The founder of the Japanese Knife Company on cold forging, master knife makers and  Japanese chefs

Interview: Viel Richardson
Images: Christopher L Proctor, David Stetson

When did your love of knives begin?
I had sold a previous clothing business and had taken time off to travel the world, exploring my passion for cooking. I was in Japan and had done a ‘stage’—a culinary internship—in a small izakaya (gastropub) restaurant in Shin-Matsudo, just outside Tokyo. Me and the chef-patron Matsumoto san became firm friends and when I left, he presented me with a beautiful yanagiba knife. ‘Yanagiba’ means ‘willow leaf’ and the blade is designed for cutting boneless fish. That knife fundamentally altered the way I thought about preparing food.

What was it about the knife that had such an effect?
I was not a professional chef and like many consumers and domestic cooks—and professional chefs, for that matter—I saw chopping ingredients as a chore. The way this knife just seemed to glide through whatever I was cutting and the sense of control it gave was wonderful, it made you want to slice more things. Humans created the knife even before we controlled fire—there is something about using a knife that goes deep within our psyche.

What is so distinctive about Japanese knives?
In western cooking, the food is generally cut after it has been cooked on heat of some kind, and before it’s presented to the diner. For a large proportion of Japanese cuisine—and this goes far beyond sushi, to things like donburi, sukiyaki, shabushabu, yakiniku—the chef’s job is to cut the food and bring it to the table raw, so their task is to make the finest cuts they possibly can. Because of this, there is a different approach to making the knife.

Blacksmiths from Rajasthan in India discovered almost 2,000 years ago that if you took a piece of iron and folded it over before beating it flat, the layered piece of iron was stronger than a single piece of the same thickness. They also discovered that beating together metals with different qualities—one soft and the other hard—results in a blade with properties that neither of the original materials possess, such as being able to hold a sharp edge for longer. These skills reached Japan by a very circuitous route over many years—possibly involving Vikings, but precisely how is shrouded in myth and mystery. We do know that they arrived in Japan at least 1,000 years ago.

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What is the difference between Japanese and European knives?
As the knife edge gets sharper it gets thinner and therefore weaker, so you need a way of maintaining that edge. The Germans—who make the best European knives—achieve this by toughening the steel, so that the edge is inherently stronger. The Japanese, however, believe the most important thing is to be able to maintain the working edge yourself, which can be difficult with hard German steel. The Japanese developed a system called ‘warikomi’, which means laminating, whereby the finished blade has a thin core of very hard steel, which supplies the cutting edge. The outside of the blade is softer steel. When you rub the blade against the sharpening stones you remove soft steel more quickly and reveal the harder steel in the centre. This structure makes them easier to sharpen, as well as helping the knife stay sharp for a long time. However, this type of blade is much easier to damage if misused.

I am in no way denigrating German knives, they produce some fantastic blades. In fact, the most expensive series of knives we sell is German. We don’t keep the most expensive ones in stock, but there is one maker whose knives sell for £138,000 each.

You hear a lot about layers. How important are they?
The thing is not to get hung up on the number of layers a knife has. The question you should be asking is, what is in the middle, what is my cutting edge made of? But one with more layers will usually be easier to sharpen and look nicer.

Does the way you use a knife have an impact on which you should choose?
If you are the kind of person who is heavy-handed, and prefers to cut straight through the whole joint when, for example, preparing a chicken, then traditional Japanese knives are not for you. You need a German knife with harder steel. With the Japanese knives you need to break the joint first, then the knife will slide smoothly between the bones, giving you an extremely clean cut.

Can this be limiting for the busy chef?
Yes it can, which is why we have worked with a forge in Japan to develop a new type of knife that behaves like a German, but cuts like a Japanese. It is very strong and hard-wearing, but can do delicate cuts if needed. We used what is called a ‘cold forging’ technique, where the metal is worked at room temperature, which the Japanese don’t really like to do. The forge master was very doubtful at first, but once he saw how the knives performed he was convinced.

You trained with a Japanese master knife maker. Tell us about that.
When I returned to the UK, no one knew how to sharpen the knife Matsumoto san had presented me with. After a supposed ‘expert’ had ruined it, my wife said: “You like Japan, you seem passionate about knives and know people there. Why not go back and learn how to do it yourself?” So I went back and asked Matsumoto san to introduce me to his knife maker. Because Matsumoto san was a man of high status, the knife maker, Takeo Murata, agreed to take me on out of respect for him.

It was very hard, but incredibly rewarding. I trained in a tiny little hamlet of about 12 houses and the only person who spoke any English was a child of one of the blacksmiths. I basically spoke no Japanese, so he translated for me. The day I started, Murata san laughed at me, saying: “What on earth are you, a gaijin [outsider], doing trying to learn something only the Japanese can do?” He said I would last two weeks. I was there for seven years, and we became great friends.

What is it that drives the Japanese to produce such high quality?
They believe in the pursuit of perfection. Murata san is now 90 years old and I saw him on a recent trip to Japan, still in the workshop. I asked why he was still there. He said: “When I stop learning, I will stop working.” He has been making santoku knives, general-purpose chef’s knives, since he was 13 years old. They sell at about £300 and are the equal of some costing thousands. For me, he is the best santoku maker in the world. It is about that passion for achieving the absolute best he can.

Do Japanese chefs take a more spiritual approach to their knives?
There is an idea that they have a more spiritual connection with their knives, but that is only a reflection of the fact that they have a spiritual connection with all things. In Japan, many of the top chefs buy their knives in pairs, using them on alternate days to give each knife a day’s rest. It may seem a bit over the top, but it is part of the culture. These knives do an enormous amount of work in the hands of a true master and will suffer from molecular fractures and metal fatigue. Japanese chefs treat their knives with great respect. We’ve had European chefs bringing their knives to the shop to be sharpened with fish scales still on them—you would never see that in Japan.

What is your advice for buying a Japanese knife?
If you are choosing an expensive knife for a gift, it is good if the person you are choosing it for is there, especially for their first knife. The same style of knife can be different weights and balanced for the front, middle or back of the blade. After holding several knives, one will just ‘feel right’. Japanese knives are like fountain pens and over time will wear according to the user’s hand. After a while it will never seem as sharp to someone else. These knives do take some emotional investment, they must be used properly and looked after. But the reward is a beautiful object that is a delight to use and one that will give you many years of excellent service.

Japanese Knife Company