If you're looking for a Japanese knife set, we can help. Japanese knives are some of the best in the world, and we're sharing our top picks to help you find the right set. Whether you're looking for the hardest steel or the most practical option, a splurge or the best value brand, our picks--and buying guide--will help you decide.
Best Japanese Knife Sets at a Glance
Here are our top picks for the best Japanese knife sets in some helpful categories. We didn't want to give too many options and overwhelm readers, even though there are many excellent Japanese knife brands to choose from.
All of our picks are made in Japan, are top quality for their price range, and will serve you well for many years. So even if the set we chose isn't right for you, the brand will probably have another set that is.
For more detailed information (and some other buying options), check out the detailed reviews below.
Japanese Knife Set:
Miyabi Kaizen II 7pc block set
-FC61 steel core w/48 layer Damascus overlay
-Friodur hardened blade
-Honbazuke hand crafted finish
-9.5-12 degree double bevel
-Concealed tang/partial bolster
-Black pakkawood handle
-Chef's, bread, utility, paring, honing rod, shears.
Best for Beginners:
Global Takashi 7pc block set
-Cromova 18 steel blade
-A mix of Global Classic (G), Classic Short (GS), and Classic Forged (GSF)--details below
-15 degree double bevel
-Hollow steel handles filled with sand for balance, dimples for grip
-Chef's, bread, vegetable, peeler, utility, honing rod.
Best Budget Set: MAC 2pc Starter Set
-Molybdenum high carbon stainless steel
-15 degree double bevel
-Stamped blade, no bolster, full tang
-Dimpled for easy food release
-Contoured pakkawood handle
-8" Chef's, 5" paring knife.
Best Build-a-Block set:
Shun Classic 2pc set
-Proprietary VGMax cutting core
-34 layers Damascus steel
-16 degree double bevel
-D-shaped pakkawood handle w/ steel end cap
-Full composite tang
-Chef's knife, honing rod, block w/9 slots plus room for shears and honing rod.
Traditional Japanese Blade and Handle:
Yoshihiro 2pc set
-VG10 steel core
-46 layers Damascus steel
-15 degree double bevel
-Hammered for easy food release
-Octagonal Ambrosia handle
-210mm gyuto, 150mm petty (utility) knife.
How Are Japanese Knives Different Than German/Western Knives?
Traditional Japanese knives are actually very different than German/Western style knives. For example, many traditional Japanese knives have just one bevel and are flat on the other side: this aids in making the fine, precise cuts that are important in many Japanese dishes (sushi, for example).
However, you'd be hard pressed to find a Japanese knife in the Western market that doesn't have a double bevel. They exist, but they are uncommon.
So when we look at the differences, we are looking strictly at Japanese knives made for the Western market and not Japanese knives used by the Japanese. (If you're interested in traditional Japanese knives, this article on Japanese knife brands may be able to help you.)
With that caveat, here are the main differences between German/Western and Japanese-style knives:
Thinner, lighter blades: Most--but not all--Japanese knives sold in the Western market have a thinner spine: 2mm or less at the base of the blade, while standard German knives are almost always more than 2mm (and sometimes more than 3mm). This makes Japanese knives lighter, too, because less steel.
A thinner, lighter blade is not better or worse than a thicker, heavier one. It all depends on your preferences and what you're doing with the knife. Thin blades are excellent for prepping most foods, but for hard foods, you need a thicker, heavier blade. Conversely, you can use a thick, heavy blade for anything in the kitchen, but it can't produce the fine cuts a thinner blade can.
Hardness: Good quality German knives typically have a Rockwell scale hardness rating of 56-58 HRC. Japanese knives are made from harder steel, typically 60-62 HRC. You can find harder German knives and softer Japanese knives (Global, for example, our recommendations for Japanese knife beginners), but in general, you can assume that Japanese knives have harder blades than German knives.
One again, there is no right or wrong here and it is purely about preference: "soft" German knives are still extremely sharp and hold an edge well. But the harder Japanese steel will hold an edge even longer. The downside of harder steel is that it chips more easily, so it's not the right tool for hard foods and bone, whereas softer steel is a better multi-tasker. Harder steel is also harder to sharpen (which is why we recommend Global for beginners).
Shape: Japanese chef's knives--even those with a Western design for the Western market--tend to have a shorter blade as measured from bottom to top. In other words, they're narrower. They are also straighter, with a shallow curve up to the tip. They've evolved that way because of use: the narrower blade is better for precise cutting and the slicing motion used in Japanese cooking.
German blades are wider and have a much more curved "belly." This design makes them great for the rocking cutting motion used in Western cooking, where the tip of the knife stays on the cutting board as you move the knife up and down.
This is worth noting because your cutting style makes the type of chef's knife you buy matter. You can find Japanese knives with a tall blade and deep belly, but many of them are too flat to do the rocking cut comfortably. Miyabi makes some Western-shaped Japanese chef's knives, which you can check out in our Miyabi review.
Cutting angle: In the past, German knives had a double bevel of 20 degrees and Japanese knives had a double (or single) bevel of 9-15 degrees. Today, though, blade angles are all over the place. Most German knives have a double bevel of 15 degrees (14 degrees for Wusthof), and Japanese knives can have double bevels as narrow as 10 degrees (Miyabi and Global SAI) or as much as 16 degrees (Shun). Classic Global knives have an angle of 16 degrees.
To further complicate matters, Japanese knives made by Western makers have 10 degree double bevels. Wusthof and Zwilling santokus and nakiris have 10 degree double bevels.
This is important for a few reasons. One is that the cutting angle gives a knife a specific feel, and you should experiment with different ones to find the one you like the most. Another is for sharpening: if you buy expensive knives, you also need to invest in the right sharpening tools. A 15 degree pull-through sharpener is the wrong tool for many Japanese knives (and even for some Western knives).
Handle material and shape: Most German knives have contoured handles meant to conform to your hand and are usually a little larger and thicker than Japanese handles. Japanese knives traditionally have a round, D-shaped, or octagonal handle (called a "wa-handle" in Japanese), and today you can also find contoured handles on Japanese knives. Japanese handles are often slightly shorter and slightly thinner in diameter than German handles.
