How To Cut With A Japanese Knife: Skills & Techniques
Every successful Japanese chef has mastered knife skills and techniques. Japanese knife skills are taught worldwide because they help make chefs more efficient.
When you develop Japanese knife techniques, you can create the fanciest and most perfect sushi, vegetable, and meat dishes.
To master Japanese knife skills, you need to have high-quality knives and dedicate lots of time, practice, and perseverance. Each type of dish requires different types of techniques, but having these skills distinguishes Japanese chefs and brings their cuisine to a whole new level.
In the West, we have four distinct knife skills: dicing, mincing, julienne, and chiffonade. As you can tell by the name, these are French knife techniques.
In Japan, there are many more knife skills to master, and some are specific to various dishes.
In this guide, I’m sharing the essential Japanese knife skills every home cook or chef must master to prepare restaurant-worthy dishes.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 What makes Japanese chefs so skilled?
- 2 How to cut with a Japanese knife
- 2.1 Sushi & sashimi knife skills
- 2.2 Three sashimi cuts
- 2.3 Knife techniques for Hibachi grilling & Yakitori
- 2.4 Knife techniques for Okonomiyaki
- 2.5 Sogigiri – slicing at an angle
- 2.6 Filleting – Sanmai-oroshi
- 2.7 Hangetsu-giri
- 2.8 Icho-giri
- 2.9 Shiraga-negi
- 2.10 Sasagaki – shavings
- 2.11 Ran giri – irregular shapes
- 3 How are Japanese knives different?
- 4 Japanese knife skills
- 5 Cutting motions with Japanese knives
- 6 Conclusion
What makes Japanese chefs so skilled?
All Japanese chefs share the same traits: they are very disciplined and devoted to their art.
Although this applies equally to Western cooks, Japan is extremely careful about knife handling.
This is exemplified by the fact it takes 10 years of training to become an itama (sushi chef).
Aside from their learning, Japanese chefs use tools mainly because of the composition of their blades, which differ a little.
But the reason why Japanese chefs are so appreciated is that they master all the various knife skills.
How to cut with a Japanese knife
Knife skills might seem daunting at first to learn to cook. You watch someone chopping veggies with such speed and precision, and it can be overwhelming.
Once you learn the skills, though, you can become a pro.
As an advanced cook, it only takes a little basic knowledge, and you can start cooking delicious Japanese dishes. Strong, basic skills help keep the sharpest knife from deteriorating and prevent injury.
Sushi & sashimi knife skills
Several Japanese sushi and sashimi knife skills require a combination of precision and sharp single-bevel Japanese knives.
Let’s look at the must-have skills:
The Katsuramuki is among the more famous Japanese chef’s knife techniques.
It involves cutting thick, thin wafer-thick sheets out of cylindrical-shaped vegetables such as white daikons (radish) and cucumbers, eggplant, and carrots too.
Once cut, the sheet can also be wrapped around other materials for sushi roll construction.
Alternately, the whole sheet may be made into thin juliennes and noodle-sized ken slices for garnishing or incorporating them in dish dressings or toppings.
Note that such techniques are quite hard to master. Start slowly when learning because the knife can easily slip from your hands.
Here’s the technique:
First, you need to have the correct Japanese knife for the task – a vegetable cleaver is the best option. The Nakiri, Usuba, Chuka Bocho are knives every Japanese chef has in his or her collection.
But, you can do this technique with other knives too, it just might be a bit more challenging. Many people use the yanagiba knife this way.
Next, cut up the vegetable into a smaller piece which is about 5-6 inches per piece.
For this technique, you hold the vegetable piece in one hand and then you roll it around while you cut it into thin slices. It’s similar to peeling but you cut thin slices in a circular motion.
Begin by gripping the knife with your cutting hand. With your non-cutting hand, hold the vegetable and use the thumb as a reference point or guide for the knife.
This way, you can hold the vegetable firmly and move it in a circular motion safely.
The knife must be positioned against your vegetable as you start to make the thin cut. Use a slow and steady circular motion, just as if you were peeling to make a long smooth, and thin sheet of vegetable.
Here’s a demonstrative video:
Sengiri & Ken
Sengiri is a method of cutting thin vegetable strips that are placed inside the sushi rolls or used as a garnish for other dishes.
Ken, on the other hand, refers to a similar skill but for this ‘noodle cut,’ you have to slice and cut veggies into super-thin pieces that are as thin as a noodle.
