Lifestyle

Staying razor sharp: At the sharp end of Sakai’s handmade knife industry

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

In Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, two things are certain: You’re never far from the remains of dead people and you’re never far from a knife. The two are connected, but not in the way you might think.

Historically an important seaport with a current population of around 830,000, Sakai is conspicuous from the air owing to its massive keyhole-shaped burial mounds ringed by moats and a wall of trees and hemmed in by urban sprawl.

These burial grounds, which were built over hundreds of years beginning in the third century, helped put Sakai on the map — literally — attracting legions of laborers and skilled craftspeople.

Over centuries, the city retianed its blue-collar roots and developed a reputation for its metal work, making everything from swords, tobacco knives and muskets to suits of armor, harpoon blades and bicycle frames.

However, it’s the chef’s knives, some of the sharpest and most effective handmade knives in the world, that will likely help the workshops in this city keep the home fires burning for some time to come.

A tool for professionals

A man works on a blade in Osaka
A man works on a blade in Osaka’s prefectural city of Sakai. | COURTESY OF THE CITY OF SAKAI

If you’ve ever seen a knife that was made in Sakai, more than likely it was in the hands of a professional chef and not hanging in a kitchen cupboard. According to industry officials, an estimated 90 percent of professional chefs in Japan source their knives from Sakai.

As appreciation for Japanese knives grows overseas — and not just among industry professionals — it’s having a knock-on effect in Sakai. According to reports, knife exports worth approximately ¥1 billion passed through Osaka customs in 2014 — a threefold increase since 2009.

The city’s knife makers produce about 200 different types of knives, including everything from versatile paring knives to specialized varieties such as the yanagiba (a long, slender knife used for cutting wafer-thin slices of sashimi) and the fuguhiki (a lighter, thinner knife designed for cutting up blowfish).

The other reason home cooks haven’t traditionally splashed out on Sakai knives is the price: Individual knives from Sakai can cost from ¥15,000 to well over ¥100,000. Why? Well, these are some of the sharpest blades in the world and, maintained properly, they’ll hold that edge for years.

Forging ahead

Blacksmiths in Sakai started making knives in the 16th century after Portuguese traders introduced tobacco to the country. Cultivation quickly followed and a sharp knife was needed to harvest the leaves. It’s believed that the first batch of these “tobacco knives” were made in Sakai, helping to create a nascent forging industry.

“The other major influence in the construction and materials for kitchen knives is the history of sword making,” says Marc Matsumoto, a chef and consultant based in Tokyo. Although the raw material to make swords is different, bladesmiths borrowed heavily from the process of forging and sharpening incredibly strong and extremely sharp blades. In a way, it’s almost as if swords evolved into what eventually became known as the Sakai knife.

Sakai is one the five remaining major centers in Japan where knives are made by hand — they’re also manufactured in Niigata, Fukui, Gifu and Kochi prefectures — but what really distinguishes the knives produced in the city from these other localities is the scale and division of labor.

While many contemporary knife makers are involved in every step of the intricate and physically demanding process, the three stages of making a knife — forging, grinding and attaching the handle — are operated by different family-run enterprises in Sakai, many of which stretch back several generations.

Keizo Shinoda is a seventh-generation knife maker and industry leader in the city of Sakai.
Keizo Shinoda is a seventh-generation knife maker and industry leader in the city of Sakai. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

It cuts like a knife

In a small office at Izumiriki Seisakusho, a cutlery manufacturer founded in 1805 that is known for its Tohji brand of professional knives, seventh-generation knife maker Keizo Shinoda, holds court.

On a table between us and Shinoda, there’s a line-up of the usual suspects in a Japanese restaurant kitchen that includes a sashimi knife, a deba knife used for cutting and filleting fish, and a gyūtō knife, which is generally treated as an all-round kitchen knife.

Several sheathed swords sit in a corner close to Shinoda. Beyond the door at regular intervals, there’s a rhythmic staccato of hammering as two workmen attach handles to blades, a process known as “hafting.”

Shinoda, who has been around knives and forges since even before he could walk, draws diagrams to illustrate the differences between a Japanese knife and its German counterpart. German knives are typically believed to form the basis of what is considered to be a Western knife.

“First of all, it’s the steel, and then the angle of the blade,” Shinoda says, making notes about the composition of a Japanese knife.

