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Japanese Working Knives/Axes?

Aiden CC

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There is an abundance of information about Japanese swords, in fact they might be one of the most well studied/appreciated blades in the world, and Japanese kitchen knives have a decent following as well. Because of this, I was surprised to find the relative absence of information about other Japanese "working knives" for things like carving, hunting, and general utility. Japanese axes are an interesting style as well, which also have much less as far as documentation and appreciation (at least that I could find) than European or American axes. Does anyone here know of any good sources to learn a bit about the history of the traditional work knives/axes of Japan?


I have found a few styles of knife, but not much information about them. I found the most about the nata, which is sort of a mix between a machete and a hatchet. There are a number of examples made in mass/semi-mass production in Japan, similarly to Japanese kitchen knives, but it is much harder to find information about he history of the style (similar to Japanese culinary knives, at least in my experience). There are also knives like the one below, which seem like they could fill the role of short fixed blade utility knife, but I haven't found much about them (or even the name for them). It seems possible they may even be inspired by western hunting knives, with a Japanese twist, though that is speculation.



An interesting feature I've found is mounting with a ferrule/pinned half length full tang like in the picture below from Dave's photo essay here. It seems like a knife like the one above with this kind of mounting may have been a precursor to the more western looking one with a guard essentially stuck on to the ferrule, but not much has turned up as far as older versions of these knives.




Another thing I've wondered about is whether the thought of applying the template of the "cultural working knife" to Japan isn't the best approach given the philosophy applied to tools in Japan. It seems like having a number of very specific tools, rather than one or two very general ones, might be more the case, especially if culinary knives are any guide. Maybe there isn't a Japanese equivalent to the Puukko, or American hunting/utility knife because that role is broken up and spread across the nata, kirdashi, bamboo splitting knives, chisels, planes, etc. Still, it seems like there must have been a time when steel was rare enough that the average person couldn't afford to have a dedicated knife for each task. Japanese axes also have an interesting and unique look, with rectangular eyes and a distinct profile, bearing some resemblance to axes from southeast Asia. 


Thank you for reading, any additional information about these knives/axes would be greatly appreciated!

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My take on Japanese tools, is near absolute utility. Quite unlike that with which they make with the tools, nothing is done except what is needed for performance. The word Spartan comes to mind. That might very well be the reason for so little information, nothing exciting about a boring old axe or saw.


Yes, I agree, they appear to make tools to do a specific job and have a tool for each. I remember a photo of a wood worker's shop and he had somewhere between 50 and a 100 different saws.


The knife in the first picture appears to be a European/American design. A lot of folks like the idea of a Japanese blade, but don't like the lack of a hilt, hence we're starting to see more and more Japanese knifes with them.


A possible source of information, might be within the Japanese woodworking books.

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I have found the same dearth of information (at least online) as you have, Aiden. I have been researching the nata type knife in preparation for forging a charcoal cutting knife for myself. I assumed the Japanese would have a specific blade for such work, but I can't confirm that and most of what I have found have been from western smiths who studied in Japan.


I have not started a library search yet. I'll wait until I'm a bit more comfortable with sniveling crowds. :) Let us know if you find any useful resources.



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16 minutes ago, Gerald Boggs said:

A possible source of information, might be within the Japanese woodworking books.

Given the fascination that exists for traditional Japanese woodworking, there must be the equivalent of Roy Underhill in that subculture.  



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when you have access to good bamboo you can use it for a lot of things with very few tools.


also the noble classes might not have let peasants have things that could be used as weapons unless it was really necessary, its not that much different today in some places. 


ive noticed that most of the japanese hunting knives are very very similar with the only difference being materials or blade length, most bamboo or garden hatchets probably all look the same, some kiridashi might be embellished, the japanese hunting knife looks like it couldnt stand up to any chopping with such a short tang so i think its purely for skinning animals and probably not as marvelous as what westerners would call a hunting knife. the ferrule would help a bunch with keeping the handle from cracking but i dont know if it would be enough for a 3" tang in wood that is either soft or some kind of oak, oak loves to crack as a chopping knife handle. its really just a tool is what it looks like to me but ill look for nicer ones now i suppose.


i do really like a few parts of japanese hunting knives though, the handles like the first one pictured are probably nice (ive made similar) and the use of a ferrule is great, the ferrule/guard is neat too but thats not something i could do.


as for everyday knives, its hard to say what people would have used, historically they would have used bamboo knives, bamboo will cut you so much you wont ever forget that its sharp. but i cant remember any japanese knives other than kiridashi that would have been used for most knife tasks.


the japanese did have a variety of axes but i havent seen much of them online

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I know that most Japanese view the kiridashi the same way we would view a standard razor knife! We think they are they super-awesome blade that needs a custom sheath and showy handle wrappings and only used for the most delicate of tasks...and most Japanese will look at you, whip it out and cut a piece of string and put it back while shaking their heads lol.

