History of Japanese Knife Crafting
Japan is the land of long traditions, where hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge and experience are passed down from master to apprentice, from teacher to pupil. From ikebana flower arrangements to martial arts and kabuki theatre, each tradition has its own set of rules, procedures and schools of styles. Japanese chef knives are fashioned by techniques that were originally developed for making katana (samurai swords) over 1000 years ago.
The shift from sword crafting to knife crafting began in the 1850’s when Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships” (steam boat) anchored in Edo (Tokyo) Bay, and demanded the emperor to open Japan’s long isolated ports to Western trade. When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General MacArthur banned the production and possession of katana. The ban forced large numbers of highly skilled craftsmen to turn their skills and attention to crafting kitchen knives. Although, the ban was repealed after seven years, the Japanese government continues to limit production to very few pieces a year. However, the legacy and unforgettable sharpness of the katana still lives on in the heart of the kitchen 1200 years later.
Development of Western Style Knives
Earliest examples of contemporary Japanese swords date back to the 14th century and were crafted by Kaneuji and Kinju. All craftsmen who stem from Kaneuji and Kinju are called Mino Smiths, based in Seki-city. Although, katana swords were originally intended for nobility or military heads, during the Muromachi (1392-1573) period katana swords began to be mass produced for trade and war.
In the beginning of the 14th century, Japan opened their trade ports to the Ming Dynasty (China) after being completely isolated for thousands of years. It is reported that more than one hundred thousand katana swords were exported to China during the Muromachi period. The freedom to interact with other countries brought new business opportunities that influenced the development of Japan's market and made way for new social classes.
The victors of the Onin war overthrew the Muromachi Shogunates, which led to military leaders declaring themselves as feudal warlords of different regions and vying for for power. This state of Darwinism on a human scale marked the beginning of a century of civil strife, known as the Sengoku Jidai (Warring period 1467-1568).
During the Sengoku period, Mino smiths in Seki were faced with an incredibly high demand for katana from different regimes. Regardless of the availability of firearms, only few utilized them due to the samurai code of conduct (bushido). Bushido dictates that fighting opponents face to face with a katana is the only honorable way to fight, therefore it was considered cowardly to kill from a distance. To meet these demands, the art of sword crafting became a production line of massed produced blades.
Although the mass produced blades had little artistic value, they were practical and met the needs of power hungry military heads.The mass production of katana swords represents the change and turmoil manifesting in Japan during the Muromachi and Sengoku period. Although nowadays, sword crafting is limited by the government to a few pieces a year, Seki’s historical background has made the city into the center of Western style knife production. Craftsmen in Seki continue to polish strategies that have been passed down for hundreds of years and develop new advancements for kitchens worldwide.
Development of Regional Traditional Japanese Knives
Before Tokyo became the capital of Japan, the emperor and nobles resided in the Kansai region while the shogun lived in the Kanto region. Kansai cuisine is more refined and lighter to suit the nobility, while the flavors in Kanto were stronger for hard working laborers. Due to the class separation in this matter, the nobility in Kansai looked down and mocked those in Kanto. The animosity led to chef in Kanto to not want to use the same tools, which led to the creation of the takobiki and usuba knives that are popularly used today.
Although, class separation through regions no longer exists, Kansai and Kanto remain the two most compared regions in Japan. One of the many distinctions between the two lies in the cuisine. You can still find these vast flavor differences by simply tasting the soy sauce; the soy sauce in Kanto is much saltier and stronger than in Kansai. Other popular dishes such as tempura are served with salt instead of a soy sauce based dips.
From the third through the seventh centuries, it was customary to bury royalty in tombs covered by large, keyhole-shaped monuments. These tombs were called kofun and were constructed of earth and stone. Around 450 A.D. the kofun of Emperor Nintoku was constructed in Sakai City. The tombs ranked in scale alongside the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and the building project was so immense that it was necessary to bring blacksmiths to Sakai from all over Japan. They produced the massive amount of hoes and spades needed for the mound construction. By the time of the kofun was finally completely, most of Japan' metal craftsmen had settled in Sakai for good.
Gradually, Sakai became the center of all metal craft in Japan - famous for its swords. Sakai became known for rifles after the Portuguese introduced them in 1543, and later for kitchen knives. In 1570, the Tokugawa shogunate granted Sakai craftsmen a special seal of approval. The government decreed that only knives made in Sakai be used to Harvest tobacco and that all such knives be stamped to indicate this. As a result, Sakai became known for producing thee finest Japanese cutlery.