Photo essay: Pandemic cooking sharpens Japanese knife sales

The city of Seki, famous for forging samurai swords, is now the epicentre for world-renowned kitchen tools

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Over the decades, Japanese knives have become much-coveted for their delicate precision, sleek finish and long lifespan.

They're often the utensil of choice for aspiring and professional chefs, including French chef Olivier Oddos, whose Tokyo restaurant had a Michelin star between 2014 and 2021, and who has been a devotee for more than two decades.

The home-cooking boom of the pandemic, however, sharpened the knives' popularity, with the export value of kitchen bladed tools hitting a record 12 billion yen ($90 million) in 2021, a 30 per cent jump from about nine billion yen the previous year, according to Japan Customs.

Seki is the epicentre of knife-making in Japan, where blade expertise dates from the 14th century, when the city became a major producer of swords thanks to its rich natural environment; clean water, charcoal and raw materials.

When samurai were ordered to abandon their swords in 1876, the industry faltered, but after the Second World War the city began producing pocket knives for export.

Now, craftsmen sharpen and polish kitchen knives, but even at full tilt their small factory can't keep up with global demand.

Katsumi Sumikama, head of Sumikama Cutlery in the central city of Seki, puts the popularity down to a "combination of technology and traditional craftsmanship".

To achieve the formidably sharp edge needed to make perfect sushi or cut precise slices of Wagyu beef, the company uses machines that guarantee accuracy to one-thousandth of a millimetre, then artisans finish the job by hand.

But even at full capacity, "we can't keep up", Sumikama told AFP. "We're seeing demand stronger than pre-pandemic levels in all countries."

Updated: January 13, 2023, 6:01 PM