Usually, the ken technique is used to cut daikon radish which is used to decorate sashimi plates.
These super thin vegetable strips add color contrast to the fish and are also consumed as palate cleansers between different fish and seafood types.
For this technique, you need to have your thin sheets from the katsuramuki cut.
Place the sheets on your cutting board and cut them into squares that are approximately 3 inches wide.
Next, you must stack the sheets on top of each other. For sengiri technique, slice them into uniform 1/8 inch julienne strips/pieces.
If you need noodle-thin Ken strips, shred your julienned veggies even thinner than 1/8 inches.
Three sashimi cuts
For sashimi cuts, you are cutting raw fish into smaller pieces or thin slices.
This type of knife cut is made using a long motion to cut up the fish using the full length of your blade. You make a smooth cut from base to tip in one long motion.
For a successful sashimi cut, you must not stop and start as you cut because this results in a jagged, rough-looking cut.
So, to avoid damaging the fish’s flesh, you must use a very sharp knife and a singular long motion.
Hira-zukuri – rectangular slices
For this cut, you need to place your knife on the cutting board and grip your fish.
Place the knife at the top part of the fillet and cut towards you with a single stroke.
The slices must be 1/2 an inch wide in a rectangular shape.
Usu-zukuri – the paper thin strip
This technique requires that you find the fish fillet’s grain first.
Then, you need to position your knife across the grain. Using a slicing motion, start making smooth cuts in a diagonal way.
The resulting fish slices should be paper-thin compared to the thicker hira-zukuri slices.
Kaku-zukuri – cube and square pieces
For this type of cut, you make small 1/2 inch sticks or cubes. Basically, you use smooth cutting motions to dice the fish fillet into uniform cubes.
Knife techniques for Hibachi grilling & Yakitori
I’m sure you’ve seen hibachi chefs working their magic while grilling your meat! A teppanyaki chef in action is equally as impressive to see.
I’ve seen them crack an egg using the nakiri cleaver blade, and cut vegetables at record speeds for the stir-fry.
Cooking Hibachi is traditionally done by grilling food in metal grills placed in small trays of charcoal. Besides Hibachi grills, many other kinds of grills have been developed with clay or other materials that have boxlike shapes.
Traditionally fish and steak are grilled with a hibachi while yakitori are cooked as bite-sized skewers.
The best knife technique in making yakitori should be one that cuts evenly so all the meat cooks evenly on the grill.
In general, 1-inch cubes can be beneficial in helping keep the beef and fish moist.
Knife techniques for Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki translates into the Japanese version of an aromatic but runny pancake. It’s described as a savory vegetable pancake but it’s important that the vegetables and/or meaty ingredients are cut up into thin strips or small bite-sized pieces.
Many Japanese households blend vegetable leftovers and meat to create a tasty dish wonder. The cutout of a particular ingredient does not have any specific aesthetic value.
Generally, the cutting of ingredients can have varying slicing/chopping methods ensuring uniform cook times.
Since okonomiyaki contains cabbage, it must be cut into thin strips. The carrots (if you add them) have to be cut using the senjiri or ken knife techniques.
Sogigiri – slicing at an angle
Slicing at an angle is the knife technique for tonkatsu pork & chicken.
Tonkatsu is Japan’s version of the Wiener schnitzel. Basically, it’s a Panko breaded pork cutlet that is deep-fried. Then it’s topped with a tasty Tonkatsu sauce. The chicken tonkatsu is the same dish except it’s made with chicken breast.
Here’s where you need to learn a new diagonal knife technique called sogigiri.
For sogigiri, you must place the raw meat onto the cutting board. Then, you hold the knife parallel and diagonally to the cutting board while slicing the meat.
You have to use your knife skills after the pork is deep-fried. Each cutlet is cut and carved into smaller long pieces. Then you must use the Senjiri method to slice up raw cabbage and other vegetables that are served as side dishes.
Filleting – Sanmai-oroshi
Filleting is probably one of the most useful knife skills if you make sushi and sashimi or cook fish. Filleting is a must-know skill.
You need a fish filleting knife for this task and it’s called the deba.
This involves filleting a whole fish into three parts: two fillets and the backbone.
First, scrape the scales off with your knife’s blade tip while holding the fish head firmly.
Next, you must cut the fish head of right where the pectoral fin is.
Slice the fish open with an incision starting from the end of the head to the posterior orifice also called the cloaca.
