When discussing Western vs. Japanese knives in this section I am referring mainly to the manufacturing/making processes, traditions and
general trends, not to the particular brands, because these days both sides (or schools) are making knives of the other side, which is a very good thing IMHO. There are plenty of
Japanese knives with western style handles or blades or both, pretty much any maker in Japan has several knives in Western style and vice versa, pretty much all of the
major knife manufacturers in Europe and US make several Japanese influenced knives, just think of Santoku for example, it's almost a bad tone for any western maker not to make
Unless you already know your answer, or have a good reason to choose one way or another, then this I think it much more important than anything else below. Since it will affect the price, performance, using style, uss areas and many other aspects of the knife/owner relationship. They are way to different, thus require different approach. I think the biggest common misconception is that Japanese knives are more expensive than their western counterparts. I don't know how true this was in the past, but today, unless we're talking 5$ knives (for which I have no useful input) then there are very good Japanese knives for pretty much any budget. Also, for those who think of multi thousand Yanagis, well you should check out prices on custom pieces from European makers, pretty close or even more expensive and often for less performance, but better looks. You choose.
There is a big difference between those two schools or styles of knifemaking to cover thoroughly in this article and I am no book writer either. Plus, that is not a goal anyway. So, here are a few key points that I think are the most important:
Hardness- In my opinion, that is the biggest difference, if we generalize. Japanese knives are much harder compared to their western counterparts, and that makes a lot of things different in both, using and maintenance. Average western chef's knife today on mainstream market is 52-54HRC for low end knives and 54-56HRC for the better ones. Sure there are US and European knives made around 60HRC (which is a bare minimum I'd consider now), e.g. Chef's Choice Trizor 10X line, but those are rather exceptions, just confirming the rule. Japanese knives however, for the same class of the knives (chef's knife a.k.a. gyuto) feature 61+HRC. Gyutos in the range of 62-64HRC are very common especially for high-end knives. It may not seem much of a difference between 60 and 64HRC, but at those levels the difference even of one or two points is very dramatic. I'm mainly referring to edge holding and strength here, which is what's important to the knife user most of the time.
Western knives on the other hand are hardened to lower hardness on Rockwell scale and more hefty at the same time. Lower hardness means easier sharpening and because of the same lower hardness, easier dulling too, sorry no other way around. One arguable advantage soft knife will have over hard one is that harder knife edge will chip vs. rolling and denting on soft edges. Now, that to me is hardly the advantage, because in the kitchen if you use the right knife for the right job, you should have neither dents nor chips, in other words wear resistance is more important than toughness for the thin edges. If you have to chop bones or crabs, then use cleaver or a small hatchet after all, something with an appropriately thick and strong edge and then again, harder cleaver wins. In the end, 56HRC edge will dent and roll much easier than 64HRC will chip. Plus those dents and rolls means you're dulling the edge and if you continue cutting with that rolled edge it'll dull exponentially faster.
Obvious pro of Western style soft knives is that, they won't break if you drop one accidentally, while superhard, delicate Japanese knives are much easier to break when dropped on the hard surface, still they're much tougher than ceramics. Either way, dropping a knife is an accident and a safety issue, so I don't really consider that a part of normal use even though lots of people are used to tossing their knives on the table or into the sink.
Harder knives on the other hand, have much more pros than cons. Pros would be: significantly increased edge holding ability, opportunity to have much more acute edges, and thus, much better cutting ability of the knife. After all, the primary design goal of the knife is to cut, and preferably cut well, without requiring significant force from the person who's doing the cutting. Cons as you can deduce from the above would be: more difficulties with sharpening, but that is clearly overrated unless we're talking of extreme hardness on some exotic alloys. Given the right sharpening equipment and minimal skills, it's not that much of a difference in terms of sharpening time between those two.
One noticeable deviation from the rule would be Henckel Twin Cermax line. Made of mysterious MC66 steel those knives are hardened to 66HRC, which falls under ultra hard category. Actually it's not that much of a deviation if you think about it. Those knives are made in Japan and overall are more Japanese style, except for hefty handles. There is a strong suspicion that MC66 is either ZDP-189 or Cowry-X steel, since those are the only two stainless steels capable of going to that level of hardness, both Japanese steels by the way and those Cermaxes are produced in Japan too, so you do the math :) However, price tag on those is quite high. 8" chef's knife is ~200$ for the plain version and 350$ for the damascus. At $200 8" chef's knife is a pretty good deal for what it is. I'd buy it long ago if I didn't dislike the handle design and 8" is rather short chef's knife to me.
One more important aspect, often overlooked by western knife proponents, is the lifetime of the knife. If you want your knives sharp, then softer western knives require sharpening a lot more frequently, compared to their harder Japanese counterparts. Trust me on that one. I have to sharpen a lot of western knives for my friends, plus whenever I am visiting, I can always examine the edge of the knives I sharpened. Even thick, 20°-22° edges don't last sharp for long, not even for a month, under average kitchen use. Obviously, each sharpening means removing the metal. The duller the knife, the more metal has to go. There is no other way around it. So, in the end, soft knives will last you much less time compared to hard ones. So, there you have it, the naked truth. Soft knives loose metal to the cutting medium at higher rate than hard ones, then they have to be sharpened more often, thus loosing even more metal, more often. Of course, a lot of people never sharpen their thick edged German kitchen knives, but that doesn't make thins any better. Remember, a dull knife is a hazard.
Finally, I do realize that just the hardness alone is not a good way to measure the knife performance. However, with soft materials, which represent the majority of the cutting mediums in the kitchen abrasive/wear resistance becomes critical and one (the most) effective way to raise it, is to make the blade harder. Toughness, or impact resistance has also big role, but that's more important on heavy duty blades, such as: meat cleavers or Debas.
Last updated - 09/01/11