How To Sharpen A Knife Japanese Style | The Art of Japanese Knife Sharpening

A good knife is an essential tool for every chef or home cook. In Japan, knives are considered an extension of the chef's hand, and great care is taken in their design and production. Japanese knives are known for their razor-sharp edges, which allow for precise cuts and smooth slicing. However, maintaining these edges requires proper sharpening techniques that have been perfected over centuries of tradition.

Sharpening a knife is not just about making it sharp again. It's about restoring the blade's shape, ensuring it cuts efficiently, and extending the knife's lifespan. In this post, we'll delve into the art of Japanese knife sharpening, discussing techniques such as waterstone sharpening and honing. We'll also provide tips on how to maintain knives to ensure they stay sharp for longer.

The Importance of Sharpness

First and foremost, let's talk about why it's so important to keep your knife sharp. A dull knife can make cooking a frustrating and time-consuming task. Not only does it require more effort to cut through food, but it can also result in uneven slices or even injury if the blade slips. A sharp knife, on the other hand, makes cooking a breeze. It allows you to cut through food with ease, resulting in clean and precise slices.

Sharpness also affects the lifespan of your knife. A dull knife will require more force to cut through food, causing the blade to become damaged over time. A sharp knife, on the other hand, will last longer as it requires less force to cut through food, resulting in less wear and tear on the blade.

For these reasons, it's essential to keep your Japanese knife sharp. Now, let's move on to the different methods you can use to sharpen your knife.

Understanding the Anatomy of a Japanese Knife

Before we dive into sharpening techniques, it's essential to understand the anatomy of a Japanese knife. Unlike Western knives, which often have a thick spine and a wide belly, Japanese knives have a thin, sharp blade that tapers to a point. The blade is usually made of high-carbon steel, which is harder and more brittle than the stainless steel used in Western knives. The handle is typically made of wood, which is lightweight and easy to grip.

Japanese knives come in different shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific task. For example, the Yanagiba knife is a long, thin knife used for slicing raw fish, while the Nakiri knife is a rectangular blade used for chopping vegetables. Understanding the different types of knives and their uses is crucial to sharpening them correctly.

When sharpening a Japanese knife, it's also essential to pay attention to the blade's bevel angle. The bevel angle is the angle between the blade's edge and the back of the blade. Japanese knives typically have a bevel angle between 15 and 18 degrees, which is sharper than the 20-degree angle found in most Western knives. Maintaining this angle is essential to achieving a sharp edge.

How To Sharpen A Knife Japanese Style

So, what is the art of Japanese knife sharpening, and how does it differ from other sharpening techniques? At the heart of Japanese knife sharpening is the use of waterstones, which are natural or synthetic abrasive stones that are used to sharpen and polish the blade.

Waterstone sharpening is a slow and deliberate process that requires patience, practice, and a keen eye for detail. The goal is to remove as little metal as possible while still achieving a sharp, polished edge. This is done by using a series of progressively finer grit stones, starting with a coarse stone to remove any chips or nicks in the blade, and working up to finer stones to hone the edge to a razor sharpness.

One of the key benefits of waterstone sharpening is that it can be tailored to the specific knife and the task it will be used for. Different types of knives require different edge angles, and waterstone sharpening allows you to customize the angle to achieve the best possible performance.


Using A Waterstone To Sharpen Knives

Waterstone sharpening is one of the most popular methods used to sharpen Japanese knives. A waterstone is a sharpening stone that is soaked in water before use. Waterstones come in different grits, ranging from coarse to fine. Coarse stones are used to remove nicks and chips from the blade, while fine stones are used for honing and polishing.

To sharpen a knife using a waterstone, start by soaking the stone in water for at least 10 minutes. Place the stone on a non-slip surface, such as a damp kitchen towel, and hold the knife at a 15 to 20-degree angle against the stone. Use a circular motion to move the blade back and forth across the stone, applying light pressure. Repeat this process on both sides of the blade until a burr forms along the edge. Flip the knife over and repeat the process on the other side, using a finer grit stone each time until the blade is sharp.

Waterstone sharpening requires patience and practice, but it's a highly effective method for maintaining the sharpness of Japanese knives. It's essential to use the correct angle and apply even pressure to avoid damaging the blade.

The Proper Way To Hone A Knife

It's important to note that honing and sharpening are two different things. Honing is a process that involves running the blade along a honing steel or ceramic rod to straighten the edge and remove any small burrs that may have formed. This process does not actually sharpen the blade, but rather maintains the sharpness of an already-sharp edge. This process is often referred to as "steeling" the blade.

To hone a Japanese knife, start by holding the honing steel or rod vertically in your non-dominant hand. Hold the knife at a 15 to 20-degree angle against the honing rod and draw the blade down the rod, starting at the heel and ending at the tip. Repeat this process on both sides of the blade, using a light touch. Honing should be done regularly to maintain the knife's edge between sharpenings.

Using A Whetstone To Sharpen Knives

A whetstone is a tool used to sharpen knives by removing small amounts of metal from the blade. While a waterstone is the traditional tool used to sharpen Japanese knives, a whetstone can also be used in a pinch. A whetstone is any stone used for sharpening, including waterstones. However, whetstones can also refer to oilstones, which are sharpening stones that use oil instead of water. Oilstones tend to be slower than waterstones, but they produce a finer edge and are less likely to wear out as quickly.

To use a whetstone, start by soaking the stone in water for 10-15 minutes to ensure it's thoroughly saturated. Place the stone on a stable surface, such as a countertop or cutting board. Hold the knife at a 20-degree angle against the stone, with the blade facing away from you. Starting at the base of the blade, draw the knife down the stone in a sweeping motion, maintaining the 20-degree angle. Repeat this process on the other side of the blade, alternating sides until you've sharpened the entire edge of the blade.

It's important to note that just like waterstones, whetstones have different grits, which refers to the size of the abrasive particles on the stone. The lower the grit number, the coarser the stone, which is best for repairing damaged or dull blades. Higher grit numbers are best for honing and polishing the blade.

How To Care For Japanese Knives

Maintaining your Japanese knife is essential to ensure it stays sharp and performs at its best. Here are some tips for keeping your knife in top condition:

Clean your knife after each use: Wash your knife with warm, soapy water and dry it thoroughly before storing it.

Use a cutting board: Always use a cutting board when using your knife to avoid damaging the blade, like those made of wood, as they are gentle on knives. It's important to avoid cutting boards made of hard materials like glass, marble, or metal, as they can quickly dull the blade of a Japanese knife. Additionally, it's important to keep the cutting board clean and dry, as a damp cutting board can lead to rust and bacteria growth.

Store your knife properly: Store your knife in a knife block or a sheath to protect the blade from damage.


Japanese knives are prized for their sharpness, precision, and beauty. Proper sharpening techniques are essential to maintain their performance and extend their lifespan. Whether you're a professional chef or a home cook, learning the art of Japanese knife sharpening is a valuable skill that will enhance your cooking experience. With patience, practice, and the right tools, you can keep your Japanese knives sharp and performing at their best.

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