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.
In Japan, people REALLY like ranking things, such as “The 3 Best Onsen Spots in Japan” or “The 3 Oldest Onsen Spots” or “The 5 Most Popular Onsen Spots”... you get the idea. Let’s just say Guy Fieri would be a real hit in Japan.
Naturally, the same thing happens in the world of kitchen knife makers. If you asked someone in Japan about the 3 most famous kitchen knife making regions, I guarantee you they would answer: Seki, Sakai and Sanjo. Echizen and Tosa would absolutely be included in the top 5 list.
Tadokoro-san, one of Tosa's master sharpeners.
The Kochi prefecture is also known as Tosa, and occupies much of the southern coast line of Shikoku island. For ages, the main industries is Kochi have been fishing and forestry. Their Bonito Tuna tataki is so good in fact, that it’s the best in Japan. Just ask anyone. As you can imagine in a place where fishing and forestry are so popular, blade & knife blacksmithing have become very popular as well. You can’t butcher that many fish without a good Deba, or chop down that many trees without a good axe. As those industries modernized and power tools gained popularity, craftsmen in the area have shifted their focus to kitchen knife making. Despite the history of blacksmithing, their brand image is not as highly regarded as their contemporaries in Sakai and Seki. There are a few things that prevented Tosa from becoming famous as famous as the other famous knife making regions, despite their incredible craftsmanship.
First, unlike the other 4 regions, Tosa is not the name of an existing city, but an old name for Kochi prefecture. This means that knife makers and craftspeople are spread out all over the prefecture, whereas other regions are more confined to smaller areas such as cities. Therefore, “Made in Tosa” is a bit of a muddy term, and many folks end up confused by it. Craftspeople are spread throughout many municipalities along the coastline of Kochi including Kochi city, Tosa-Yamada city, Kami city, Nangoku city, Suzaki city and Aki city, rather than being packed into a concentrated area like they are in most regions. There are even some knife makers, such as Kageura-san, in super remote mountain cities like Yusuhara.
Tadokoro-san straightening a knife.
Additionally, Tosa knives have always been considered the ‘underdog’ of Sakai knives, because Sakai has such a strong reputation. The reality is that knife makers from both regions have had a strong, close connection for a very long time. Traditionally, many Tosa craftsmen go to Sakai to apprentice and learn new skills, but because the Sakai brand is so much more famous many knife makers in Tosa sell their knives to Sakai companies and sell them under the Sakai brand. There are many ‘hybrid knives’ under the Sakai brand, where the blade is forged in Sakai but sharpened in Tosa or vice versa. Despite the very high skill-level of Tosa craftsmen, they’ve never put much effort into promoting their unique brand.
Because many of the higher-end Tosa knives made by more skilled makers were sold under the Sakai brand, the leftover knives that were sold under Tosa name didn’t have the high-end fit and finish that many buyers expected. It may seem strange, but the Kurouchi (black scale) finish that we love so much on lines like the Haruyuki Shiso and Masakage Koishi were not historically seen as attractive or desirable in Japan. Japanese people in the past thought of them as cheap, which has created an unfair image of Tosa knives. Remember how lobster was once thought to be trash food for peasants? Not so much anymore!
The reality is that Tosa knives have not got the recognition they deserve. Tosa craftspeople are a highly skilled bunch, and the more we learn about them and get to handle their knives, the more we love them! The reasons for their poor historical reputation do not give a fair representation of their quality, and their value is actually highly recognized by many Sakai knife companies.
Knifewear is incredibly proud to represent several craftsmen from Tosa as part of our Small Makers Collection! This collection will include blades from Makoto Tadokoro and Akira Sasaoka. Sasaoka-san makes some gorgeous kurouchi-finished single-beveled knives, whereas Tadokoro-san sharpens a line of very sexy shirogami knives for us. Just look at these beauties!
A 270mm Yanagiba from Sasaoka-san.
One of Tadokoro-san's 210mm "Marushin" gyutos.