Next, remove guts and organs using the pointed tip of your knife.
To fillet, start cutting from the head end along the backbone. Keep your blade very close to the bone and watch as the first fillet is separated.
Now turn the fish to the other side and again slice from head to tail.
To finish, lay your blade flat and remove the rib bones via slicing motions.
This is a technique where you cut vegetables (mostly) into half-moon shapes.
It’s mostly used for cutting cylindrical items such as a carrot into half-moons. To do this, cut the carrot (or other food) in half lengthwise.
Then place cut-side halves down first and cut them into uniform slices.
This method is commonly referred to as ginkgo leaf cutting. That’s because the final shape of the food resembles the shape of a ginkgo leaf. You can say it also looks like quarter rounds.
Again, this is one of the techniques used to cut cylindrical foods like carrots.
First, cut the food lengthwise into quarters. Next, turn your quarter cut-size down and slice it into uniform pieces.
Naga-negi is a type of Japanese onion. So, this technique is used to cut the long onion into very thin, long strips that resemble hair.
The white part of the negi is cut up into the finest shreds that are so fine, almost like hair, and then it’s used to garnish dishes.
First, cut up the white part of the onion into lengths of 2 inches (4-5 cm).
Continue by making an incision lengthwise then remove the core (this is not good for shiraga-negi cutting).
Be sure to flatten the rest of the onion and stack all the sections with the inside part down. This makes it easier to cut because the slippery onion membrane is facing down.
When slicing, cut along the grain into very fine shreds.
Sasagaki – shavings
The Japanese knife skill called sasagaki is required for cutting thin shavings of gobo, also called burdock root.
This root vegetable is a common ingredient in Japanese foods such as kinpira gobo and gohan rice.
You need to cut up very thin shavings and it’s just like sharpening pencils.
In one hand, hold the gobo and start whittling it as if you’re sharpening your pencil. Keep rotating the gobo to get to all parts.
Ran giri – irregular shapes
While it may sound random, cutting veggies into irregular shapes is harder than it seems.
Although ran giri is about irregular cuts, the pieces must be uniform in size. The advantage is that this increases the surface area of the vegetable and it cooks more evenly faster and it is more flavorful.
This cutting method works best for cylindrical foods like cucumber. Lay the produce crosswise and cut from the end in diagonal motions.
After you make one cut, it’s time to rotate the vegetable at 90 degrees towards yourself. Then you continue to cut until the end.
How are Japanese knives different?
There is a notable difference between Japanese and Western-style knives, and it comes down to sharpening and beveling.
This matters because, for Western knife skills, the food is generally cut into larger pieces. This is not a rule, but a generalization that is true for the most part.
Whetstone sharpening is one of the most effective methods of sharpening Japanese knives. The usage of rods in Japanese axes is not recommended because thin, razor-sharp metal may chip and crack.
Generally, a Japanese knife is much sharper so you can make more precise cuts. This is extremely important for the knife skills which require very thin cuts – you just can’t do it with a duller blade.
Japanese knives are generally easier to use for cutting than Western-style kitchen knives because they require just one sharp side.
A Japanese knife has a single bevel blade which means it’s sharpened on one side whereas the Western knife has a double-bevel blade that’s sharpened on both sides.
Strong steel means that knives in Japan are sharpened at much finer angles. Using these tools a chef could produce a precise cut vital for Japanese cooking.
Traditional Japanese knives are defined with one-bevel blades with sharp edges both at the edge and the other side completely straight.
This angle allows precise cutting motion.
Imagine the Samurai action movie in which the Samurai cuts his enemies down diagonally and in an upward to downward motion. The blade is sharpened in a single direction and pierces through.
The knife has single-beveled edges for right-handed users and lefties need an extra lefties knife that is costly and can cost more. Western blades have two beveled sides, whereas Western blades are single-sided.
Usually, double edge blades have a V shape. Although not suitable for high precision, sharpening is very simple.
Overall, you get more precise cuts with the Japanese blade.
Japan’s knives are usually constructed out of carbon steel. Blades are forged at several points, with a brittle carbon steel core and a soft iron steel outer layer.
This combination produces a sharper edge similar to that of a Japanese blade.
Hagane isn’t as tough as stainless steel but can chip from tough fish bones.
Professional chefs should keep the knife in good condition for a longer period to prevent the sharp edges from dulling and rusting.
Western knives are manufactured from stainless steel and are easier of handling and more stable but can corrode.