German knife handles can be made from POM, an extremely durable synthetic, or different types of natural wood. Value-brand German knives can have cheaper, less durable synthetic handles.
Japanese knife handles can be made from pakkawood, a wood/resin composite; Micarta, another resin composite that uses paper, linen, or other materials; and different types of natural wood.
Both German and Japanese handles are comfortable and provide a safe grip. Once again, you should experiment with different handle shapes and materials to see which ones work best for you.
Types of Japanese Knives
There are several types of Japanese knives. The most common ones sold in the US are the santoku, nakiri, and gyuto.
Deba: A thicker, heavier blade than other Japanese knives, used primarily for cleaning and preparing fish. Similar to a Western-style chef's knife because it's suitable for hard foods and bones (though rarely seen in the Western market).
Gyuto: A general utility knife for cutting meats and vegetables. Similar in style to a Western chef's knife, but the blade is narrower and straighter, with a slight curve that allows you to cut in a slicing or rocking motion. Today there is a lot of overlap in style between gyutos and Western chef's knives sold in the US, with the main difference being that the Japanese blades are thinner and lighter, so not suitable for hard foods and bone.
Honesuki: A Japanese boning knife, used mostly for deboning poultry. Not commonly seen in the Western market, though most Japanese brands sold here have them.
Nakiri: A vegetable knife used for slicing vegetables and chopping hard produce like squash, although the blade is pretty thin (so be careful with hard foods). It has a rectangular blade with a flat cutting edge.
Petty: It may look like a chef's knife but it has a shorter blade; the one pictured here is 5 inches. Used like a paring knife, for cutting small fruits and vegetables and delicate cutting work (herbs, for example).
Santoku: A Santoku is an all-purpose knife but because of the flat blade it cuts with a chopping motion rather than slicing or rocking. An excellent all-purpose knife for vegetables, meat, and fish if you prefer the chopping motion. Standard length is 7 inches rather than 8 inches like the chef's knife, so many people people find it easier to handle.
Sujihiki: Similar to Western slicer knives, but with a thinner blade that allows for a more precise cut. Used primarily for carving and slicing meat.
Usaba: Similar to a nakiri knife and used for vegetables, but typically has just one cutting edge for extremely thin and precise cuts. It also typically has a thicker spine than a nakiri, making it good for hard vegetables. The usaba is sometimes considered the professional version of the nakiri.
Yanagiba: This knife is designed for cutting sashimi and nigiri sushi as well as other types of fish. Typically has just one cutting edge that allows you to make clean, precise cuts with a long, slicing motion.
Types of Japanese Knife Steel
This section covers several common types of steel you'll see in Japanese knives. These aren't all used in the Japanese knife sets we review here, but can still be helpful to know about.
AUS10A: A high chromium, high carbon stainless steel more affordable than VG10. It is softer than VG10, with a Rockwell hardness rating of 58-60 depending on treatment. It offers less corrosion resistance than VG10, and will require more sharpening. It is considered a good quality starter level Japanese knife steel.
Cromova 18: Used exclusively in Global knives, Cromova 18 is a highly rust resistant stainless steel with 18% chromium, plus molybdenum and vanadium (thus the name). The high chromium content is unusual, as most knife steels use around 14% chromium. This means that Global steel is extremely corrosion resistant. Cromova has a hardness of 56-58HRC, making it softer and more durable than most other Japanese steels, yet still able to retain a cutting edge quite well.
Damascus: Damascus steel is made from many layers of steel worked and hammered into a single blade. The blend of different steels creates a stronger final product and takes on beautiful patterns when the blade is ground down. Damascus steel was developed in the pre-industrial era and traditionally hand-wrought. However, today's Damascus steel is not "real" Damascus steel in the sense that the blades are not hand made from several layers of steel, but rather, use a pre-forged piece of Damascus steel. Modern Damascus steel has the fundamental properties of Damascus, being made from several layers, but it is used primarily for appearance today, as modern steels can achieve similar and better strength without the elaborate folding process. Quite often, Japanese knives have a Damascus steel overlay that protects a harder steel core.
FC61 Steel: FC61 steel is a fine-grained martensitic stainless steel with carbon and chromium as its main elements. It is Zwilling J.A. Henckels' proprietary name for Sandvik 13C26 Steel and is commonly used for the Miyabi Evolution, Kaizen II, and Koh lines. "FC" stands for fine carbon and this steel can be hardened to 61 HRC. It is considered an excellent quality high carbon stainless steel for kitchen cutlery.
Japanese 420J: 420J is an inexpensive high carbon stainless steel with good corrosion resistance. It is an inexpensive steel and has a hardness rating of 58HRC, making it softer than most steels used for edges in Japanese knives. This makes it a good material for the upper part of the blade. You'll see 420J on some mid-range and entry level Japanese knives such as the Shun Sora line.
SUS420J2: 420J2 is an inexpensive high carbon stainless steel with good corrosion resistance. It is seen mostly in inexpensive knives. It has a Rockwell hardness rating of 56. Shun uses it for the upper blade, not the cutting edge, on some of their lines, which improves durability and protects the more brittle VG10 or VGMax cutting edge.
SG2: A powdered stainless steel known for excellent wear resistance used on high-end Shun lines. Considered to be an excellent steel for high end kitchen knives. Similar to R2 steel (not used in Shun knives).
VG10: VG10 is a premium Japanese steel with high chromium and high carbon content, as well as containing vanadium and molybdenum, which improve corrosion resistance. It has a Rockwell hardness rating of 60-62, depending on how it's hardened. It is considered a premium Japanese knife steel.
VGMax: VGMax is Shun's proprietary version of VG10 and has slightly better anti-corrosion properties. It has a Rockwell hardness rating of 60-61, depending on hardening. Shun says the "ultra-dense grain structure and purity make it both harder and yet less brittle than other high-performance steels. It is used on Shun Classic and Premier lines.
Types of Japanese Knife Handles
Japanese knife handles are a whole topic in themselves, with designs that go back hundreds of years. In Japanese terminology, there are two types of handles: Wa-handles (Japanese handles) and Yo-handles (Western handles).
