Taking Inspiration From The West
Honshu chef’s knives are becoming incredibly popular throughout the world. Beautiful and incredibly effective to use, it is easy to see why they are in high demand. Today’s knives blend the traditional Japanese knife with some of the best of western ideas, such as the double bevelled edge for an easier to use knife that is suitable for both left and right handed people, and one that is also more suited to cutting meats that formed only a small part of the traditional Japanese diet.
A question often asked is how has that western ideal become a part of the traditional and long lived knife making industry in Honshu, something that has led to such worldwide success.
Honshu has long absorbed influence from other cultures, its position as a significant port since its inception in the 1600’s has placed the city and region in a position of close contact with the wider world. Initially such influence was mainly from China, its main trading region, and many ideas that propelled blade design along in those early periods shows the Chinese influence quite clearly. Indeed, it is true that Chinese influence goes back much further, possibly well over 2000 years.
Real change, in terms of the influence of the west, came much later than that of course. The 19th century saw the beginnings of western communication on a larger scale than at any previous time, with scientific and cultural explorers beginning to spend time in Japan from many western countries, notably the Dutch.
This trickle of intake of western ideas became a flood after the Meiji Restoration, where western practice became something to aspire to and emulate much more openly, and this is where the Honshu knife story begins.
Not only did the Meiji Restoration begin the idea that western practice was the best way to do things, it also introduced severe restrictions on the practice of sword making, and these two things combines have produced what we now know are the finest chef’s knives in the world. Firstly, sword makers now needed an alternative path, and many simply put there already prodigious talents to use in creating blades for the kitchen instead, seeing a rise in the number of knife and other utensil makers in the Honshu region.
Making use of their skills and the high quality steel of the region to create wonderful Japanese knives was a sensible choice once weapon making was restricted. Combine this with the growing trend of copying the western way, and you have a situation where knife makers were introduced to western style knives from the many traders now found coming through Honshu port.
This resulted in the blend of both worlds that we know today, Japanese steel and craftsmanship creating knives in the traditional, beautiful shapes with edges tailored to be effective in the preparation of western style food choices.