In the quest for culinary craftsmanship, the choice between Japanese and German knives is like selecting the perfect instrument for a maestro's masterpiece. Each blade embodies a distinct set of qualities, from sharpness to heft, and precision to versatility. In this post, I will discuss the differences between Japanese and German knives, exploring the craftsmanship and the artistry behind these iconic kitchen tools.
Type of Steel
Japanese knives are typically made from steel with a higher carbon content, which contributes to a sharper and more durable edge. Japanese knives are also made with a variety of high-carbon steel alloys (e.g. VG-10, Blue Steel, White steel), each prized for its unique balance of hardness, sharpness and corrosion resistance.
German knives typically use steel with a lower carbon content. This makes the steel more forgiving and less prone to chipping, but it tends to get dull faster and requires more frequent sharpening. Most German knives are made from an alloy known for its corrosion resistance and ease of sharpening.
Blade Design and Profile
Japanese knives often have a sleek, slender design with an edge ground to a finer angle, resulting in an exceptionally sharp cutting edge. The blades are typically thinner, lighter and sharper facilitating precision cuts and intricate tasks such as julienning, fine slicing and creating intricate garnishes.
German knives typically have a thicker, heavier blade. The edge is usually ground to a wider angle compared to Japanese knives, providing more durability but sacrificing some sharpness. The wider blade allows for effective rocking motions, making them ideal for heavy-duty tasks and Western-style chopping and dicing.
Blade Hardness and Sharpness
The high-carbon steel used in Japanese knives is harder than the steel used in German knives. Hardness is measured on the Rockwell scale, and Japanese knives typically range from 58 to 64 HRC (Rockwell Hardness Scale). While this increased hardness contributes to exceptional sharpness and edge retention, it can make the blade more brittle and prone to chipping if not handled carefully.
The photo below is a close-up of the razor sharp single bevel on a Shun chef knife.
German knives are generally made from softer steel, measuring around 55 to 58 HRC on the Rockwell scale. This softness provides more toughness and durability, making German knives less prone to chipping but requiring more frequent sharpening. The picture below is of a German chef knife in need of sharpening.
Traditional Japanese knives are often made using a process where the blade is forged from a single piece of high-carbon steel. Some of the modern Japanese knives feature layered construction (e.g. Damascus steel) with a hard steel core sandwiched between layers of softer steel for added durability and ease of maintenance. Japanese knives are often not full-tanged, meaning the steel does not extend all the way through the handle.
German knives often have a full-tang construction, meaning the blade extends through the handle. This provides some added stability and shifts the weight back towards the handle. The blade may be forged or stamped.
German knife with full-tang construction.
Some German knives, like this Gunter Wilhelm chef knife, feature a full-tang construction that emcompasses nearly the entire handle.
Some Japanese knives, like this Nakano chef knife, feature full-tang construction.
Close-up of the Nakano knife full-tang construction.
Weight and Balance
Japanese knives are generally lighter and have a more forward balance making them well-suited for slicing and intricate tasks.
German knives are heavier and often have a balance closer to the handle. This weight and balance provide more heft, making them suitable for Western-style rocking for chopping and dicing. The added weight of German knives is advantageous for tasks that require more force, such as cutting large tough vegetables, like Winter squash.
Types of Knives
Japanese knife makers create more types of knives, each designed with a specific task in mind. They excel at intricate and delicate tasks, making them ideal for precision cuts and fine slicing. The photo below shows just a few of the many different types of Japanese kitchen knives.
German knife manufacturers generally offer fewer types of knives. They tend to focus on producing the most widely used kitchen knives.
Japanese knives require a slightly different cutting technique than German knives. For example, when using a chef knife like a Gyuto or Santoku, a gentle pulling or push-and-pull motion is used rather than a rocking motion. The thin blades and razor-sharp edge effortlessly produce very precise cuts. Japanese knives should never be used with an up and down chopping motion.
The blade of a wider and heavier German chef knife has more of curve to it and excels at chopping and dicing using a rocking motion. A German knife can also be used with a push-and-pull motion, but with noticeably more drag and resistance than a Japanese chef knife.
Japanese knives are often selected for their aesthetic appeal. High-end Japanese knives can be works of art with blade patterns created by layered steel and elegant handle designs. The photo below shows the hammered finish in a Shun chef knife and the many layers of Damascus steel in the Bob Kramer chef knife.
German knife makers are starting to incorporate polished handle end caps and wood handles.
Care and Maintenance
Japanese and German knives require slightly different levels of care due to the types of steel used. The high-carbon steel used in Japanese knives is more prone to corrosion, pitting and rust. Never leave a Japanese chef knife laying on the counter after you have prepped your ingredients. Wash and dry it right away.
The softer steel used in German knives is less prone to corrosion and rust so there is less urgency to wash and dry them right away. However, if you are like me and own both Japanese and German kitchen knives, just get into to the habit of caring for all of your knives the same way. Wash and dry them right away. All knives should be washed immediately, by hand, using hot water with a mild detergent. They should then be thoroughly dried with a soft kitchen towel to avoid corrosion, paying particular attention to the knife edge. That is where corrosion, pitting and rust will first appear. Never lay it on the counter to air dry.
Invest in a bottle of food-grade knife oil and apply one drop of oil each side of the dry blade and spread with a soft cloth. Carefully ensure that the edge of the blade has been oiled. Be careful, it is very sharp.
Avoid the Dishwasher
Regular honing and occasional sharpening will keep the blades razor-sharp. Treat your knife well and it will last for many years.
Kitchen knives should never be washed in the dishwasher. The harsh environment will accelerate pitting, rust and corrosion. However, when my kids where young, I owned one good knife and a drawer full of OK knives with plastic handles that always went into the dishwasher. One of my sons owned several high-end Japanese knives then purchased a set of "beater" knives when he had kids. He said, "There is no time to hand-wash knives, it's all about quick and easy."
The knives that I washed in the dishwasher took a beating and paid the price. The photo below shows rust forming as a direct result of the harsh environment inside a dishwasher.
The next photo show what happens when a kitchen knife gets a little too close to a dishwasher heating element. The putrid smell from the burning handle was overwhelming. I thought there was an electrical fire and called the Fire Department. After 10 minutes of searching, the fire fighters found my poor paring knife at the bottom of the dishwasher. The photo below was after fixing it.
The choice between Japanese and German knives comes down to personal preference and the tasks you frequently perform in the kitchen. Japanese knives are renowned for their sharpness, precision and beauty and are ideal for intricate tasks. German knives are known for their durability and versatility, making them suitable for a variety of everyday kitchen tasks.
Whether you're drawn to the precision and elegance of Japanese knives or the durability and versatility of German knives, pick what is right for you. I own a combination of both because that is what works for me. I like the heft and durability of German knives for some tasks and appreciate the elegant beauty and design of a Japanese knives for other tasks. Both have their place in my kitchen.