We'll take a brief look at the handle styles to give you an idea of the available designs. They are all comfortable and great to use, and which handle fits your grip best is personal preference.
How do you pick a handle? A handle should be above all comfortable. Handle material should provide good grip, and you can choose from several, including traditional wood (several different types), wood-resin composites like pakkawood and Micarta, and modern materials like POM (hard durable plastic often seen in higher-end Western brands), other plastics, and stainless steel.
One feature to be aware of in Japanese knife handles is the size: they are often smaller than Western knife handles, shorter in both length and circumference. The size difference is often not an issue unless you have very large hands, but it's something to be aware of when you're experimenting with different handles.
Here's a quick look at all the handle options:
Oval Handle (Wa): The oval handle is just that: oval. It can have different circumferences, and some can taper in circumference, but they are all a smooth oval shape. The oval handle is considered by many the most comfortable for extended use:
Octagonal Handle (Wa): The octagonal shape is comfortable for people who prefer a firmer grip on their knives, as it can provide more control while cutting:
Octagonal handles can also have elongated sides and are referred to as a shield handle.
D-Shaped Handle (Wa): The D-shaped handle is oval with a flat edge on one side. It offers the most precise grip of all the Wa handles, but is designed for right-handed users. Traditionally, the Japanese knife has just one bevel as well, which makes it nearly impossible for lefties to use a knife like this. However, most knives sold in the Western market have a double bevel, and the D-shape is so subtle that left-handed users often don't even notice it. Some Shun lines have D-shaped handles:
Contoured Handle (Yo): Today, you can find Japanese knives with traditional Western style handles. Western handles tend to be heavier, with three rivets, flat sides, and a contoured shape meant to fit the hand perfectly. This handle can be a little heavier than necessary for lighter Japanese blades (especially if it has the full tang shown here), but it is also extremely comfortable and durable, no matter what the material. If you are accustomed to a Yo (Western style) handle and prefer it, it's fairly easy to find it on Japanese knives today:
Using Japanese Knives
We talked about the differences between Japanese and Western knives above, but how does this affect how you use the knives?
Cutting style: Western chef's knives have a steep curve from the cutting edge up to the tip and the blade is pretty wide from spine to heel. This allows you to use the standard rocking motion while cutting, in which you leave the tip of the knife on the cutting board and rock the blade up and down as you cut. The wide blade matters because when you move the blade up and down, you need sufficient "knuckle clearance" so you don't whack your fingers against the cutting board.
Japanese chef's knife blades tend to be straighter as well as narrower, which means you may not be able to use this rocking motion (not enough knuckle clearance). The standard motion in Japanese cutting is more of a slicing motion, in which you pull the blade across the food, trying to use as much of the blade as possible. With this cutting style, you don't need knuckle clearance, and the thin blade provides excellent control and the ability to make precision cuts--both of which are important in Japanese cooking.
There is a lot of overlap now in chef knife design, so some Japanese blades are wider and have more of a curve, allowing you to use the rocking motion. But in general, you have to adapt your cutting style to the blade you have, or vice versa: no blade is good at everything.
If we're talking about santoku or nakiri knives, these blades are almost completely flat and are designed to use in a chopping, up-and-down motion. It's an excellent way to do veggie prep, but you do have to learn the method if you've been using Western knives.
Uses with different foods: Japanese blades tend to be thinner and lighter than Western blades, and they also are typically made of harder steel. For this reason, a standard Japanese chef's knife is not considered the all-purpose work horse that a Western chef's knife is. This means that you shouldn't use Japanese knives to cut through hard foods and bone, unless they're designed for those foods. So even if you prefer a Japanese chef's knife for its lightness and sharpness, you still need to have a Western knife or cleaver around for when you need to cut hard foods and bone.
Sharpening Japanese Knives
Sharpening Japanese knives also requires some special knowledge because of the different steels and different cutting angles found on Japanese blades.
If you own a standard pull-through sharpener (manual or electric), it may not work on your Japanese knives.
Different steels: Most Japanese knives have harder steel than Western knives. The standard hardness for Western knives is 56-58 HRC; the standard hardness for Japanese knives is 60-62 HRC. These numbers aren't set in stone, but are the most common hardnesses, so you need to know the hardness of your knife blades before you decide on the best sharpening system to use. For example, some Western sharpeners and honing rods aren't going to be hard enough to sharpen the harder Japanese blades.
Different cutting angles: Most Western knives today have a double cutting angle of 14-15 degrees; you can still find some that have a 20 degree double bevel, but most good quality Western knives are right around 15 degrees. Most kitchen knife sharpeners have a 15 degree double bevel, which is perfect for most Western knives.
Japanese knives, on the other hand, can have a range of cutting angles. Some Japanese knives have angles similar to Western knives: Shun knives have a 16 degree double angle and most Global knives have a 15 degree double angle. But other brands have a more traditional, narrower angle: Miyabi knives have a 9-12 degree cutting angle (the variation is due to the hand finishing), and the Global SAI knife has a 12.5 degree angle.
If you invest in good quality Japanese knives, you should know their cutting angle and keep them sharpened as close to it as possible. There is a reason these knives have the edges they have, and you should have the right tools to keep them the way they came.
This means that if you have a pull-through or electric sharpener, it may not work for Japanese knives. You need to decide how to handle that, and there are a few options:
- Learn how to use a whetstone, which can sharpen to an infinite number of angles but has a fairly steep learning curve;
- Buy a guided rod system, which is easier to use than a whetstone but usually more expensive--and you need to be sure you buy one that can sharpen down to the angle you need (not all of them do);
- Send your knives out for sharpening once or twice a year.
Finally, if you want to use a sharpener you already own, then you can just be sure to buy Japanese knives that have that angle, or close to it, like Shun or Global Classic.
For more about sharpening, see our article A Beginner's Guide to Kitchen Knife Sharpeners.
What to Look for When Buying a Japanese Knife Set (A Buying Guide)
Here are the important considerations when buying a Japanese knife set. This section will help you choose the right knives, even if they're not one of our recommendations.
We've already discussed most of these topics above--blade steel, handle types, etc. We reiterate here to help you remember the important considerations when you buy.