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Thanks everyone for the replies, I guess there really isn't a ton out there. @Brian Myersthat's interesting about the kiridashi, I may have try one out. I helped a friend make one years ago to use as a marking knife, but haven't touched the style since. I also have come across some kiridashi with handles, pointier ones sometimes called kuri kogatana, which look interesting. Below is an example from an eBay listing for a "tamahagane kiridashi":



On 10/22/2020 at 12:58 PM, Gerald Boggs said:

A possible source of information, might be within the Japanese woodworking books.

I have been trying to learn more about the subject, and may consider picking up a copy of "Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use" to learn about he subject and tools. Looking at the contents, it looks like there are a few pages about axes/adzes and a a few more devoted to knives. May be worth it, since used copies aren't too bad price wise and I've been thinking about making some Japanese style chisels/maybe refurbishing an old hand plane as well.


On 10/23/2020 at 1:32 PM, steven smith said:

the ferrule would help a bunch with keeping the handle from cracking but i dont know if it would be enough for a 3" tang in wood that is either soft or some kind of oak, oak loves to crack as a chopping knife handle. its really just a tool is what it looks like to me but ill look for nicer ones now i suppose.

I've actually gone somewhat down a rabbit hole regarding the wood for these handles, and I think that the construction may have something to do with it. It seems like many Japanese tool handles were originally (and to an extent still are) made from varieties of evergreen oak that grow in Japan. From the properties of the wood, it seems like they are much more similar to live oak than red/white oak in North America, which is a very dense, hard, and strong wood. I've had a hard time tracking down Japanese hardwood lumber of any kind (though I have one possible lead), and live oak is squirrely and hard to work, so you can't really find easily available lumber. I've found a place that sells slabs and turning blanks, but nothing that would work for, say, an axe handle. Long story short, I think it's possible that using a super hard, dense wood that doesn't have as pronounced of a growth ring pattern (because it grows year round) may make the ferrule + stubby tang work alright for heavy use.


For anyone else interested in Japanese axes, I have managed to find a few videos showing the forging process, and I think I have an idea of how they work from looking at a bunch of pictures/videos. The eyes are often rectangular, and appear to have straight sides or a slight hourglass shape. Some newer axes are hung with a perpendicular metal wedge that spits the handle, but it looks like many older axes, especially big hewing ones, are hung without any kerf or splitting the handle. Perpendicular metal or wood wedges are driven into the eye in front of and/or behind the handle. The ends of the wedges often stick out both sides of the eye, presumable allowing them to easily be removed or driven deeper. It also seems like there are some small axes with egg shaped eyes and no wedges of any kind. I don't think they are slip fit handles, and it seems like they may work kind of like some Japanese forging hammers where a very precise and tight fit is made by carving the wood oversized, compressing it with hammering, driving it through the eye, then allowing it to expand back.


A picture that shows a few different kinds of axes, with an ok view of the wedge setups on the first and third axes.



A no-wedge fit on a smaller axe with a round eye. 



And some videos I found about Japanese axe forging:






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  • 2 years later...

This is an old thread, but it's something that I find interesting. From what I have read, the model of knife that the Japanese use and have used for centuries is the tanto. The standard examole quite long, but was used as a sort of utility knife before it was used in war, and there was apparently quite a bit of variety in blade lengths. I think it was the longest blade some classes were allowed, so it would have also been used for self defense. For a long time it was also used as a marriage gift, if I recall correctly, so it apparently had fairly wide use. They also have kotantos (short tantos), which fill the niche of shorter utility knives. Hunters (hunting boars, for example), would also take along wakizashis to finish the boar with. These days is you search for a "tanto" online you'll see all kinds of knives, so it seems like it is used now as a general term for a shorter knife.

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