Japanese knives are beautiful, but are they better than German knives? The truth is, it depends on several factors: the food you're prepping, what you're trying to accomplish, and your own cutting preferences. Brand also matters, because there are high quality and not-so-high quality brands found in both German and Japanese knives.
See how good-quality Japanese knives compare to good-quality German knives, learn about common brands of each, and find out which choice is right for you (you may need one of each).
Differences Between Japanese Knives and German Knives at a Glance
Different brands and lines will have varying design, but these are the basic differences you'll find between most Japanese knives and German knives.
There are exceptions to almost everything listed here. If you want to learn more, scroll down to read the details about each characteristic.
Higher chromium, lower carbon stainless steel
Higher carbon, lower chromium stainless steel (or carbon steel)
Curved, for rocking motion cutting
Straight, for up-and-down cutting
Less sharp than Japanese
More sharp than German
Hardness (Rockwell Scale)*
Edge Angle (Bevel)
Double bevel, 20-22 degrees
Single or double bevel, 12-16 degrees**
Smooth, sometimes with scalloped (Granton) edge
Textured, patterned or hammered
Shorter than Japanese (softer steel)
Longer than German (harder steel)
Typically full tang
Typically partial tang
Typically full bolster
Typically partial or no bolster
Forged or Stamped?
Both types seen
Both types seen
Typically wood or wood/resin composite
Flat with ergonomic curves, symmetrical
Round, sometimes asymmetrical (for right- or left-hands)
Heavier (thicker blade, full tang and bolster)
Lighter (thinner blade, partial tang and bolster if any)
Designed for multi-purpose use
Designed for specific uses***
*The higher the number, the harder the blade.
**Nearly all Japanese knives sold in the Western market are double bevel.
***Japanese knives made for the Western market are more versatile than traditional Japanese knives, which are made for specific uses.
The blade of a knife is what makes it a good (or not so good) tool. High quality knives have high quality blades.
So we'll look at blades first.
German: High chromium, low carbon stainless steel.
Japanese: High carbon stainless steel; may contain high or low chromium content.
Steel is a huge topic, so know up front that we're just touching the surface--but the surface is enough to understand the differences and make a good choice.
In general, German knives use a high chromium, low carbon stainless steel. Chromium makes the steel highly rust-resistant (although all steel will eventually rust), but the low carbon content makes the steel "soft" (quotation marks because even soft steel is still pretty hard-more on that in a minute). Soft steel won't get as sharp as harder steel, and it can't be honed to as thin of a blade, but it is more durable, less prone to chipping, and easier to sharpen.
Traditionally, Japanese knives use high carbon, low chromium steel, but this is changing. Many of the developments in the world of knife steel are happening with Japanese knives, and many Japanese knives today use a new "super steel" that is both high carbon and high chromium. This results in a blade that is hard as well as rust resistant. Harder steel is more brittle than softer steel so it chips more easily. It's also harder to sharpen, but it holds a blade longer and can be honed to thinner, more precise edge than softer steel.
Thus, your basic choices for blade steel are softer but more durable and easier to sharpen and maintain (German); or harder and hold a blade better, but brittle and prone to chipping, making them more fragile and harder to sharpen.
German: Curved, for rocking motion cutting.
Japanese: Straight, for up-and-down motion cutting.
In general, the Japanese knives have straighter blades than German knives, making them good for people who prefer a vertical cutting motion rather than a rocking motion (in which you often leave the tip of the knife on the cutting board).
There are exceptions. The Japanese Gyuto is closest in shape to a German chef's knife, but the curve isn't as pronounced (the Japanese utility knife, called a petty knife, has a similar shape but is smaller):
Then there is the nakiri, or Japanese vegetable knife, which is so flat it's sometimes mistaken for a cleaver:
So in general, German knives are more curved, Japanese knives more flat.
