The knives available to a Japanese chef are enviable not only for their incredible craftsmanship, but for their specific utility in the kitchen.
For every job, there is a knife that’s designed to handle the task in the most efficient and effective way possible.
So when it comes to finding the right Japanese meat cleaver for your home kitchen, you’ll need to get a little bit more specific about what exactly you intend to use the cleaver for.
Shizuo Tsuji’s seminal tome on Japanese cuisine, titled Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art (published by Kodansha International Ltd. in 1980) has been indispensable in providing the context found in this guide.
In it, you’ll learn both the traditional role of a deba-bocho cleaver in the Japanese kitchen, as well as how some chefs use a larger, heavier knife style borrowed from Chinese cuisine to do the job.
And of course, we’ll cover what you should be looking for when it comes to buying a Japanese meat cleaver, as well as the best online outlets to purchase one from.
What Is A Japanese Meat Cleaver?
Following Tsuji’s classification in his chapter on knives, the deba-bocho or Japanese cleaver can come in a variety of sizes. Saying that it is “basically a fish knife”, he goes on to describe its use in cutting chicken and meat as well.
Most importantly, he clarifies which sizes of Japanese cleavers are appropriate for chopping through bone:
The medium and large sizes with blades from 7 to 12 inches long are for average or heavy work.”
Tsuji then goes on to add that “this knife seems thick and heavy to most Westerners at first, but in fact it is very versatile and can do delicate work.”
It just so happens that this is where there may be confusion about what exactly constitutes a Japanese meat cleaver.
Simply put, there is no hard and fast distinction in a traditional Japanese kitchen between a chef’s knife, and a cleaver; it’s only a matter of size, weight, and how the knife is used.
Furthermore, the deba-bocho cleaver does not much resemble the common image of a meat cleaver; its tapered blade and pointed end will remind most American cooks of a French chef’s knife, not of a cleaver used for separating bones and meat.
It’s worth noting, however, that the deba-bocho differs from a Japanese chef’s knife or gyuto knife in its handle design and the thickness of the steel used to make it.
To clear this up, we’ll have to look at a second type of cleaver sometimes grouped with Japanese knives: The chuka-bocho, or Chinese cleaver, covered in the next section.
Types of Japanese Meat Cleavers
Essentially, then, you’ll need to make a choice between two types of Japanese meat cleavers:
- A long and heavy version of the deba-bocho, or traditional Japanese cleaver.
- The large, heavy, and rectangular chuka-bocho, borrowed from the Chinese chef’s knife arsenal.
Of the two, the traditional Japanese cleaver will be lighter and more versatile, allowing the home cook to precisely debone chickens and other small fowl.
For pure chopping power, however, the Chinese cleaver may be a better choice; its exceptionally heavy blade will do most of the work of cutting through bones for you, preventing strain on the wrists and allowing for more efficient butchering.
Considerations for Choosing A Japanese Meat Cleaver
First of all, then, you’ll need to decide: Are you looking for a traditional Japanese cleaver (the deba-bocho), or a heftier Chinese cleaver (the chuka-bocho)?
If you’re looking primarily to cut fish and chicken, the Japanese cleaver is likely the better choice. For butchering beef and pork, the Chinese cleaver’s added weight makes it much easier to use.
And indeed, the price difference between the two knives may play a big factor in your decision. While even an entry-level deba-bocho may cost $100 or more, serviceable chuka-bocho may be found at your local Asian grocery store for around $20.
Though the level of craftsmanship of the former is undeniable, it will always be true that the cleaver is the knife that takes the most damage in your kitchen.
So unless you’re planning on cutting whole fish, the Chinese cleaver is a more user-friendly and economical option.
If your heart is set on owning an authentic Japanese cleaver, you’ll first need to consider what size – both blade thickness and blade length you’ll need.
From personal experience, a 7- to 8-inch blade is most appropriate for the widest variety of jobs; any larger and the weight can be cumbersome, while any smaller may have difficulty in cutting through chicken bones and thick meat, much less spare ribs.
