Sharpen Up

What’s the Difference Between German and Japanese Knives?

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

When you’re shopping for a new knife, it’s likely that you’ll come across two main types of knives: German and Japanese. There are, of course, many more knives out there besides German knives and Japanese knives. However, it’s safe to say that these two are the most prevalent — and so it’s worth understanding what the differences are.

If you’re buying a knife from a reputable manufacturer, you can’t really go wrong with either, but one may be better-suited to your needs. Here’s how to know.

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

What We’re Really Talking About When We Say Japanese Knives

Japanese knives come in all different shapes, sizes, steel types, blade types, angles, bevels, and so on — but the ones we’re talking about when we compare German knives to Japanese knives are western-style knives that are made in Japan. And the two — i.e., German-made and Japanese-made western-style knives — probably have more similarities than differences.

For example, traditional Japanese knives often have a single bevel (i.e., a single sharpened edge). “It’s the sword-looking knife you see at the sushi counter,” explains Taylor Erkkinen, founder of Brooklyn Kitchen. But the knives we’re talking about are double-beveled (i.e., sharpened on both sides of the blade, just like their German-made relatives).

There are, however, defining characteristics on both sides. It really comes down to five things: angle, shape, weight, thickness, and type of steel.

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

What Defines a German Knife?

Angle: 20 to 22 degrees.
Shape: The geometry of a German knife is curved, which facilitates the rocking style of chopping.
Weight: Weight varies from blade to blade, but German knives tend to be heavyweights. A Wusthof eight-inch chef’s knife, for example, weighs in at 9.6 ounces.
Thickness: On the thicker side — especially at the bolster (i.e.m the part where the blade meets the handle).
Steel: On the softer side; 56 to 58 on the Rockwell scale.

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

What Defines a Japanese Knife?

Angle: 12 to 15 degrees.
Shape: In general, Japanese knives have a straighter edge that’s better-suited to chopping and making clean slices.
Weight: Lightweight; the eight-inch Global Classic Chef’s Knife weighs 5.5 ounces.
Thickness: Thinner and often bolster-free.
Steel: Typically harder; 60 to 61 on the Rockwell scale.

So, Which Style of Knife Is Right for You?

A Japanese blade is slim, razor-sharp, and lightweight. It’s ideal for precise work, which makes sense, Erkkinen says: “Japanese cooking is more particular and careful.” Josh Moses, co-founder of Misen adds, “The harder steel means you can get a very sharp edge that can go longer between sharpenings.” But there’s a tradeoff: The delicacy of the blade and the hardness of the steel make it more more prone to chipping and cracking, notes Bryan Mayer, director of butchery education for Fleishers Craft Butchery.

The heavier, thicker, and all-around more robust German knife is ideal for, well, more robust chores. “The weight and softer steel translate to making the knife meatier and more durable, and good for cracking through bones,” explains Moses.

Still not sure? Ultimately, German vs. Japanese is not that important, especially as the gap between the styles of knives is diminishing. “Some German knives are now sharpened to a more acute angle,” Mayer explains, adding that new alloys have improved the durability of Japanese knives.