Unless you are making exclusively Japanese food (much of which requires precision cutting), there is no "best" shape. It really depends on the user. You can experiment with different blades and cutting styles to discover which shape you prefer.
German: Less sharp than Japanese knives.
Japanese: More sharp than German knives.
This sounds like a no-brainer at first, but remember the discussion about steel (above)? Sharper knives are more brittle, more fragile (prone to chipping), and harder to sharpen. Softer knives are more durable and easier to sharpen, and since they require more sharpening than harder knives, this is a good thing.
The sharper, thinner Japanese blades are better for precision work, but the heavier German blades are more versatile. So it really depends on the type of food you cook--and many cooks need at least one knife from each category.
Hardness (Rockwell Scale)
German: Typically have a hardness of 56-59 HRC (Rockwell hardess scale).
Japanese: Typically have a hardness of 60-63 HRC (Rocwell hardness scale).
We've already talked about blade hardness, but the Rockwell scale quantifies hardness in a helpful way: the higher the Rockwell number ("HRC"), the harder the steel. So in general, Japanese knives are always harder than German knives. This means their steel has more carbon in it, and may or may not contain similar amounts of chromium.
The Rockwell Scale is a useful way to compare knives and knife brands when buying. Remember, harder is not always better: the higher the HRC number, the more brittle and harder to sharpen a knife is; it may also contain less chromium, so it may be more prone to rusting than a softer steel.
Edge Angle (Bevel)
German: 20-22 degrees.
Japanese: 12-16 degrees.
If you look at a cross section of a German and a Japanese knife, you'll likely see one of the three images above.
German knives typically have a thicker blade than Japanese knives, with a double bevel of 10 degrees on each side.
Japanese knives can have a single or double bevel, with an angle of 12-16 degrees.
The vast majority of knives sold in the American market have a double bevel.
Because of the wider angle, German knives are thicker, heavier, and stronger than Japanese knives.
Because of the narrower angle, Japanese knives are sharper and able to make more precise cuts than German knives.
German: Smooth, sometimes with scalloped edge.
Japanese: Textured, patterned, or hammered.
There are exceptions, but Japanese knives typically are patterned and German knives are smooth.
Though the patterned knives are beautiful, these patterns can also help release food better than a smooth surface. The scallops, or Granton edge sometimes seen on German knives also helps to release food.
Smooth, un-patterned steel releases food pretty well, so much so that you may not notice a difference in performance between a smooth knife and a patterned knife.
German: Shorter than Japanese (softer steel).
Japanese: Longer than German (harder steel).
Once again, the harder the steel, the better it holds an edge, so Japanese steel wins this category.
But keep in mind that harder steel is also more brittle, so it chips easily, and it's harder to sharpen. So as great as longer edge retention sounds, it might not be the best choice for some cooks. (For example, if you aren't skilled at knife sharpening, particularly the thinner blades of Japanese knives--which require more finesse--you may want to go with the softer, more forgiving, easier-to-sharpen German knives.)
German: Typically full tang.
Japanese: Typically partial tang.
The tang is the part of the blade that's riveted (or otherwise fastened) to the handle. Some knives are full tang, which means the steel extends all the way to the end of the handle, while some knives are partial tang, which means the steel stops somewhere before the far end of the handle.
A full tang adds weight and durability to a knife. A partial tang results in a lighter and sometimes more nimble knife.
As with many other categories, there are also German knives with a partial tang (or no tang) and Japanese knives with a full tang.
At one time, a full tang meant a high quality, forged knife, while a partial tang meant a knife was of inferior quality. This is no longer true, especially with Japanese knives. You can find good quality knives with a partial tang and poor quality knives with a full tang. Determining the quality of a knife is not as easy as it once was.
Again, there is no right or wrong choice here, and it really depends on what you prefer.
German: Typically full bolster.
Japanese: Typically partial or no bolster.
The bolster is the part of the blade that widens and thickens where it joins the handle. A bolster makes a knife heavier and more durable, and can add balance to the knife. It also helps protect fingers from the sharp blade.
