Many older chefs and folks who have been cooking at home for years think of German knifemakers as the gold standard. There are certainly reasons why German knives were the dominant style on the market for many years, but the popularity and availability of Japanese knives for professionals that then trickled down to home cooks has exploded in the last decade.
When looking at German vs Japanese knives, the difference in characteristics between the two is quite different, which results in a totally different cutting experience. The main differences are found in the hardness, edge balance and shape and use.
Most kitchen knives are made of various types of steel. Hardness varies among different blends depending on the ratio of carbon to iron that they contain. The more carbon included in the blend, the harder the steel. Japanese knives tend to use steels and forging techniques that have more carbon than German knives resulting in higher numbers on the Rockwell scale, which is the standard by which material hardness is measured. This means Japanese knives can get sharper and have better edge retention over time.
The angle at which the edge is created will vary by knife maker and by knife style, but in general Japanese knives’ harder steel composition allows for craftsmen to sharpen to steeper angles resulting in thinner blades. For hybrid western style Japanese knives, some knife makers choose a 70/30 balance over a 50/50.
German knives, by contrast, have two equally angled bevels on either side. The blades tend to be wider and heavier with thicker spines. The heft of make up of German knives allows for them to handle more abuse, but when it comes to razor sharpness and precision, Japanese blades cannot be beaten.
Lastly, Japanese chefs knives or gyutous also have a leaner profile compared to the wide round belly found in German chefs knives.
Shape and Use
German and Japanese knives also differ in their shape and use. German knives tend to have a wider rounder body that is good for cutting with a rocking motion. Japanese gyutous (chefs knives) tend to have a lean, tighter profile, better suited for precise cutting and elaborate knife work. Although Japanese fish knives are great for many purposes, knife makers excel at a variety of shapes that are perfectly geared for specific jobs. For more information on choosing a Japanese knife, you can read our guide to Japanese kitchen knives.