And while a complete discussion of what specifications to look for is outside the scope of this introductory guide, suffice it to say that buying from a reputable supplier is the best way to ensure that your knife will be top quality.
You’ll also need to consider metal type (basic stainless steel, high carbon stainless steel, etc).
Where to Buy a Japanese Meat Cleaver
Thanks to the popularity of cooking competitions like Iron Chef, it’s easier now than ever before to buy a high-quality Japanese knife online.
By avoiding big-box online retailers and sticking with providers of specialty Japanese products, you’ll be much more likely to get the best quality knife at the most reasonable price.
Two online purveyors of Japanese knives stand out above the rest: Korin and MTC Kitchen.
The more recently founded of the two companies, Korin has been crafting and selling fine Japanese knives, kitchenwares, and barware since 1982. If you’re totally new to the world of Japanese knives, their highly informative educational materials will get you up to speed on the specifics of all their wares.
Founded in 1926, MTC Kitchen provides the full range of supplies necessary to run a Japanese kitchen. From knives to cookware, plates and bowls to rice cookers, they do a fine job of making real Japanese equipment available to American consumers.
Check out their page on deba knives to browse through a full selection of Japanese meat cleavers.
- SUPERIOR STEEL - Manufactured with an ultra-sharp, cobalt-added, and cryogenically treated steel cutting core, this 7 in. Japanese cleaver boasts unrivaled performance and incredible edge retention.
- ERGONOMIC & WELL-BALANCED - The ergonomically designed blade helps alleviate fatigue and finger pains from long periods of slicing or chopping, perfectly blending performance and comfort.
- DURABLE HANDLE - The meticulously constructed, triple-riveted Pakkawood handle has gone through special treatment, making it extremely impervious to heat, cold, and moisture; accented with a mosaic pin.
- EXTREME SHARPNESS - The ruthlessly sharp edge is handcrafted by seasoned artisans to a mirror polish at 13-15° per sided using the traditional 3-step Honbazuke method; cryogenically treated for incredible hardness, flexibility, and corrosion resistance.
- LIFETIME WARRANTY - Our knives come with a lifetime warranty, and we offer free exchange or return if the item is defective.
- [Hand Forged Japanese Knife] Japanese meat cleavers are made of top grade AUS-10 high carbon damascus steel, following the traditional Japanese hand forging method and 67-layer of folding process to create a unique texture. Damascus knife is precision vacuum heat treated and nitrogen cooled to achieve a high hardness of 62±2HRC, greatly enhancing blade retention and sharpness.
- [Premium Professional Chef's Knife] The traditional Tang kitchen knife has a multifunctional design. Blade length 7 inch, thickness 2.2mm, handle length 5.5inch.The blade tip is narrow and sharp to handle fine work; the blade is wide and thick, with the power concentrated in the middle, with a stable center of gravity and more precise in finding the angle to cut meat and vegetables for perfect division. Excellent damascus chef knife is one of the essential knives for oriental chefs.
- [Ergonomic Knife Handle Design] The handle of the meat cleaver knife is made of PakkaWood, which is environmentally friendly and sturdy, and the handle and steel head are seamlessly joined with phenolic resin polishing for good corrosion and waterproof performance. Japanese chef knife is ergonomically designed with embedded rivets for a balanced center of gravity and a solid feel in the hand, yet flexible enough for slicing and dicing.
- [Damascus Knife as a Gift] The Japanese Damascus Knife combines high-end materials and top-notch craftsmanship, making it perfect for home cooks and professional chefs alike. It is more than just an ordinary kitchen knife, the beach textured blade and rustic handle blend perfectly and are a pleasure to see any time. The exquisite gift box packaging makes it the perfect gift for parents, lovers, friends as well as Christmas, weddings and birthdays.
- [ミツモトサカリ] MITSUMOTO SAKARI's chef knives are strictly audited and certified. Defective unconditional replacement or refund policy, risk-free trial. We are constantly striving to achieve a standard of excellence that our customers trust. If you have any questions, please contact us and we will give you a satisfactory answer.