A full bolster extends all the way down the blade, as shown above. A partial bolster is seen just at the top part of the knife, where it joins the handle.
Full bolsters are more common on German knives, which prize durability and strength. Japanese knives often have partial bolsters or even no bolsters to keep the knives light.
A bolster is also an indication that a knife was forged rather than stamped, but is no longer an indication of higher quality as it once was.
Forged or Stamped?
German: Both types seen today.
Japanese: Both types seen today.
It used to be the case that forged knives were good quality and stamped knives were poor quality. Today, though, we see good quality knives in both categories, and we see them from both German and Japanese knife makers.
If you're not sure what the difference is, see our article How to Choose the Right Kitchen Knives.
As you can see, it can be tricky to determine which knives are forged and which are stamped, because most brands make some of each.
Price is usually the best indicator: stamped knives aren't as labor intensive, so they're typically cheaper. However, many stamped knives today, especially Japanese varieties, use excellent steel, so they're still high quality. Stamped knife blades generally aren't as strong as forged blades because forging strengthens the steel, but how strong do blades have to be for kitchen use?
The knife handle is just as important as the blade in other ways: the handle shape largely determines how comfortable the knife is to use and the handle material determines how easy the knife is to care for.
German: Flat with ergonomic curves, symmetrical (for left or right hand users).
Japanese: Round, sometimes asymmetrical (for right- or left-hands).
German knives typically have a flat handle with curves on the underside to aid with grip. They are designed for universal use (both left- and right-handed people).
Japanese handles are round, octagonal, or D-shaped. The handles are quite comfortable, but usually not as ergonomic as German handles.
German: Typically synthetic.
Japanese: Typically wood or wood/resin composite.
"Synthetic" means the material can be one of several different types of plastics. Plastics come in many different types, and all are waterproof, resistant to bacteria, and durable. They are a hard material, but tend to provide a sturdy, comfortable grip. Cheaper plastics can melt if exposed to too much heat and crack if exposed to cold, but higher quality synthetics are extremely durable. Their resistance to bacteria makes them an excellent choice, especially in commercial kitchens.
Wood handles are beautiful, but they are not resistant to bacteria, and they require more careful maintenance (such as regular oiling to prevent drying out). Wood/resin composites are made of layers of wood and resin (a type of durable plastic). They are more durable and bacteria resistant than wood, and also very durable.
Most German knives are made of durable synthetic material, but you occasionally see wood or wood/resin composites. The vast majority of Japanese knives are made from wood/resin composite (such as the "pakkawood" found on many Shun knife handles). Some very high-end knives are made from wood, which makes them beautiful, but adds a bit to maintenance.
German: Heavier (thicker blade, full tang and bolster).
Japanese: Lighter (thinner blade, partial tang and bolster if any).
In general, German knives are heavier because they have thicker blades, a full bolster, and a full tang. Japanese knives are lighter because they have thinner blades, often a partial tang, and may or may not have a bolster.
There are exceptions, such as Japanese knives with a full tang and German knives with a partial tang, But in general, Japanese knives are designed to be light, nimble, and precise, and German knives are designed to be heavy, durable, and versatile.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each: a light knife may produce less strain on your hand over time, but it can chip more easily and is not good for heavy work (like bones and winter squash).
A heavy knife uses its weight to slice through food, so some people actually find them easier to use than a lighter knife. They are also more durable, so you can use them on bones and hard vegetables without worry about chipping.
Many cooks like to have both on hand for different jobs.
German: More durable than Japanese knives.
Japanese: Less durable than German knives.
It's somewhat confusing, but durability is a different measure than hardness: Japanese knives tend to be harder, but less durable, while German knives tend to be softer, but more durable.
This is because harder steel makes thinner blades that are more prone to chipping. Softer steel makes thicker, heavier blades that are highly resistant to chipping.
