and sharp and avoids sticking of the fish to the blade, thus allowing to cut the fish in one slice. A Yanagiba comes in sizes from 21-36 cm (8-14”), with 27 and 30 cm (11” and 12”) being the most popular.
The Deba is a professional, Japanese single bevel edge knife, made to behead and fillet fish. The blade is very thick, usually 5 mm or more, making the knife very heavy. With it’s heavy weight and more obtuse edge angle than other single bevel edge knives, it’s ideal to cut through fish bones. The bevel is made to slide along fish bones, separating the filet. It can also be used for cutting chicken, but is not suitable for cutting through larger bones. It’s available in sizes from 16-30 cm (6-12”), although the smaller sizes of 17 and 21 cm (7” and 8”) are by far the most popular. There also is a smaller version called kodeba (= small Deba), usually 10-12 cm (4-5”) in length and 3.5 mm in thickness, used to clean and fillet small freshwater fish like trout.
The Usuba (literally translated as "thin blade") is the thinnest and sharpest of the single bevel edge knives and made for cutting through vegetables without cracking them, and for shaving cylinders of radish into thin sheets. With it’s tall blade and single bevel edge, it will resist a straight cut, but the sharpness will produce extremely clean cuts through vegetables, leave the texture intact. The Usuba is usually sized between 17 and 21 cm (7” and 8”), with 17 cm / 7” being the more popular.
The Kiritsuke (literally translated as “cut open”) is a cross between an Usuba and a Yanagiba. The blade is wider and the edge straighter than in a Yanagiba, making it suitable for cutting vegetables in a similar way than an Usuba, but with a longer blade to allow one-cut slicing of fish like a Yanagiba. It typically features a single bevel edge and is one of the more difficult blades to use, requiring great knife control and skill. Due to the interesting and sharp looking blade, it has recently gained some popularity in international markets, but with an easier to use double bevel edge. The Kiritsuke is usually sold in sizes between 24 and 33 cm (9”-13”), with 24 cm / 9” and 27 cm / 10” being the most common ones.
There are a lot of other traditional Japanese blades, most of them single bevel edge, even with regional varieties. You will find the name “kiri” in many of them. “Kiri” means “cutting” in Japanese. Here is a short explanation of some of them:
a cross between Santoku and Gyutoh
knife to cut meat (buta = pig)
Japanese term of a Chinese cleaver
for cutting fugu (blowfish); thinner version of a Yanagiba
“hamo cutter” (hamo is a kind of eel)
a kind of a boning knife, but for meat fabrication in hanging butchery
a regional variety of the Bunka bochoh, used in the Kyushu region
designed for de-boning and breaking down poultry
single bevel edge version of the Petty knife; also used for fish slicing
version of the Usuba, but with rounded tip
extremely long single bevel edge knife, made for filleting tuna
miroshi = filleting; more slender and longer than a Deba
specialized deba for filleting kani (= crab) or other shellfish
literally “skin peeling knife”
originally designed to cut whales; now also used for other large fish
“chestnut skin peeler”
similar to a Kiritsuke, but smaller in size
for cleaning and filleting saba mackarels
Soba/ Udon kiri:
for cutting soba or udon noodles
longer, rounded blade in the Kansai region, for cutting sushi rolls
designed to cut tako (octopus); similar to Yanagiba
like takobiki, but with different tip
smaller knife for filleting eel
In Japanese knives, there usually is a distinction between Wabochoh (Japanese knives) and Yobochoh (Western knives).