How Big a Set Do You Need?
It's always tempting to buy a big block set that has everything plus the kitchen sink: they look great on your counter and you may never have to buy another knife again.
But the truth is that nobody really needs that many knives. Most cooks need just three knives: a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife for bread.
Some don't even need that many, but these three are the standard knives found in most kitchens.
So the reality of buying a big set is that you can end up with knives you don't use and may not even know what they're for. Our recommendation is that before you buy a set, make sure you will use all the knives that are in it.
This isn't to say that you won't ever want other knives than the "big three." In fact, you may want an additional chef's knife in a different size or weight (one for prepping, one for cutting through bones), and you may want a few sizes of paring knives for different jobs, and you may fall in love with a santoku or nakiri that wasn't part of your 16-piece set.
We're big fans of the "build-a-block" concept, in which you buy a block that has all the basics--a chef's knife, a paring knife, a serrated knife, a honing rod, and possibly a kitchen shears--without a bunch of knives that you may not use. This way, you get what you know you need, with room to add more as you fall in love with them.
You can also just go with a small, two-piece set, usually a chef's knife and a paring knife. This is also a good way to get started without investing in a big set that you may not get a lot of use out of. It's also a good way to go if you don't want a butcher block sitting on your counter.
Cost (How Much Should You Spend on a Set?)
There is a huge cost variance among Japanese knife sets. You can get a huge set for under $100, or you can more than $1000 for a similar set or even a smaller one. It all depends on the quality you're looking for.
The cheapest Japanese knife sets are made in China. They can be decent quality and even beautiful, but they will never be top quality, or have any of the craftsmanship found in traditional Japanese-made knives. However, if your budget dictates it, there are some Chinese brands that get good reviews and at least look like traditional Japanese knives. We like Imarku knives for affordable knives that have a lot of style and beauty.
But if you want real Japanese knives made in Japan, you may be better off buying a smaller set of higher end knives. For these knives, we like Global and some of the entry level lines of Shun and Miyabi.
If you have no budget restrictions, then you have a harder choice to make. There are hundreds of Japanese brands on the market, and most of them are high quality. You need to decide which features you want--more on those below--and which knives are the most beautiful to you.
Cost is hard to nail down for a topic as large as Japanese knife sets. As long as you know how much you want to spend, you'll have an idea which brands to look at.
Blade Steel Type and Hardness
We've already discussed blade steel. It is a big consideration for Japanese knives.
Unlike Western knives, most of which are made from the same German high carbon stainless steel across the industry (assuming a standard level of quality), Japanese knives can be made from a wide range of steel. In fact, one reason that Japanese knives have grown in popularity is because it's there that all the innovations in steel and blade-making are happening. There are a lot of options to choose from.
We listed the most popular Japanese steels above, so you can check back on there if you want to learn more. The biggest thing to remember is that Japanese steel is almost universally harder than German steel, so it requires different use, care, and sharpening (which we've also already discussed).
One of the most fun things about Japanese knives is that you get to decide how hard of a blade you want. Most Japanese steel is around 60-62 HRC, but you can find steels as hard as 66 HRC (such as the Miyabi Black), which is astonishing.
Harder steel holds an edge longer, but is also more brittle and harder to sharpen. We think that a good range of hardness for most home cooks is 58-60 HRC; if you're more experienced, then you can go a little higher.
However, there's really no reason for most cooks to go any harder (or softer) than this. A hardness rating of 58-60 will hold an edge very well and makes for excellent all-around knives. Go harder than this, and you will have to handle the knife with extreme care. Go softer than this, and your blade will wear down fast enough to be annoying (softer steels are found on inexpensve Western knife brands).
Blade Shape and Size
Do you prefer a Western-style rocking motion when cutting? If so, you need a chef's knife with a blade that curves up to the tip, allowing you to rock the knife efficiently on the cutting board. Standard Western chef's knives are shaped like this, and some Japanese chef's knives are as well, although they tend to be narrower and have a straighter cutting edge.
Or do you prefer a flatter, up-and-down cutting motion? If so, the flatter blade of a santoku or nakiri is right for you, or possibly a very traditional Japanese chef's knife (gyuto) with a flattish, narrow blade.
Today, there is a fairly large amount of variety of shape and size in Japanese chef's knives: some are shaped very traditionally, and some look just like a Western chef's knife.
As for paring knives, bread knives, and utility knives, these are all used in largely the same ways, so the shape doesn't matter as much. However, you will find a lot of variation in styles for each type of knife. Paring knives, in particular, can be thin or fat, short or long, smooth or serrated. A standard paring knife is a thinnish 3.5-4 inch blade, there are a lot of different styles to choose from.
If you're new to buying knives or cooking, how do you know which knives you like? Well, you don't--so you have to try different styles and see what fits best for you. Luckily, Amazon has a generous return policy, so if you're buying online, you can try several. (If you're buying in person, most kitchen stores have a butcher block and will let you try any knife in the store--if they won't, then don't buy there.)
Blade Cutting Angle
We've already discussed this, too, but it's important. Japanese knives can have a cutting angle that ranges from 9 degrees all the way up to 16 degrees. The thinner the angle, the sharper the knife, and the faster and easier it will move through food.
On the other hand, a wider angle is more durable, and yet still quite sharp. A wider angle blade like a Shun will cut more like a German knife so may feel more familiar to you. A narrower angle will have a much more traditional Japanese feel.
There's no wrong answer, as this is just personal preference. But whichever blades you end up with, be sure you have the right tools for sharpening them--one knife sharpener does not fit all blades.
Handle Considerations: Material, Shape, Size
We've already looked at handle design, so we'll just do a quick recap here.
Material: Handle material is important for most of all for comfort, and also for hygiene.
First, you want a handle that's comfortable to hold, not too heavy, not too light, and conforms to your hand (more on that in a minute).
Japanese knife handles come in several materials, including wood, plastic, and wood-plastic composites like pakkawood and Micarta. All make comfortable handles and it's up to you to decide which you prefer.
Wooden handles tend to be more expensive, but are not as resistant to bacteria as synthetic handles. They are quite comfortable in your hand and also beautiful.
