My question: Is the classic Japanese artisan kitchen knife being overtaken by modern fusion technology knives? Has it become more a collectible than a usable tool in home or professional food prep applications?
I write as a home kitchen knife user. For my own home cooking preferences, Japanese artisan chef knives represent many of the design and manufacturing options that fusion manufacturers wisely have avoided or modified over the past twenty or thirty years. If I were given one, I would display it rather than use it. Please bear with me as I explain my perspective and recent experiences with German, Japanese and Chinese fusion knives.
All the kitchen knives that I presently own can be considered "fusion" today: a mixture of techniques, approaches, and materials from all over the world. Almost all these culinary tools have been updated with technology—blurring older distinctions between Japanese and mostly Western knives. Even the identity of designers, process engineers, materials providers, and others has become blurred.
For example, Shun is an American inspired brand of a Japanese corporate behemoth (Kai), with headquarters in Oregon, manufacturing in Japan, and distribution of different product lines globally. Miyabi is a Japanese name used by a German behemoth (Zwilling/Henkel) for a fusion product marketed back to Europe, but distributed globally in a manner similar to Kai. Wusthof, headquartered, manufactured and marketed from Solingen, Germany, would appear to be different. Though Wusthof knives were once thought of as the European alternative to the Japanese tradition, they have become more and more similar. They are lighter, thinner, and sharpened to almost the same angle as Shun (for Chef knives), and even sometimes Miyabi (for their Santoku). All three brands are manufactured primarily through use of robots, with some fine finishing.
There are kitchen knife enthusiasts throughout the world who are not satisfied with such modern fusion products. If they had or have sufficient financial resources, they can work directly with a craftsman who will design and produce a one-of-a-kind personalized knife for them. Most of these enthusiasts have supported the development of artisan knives—almost entirely Japanese---as upgrades or alternatives to fusion products. These artisan knives might be also referred to as limited production designer knives in a traditional Japanese style. They are a throwback to a tradition of hand forged craftsmanship that still survives in Japan—adapted long ago to an export market. These Japanese craftsmen often work with steel not used in larger scale manufacturing, hardened above Rockwell 60—without external cladding layers. Versions of these artisan knives with carbon steel need special attention to avoid rusting, and will develop a grey patina as they age.
The Artisan tradition suggests either an octagonal or oval wooden handle that accepts the rat tail end of the artisan blade. The advantage is that handles can be easily replaced. The disadvantage is that the connection is very fragile. Fusion knives are full tang, allowing ergonomic handles that can be gripped in many ways, and half or partial bolsters that support a variety of grips. Three adapted fusion knives that I own are the Miyabi Birchwood 8” Gyoto, the Wusthof Classic Ikon 8” Chef’s knife, and the Shun Kaji 7” hollow ground Santoku. For comparison, here are some reviewed Artisan knives:
The profile of most Artisan knives has a flat, ruler like edge—consistent with push cutting. Many Western cutting tasks work best with curvature. Fusion knives provide a compromise, and are available with more or less “belly.” The profile of Artisan knives is tapered—both distil and top-down profile. The tip area is very thin. Fusion knives can use similar profiles, but usually have tips that are not quite as thin.
Classic Japanese artisan knives are Rockwell 60 and up—hard and harder. They support and sustain a sharper edge. Fusion knives with European steel have often settled on Rockwell 58 as a ceiling—like my Wusthof, but Miyabi and Shun knives have achieved Rockwell levels of 63 using sg2 powder steel, comparable to the Rockwell 63 of the artisan knives linked above. The gains achieved in sharpness for artisan knives come with increasing thinness of the blade, reduced weight and reduced angle. These gains increase the risk of chipping or tip damage, and limit task performance in the home kitchen. Even my artisan inspired Miyabi birchwood gyoto fusion is not a best choice for slicing dense roots or squash.
Fusion designers have been producing inexpensive knock-offs of Artisan concepts in Japan with full tang rather than rat tail, and a variety of alternative handles for many years. The steel chosen is softer, and easier to work with, both by manufacturer and user. I own an older nakiri that has similar light weight and profiling to an artisan nakiri, but with softer steel—a Kai (Shun) Seki Magoroku. Unlike the Artisan it emulates, the mass produced Seki Magoroku Nakiri of 20+ years ago I purchased in Japan was inexpensive. Yet, it remains flawless in my home kitchen tasks and is easy to maintain. There now are multiple inexpensive nakiri, santoku, and gyoto product lines by Kai, Tojiro, and others that perform home kitchen tasks as well as the expensive artisan knives they emulate in Japan. There are also harder steel or new technology fusion versions of artisan knives that are closer in appearance and function to artisan knives—at artisan prices.
The most successful new technology alternative to artisan knives have been done by Kai with a whole series of award winning product lines that sell for very high prices and are seldom seen in retail stores. The most interesting are their dual core series, one with a herring bone pattern, and the other (the Hikari) with a hornet’s nest texture. Dual core users claim that their knives are sharper, have equal or better retention, and are less susceptible to chip and tip damage compared to the Rockwell 63+ Artisan knives.
Although Japanese fusion manufacturers seem able to provide competitive prices in multiple markets without undercutting the traditional Japanese artisan designer, that price stability could be challenged by fusion products made in China—either through OEM relationships or direct exports. I have two Chinese fusion knives—a chef knife and a cleaver—that match up well against recognized Japanese and European fusion products—use very advanced technical processes—and are much less expensive. An illustration of this advanced technical Chinese capability for even the highest end chef’s tools can be seen in this review:
I can only report on the one Chinese Chef knife I’ve been using in a home kitchen. My Shan Zu gyo 8+ inch Chef Knife is a bit longer, wider, and about the same weight as a Wusthof Classic Ikon Chef’s knife, but considerably harder (Rockwell 60+), with 2 alternating softer metal damascus cladding layers. Here’s a review:
I’ve used it for almost a year now—side by side with my other knives described above. It fits in well in my home kitchen, and complements my high end fusion knives from Germany and Japan. The exporter, Shan Zu, has departed from start up relationships with Ali Baba and AMAZON, developed their own Website, and moved their Western Headquarters to Colorado, USA, holding a price point near $100 for the gyo Chef’s knife (up from $45).
It seems to me that Chinese quality fusion knives are focusing on a middle weight between Japanese and German/Western knives, capable of withstanding the type of extensive chopping strokes used with cleavers. There are several Japanese fusion knives that have taken a similar approach—but at a higher price. I’m intending to purchase one of both for comparison—and would welcome suggestions.
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