And even though softer German steel is more durable, it also requires more frequent sharpening than Japanese steel. Fortunately, the softer German steel is fairly easy to sharpen, so more frequent sharpening isn't a huge issue.
The harder Japanese steel is not only less durable, it's also harder to sharpen and requires fairly advanced sharpening skills.
German: Designed for multi-purpose use.
Japanese: Designed for specific purposes.
There are exceptions, but in general, German knives are designed for versatility so you only need a few knives to accomplish all of your cutting tasks (e.g., a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife).
Japanese knives can also be multi-purpose, such as the santoku and gyuto (both versions of a chef's knife), but there are many more types of knives in Japanese cooking designed for specific tasks. In fact, Japanese knives have different blades designed for just one task, such as single-beveled knives to slice thin pieces of fish for sushi. You do not see such specialization in German knives (or Western kitchens, for that matter).
This is largely a moot point, however, because most of the Japanese knives sold in the Western market are multi-purpose knives, including the santoku, gyuto, and petty knives.
German: Typically less (though not cheap).
Japanese: Typically more.
Good quality knives are never cheap. But Japanese knives tend to be a little more expensive than even high quality German knives.
You can find affordable knives in both German and Japanese brands, but German brands tend to be machine forged and mass produced. Japanese knives can also be mass produced, but many of the higher end brands are still made mostly by hand. This means Japanese knives are more labor intensive and take longer to produce, which usually results in higher prices.
Note also that, as we showed above in the section on stamped vs. forged knives, many brands make both forged and stamped knives at many different quality levels and price points. So knife cost is based not just on type and brand, but also on the particular line of the brand.
Best Japanese Knife Brands
There are so many brands to choose from, it's hard to say which brands are best: best really depends on the individual cook and her preferences.
Having said that, here are some excellent Japanese knife brands.
Shun is probably the most popular Japanese knife brand in the US. All lines are forged and use high quality VG10 steel or a combination of VG10 for the edge and softer steel for the rest of the knife to improve durability.
Most Shun knives have a pakkawood handle, which is a durable wood/resin composite.
Shun knives are beautiful and not cheap. Their Classic Santoku is a popular knife in the US--but note that the handle is D-shaped and meant for right-handed users.
Also, most Shun knives made for the Western market are designed like Western knives, with double bevels and approximately 20 degree blade.
Yoshihiro is a less well-known name in the US, but the knives are high quality and beautiful. Yoshihiro has been making knives for more than 100 years in Japan but started selling globally in just 2008.
Yoshihiro makes a huge variety of kitchen knives, so much so that it can be hard to select one if you're not familiar with Japanese knives. Yoshihiro also sells single-bevel knives to the American market, which is cool if you're looking for a sushi knife.
One good, all-purpose knife is their Gyuto, a Japanese-style chef's knife, made with VG10 Damascus steel (pictured above). They make several gyuto knives, but this one has a double bevel and a German style handle, making it a good choice for Western cooks.
Global is a fairly new knife maker, around since just 1985. They are made like traditional Japanese knives, but with high chromium steel for rust resistance similar to German knives (better, actually). The all-steel construction is unique among kitchen knives.
Their hardness rating of HRC 56-58 also makes them more like German knives than Japanese, which are typically above HRC 60.
Global knives are eye-catching and high-performing.
Mac knives are made in Japan and use high quality steel, but unlike most other Japanese brands, all Mac knives are stamped rather than forged. This keeps the price lower than for other brands, yet the knives are still high quality. In fact, the Mac Mighty MTH-80 (pictured above) was named best chef's knife by both the New York Times' Wirecutter and Epicurious.
Mac knives are also a blend of German and Japanese technology, having rust resistant steel that's still fairly easy to sharpen (HRC 60). The blade is sharpened to a thinner Japanese edge, but the steel is hard enough to resist chipping.
Mac handles tend to have a more German shape, flat with ergonomic curves on the bottom side for easy gripping. The handles are made of pakka wood, a durable wood/resin composite material.