Synthetic handles tend to be less expensive, and in some cases are a great way to get top notch Japanese steel blade for a surprisingly affordable price (looking at you, Miyabi). We really like the pakkawood and Micarta handles, and recommend them for most cooks.
Shape: We looked closely at Japanese handle shapes above. You can choose from oval, octagonal/shield, D-shaped, or even Western style contoured handles, which many Japanese brands now have. The traditional Wa handles are lighter than Western handles, which gives the knives a more nimble feel. However, Western handles are quite comfortable, although they can lean the balance away from the blade. Once again, this is neither good nor bad, but personal preference.
Size: In general, Japanese knife handles tend to be smaller than Western knife handles. Be sure that any handle you try fits your hand well and is comfortable.
Weight and Balance
Japanese knives tend to be lighter than Western knives and are intended for lighter tasks; if you need something for bones and hard foods, consider a cleaver, a Western chef's knife, or a Japanese deba.
Along with the light weight, good quality Japanese knives usually have excellent balance, with a center of gravity right where the blade meets the handle. This is where most cooks want it because it makes the knife a pleasure to use and reduces hand strain.
Some cooks, however, prefer a knife with more weight in the blade, to help move through food, or in the handle, which some believe improves control.
Once again, you just have to try different knives to figure out what your preferences are. But in general, a well-balanced knife with the center of gravity in the middle--where you hold it while you cut--works best for most people.
Perhaps this shouldn't be an issue, but it always is, and there's nothing wrong with wanting beautiful knives. Japanese knives, in particular, can be strikingly beautiful, and there's no reason you should buy knives that you don't find attractive.
Our only caution here is that you should go for quality first rather than get an inexpensive but fancy-looking set made in China. Japanese-made knives are going to be higher quality and be made with traditional methods. Even if a Japanese-made set isn't as fancy looking (though many of them are), the quality will shine through and be beautiful.
Best Japanese Set Overall: Miyabi Kaizen II 7 Piece Block
See Miyabi Kaizen II 7 pc block set on Amazon
See Miyabi Kaizen II 7 pc block set at Sur la Table
Features and Specs
- 3 1/2" paring knife
- 4 1/2" utility knife
- 8" chef's knife
- 9 1/2" bread knife
- Honing steel
- Kitchen shears
- Bamboo storage block with three extra slots for expansion.
A lot of review sites pick Shun for best overall Japanese knife brand. Shun is a high quality brand, but we prefer Miyabi for a few reasons. First, Miyabi knives are all hand-finished (this is why the cutting angle varies between 9-12 degrees), and the attention to detail is exquisite. Miyabi offers more steel options, all the way up to a hardness of HRC 66 (wow!). And Shun knives have a respectable, Western-style cutting angle of 16 degrees, while Miyabi offers a more traditional 9-12 degree double bevel--this means that Miyabi knives feel thinner and lighter than Shun knives in general, and this is typically what people want in a Japanese kitchen knife. Finally, the prices of Shun and Miyabi have a lot of overlap; though premium Miyabi lines are priced higher than Shun, many of their lines are close to Shun in price, or even less expensive, even with premium Japanese steel blades.
So if you want to go high-end Japanese, Miyabi should be on your short list.
Somewhat ironically, Miyabi is owned by Zwilling, the German knife and cookware conglomerate. However, all Miyabi knives are made in Seki, Japan and hand finished with traditional Japanese methods. While Miyabis can have some German features, the blade design is all Japanese.
The Kaizen II line one of Miyabi's "entry level" lines, with prices close to the Shun Classic line. But this "entry level" line is made of proprietary FC61 steel that's hardened to HRC 61. When you add to this the hand finishing, with all the edges rounded and smoothed for a comfortable grip (and a great look), it hardly feels like an "entry level" knife. In fact, it's as good as knives used by professional Japanese chefs.
The Kaizen II knives come with pakkawood handles, probably the reason they're priced lower than some other Miyabi lines that have premium wood handles. But the detail is exquisite, with red spacers, a steel end cap with the Miyabi logo hand-carved into it, and a mosaic pin that's hammered into the handle piece by piece. For a chef's knife priced at about $150, this is impressive attention to detail.
And frankly, pakkawood is excellent handle material: it looks like wood but it's more durable and resistant to bacteria.
In any case, if you're looking for a high-end set of Japanese cutlery that has everything you need and nothing you don't, this Kaizen II set should fit the bill for almost anyone. You get four standard knives, plus a honing rod and kitchen shears. The block has a few extra slots so you can expand your collection if you want to.
And these knives are a joy to use. If you love the thinness and lightness of Japanese blades, then this Kaizen II set is a must-try. The thin, super hard blades provide a true Japanese cutting experience, as do the D-shaped handles. If you're left-handed, you may find the handle uncomfortable, but most people don't notice it.
The blade on the chef's knife is too wide to be a gyuto, but too narrow to be a Western chef's knife. Instead, it's got a nice in-between shape, with a nicely curved belly that allows you to cut with a rocking motion (Western style) or a slicing motion (Japanese style).
The sharpness is incredible. These knives will glide through anything--just avoid hard foods and bone, as you would with any high quality Japanese knife, because the extremely hard steel can chip.
The handle on the Kaizen II is a little bit bigger in circumference than other Miyabi knives, with a swell in the middle to aid with grip. If you have bigger hands, then the Kaizen II should be one of the first Japanese knives you try.
We love that this set has a honing rod, shears, and room for expansion. (Everyone needs a honing rod and shears.) At just over $600, this set isn't cheap, but you should consider it a high-end purchase that you'll have for a lifetime. Think of these knives as working pieces of art.
Pros and Cons
- Superb quality hard Japanese steel at a (fairly) affordable price
- Set includes the basic essentials with a few extra slots if you want to add to your collection
- Exquisitely hand finished blade and handle
- Miyabi Kaizen II knives provide a true Japanese cutlery experience.
- Fairly expensive
- Not for use with hard foods and bone (like all Japanese knives).
