Follow Us




Views Tools for the Japanese Table
Tōjirō Knives: Bringing the Tsubame Brand of Cutting Quality to Global Kitchens

Tsubame in Niigata Prefecture is a small city of 80,000 people, but it produces some of Japan’s leading metalwork products. Today Tsubame has teamed up with the neighboring city of Sanjō to produce the Tsubame Sanjō brand of products, taking advantage of the area’s advanced techniques and skill. We visited knife maker Tōjirō and the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum to learn how the local metalworking industry has developed.

Fusing Tradition with the Latest Technologies

The city of Tsubame has flourished since the middle of the Edo period (1603–1868) with its metal industry, making Japanese-style nails, tobacco pipes, and Tsuiki copperware. It remains home to a large number of metalworking companies to this day and is especially famous for the production of metal tableware, boasting a domestic share of more than 90%. Kobayashi Kengyō, which polished the cases for Apple’s first-generation iPod in 2001, is also located here—Tsubame is known by many people around the world as the region with the best metal polishing technology in the world.

Tsubame cutlery used in the formal dinner commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the Nobel Foundation in 1991, on display at the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum.

Tōjirō Co. is a knifemaker that combines traditional craftsmanship and innovative metalworking technology at the highest level, a true “Tsubame company.” It has the manufacturing technology to make both uchi-hamono, traditional forged knives and cutting implements, and nuki-hamono, more recently created press-cut knives using stainless steel. Ogawa Masato, the head of the Tōjirō Knife Gallery, explains the company’s strengths.

“With nuki-hamono, blanks are cut from sheet metal with dies, enabling stable quality and efficient production. At Tōjirō, craftsmen who forge our traditional Japanese knives check the fabrication process and finish, adding their skill and input. This results in excellent sharpness, even with nuki-hamono,” he says.

Clockwise from upper left: The exterior view of the Tōjirō Knife Gallery; gallery head Ogawa Masato explains the blades on display; a gallery showroom, with knives starting at ¥3,000 and running up to some ¥160,000. The best-selling blades are in the ¥8,000 range.

Quality Handed Down from the Japanese Sword

Tōjirō’s sells its knives directly in 50 countries around the world and has shipped its products to 90 countries in all. Its professional knives are particularly highly regarded, but the firm also has a wide range of products for home use. Tōjirō currently makes 1,200 products, a number that climbs to around 3,000 when OEM offerings are included. Its technical skill is such that even some of the most famous European knifemakers outsource the manufacture of their highest-end models to Tōjirō. Ogawa notes that while his company deals with many butcher knives and other Western-style knives, as a manufacturer, it is the most scrupulous about the cutting quality of its Japanese knives, which it still makes using a manufacturing method that has been passed on from the making of Japanese swords.

Tōjirō excels at Damascus steel forging, a sophisticated technique in which elegant ripples appear with repeated forging of stainless steel with two differing levels of hardness. These high-end products have a lacquer finish on the handle and sheath.

“Japanese people before the Edo period had small physiques and not a lot of physical strength, and so Japanese swords sought outstanding cutting quality,” explains Ogawa. “In contrast, the swords used by bigger Westerners are said to have emphasized ruggedness so that they would not break even when striking armor. That difference appears in Japanese and Western knives. There are people around the world who need the cutting quality of Japanese knives rather than robustness. To deliver the products such people want, our thinking is to combine the highest technology and a stable production system to support food culture worldwide.”

Clockwise from top: Tōjirō’s traditional forged blades; stainless-steel blades for professional use are a mainstay of the company’s product line; stainless-steel plates from which knife shapes have been punched piled in a corner of the factory.

  • [2017.11.16]
Related articles
Other articles in this report
  • Tea and Sake Copperware by Gyokusendō: Combining Tradition and InnovationIn Tsuiki copperware, copper plates are “raised” with repeated hammer strikes to create tasteful tea and sake utensils. With a history of more than 200 years, Gyokusendō traces its roots to the metalworking industry of Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture.
  • Bjorn Heiberg, the “Savior of the Japanese Knife”Razor-sharp Japanese wabōchō, chef’s knives created by skilled master craftsmen, are essential to the preparation of washoku. Bjorn Heiberg, who runs knife specialty stores in Osaka and Tokyo, fell in love with wabōchō after coming to Japan, and is spreading the good word about these remarkable knives to the rest of the world.

Related articles

Video highlights

New series

  • From our columnists
  • In the news