What are the basic differences between a Japanese Knife and a European or Western Knife?
There are a few main discussion points which make Japanese Knives different to Western Style Knives.
Japanese Knife handles are generally made from wood, while Western styles commonly use synthetic or resin cured materials. Being made from wood lends to the knife being lighter. Resin cured-base handles are also usually gripped closer to the blade. Handles also come in a variety of shapes, such as octagonal, or D-shade.
Double bevel and single bevel. Western Styles use double bevel, which tapers symmetrically to the edge. Traditional Japanese Knives commonly had a single bevel - which tapers only to one side. However, since the 19th century, more French and German influence has combined with Japanese knives techniques, and thus you will find both bevel architectures.
Steel & Construction:
Japanese steel has always had a reputation of quality. using advanced formula in steel construction, blades are often thinner, harder and more durable. There are many types of steel processes. These days, laminated blades are very common. you see 67 layer almost everywhere. This is essentially 3 layers or "san-mai". A sandwich of 2 layers of cladding known as "jigane" or wrapping which is softer stainless steel, and the core or "hagane" which is the hard cutting edge usually high carbon steel. By putting stainless cladding over high carbon core, increases corrosion resistance (outside) and gives strength (inside), makes it easier to sharpen without making the blade fragile.
Patterns are also common on laminated blades. The most widely recognised is Damascus.
Common Japanese Knife Names: <source: Wikipedia>
Gyuto (牛刀): This knife is known as the chef's knife used for preparing vegetables and boneless meats. The gyuto is used to 'rock-chop' stiffer produce and to make fine cuts at the tip of the knife. It is used for many different cuts of meat. For larger cuts it is used to saw back and forth. It is used to pull-cut softer meats and push-cut more muscular cuts of meat. There is usually a slope from the heel of the knife to the tip, causing the wrist to point down and the shoulder to raise when cutting. The blade size ranges from 210 mm to 270 mm.
Santoku (三德): (three-virtues)The santoku, also called bunka bocho (culture knife), is primarily used for vegetables and fish. These knives are generally flatter than gyuto knives and have a less pointy tip. Since they are flatter, the wrist is in a more natural position and the shoulder does not need to be raised as high. These knives do not require as much room to cut. These are the most popular knives in most Japanese homes. The general size ranges from 165 mm to 180 mm.
Nakiri (菜切): (vegetable knife) The square tip makes the knife feel more robust and secure than the pointed tip of the santoku or gyuto, which allows it to cut dense products at the tip. This knife has a flat edge. Some varieties of a nakiri have a slightly tilted blade profile towards the handle. This makes the grip more comfortable, causing the hand to tilt up slightly and enabling one to use strength from their forearm when cutting. The general size ranges from 165 mm to 180 mm.
Petty: This is a smaller knife often used to accompany the gyuto for paring or for peeling smaller produce. The general sizes range from 120 mm to 180 mm.
Sujihiki (筋引): (muscle cutter) These are long knives used to cut meat, often in the form of a draw cut. Similar to a carving knife. The general sizes range from 240 mm to 300 mm.
Hankotsu: This is a butchering knife used for cattle to cut hanging meat from the bone. The general size is 150 mm.
Chukabocho: Commonly known as the Chinese chef knife or cleaver, the chukabocho has a short handle, flat profile, and a tall blade used to gain mechanical advantage. The blade is usually thicker behind the edge to cut denser ingredients and sometimes even bone.