Japanese knives typically contain more carbon than stainless steel knives, which makes them harder but also more brittle. Crucially, the high carbon content allows such knives to “hold their edge” for longer. However — and this is another major reason why professionals tend to use carbon steel knives more than ordinary home cooks — they also require a lot more maintenance than stainless steel knives, especially when it comes to sharpening.

Knife maker Keizo Shinoda draws diagrams to illustrate the differences between knives.
Knife maker Keizo Shinoda draws diagrams to illustrate the differences between knives. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Shinoda uses the word “kireaji” repeatedly when describing knives that have been produced in Sakai. It’s a term that doesn’t have a direct translation, but it has everything to do with the sharpness of the knife and its effect on the taste and presentation of food.

“The kireaji of a knife will change the look of a dish,” he says. “For example, when you cut sashimi, the cut surface of the raw fish should look beautiful since the taste depends on how the sashimi is sliced and served.”

Shinoda, 80, says Sakai knives are forged so that one side of the blade has an edge — similar to a chisel — which is why they are known as single-edged or single-bevel knives.

Much like a prized Japanese knife, Shinoda, has lost none of his edge. He has a knack for getting his company’s knives into the hands of celebrities.

Former J-pop group SMAP used a set of Tohji knives on “SMAP×SMAP,” its long-running cooking show that ended in December 2016; more recently, actor Kazunari Ninomiya used a Tohji knife in the 2017 film “Last Recipe.”

Shinoda, a jazz fan and tenor saxophone player, even presented Herbie Hancock with one of his company’s knives when Hancock was in town a few years back for a concert at Osaka Castle.

The showroom of knife manufacturing company Jikko.
The showroom of knife manufacturing company Jikko. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Same same, but different

On the same street, across the tramline from Izumiriki Seisakusho, stands Jikko, another knife manufacturing company.

Younger than Izumiriki Seisakusho by a century or so, Jikko represents the vanguard. Headed by a pair of brothers in their 40s, design is as big a consideration as functionality, President Toshiyuki Jikko says.

After experiencing a slump in sales about five years ago, Jikko decided to break with the past and give his business a major facelift. The refurbished headquarters is a cross between a laboratory on the ground floor and a sleek museum-like showroom upstairs. Visitors to the showroom gravitate to the maguro (tuna) knife, a long sword-like knife with a blade that stretches to 153 centimeters.

Toshiyuki says he wanted to make the knife manufacturing industry attractive to young people, which is why he decided to make a clean break with the past.

“I thought that new recruits wouldn’t stay if the working environment is messy,” Jikko says. “I wanted to sweep away people’s perception that the knife-making industry is dirty.”

To some extent he has succeeded in educating the general public, although one person’s dirt is another person’s industriousness.

Staffed by a team of seven employees, most of whom are in their 20s, Jikko’s showroom has become a point of interest for many visitors to the area. Indeed, 30 percent of Jikko’s sales come from foreign visitors, with the remainder coming from chefs in Japan.

Jikko says his young employees have directly helped to attract an increasing number of non-Japanese visitors. They’re active on social media, uploading myriad videos of Jikko knives slicing through pineapples and watermelons.

With the uptick in business, especially among overseas visitors, Jikko will open its first shop outside of Sakai — in Namba, central Osaka — later this year.

One of Jikko’s new recruits, Ryota Kawakami, a 22-year-old from Okayama Prefecture, left his job as a chef and approached Jikko directly in a bid to find work in Sakai.

The reason Kawakami chose Jikko?

“The shop was so clean and beautiful,” he says.

As well as working as a retail assistant in the showroom, Kawakami will learn to grind and polish the knives and, like any craft, it’s one that takes a good degree of skill and patience. He also needs a mentor.

After talking to those involved in the industry in Sakai, there’s little doubt the overseas interest in knives represents a huge opportunity. It’s also a double-edge challenge for the domestic knife industry.

A selection of hand-made knives — two sashimi knives and a fillet knife (top) — sit on display in Jikko
A selection of hand-made knives — two sashimi knives and a fillet knife (top) — sit on display in Jikko’s showroom in the city of Sakai. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Sakai’s challenges

Knife makers in Sakai face the same problem that many industries in Japan are increasingly having to deal with: an aging workforce coupled with problems brought on by a declining population.

According to officials in Sakai, the number of registered forgeries in the city stands at 14, with 23 sharpening and grinding companies and 26 wholesaling entities. With most companies employing just a handful of people, it’s likely that around 200 to 300 people work full time in the industry.

Takeshi Fuchigami, 41, an independent councilor in Sakai, says when he was at elementary school, five of his 30 classmates were from knife-making families.

