TOYOKUNI – A Japanese knife employing Katana technology

 

The knife lineup more than 15500 types

 

A “houchou” (Japanese kitchen knife) is the most familiar knife for Japanese people amongst all edge tools. Especially many households keep Japanese Santoku bouchou (“Wa santoku bouchou”), an all purposed knife, in their kitchen. It consists of the back side part without blade, called ‘Mine’, and the four blade sections from the top, ‘point’ of a blade, the ‘center’ of a blade, the ‘bottom’ of a blade, and the part called ‘Ago’ (jaw). Besides these parts, Santoku bouchou has the joint part called ‘Tsuba’ and a handle to be grasped.

 

Japanese foods are prepared using the above parts depending on the purposes. Mine is used when peeling off the burdock skin or removing the scale from fish, and crushing small fish. The point of a blade is useful to cut out the guts of fish or cut meat at a slant.
The center of a blade is the most functional part to cut vegetables, fish, and meat in slice, while its bottom is used for peel off vegetable skin or cut out fish bone or offal. Ago part can be used when eyes of potatoes need to be removed, as well as the handle can work on crushing out garlics or cucumbers. You can make most of the Japanese dish using the Wa santoku bouchou only in a domestic kitchen, though the authentic Japanese cuisine requires varied types of houchou to be employed case by case basis.  

 

From the top, Yanagiba Bouchou for Sashimi, Deba Bouchou for dressing fish, Wa sanbon bouchou (a Japanese typical kitchen knife), The kitchen knife for cutting vegitables

From the top, Yanagiba Bouchou for Sashimi, Deba Bouchou for dressing fish, Wa sanbon bouchou (a Japanese typical kitchen knife), The kitchen knife for cutting vegitables

 

The edge tools are forged in the same manner as that used for Katana manufacturing by Tokyokuni, so it is needless to say that they are very sharp. Toyouni is proud of offering an extensive line-up of the Japanese kitchen knife (houchou) products: the vegetable houchou, the special houchou for tearing cuttlefish or cutting an octopus / puffer fish, the tuna houchou, the watermelon-cut houchou, the lettuce houchou, the French knife, the noodle-cut houchou, the broad-bladed kitchen knife (for horse mackerel), and so on. On top of that, it should be noted that Yanagiba bouchou is used for slicing fish into sashimi, the sliced raw fish. Similarly the Usuba bouchou, which is the rectangular-shaped thin-bladed knife, takes a unique role for fine-cut of the vegetables to present them beautifully on a plate. There is no end of requests on Japanese kitchen knives for their special purposes of use, and most significantly Toyokuni forges all these knives by hand.
 
Toyokuni produces not only Japanese kitchen knives but the hunting knives ranging over seventy types that are uploaded on their site. More than fifteen thousand and five hundred products have been produced in forging, such as the western knives, the customized knives, the survival knives, camping knives, fishing knives, and other cutting tools (i.e. hatchets, axes, sickles, plows). They don’t regularly have all the products in stock, but the popular items have been forged prior to the potential order and made ready for the delivery any time. However most of the products will not become the forgings, but stay as iron or steel plate, until they receive the order from the customers. The material will turn into the beautifully forged products later in manufacturing process. This operation style can be feasible as all staffs at Toyokuni, including Makoto Hamaguchi, can handle the work as the skilled workers, Shokunin.

 

A long blade reminds us of Japanese sword, Katana.

A long blade reminds us of Japanese sword, Katana.

 

A customer asks them, “I want the knife like this…….. Can you make it for me?” Toyokuni accepts any special order because they know that such an order can readily be placed even if they keep waiting for a certain period. Makoto says with certainty, “The order never comes if you just sit and wait, but you must take an action to bring it in.”
Although Toyokuni receives the order from all over the world today, any business can be successfully run without failure. Toyokuni is not the exception. Makoto has suffered personal defeat in his early career as a smith.

 

I have visited the company Toyokuni to write an interview article on the Japan Agriculture News in April, 2003. The edge tools for agriculture use have been largely mass-produced by then along with the mechanization being in progress; therefore the number of the smiths who makes the cutting tools for agricultural purpose by hand was sharply decreased in Japan. It was the time when Internet had just turned to the next corner after its emergence and nobody could be able to foresee such a rapid growth now we are witnessing. I myself was still relying on face to face interview using my eyes, ears, and feet, to collect the idea of agricultural article, rather than the search engines. During those days I was visiting many farmers all over Japan for my stories, and I had opportunities to hear about the hand-made edge tools by Toyokuni for several times. The house being located in Nankoku city in Kouchi prefecture was famous for its orthodox production method with manual labor together with the repair services after sales. I knocked the door of Toyokuni factory after having heard their good reputation from many farmers.

 

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Daisuke Hamaguchi is a father of the family, and with Makoto’s brother he has been applying forging to material at the factory. Makoto himself is a disciple of his father. For me, Makoto looked working most hard by hammering metal when I visited the house for the first time. But he confessed me, “No, no, that’s not true. I need to hit the metal no more than six times with all my arms strength, or otherwise I can’t shape it. But my father is different. He can complete forming only in three times; one, two, three, finish! He is able to refine the crystals of metal with the minimum number of hammering required. Although he is far older than me, he finishes up the metal into the shape he likes more quickly than I do, using his entire body with flexibility. So does my brother.”

 

I have been using the small knife that Makoto made for me in 2003. Its sharpness has never changed since I obtained it and I cut Japanese paper by that knife all the time. Japanese paper possesses uneven fiber and very strong, therefore it can’t be cut smoothly even with a cutter or a western knife. This fact proves that Makoto Hamaguchi was a top rank smith by then. However he was feeling a sense of inferiority about his skill at that time, and asking questions to himself: what kinds of edge tools can be sold well in market? Instead of myself, how should I let my father and brother make those commodities potentially on demand?

 

Several kinds of rotary grinders are used for rough sharpening to finishing.

Several kinds of rotary grinders are used for rough sharpening to finishing.

 

Makoto’s question brought the turning point in Toyokuni that had been manufacturing the traditional knives of Japan since its establishment. One day he asked his father, “Dad, can you make the knife like in this shape?” He showed the design of a western knife. Daisuke Hamaguchi, a father and a master of Makoto, forged the western knife exactly in the same form as drawn in the design. Makoto introduced the product on their commercial site and it became a mega seller for Toyokuni.

 

The knives for forestry are sold with a wooden holder tied to user’s waist.

The knives for forestry are sold with a wooden holder tied to user’s waist.

 

So, what’s next? He needs to gain the ideas about the next hit products. He thought that he should observe the site where edge tools are used, and travelled to the U.S., Germany, France, Switzerland, Hungary, and other nations. He recalls, “In Italy, they gave me a hint to transform a pair of pruning scissors used in winery to cut grapes into the shape much easier to use.” He always kept his passport in his bag. “In Russia, I discovered that the knives used in leather craft making can be improved more.” He went to see the worker’s performance at site and talked to them. “In India, I have first witnessed the S-shaped knife.” Furthermore, Makoto had discussions with the designers of each country to find out the friendly shape of the knife to use or their design matching to the nationality. He has realized his lack of talent as an artisan, which at the same time made him open the way to explore the needs for knives world-wide.

 

So, why Makoto was not able to overcome his father or brother as a smiths? I doubt if it’s true. As far as I know, he himself is the world top class smiths from Japan. I shall talk about his work performance in Part 3.
 

 


 

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