This Miyabi Kaizen II set has superb Japanese steel, traditional D-shaped pakkawood Japanese handles, and a thin Japanese blade, all of which makes these authentic Japanese knives. The Kaizen II line is a great way to get top notch Japanese steel at a fairly affordable price.
These are excellent knives, and this set has everything you need--plus room for expansion. The kitchen shears is a nice bonus, and the honing rod is a must-have.
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Best Japanese Set for Beginners: Global 7 Piece Takashi
See Global Takashi 7 piece set on Amazon
See Global Takashi 7 piece set at Sur la Table
Features and Specs
- 8" Chef's knife, stamped (G2)
- 8.5" serrated bread knife, stamped (G9)
- 5.5" vegetable knife with short handle (GS-5)
- 4.25" utility knife, forged with short handle (GSF-22)
- 3" peeler, forged with short handle (GSF -15)
- Ceramic sharpening rod (G74)
- Wooden knife block with two extra slots.
Global knives are a great choice if you're just getting into Japanese knives. The steel is high quality, but not as hard as you'll see on other high-end Japanese brands, which makes them more durable and easier to sharpen. The steel handles are styled much like a Western knife, so the grip is familiar. Yet the knives are thin and light and they provide an excellent Japanese feel when using.
Global makes a few Classic different lines, including both stamped (G, GS) and forged (GF, GSF). Note: all other Global lines are stamped. For some reason, Global likes to mix different Classic lines in their sets, so this set includes both stamped knives (G and GS) and forged knives (GSF). An "S" in the model number indicates a shorter handle, which can be triangular or contoured. So Global also likes to mix handle designs in their sets, as well (which you can see in the image above).
In any case, this is a great set. The two small paring knives may be redundant, but other than that there's nothing here that you don't need or won't use. The G-2 chef's knife is one of Global's best-sellers and a fabulous Japanese chef's knife. In fact, the G2 was Anthony Bourdain's favorite knife.
If you're accustomed to Western knives, then your first use of a Global will be a satori experience to the world of Japanese cutlery. These knives are thinner and lighter than Shuns and provide a truly exceptional cutting experience. The blades are quite thin, and they have the unique Global bevel that gives the knife a super-sharp feel (you can read more about this in our detailed Global review, linked above). In short, Globals have a different feel than any Western knife you've ever used.
The vegetable knife (nakiri in Japanese) is a nice addition to the set because it provides a genuine Japanese tool for prepping veggies. You may need to learn how to use the flat blade (no rocking cuts), but once you do you will probably fall in love with it. The thin, flat blade makes quick work of veggie prepping and is a lot of fun to use.
And the handles! The different handle styles make for an interesting-looking set, but we think they all work. The handle shape will feel familiar to you if you use Western-style knives because of how they fit into your hand. Yet at the same time, they're unique--not only because they're steel, but because of their special Global design. Global has won several design awards and these magnificent handles are one reason why.
As with many Japanese knives, some people feel the handles are too small--so if you have big hands, Global may not be the right choice for you. But the handles are designed the way they are for a reason, so you should try them before you decide. Anthony Bourdain had big hands, and he loved his Global G-2 chef's knife.
The dimples supply excellent grip and give the handle a "fit" that just feels natural; for some people, almost like an extension of their arm.
The all-stainless steel construction provides a great modern look.
In short, Global knives are not only an excellent introduction to Japanese knives, and great knives in their own right. And we think the Takashi set is a great way to get started because it comes with a honing rod plus all the knives you'll probably ever need. There's also a slot for a kitchen shears--you can find much less expensive than this, but they may not fit in the slot, which is on the small side.
If you don't like the Takashi set or are looking for something with a little more pizzazz, Global has several cool, modern-looking sets with glass and/or steel blocks. In fact, Global probably has the largest variety of sets of any Japanese maker.
Unfortunately, none of these sleek-looking sets have a honing rod or room for expansion. (But many of them are smaller than a block set, which may be important if you have limited counter space.)
We picked the Takashi set for its completeness, plus the extra slots that will allow you to expand your collection. But if this isn't your style, don't give up on Global. If you like the Global design, then you'll probably be able to find a Global set you like.
Pros and Cons
- Softer but more durable than harder Japanese steels (great for beginners and easier to sharpen)
- Stamped construction keeps prices lower than for other high-end Japanese brands
- Sleek, modern design
- Traditional Japanese thin blade with Western-ish handles (again, great for people new to Japanese cutlery).
- Softer steel won't hold an edge as long as harder Japanese steels
- Not great for hard foods and bone
- Handles are on the small side, and thin (try before you buy!).
Global is a high quality brand with a lot of great features. The Takashi set has everything you need and nothing you don't. If you want to get into Japanese knives but have been wary because of the extreme hardness, Global offers Japanese features in a softer steel of HRC 56-58. This makes them easier to sharpen yet still have excellent edge retention.
If you like the design and find the handles comfortable, Global is an excellent choice. If you like Global but want a different set, they probably have one you'll like as they offer several different set options (see link above).
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Best Japanese Budget Set: MAC 2 Piece Starter Set
See MAC 2 pc starter set on Amazon
Features and Specs
- 8-inch TH-80 chef's knife
- 5-inch paring knife.
MAC Knives are made in Japan with high carbon stainless steel that contains chrome, vanadium, molybdenum, and tungsten. The result is a blade rated 60HRC with an extremely sharp edge.
MAC knives are hugely popular among pro chefs and their popularity is growing among home cooks as more people discover this brand. These aren't the lowest-priced Japanese knives on the market; far from it. However, MAC knives are made in Japan, by master knife makers, and not a factory in China, where you'll find that pretty much all the low-priced Japanese knives are made.
So for about $150, you get two excellent quality, made-in-Japan knives that will almost certainly outlast cheaper knives by decades.
The most popular MAC knife is the MTH-80, rated the "best chef's knife" by The New York Times' review site. The TH-80 is a less expensive version of the MTH-80, but other than lacking a bolster, it will provide a very similar cutting experience to the MTH-80 (which goes for about $150; the TH80 is about $100 on its own).
Both knives get great reviews on Amazon: everyone who uses one of these knives seems to fall in love with it.