Fuchigami, along with Shinoda, belongs to a federation that has been established to promote Sakai knives and safeguard the area’s knife-making culture. Part of his personal mission is to make constituents more aware of the city’s metalworking heritage.

Take bicycle components manufacturer Shimano, for example.

“How many people know that Shimano has its headquarters here?” he asks.

Shinoda, who serves as a director of the knife industry lobby, says that forgers and grinders tend to be small family-run operations, and therefore it’s hard for them to find time to train new recruits.

“It takes about 10 years for an apprentice to become independent,” Shinoda says.

And if demand from overseas increases, Shinoda warns that it will place greater pressure on blacksmiths to meet orders.

“If we try to increase production too quickly, the quality of our knives won’t be the same,” he says.

In order to resolve this issue, the city has established a training school modeled on Japan’s ubiquitous cram schools. The classes are taught by shokunin (artisans) and the city pays students who attend the classes a salary for up to three years.

Still, getting recruits to last the distance is difficult, Jikko says.

The Japan Times was invited to experience firsthand what it takes to make it in the industry at Morimoto Cutlery.

Morimoto’s cramped workshop pales in comparison to Jikko’s sparkling factory and showroom.

I arrived in the middle of heat wave after the forgers had finished early for the day. However, Koichi Morimoto, 78, was working alongside his son and daughter-in-law to operate whetstones, grinders and drills.

Grinders such as Morimoto take the forged metal blades and turn them into ultrasharp polished tools on whetstones. Morimoto grinds and polishes two blades in the space of about 10 minutes before testing the sharpness of each one by running them along the back of his head.

Outside on the street, his second-youngest son, Yoshiaki, says his father reviewed the state of the steel industry when he took over the business.

“Previously, my grandfather had concentrated on making a large quantity of cheap knives. We now make high-quality knives, but the production rate has dropped,” the 40-year-old said. “I don’t know which way my brother will go when he takes over the business.”

Tsutomu Nakajima, owner of Sato no Ie Hanase, works behind the counter of his restaurant in Osaka.
Tsutomu Nakajima, owner of Sato no Ie Hanase, works behind the counter of his restaurant in Osaka. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Personality ingrained

At Sato no Ie Hanase, a kaiseki restaurant in central Osaka, chef and owner Tsutomu Nakajima displays his Sakai-made knives beneath a painting of a cherry tree that covers the back wall of the restaurant.

Nakajima has been using Sakai Suehiro knives since he was first introduced to them as an apprentice chef. According to Nakajima, an understanding is forged between the knife maker and the chef, the kind of relationship a machine-made knife could never replicate.

“In Sakai, the skill and knowledge to make these knives has been built up over generations. As a chef you trust that history,” Nakajima says. “With a handmade knife, you can feel the personality of the craftsperson in their knife.”

Nakajima says that because the knives are so sharp they force him to be modest or delicate in how he utilizes them. “If you use it arrogantly, you’ll hurt yourself,” he says. “You need to put your heart into the knife whenever you are using it.”

The ‘Ferrari of knives’

Men work on a knife in a workshop in the city of Sakai.
Men work on a knife in a workshop in the city of Sakai. | COURTESY OF THE CITY OF SAKAI

Kevin Kent, a Canadian chef and founder of Knifewear, a Japanese knife shop, has been doing business with Sakai knife manufacturers for the past decade. Kent started small and nimble in Calgary in 2007.

“When I got my first small shipment of Japanese knives, I sold them from my backpack to local chefs,” Kent says.

Fast forward 11 years and Kent has established five shops selling Japanese knives across Canada. His first book on Japanese knives is due to be released in autumn and he’s looking to open a new shop in Kyoto.

A self-confessed knife nerd, Kent got his first Japanese knife while working as a chef in London.

“This sparked a mania in me,” he says. “Soon I was only using Japanese knives.”

At Knifewear, Kent says he finds himself constantly explaining to customers how a knife should be used and maintained.

“Most Canadians do not know about Japanese knives until they meet us,” he says, adding that he asks all his customers to test drive a knife on some vegetables before purchasing it.

However, the majority of Knifewear customers are not professional chefs but cooks who want a tool that looks great and performs excellently.

“A Japanese knife is like a Ferrari and other knives are like a 4×4 truck. Ferraris are very fast but not so rugged. Take care of your knives and they will perform like a Ferrari forever.”

Haruka Iwamoto contributed to this report.