Learn all about the amazing craft of Japanese knife making here
Japanese knife skills
Now it’s time to talk about some more knife skills you need to have. I’m sharing tips on how to hold the knife, how to set up your equipment, and more!
Preparation & setting up the cutting board
First, it’s time to prepare your equipment for use. The cutting board must stand at least two to three meters from a counter edge to ensure it doesn’t fall from the table. Put the object at an easy distance.
Take a half-step back with your dominant foot while facing the cutting board.
Allow roughly 2-4 inches worth of space between yourself and the cutting board.
It’s critical to keep the food stable no matter what you’re chopping so place the items in an ideal cutting position so nothing rolls off or slides off the board.
It also helps to imagine your hand as a claw. Ascertain that the blade’s side is in contact with the middle and index fingers’ initial joints. You won’t cut your fingers this way and cutting becomes a bit easier.
Stance and body position
Rotate body 45 degrees towards counter/ cutting board.
Standing at an angle helps you cut perpendicularly to the boards, maximizing room usage. It also allows the hands to stay out of the cutting boards, enabling greater hand room for cutting items.
Your body must remain in the same position 90% of the time. When it is necessary to cut ingredients at different angles, it is best to rotate ingredients rather than rotate the body.
How to position your off-hand / hold your ingredients?
How we hold the ingredients is the exact equivalent of what we hold our knives.
In most cases, the most popular beginner method is the claw technique.
Begin by shaping your hand as if you are about to grab a round object. It should look like you’re pinching something in a claw. Place the hand on the food with your fingertips on the food and have your thumb sit behind the fingers. It’s important that the knuckle is the foremost part and not the tip of the fingers.
Fingers are there for stability to hold your food in place while you make those cutting motions. As you cut more and more, move the claw away from the blade.
How to hold your Japanese knife
You can pick up knives using a variety of approaches. It also depends upon the blade and the materials used.
The Pinch Grip
It’s probably the most normal way of holding kitchen knives. This is the hold you use most on a daily basis when using a chef’s knife.
You must hold your thumb and index finger on either side of the blade to “pinch” it.
It involves holding the top part of the bolster with your fingers right where it joins the handle.
Make sure you place your thumb on your index finger. Your index finger should always contact your finger. Alternatively, wrap the other fingers in the hand and hold the hand tightly.
The Point Grip
The “point” grip is almost like the pinch grip but you hold out and place your index finger on the top of the blade.
This allows better control of the slice and gives a greater grip to the knife tip and is generally used with a delicate/compliance-based cutting process.
It is usually found in Japanese cooking when slicing fish or making sushi/sashimi. Similarly, it is more appropriate for broader blades.
Practice each technique for a better fit with your hand and knife. Occasionally it is possible to require using a hammer or other hand grip.
The Hammer Grip
Also known as a regular grip, the hammer grip involves just holding the knife by the handle. You wrap your fingers tight around the handle and cut like that.
This position is no good for Japanese knives because you lack precision and have limited control over motions. It’s also not ergonomic and thus uncomfortable for cutting lots of ingredients.
The Combination Grip
This combines the pinch and part hammer grip. You hold the knife’s handle pretty firmly but then also use the thumb and index finger to pinch the bolster.
Cutting motions with Japanese knives
Now let’s look at the movement you make when wielding a Japanese knife.
Push cut/thrust cut
Generally speaking, it’s the method that makes cutting up Japanese food a lot easier. It is used to chop the majority of vegetables and other essential foods.
Push the blade down and push away from the body to cut. Remove the blade completely from the board to start another slice.
Since Japanese knives generally are flat, pushing cutting is preferable over a swing motion which is usually seen on more rounded knives.
This slicing action is used by the Japanese chef when making sushi and sashimi. The heel of the blade is pressed and pulled back with just one smooth and single stroke.
Pull-cuts are commonly used to slice salmon and a variety of seafood. Some of the other meats include beef/pork.
Inexperience can result in less success with this technique. This is basically a different type than pushing cut. Start by adding ingredients closer at the blade edge and pulling the knife downward.
The movement must end around the edge of the blade. Some chefs can even use curved cutting techniques.
You have learned the basics of cooking with knives. Now all you have to do is practice, practice, practice!
Japanese knife skills are pretty complex sometimes but once you master the basics, you can cut any ingredient, no matter the shape or cut size.
As long as you own sharp Japanese knives, you are sure to be successful.
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.