These knives have great balance and are fun to use. The blades are flattish--as in, not very curved, like a gyuto--but also wide, like a German chef's knife. The shape is a cross between a chef's knife and a santoku, and you can do lots of different kinds of cutting with it. We love that the paring knife is a miniature version of the chef's knife, so you can use it like a paring knife or a utility knife (great for tasks too small for a chef's knife).
The handle is contoured and flat on both sides like a Western knife . It's also a little larger than many Japanese handles--again, like a Western knife.
The full tang adds a little weight, but at 6 ounces, this is a pretty light knife.
As with all Japanese knives, you should avoid hard foods and bone--but even so, this is one of the more durable Japanese blades we've tested.
Pros and Cons
- Great price for high quality, made-in-Japan knife set
- Extremely sharp and very durable.
- No bolster
- Stamped blade
- Not great for hard foods and bone.
If you want a couple of excellent starter knives at a decent price, the MAC 2 piece set is an excellent way to go. There are cheaper options, but few of them are as high quality as the MAC knives, and they don't get the amazing reviews that these MAC knives get.
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Looking for something different?
If you're looking for a larger set or a lower budget price point, Imarku knives get good reviews. Imarku knives are made in China, so we didn't test them, but going by the reviews, we think they're probably decent quality. You're not going to get high-end Japanese steel, but they make some impressive-looking sets that will look great in your kitchen.
Best Japanese Build-a-Block Set: Shun Classic 2 Piece
See Shun Classic 2 pc set on Amazon
Features and Specs
- 8-inch (200mm) Shun Classic chef's knife
- Shun Classic honing rod
- Bamboo block with 9 slots plus room for honing rod and kitchen shears.
This "2 piece" set includes a chef's knife, a bamboo storage block, and a "bonus" honing rod. (Why not just call it a "3 piece" set? We don't know, but the honing rod is a great piece to have.)
Shun is one of the most popular Japanese knife brands in the world today. Shun makes high quality knives using premium Japanese steels and handle materials, forged using traditional Japanese methods that have been around for hundreds of years. All Shun knives are made in Seki, Japan.
The Shun Classic is one of Shun's best-selling lines and offers top notch Japanese steel blades, durable pakkawood handles, and a beautiful Damascus overlay that protects the harder cutting core.
Here is the Shun Classic chef's knife that comes with this block:
Shun has characteristics of both Japanese and Western knives. The VGMax steel is hard, with a rating of HRC 60, but the blade is a little thicker and heavier than many Japanese knives, so you may be able to use it for some harder foods (though this is not recommended).
The 16 degree double cutting edge on the Shun Classic gives it a more Western-knife feel when using: it has more durability but less precision than the thinner edges found on some other Japanese knives.
The blade is more Western-shaped than gyuto-shaped, which means it's fairly wide with a curved belly. This makes it great for the Western-style rocking cut, but it's not quite as wide as a true Western chef's knife, so you can use the Japanese-style slicing motion with this knife, too.
These features make the Shun Classic a great all-around knife for most kitchen tasks.
The composite tang creates nice balance and also adds a little weight to the knife--another more Western trait (Western knives are typically heavier than Japanese knives). Whether this is good or bad really depends on your preferences and how the knife feels when you're using it. The Shun Classic 8" chef's knife weighs 7.2 ounces--compare to the Yoshhiro below, that weighs just 4.8 ounces, or the Miyabi Kaizen II, which weighs 6.9 ounces. The 2.2mm thick blade adds some weight, as well.
The D-shaped handle designed for right-handed users, but the "D" is so subtle that if you're left-handed you probably won't even notice it. However, you should try the knife before deciding to keep it, as not everyone accustomed to Western knives will like the feel of this handle.
Shun handles are a bit on the small side: long, but narrow in diameter. Most people find them very comfortable but this is another reason to try the knife before buying.
The honing rod is a necessity for every cook. You should steel your knives at least every other time you use them to keep the cutting edge smooth and sharp. So if you don't own one, it's an excellent piece to have included. (And if you do own one, make sure it will work with VGMax steel; some Western honing rods may not be hard enough.)
Overall, Shun Classic is a beautiful line as well as huge, with many knives to choose from. See the Shun Classic page on Amazon to see the wide range of Shun Classic knives. Shun also makes several sets of Shun Classic shears to choose from, all known for their high quality.
And if you want a few more knives than this, you can see all of Shun's build-a-block options on Amazon, too. We chose this one because it's so basic, yet you get the absolutely essential pieces: a chef's knife, a honing rod, and a bamboo storage block.
You can also check out the Shun Premier "2 piece" Build-a-Block set for about $30 more (it also includes a honing rod).
Also: The Shun Classic chef's knife is about $150 on its own; the honing steel is about $50. So you're basically getting the butcher block for about $30.
Pros and Cons
- Excellent quality, extremely sharp steel
- Durable, comfortable D-shaped pakkawood handles
- Large block allows for custom expansion of your collection
- Space for kitchen shears
- Honing rod included
- 16-degree double bevel can be sharpened with almost any type of sharpener
- Shun will sharpen your knives for free once a year; just pay shipping.
- D-shaped handle is designed for right-handed users but is probably okay for lefties (try before you buy!)
- Heavier than some other Japanese knives
- Shun knives not designed for use on hard foods and bones
- Shin is a fairly expensive brand.
Shun is a well-known brand, and they have some of the best build-a-block options on the market. Buying this block with just a chef's knife and honing rod allows you to expand your collection as you want to. You don't need to fill all the slots, but you can if you want to.
We like the Classic line because it has the premium VGMax steel cutting core, beautiful Damascus overlay, and HRC 60 cutting edge, all for less than you'll pay for the Premier line (which has the same features).
The bamboo block is durable and a great way to store your knives if you have enough counter space for it.
We prefer build-a-block to buying a large set because you should only buy the knives you know you'll use. You may want a few more than this, such as a serrated knife and a paring knife, but this small set is still a great way to get started.
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Most Traditional Japanese Design: Yoshihiro 2 Piece Damascus Set
See Yoshihiro 2 pc set on Amazon
Features and Specs
- 210mm gyuto (8.25 in.)
- 150mm petty knife (6 in.)
- Two protective blade sheaths ("sayas").
