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  • Small Maker's Collection: Sakai Knives

    August 07, 2020 3 min read

    Small Maker's Collection: Sakai Knives

    This article in part of our Small Makers Collection. This series celebrates blacksmiths that make some of our favourite hand-made blades, but not enough for us to stock full time. You can learn more about our Small Makers Collection here.

    Sakai is a city in Osaka prefecture, the 2nd largest metropolitan prefecture in Japan. The city is best known for a series of giant ancient tombs believed to house emperors in the 4-5th century, but Sakai is also very well known for kitchen knife making. Sakai’s blacksmithing history goes back as far back as the 5th century AD! This region of Japan was a significant international trading at the time, due to its calm waters and natural port. The emperor back then decided to build huge tombs for former emperors and rulers in this region, to showcase their power to other nations in the area. There are 44 remaining tombs, and the biggest one is as large as 47 hectares in size (a bit less than 90 football fields).  To build this massive structure in the 5th century, the emperor commissioned many different types of skilled tradesmen, including blacksmiths.

    Fast forward to the 15th century, in the Sengoku Era (the era of warlords). During this time, the Portuguese missionaries introduced matchlock guns to Japan. Sakai quickly became the centre for matchlock gun production due to the vast number of skilled blacksmiths residing in the region. The Sakai-made matchlock guns even helped Nobunaga Oda to become the hegemon in Japan!

    After the Tokugawa shogunate started to rule Japan in the 16th century, Japan enjoyed almost three centuries of peace. During the period, many Sakai blacksmiths began forging knives that were used to cut tobacco leaves. The tobacco knives made in Sakai were far superior to any others available at the time, making Sakai famous for their knife making skills. As you can see, the blacksmiths of the area rose to each opportunity that came their way throughout history, and adapted their skills accordingly.

    Modernization forced these blacksmiths to switch to forging kitchen knives in the late 19th century, making Sakai a mecca for kitchen knife makers. There are now more than 100 companies involved in the kitchen knife industry in the city of Sakai.

    One of the many, MANY blacksmith workshops in Sakai.

    What makes Sakai knives unique from blades made in other famous knife making regions is that the knives are crafted by a number of different specialists. This means the blacksmiths only forges knives, the knife sharpeners only sharpen knives, and the wholesalers decide what handle to be put on and what name to be engraved. This division of labour allowed each craftsman to become super specialized, and hone their skills extensively.

    These knife-sharpeners are specialists in one area, which allows them to sharpen far more efficiently and consistently than a multi-faceted craftsman.

    The wholesalers are much like fashion designers. They choose a blacksmith, sharpener, steel, shape, finish, handle, then they put their name on this winning combo. There are 26+ wholesalers, 16+ blacksmithing workshops, 25+sharpeners. The blade finishes can be kurouchi, kasumi, mirror, or anything in between.  You can choose various levels of polish from choil to spine. The number of possible combinations is infinite, but knife-makers rely on them to know what will make a winning match. 

    While there are many skilled makers in Sakai, these are the ones that we’ve proudly found to work with, and they represent some of the best that Sakai has to offer:

    Itsuo Doi - Master Blacksmith
    Tomoyuki Ajioka - Master Sharpener with 5 apprentices 
    Yoshikazu Tanaka - Master Blacksmith, and his son
    The legendary blacksmith Itsuo Doi-san, at work in his forge.
    Knives from these blacksmiths, and others, are represented as part of our Small Makers Series.