The Culture of the Japanese Knife

In regular Japanese households, a knife is a familiar cooking utensil and each home has at least one, but the knives used by professional chefs hold a special significance. Behind that significance lies the unique history the development of knives has taken.

The Origin of the Japanese Knife is the Same as That of the Japanese Sword

"Japanese swords" first started to be made in Japan in the early Heian period, utilizing swordsmithing techniques brought over to Japan from the Chinese mainland and the Korean Peninsula. The oldest "knife" preserved at the Shoso-in (a storehouse of many national treasures) is shaped like a miniature Japanese sword that a samurai would have carried, which suggests their shared origins.

In time, the variety of knives grew. By the beginning of the Edo period, types such as the “Deba” (kitchen knives), “Yanagiba” (sashimi knives) and “Nakiri” (vegetable knives) appeared, and with the introduction of Western meat-eating culture, the "gyuto" (chef’s knives) started to be used in the Meiji period. Thereafter, the varieties of knives continued to be segmented for each ingredient and method of preparation, and today the characteristics of "Japanese knives" have achieved worldwide acclaim.

Incidentally, the Japanese Kanji character "庖" in the word "庖丁" (knife) means "kitchen," while the "丁" character in the same word means the person in charge of the kitchen. This originates from the legendary chef named Pao Ding (rendered using the same Chinese characters "庖丁") who appeared in the Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese book. Pao Ding's favorite knife (written as "刀") was rendered as "庖丁刀," literally "Pao Ding's Knife," and the prevailing theory is that this was abbreviated to simply "Pao Ding" (庖丁, hotei or hocho in Japanese), leaving us with the modern Japanese word for knife.

At Masamoto Sohonten, as the origin of the word "庖丁" (hocho, "knife") is the same as ”日本刀" (nihon-to, "Japanese sword"), the "刀" character in "庖丁刀" is used to render knife as "庖刀" (pronounced the same as hocho).

For a Japanese Chef, Their Knife Is an Extension of Their Body

In the world of Japanese chefs, a chef is only regarded as having come of age when they not only know how to use their knife but also how to look after it properly. That is why after their work finishes each day, a chef will sharpen and polish their knife, continuing to use it with care over many years as though it were a part of their body.

This has given rise to the belief that a tool used for many years comes to be inhabited by a spirit, along with the custom where an old knife that breaks is placed in a hocho-zuka mound for kitchen knives to express appreciation for its years of service and to pray for improving skills using knives for cooking.

Hocho-zuka mound at the Ushijima Shrine

**Hocho-zuka (Mound for Kitchen Knives)

A hocho-zuka is a mound erected for burying knives that have become worn out and can no longer be used, to express appreciation for their service and to pray for improving skills using knives for cooking. Moreover, as knives originate from swords and there is a belief that a "sword cannot be used without being inhabited by a spirit," the mound is also for the purpose of consecration.

Even Today, the Culture of Maintaining Items and Using Them for a Long Time Is Well-Established

In recent years, the Japanese word “mottainai” (wasteful) has started to be used around the world, Japan has embraced a culture of "maintaining objects with care and using them for a long time" dating back to ancient times.

A blade that loses its sharpness is re-sharpened, its handle is replaced, and it is revived multiple times. In this way, the Japanese knife is truly the culmination of exceptional aspects of Japanese culture revered around the world.