The popular Japanese knife brand Shun is celebrating its fifteenth year of retail presence in the United States. Introduced in 2002, parent company, the Kai Group, claims Shun’s pedigree can be traced back 100 years to when Saijiro Endo set up shop in Seki City, Japan. There, Endo began to produce folding knives, razors and then kitchen cutlery; this initial work evolved into Kai.
Japan’s Seki city, Gifu Prefecture, has a history of over 800 years as the home of forging blades, much like Solingen, Germany, in the West, Seki is the heart of kitchen cutlery manufacturing.
When the Meiji Revolution brought an end to the samurai era in 1868, many sword companies re-invented themselves as a makers of cutlery. This historical note represents a key difference in the major styles of cutlery – kitchen knives are descended from a cultural’s weaponry.
European swords were heavy thrusting and crushing weapons made from a single cast blade intended to defeat heavy armor, while Japanese swords were of a folded construction, lighter, thinner and sharper. Arguments regarding the superiority of one style over another in combat continue to this day, as do similar modern disagreements regarding which knives are better for culinary purposes – more on that in a moment.
When Kai was established in the U.S., it did so with the intention of introducing quality Japanese cutlery to the American market under the brand of Shun. The proper pronunciation is “Shoon,” a word that loosely translates from Japanese to “at the peak of perfection.” Shun Cutlery is handcrafted in Japan by the artisans of the Kai Corporation, and the company likes to believe their knives are at the peak of perfection.
According to the company, Shun were the first Japanese knives in the USA, but I have some issue with this oft repeated declaration. Global knives were first imported to the United States by Sointu USA in 1989. Sointu was the original importer and exclusive US distributor for 23 years. Global knives are manufactured by Yoshikin in Niigata, Japan and were originally designed in 1985 by Komin Yamada.
Faulty history aside, Shun knives did take the U.S. market by storm in 2002, and quickly became the darling of the culinary world. Most mainstream consumers had never tried a Global knife, with its curious and quirky design, but once the public got their hands on a Shun, it was a revelation. The knives are super sharp, can make precision cuts with ease, are easy on the hand due to their light weight, and are gorgeous showpieces to boot.
Seemingly overnight, the big American culinary retailers (William Sonoma, Sur La Table, et al) began offering and featuring Shun Knives. While these knives had a higher price point, they performed better than the German-style knives the public had been using for decades, and this tony newcomer allowed the retailers to introduce an exciting story to what had been a stagnant segment.
Let’s take a quick interlude to clear up confusion that can occur in the U.S. market regarding Shun knives and the brand Kershaw. Kershaw Knives was founded in Portland, Oregon in 1974 when knife salesman Pete Kershaw left Gerber Legendary Blades to form his own cutlery company based on his own designs. Early manufacturing was primarily done in Japan, and in 1977, Kershaw became a wholly owned subsidiary of the KAI Group. In 1997, the U.S. production facility was opened in Wilsonville, Oregon. Due to a rapidly expanding market, the facilities were moved to a larger production site in 2003, and since then Kai USA manufacturing facilities have been located in Tualatin, Oregon with some goods coming from their Japanese and Chinese factories.1
This infusion of new knives created a running feud between fans of Western and Japanese knife styles, with passionate opinions expressed freely in comment threads around the world.
The differences between European-style (German) and Japanese knives like Shun are many: unique steel composition, differing forging technique, bolster or not, full tang or partial, and the blade beveling.
The bevel of a Japanese knife is smaller than a German knife, creating a sharper blade. The Japanese make both double beveled and single beveled knives, but either way, the angle of a bevel in Japanese knives is smaller than that of their German counterparts.
In Japanese knives, the bevels are typically anywhere between 7 and 8 degrees, allowing it to nicely slice through food, such as raw fish, without damaging the cell walls and therefore preserving the the taste and texture. They are able to create this narrow angle thanks to the hardness of the steel used. The Japanese value precision, and the angle of their knives allow for that.
German blades, conversely, are typically sharpened to around 10 degrees, leaving them not as sharp as a typical Japanese knife. Yet their wider bevel allows them to compensate for the sharpness by being versatile and weighted. They may not have the cutting edge to slice through objects as well, but they have the strength to power through them. The belief being that the heft of the knife does the work, not you exacting force upon the blade.
Following the introduction of Shun to the market, a number of younger professional chefs made the shift to Shun and similar Japanese knives simply because of the weight issue. The lighter, super sharp knife put less strain on their joints over the long hours of knife work in a restaurant environment. However, as with military swords, the debate regarding which style is best rages on.
In the end, it all comes down to “hand feel,” or how comfortable the knife feels in your hand. Knives are one of the most personal pieces of kitchen equipment you can own. Because of this fact, I have never recommended knives as gifts unless you know for certain that the recipient prefers a certain type of knife. Even then it is a risky proposition because whether it is a Western or Japanese knife, there are subtle differences between manufacturers and styles that must be felt to be appreciated.
I own and use both styles of knives, but must confess when I want a knife for slicing, julienne and more precise work, I choose Shun. Cutting more resilient, tougher foods like winter squash, creating a paste on the cutting board or mincing a large amount of herbs, I prefer larger European knives. When considering which knives I use, more often than not, I reach for Shun when prepping ingredients for meals.
The three go-to Shun knives in my storage block are a Santoku, Gokujo and pairing knife, which comprise a versatile set with the ability to handle just about any kitchen task.
The Santoku I own is from the Shun Elite line, sadly, Shun Elite was officially discontinued in January 2011. The Santoku style is a multipurpose knife that comfortably handles any kitchen need from chopping to mincing, dicing, and slicing. Resembling something between a chef’s knife and a utility knife, the tool features a wide blade and typically measures between 6.5″ and 7″ in length. Santoku knives provide versatility – able to dice vegetables, mince onions and chop walnuts as easily as it can thinly slices apples.
The Gokujo knife is unique to the Japanese style, and this one from Shun features a 6-1/2″ blade designed primarily for the task of boning and filleting. The knife’s strong blade provides a slender contoured shape that makes it easy to safely and efficiently cut meat away from joints, bones, and tendons, all while maintaining the integrity of the meat. I use it most frequently as a mini-carving knife. A long traditional carving knife isn’t always the best choice, so for carving a chicken, pork tenderloin or smaller cuts of meat, I prefer the Gokujo.
The Shun paring knife is exactly what you would expect from a paring knife, super sharp and able to handle any number of tasks that require a small blade. When I dice or cube garlic, I use this paring knife more often than a Chef or Santoku blade. There is a valid argument that the paring knife doesn’t need to be as sharp as the Shun is, but I have other workhorse paring knives for less precise purposes.
Since Shun’s introduction to the U.S. market fifteen years ago, the competition has increased exponentially. There are a myriad of Japanese knife companies selling in the U.S., and the traditional Western stalwarts have adapted the design into their product lines to meet the desire for Japanese-style knives.
To decide which style you like better don’t rely on reviews and online feedback, go to a quality retailer who will allow you to handle each blade so you can make up your own mind.
As for Shun, happy anniversary and best of luck going forward!
1-Kershaw history from the company’s Wikipedia entry.