There are hundreds of "real" Japanese brands on the market, but this Yoshihiro Damascus set has a few things going for it, including beauty, high quality steel and handles, and being readily available on Amazon (though mostly as single blades; this set was one of the few Yoshihiro sets we could find).
Yoshihiro has been selling kitchen knives in Japan for more than 100 years, and began selling to the Western market in 2008. They are known for making some of the most beautiful knives in the world, and have won several awards. You can read more about the brand and see all their knives at Yoshihiro's American website and store. And, if you have any issues with your Yoshihiro knife, you can get service through the Los Angeles store.
Yoshihiro has the one American store in Los Angeles, otherwise, you can find their knives on Amazon and at some Japanese kitchen knife outlets; they do not yet have a huge presence in the US. However, they are popular among professional chefs in many countries.
You will fall in love with the simple, sleek beauty of these knives. The Damascus overlay is gorgeous and protects the more brittle cutting core. The hammered texture helps with food release. The wa handles are traditional Japanese style: simple and elegant.
As for using these knives, they are super sharp and cut through most foods like butter. The gyuto is a bit balanced toward the blade because the handle is so light; the petty knife feels perfectly balanced at the bolster and is really fun to use.
Keep in mind that this gyuto blade is narrow, so it's not the right choice for Western-style rocking cutting, where you leave the tip on the cutting board. Rather, you want to use the Japanese-style slicing motion, pushing or pulling to use as much of the blade as possible.
The petty knife--also called a utility knife--is, at 6 inches, really a smaller chef's knife, and great for smaller jobs and/or smaller hands. It is also narrow enough to use as a large paring knife. Thus, with these two knives, you should be able to do just about all the prep work you want to do, with the exception of hard foods and bones. Like all Japanese blades, these Yoshihiro knives are not designed for hard foods.
The handles are long, but fairly narrow in diameter. The octagonal "wa" shape is quite comfortable, though if you have larger hands, you may feel some strain if using the knife for a long time. The pakkawood bolster is an interesting feature, but not uncommon on traditional Japanese knives. It's probably there because it's more durable than the ambrosia wood handle.
And speaking of ambrosia wood, according to Wood magazine, ""Ambrosia" is a term that's commonly applied to lumber from eastern red and silver maples that has streaks of color caused by an infestation of the ambrosia beetle." So now you know.
One really interesting thing about this knife is the cutting edge: it has a double bevel of 12-15 degrees (the degree varies because it's finished by hand), with a 70/30 Koba microbevel on the last 1mm on the cutting edge (meaning it's steeper on one side than the other). This may sound complicated, but it actually makes sharpening a bit easier: rather than sharpening the entire blade, you can sharpen just the microbevel, so there's less material ground away from sharpening.
The downside is that you have to be skilled at using a whetstone (or the easier-to-use guided rod system). But if you're considering Japanese knives at all, you probably already know that a sophisticated sharpening system is a necessity if you want to keep the original cutting edge in pristine condition.
If you want to learn more about microbevels and how to sharpen them, this YouTube video is a good introduction.
Pros and Cons
- Very high quality
- Extremely sharp (HRC 60)
- Traditional Japanese blade and handle styles
- Protective sheaths included.
- Not for hard foods and bone
- Should use whetstone or guided rod system to sharpen (or send them out)
Overall, the Yoshihiro Damascus 2 piece set is a great introduction to the world of traditional Japanese cutlery. These knives are high quality, beautiful, and should last a lifetime.
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Japanese Knife Sets FAQ
Are Japanese Knives Worth It?
This depends on many things, most importantly your cutting style and your budget. Japanese knives tend to be lighter and more nimble than German/Western knives, which makes them fun to use and excellent tools for prepping most foods--but they're not good for hard foods and bone, so if you have a Japanese chef's knife (or santoku or nakiri), you will probably also need a thicker, heavier blade for hard foods (squash, for example) and bone.
If you love the look and feel of Japanese knives, then they are definitely worth it.
What Knives Are Made in Japan?
There are hundreds or maybe even thousands of brands of knives that are made in Japan. Some of the most popular are the ones we review here, including Shun, Global, Miyabi, MAC, and Yoshihiro. If you're curious where a knife brand is made, one clue is the price: if an entire set is priced at $100 or less, it is almost certainly made in a factory in China. Another clue is that a good Japanese chef's knife starts at around $100.
There are Japanese knife brands made in China that are decent quality, but they won't have the fit and finish of a knife made in Japan with traditional Chinese methods. If you're on a budget, Chinese-made brands (like Imarku) are fine, but if you can afford real Japanese-made cutlery, you will appreciate the quality and beauty of them.
Are Japanese Knives Better than German Knives?
This all depends on what you want in your kitchen cutlery. German knives are kitchen workhorses: heavy, durable and all-purpose. Japanese knives, on the other hand, are like racehorses: light, nimble, and quick.
Japanese knives are excellent for most kitchen prep work, but the harder steel makes them prone to chipping on hard foods. German knives can do it all, but may not be as much fun to use.
It really depends on your preferences.
What Are the Best Japanese Knife Brands?
Pretty much any knife made in Japan by traditional methods is going to be high quality. But the most popular brands sold in the Western market are Shun, Global, Miyabi, Tojiri, and Yoshihiro.
Do Japanese Knives Rust?
Yes, they can. Most Japanese knives are made of high carbon stainless steel. This is very resistant to rusting, but it will rust if not cared for properly. All cutlery should be washed and dried after use to prevent rusting. Don't let water sit on the blade.
Less commonly, some blades are made of carbon steel, and while very hard and very sharp, carbon steel is very prone to rusting, so you must dry the blades religiously after washing.
Final Thoughts on Japanese Knife Sets
You can choose from hundreds of Japanese knife sets on the market, including many that look Japanese but are made in China or elsewhere. But the best quality knives are going to come from Japan and be made with traditional Japanese methods--and steel--that go back hundreds of years.
Our recommendations for the best Japanese knife sets are all made in Japan and include popular brands, like Shun and Global, as well as lesser known but super-high quality brands like Yoshihiro, Miyabi, and MAC.
Thanks for reading!
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