- CHINESE VEGETABLE CLEAVER: The Shun 7-inch Classic Vegetable Cleaver, also known as a Chinese cleaver, is an effective multi-purpose knife ideal for processing large vegetables such as cabbage.
- SOLID, NIMBLE BLADE: The large square blade of this cleaver knife is solid yet thin, nimble and sturdy enough for almost any kind of cutting or slicing while remaining light and easy to use.
- HIGH-QUALITY CONSTRUCTION: Constructed with Shun's proprietary VG-MAX cutting core and clad in 68 layers of stainless Damascus, this vegetable knife is corrosion and stain resistant with a strong, razor-sharp edge.
- COMFORTABLE HANDLE: The D-shaped, ebony-finished Pakkawood handle is durable, beautiful, doesn't harbor bacteria, and comfortable to use for both left- and right-handed users.
- TRADITIONAL, ARTISAN CUTLERY: Inspired by the traditions of ancient Japan, Shun knives are handcrafted by highly skilled artisans to produce blades of unparalleled quality and beauty.
- [ Very Sharp & Works Well ] Cuts everything like butter! The blade is 8" long. After many tests, the Chinese kitchen knife is prefect for Cutting, Chopping, Slicing, De Boning, Cleaving Meats or Light Bone, even coconut.
- [ Ergonomically Balance to Save Effort ] The solid wood handle is ergonomically balanced without tiring the hand. And the soild wood handle provides you with a not easy to slip, sturdy and labor-saving.
- [ Special Blade Design ] The curved edge can avoid the problem of continuous cuts due to uneven cutting boards. Not only this design can reduce the pressure when you chopping or cutting, but also have a flush cut to help you lock your food fresh.
- [ Excellent Wear & Stain Resistance ] The Chinese Cleaver is made of high quality stainless steel and easy to clean and maintain. High Carbon Stainless Steel is so more Tough, Less Brittle, Stain and Rust Resistant.
- [ Fashion Smooth Knife Blade ] You will feel excellent because of the delicate smooth knife blade. The handle and the blade are integrally formed, which is strong and durable without loosening.
Japanese Meat Cleaver FAQs
Here are a few common questions about Japanese meat cleavers.
What are Deba knives for?
This is a Japanese-style knife that is mainly used for cutting fish. There are some rare exceptions when it may be used for cutting other meats as well, but it is primarily used on seafood of some variety or another.
What is a Usuba knife?
This is a traditional Japanese knife that is used specifically to cut vegetables. You are likely to see this type of knife come out at Japanese Hibacchi-themed restaurants in particular.
Do Japanese use cleavers?
There are multiple types of cleavers used by the Japanese including the deba-bocho cleaver that is traditional and has deep roots in Japanese culture.
What is a chuka bocho cleaver?
These are Chinese-based knives that are often used as a primary kitchen knife for nearly every type of kitchen task imaginable. Someone in China would view this knife as one of their primary tools for use in any means of cooking that they take up in a given day.
What is a Bunka knife?
This is a knife that is used for general purpose cooking needs in the kitchen. It is one of the most popular types of knives out there, and it was once as popular as the famed Santoku knives, though the popularity of any given knife tends to ebb and flow with time.
Why do Asian chefs use cleavers?
Cleavers make it easier to slice, dice, and move meat and vegetables around wherever they need to go. It is quite common for Asian chefs to use cleavers as part of their cooking process at this time, and it is something that people are likely to see if they go to a Japanese or Chinese restaurant.
What are cleavers best used for?
They can move through food very rapidly and effectively. When dealing with a large quantity of food, it is very common for chefs to use cleavers so they can move the food around at will and serve it to those who have ordered it. They are also great for cutting through the food effectively.
What is the difference between a butcher knife and cleaver?
A cleaver and a butcher knife are very similar to one another, but the cleaver weighs a bit less, and it is more agile at cutting through meat than its counterpart, the butcher knife. Given this, chefs have moved more in favor of cleavers as compared to butcher knives for cooking. Also, they have quirks like holes that call back to the past of butchering.