Mac makes several lines of knives for the American market, including single bevel sushi knives.
Best German Knife Brands
Wusthof is easily the most recognizable German knife brand. It was founded in 1814 in Solingen, Germany, the city known for knife manufacturing and where many German knife brands are still made today.
Wusthof makes several lines of knives. Their Classic line is the best known (pictured above), but all of their lines use high quality steel with a hardness rating of 58, making them very durable, yet easy to sharpen.
Most Wusthof knives have a durable synthetic handle, but some are wood. Most Wusthof knives are full tang, but some are partial tang. Most Wusthof knives are forged, but their Gourmet line is stamped.
Wusthof also makes santoku knives, but with German design: softer steel with a wider blade. So if you like the santoku cutting style--up and down rather than rocking--but want the heavier German blade, the Wusthof santoku is an excellent choice.
As you can see, Wusthof offers a wide range of options. The knives are excellent quality, and highly recommended.
Zwilling and Zwilling/JA Henckels are technically the same company, but they make different knives.
Zwilling is the premium brand; Henckels is the entry level brand.
In general, if you see the "Zwilling" name alone, it's the premium brand. If you see Zwilling/JA Henckels or just Henckels, it's the entry level brand.
It can be even more confusing because if you search for Zwilling knives, both Zwilling and Henckels knives often appear in results. Just remember that if you want the premium brand, they are simply Zwilling.
If you want to see the Zwilling line, the link to the Zwilling website above is your best bet.
The Zwiling 7-inch chef's knife (pictured above) is a high quality knife made in Germany.
Zwilling knives have forged blades and are made in Germany, with a few lines made in Japan by traditional Japanese knife techniques. While Zwilling makes several lines of knives, their top lines are some of the highest quality knives in the world.
Henckels (Zwilling/J.A. Henckels)
Henckels knives, or Zwilling/J.A. Henckels, are Zwilling's entry level brand, as you can see by the prices: even their forged chef's knife is ridiculously affordable.
Most Henckels knives are made in China, India, or Thailand, but some are still made in Germany (including the budget-priced one we linked to above). Most are stamped, but some are forged.
Henckels knives have a different logo (single figure) on the blade than Zwilling knives (double figure), making this the easiest way to tell them apart (aside from price). Of course, the logos can vary, but should say either "Zwilling" or "Henckels" to keep things clear; if the logo says "Zwilling/Henckels" or some variation of that, then the knife is a Henckels, not a Zwilling.
Like Zwilling, Henckels makes several lines of knives. They are all of varying quality, but also can all be considered entry-level knives, whether forged or stamped.
Messermeister is a lesser known German brand, founded in 1981. They make high quality German knives using traditional techniques. They also make some santoku knives.
Messermeister makes a wide variety of knives in a wide price range. Their Four Seasons stamped chef's knife goes for under $40, has a plastic handle, and is made in Portugal. Their Oliva Elite chef's knife with olive wood handle (pictured above) goes for about 5 times that.
Many of their knives are beautiful and most are high quality. Blades are high carbon German steel and handles can be wood or synthetic.
Messermeister are typically a little lower priced than other German brands, and you have to shop around to make sure you're getting what you want. Overall, the quality is very good.
Final Thoughts on Japanese Knives: Are They Better than German Knives?
Are Japanese knives better than German knives? It really depends on what kind of chef you are and how you like to cut. Everybody is different.
In some ways, Japanese knives are better than German knives. They're sharper, lighter, and more nimble-feeling in the hand. But if you're doing heavy work, like bones or hard squash, this is not the kind of knife you want.
Most cooks benefit from having a few different knives in their kitchen, including some German and some Japanese brands. The better knife is the one that's best for the job at hand.
Our only recommendation is to buy the best quality knives you can afford. If you do that, you should get many years of use out of them, and they should be a joy to handle.
Thanks for reading!
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