The Chino River, in Fukui-Prefecture, has been carrying iron-rich earth from the surrounding mountains into the sea since the Japanese islands were formed millions of years ago. However, around 700 years ago this invaluable raw material was being extracted for use in the local smithies of Takefu City, now re-named Echizen. Around this time, renowned Kyoto sword-smith, Kuniyasu Chiyozuru, and his fellow craftsmen began producing not only swords for local Samurai but also agricultural blades, such as sickles, and later, knives.
Today, Echizen is home to many of Japan’s greatest knife-smiths who use the highest grade alloys available to create internationally renowned knives. These famous forged blades (Uchi-Hamano) with multiple layered steel are now further refined using state-of-the-art clad metal technology. The end products are said to be perfect in both form and function as they create a long-lasting, extremely sharp cutting edge that is resistant to bending, breaking and corrosion. Indeed, when you first pick up an Echizen knife – before you even use one – you immediately understand what all the fuss is about: the finely balanced grip-to-blade weight ratio and the ergonomically designed handle feel just right.
In an attempt to find out more about the combination of heritage and technology exemplified by this ancient company, I spoke to Seiichiro Mizuta, craftsmen, salesman and partner of the Echizen Japan Knife Consortium, which have been making the very highest quality blades since 1337. In a fascinating conversation, Mizuta san explained why his company, which has been operating since 1337, produces knives which are not only coveted as items of value and status, but most importantly used daily in kitchens by discerning chefs – both professionals and passionate amateurs – all over the world.
The following interview between Ashley Williams and Seiichiro Mizuta was conducted in Japanese by telephone. We hope you enjoy reading…
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Echizen knives and the Echizen Japan Knife Consortium, can you provide some historical background to your company and the knives you make?
Well, we started off as sword makers for the Samurai back in 1337. We had many competitors but gradually the quality of our blades began to be noticed and we flourished for 500 years until the Meiji Restoration; this was when the Samurai were forbidden to carry swords by law. Most sword manufacturers began to make knives instead, but we had already begun making grass and crop cutting tools well before this happened so we already had a side-market for our craft, irrespective of the new laws. However, we also began to increase and improve our knife-making operations over many years and built the company into what it is today.
What is your connection to the knife industry; and were you brought up with a reverence for Japanese knife-making?
Well, I was brought up in this business and learned how to make knives at a young age but now I am involved in the business side of the consortium, more than the production side. But I think you can’t just be a knife salesman without knowing how they are made or knowing a lot about their history. Well, you could still sell them but it just wouldn’t be the same for the salesman or, more importantly, for the customer. It would be like a tee-total guy telling you which sake he recommended!
Your company has a long tradition of honour and respect for knives; perhaps they are almost a sacred tool to you. Are these traditions still important to you and your craftsmen?
Yes, of course. For a company like ours these traditions are the very essence of not only our work but also our culture. Japanese people have always had pride in their work and it’s generally recognised that Japanese standards of engineering and craftsmanship are among the highest in the world. But, there is a way of thinking which is inherent in the quality of that engineering. It’s not just a case of technical expertise: it’s the soul of the craftsman which distinguishes his product at the end of the day. Nowadays, that pride in your work is being lost across all industries and it is a great shame to see it happen in Japan. That philosophy of preserving knowledge – of passing what you know onto the next generation – is so important. Our company wouldn’t be here otherwise. We are not alone, by any means, but the number of companies preserving ancient traditions instead of cutting corners is dwindling fast.
I have heard that your company has increased its production volumes quite a lot in recent years from around 30 knives a day to around 300. How is a ten-fold increase in production possible, over a relatively short time-span, if you are sticking to ancient knife-making methods?
No, I think you misunderstand what we have done at Echizen. The demands on modern businesses are enormous, whether you are an established brand or not. For many new companies the problem is creating a demand for their product. In our case, the problem has been to satisfy the increasing demand by increasing supply. It’s all very well to say that companies which increase their volumes must be cutting corners but whether that’s true or not depends on three things: Are you using the same high-quality materials you have always used? Are you producing the same quality products, or even improving their quality over time by refining the production processes? And is the quality of your products still what you stand for as a business? The answer in Echizen’s case is “Yes” to all three.
I can say without hesitation that mechanisation has actually increased the knives’ quality as well as their quantity. Yes, the quality is even higher now, thanks to the state-of-the-art machinery we use, but the reality is that we have only been able to satisfy the growing demand for our products by doing what we’ve done. Not only would such a volume be impossible without hi-tech machines, but we would struggle to survive in today’s highly competitive market without technological support. Also, people forget that choosing the best quality metals and knowing how to combine them to produce the world’s best knives is a skill in itself. This is the ancient knowledge which has been passed down throughout Echizen’s history. The fact that we can make more knives now doesn’t mean that the materials or designs or basic forging processes used to make them have been altered because that’s just not the case.
Why do you think the demand for Japanese knives has grown so much over recent years? I mean you must have a solid international customer base now, in order to be producing so many knives. Why do you think your products are so popular abroad?
Food. It’s all about food. As Japanese food has grown in popularity, so has the demand for Japanese knives and other kitchenware. But nowadays, people don’t just want to eat Japanese food in restaurants: they want to learn how to prepare and cook it themselves. And, to do it properly, you need the right tools. The international boom in kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi restaurants) is great for Japan and for popularizing Japanese food and culture abroad. However, in real sushi restaurants, the chefs are filleting and preparing the fish in front of you. I don’t like the pre-packed stuff you get in foreign kaiten zushi places. It’s just not sushi – well, not for me.
How do you market your products abroad?
Well, I know for sure that modern marketing techniques are no substitute for word-of-mouth, especially in a business like ours. It is very nice for us to be recommended by companies such as Henkel – the German design company – and to win international awards and so on, but word-of-mouth from professional chefs and amateur cooks alike is more important to us. Many say that they never go back to using western-made knives after they have used Echizen knives just once in their own kitchens. Of course, the importance of a high-quality knife to a high-quality chef can hardly be put into words. A good chef with a blunt knife is like a good runner in heavy boots – they hold you back and prevent your progress and success. You see, the western knives are normally made from a single sheet of stainless steel, not the layered steel we use. The western knives are more difficult to keep sharp and can get damaged more easily than Japanese ones because the materials and processes used to make them are inferior to those at Echizen and other quality knife-makers in Japan. Knowledge of how to sharpen and look after them is also important and many in the west don’t seem to know how to do this properly.
Actually, I’d like to ask you about sharpening your knives, but could we just go back to the knives themselves for a moment? Could you explain the traditional production process for me, in brief?
The knives are made of clad metal. This means that we forge different metals together – using the best attributes of each – and combining them to produce this strong, supple and durable product which has a long-lasting and extremely sharp cutting edge. We use something called VG10 stainless steel which is made from carefully selected pure iron, and by melding it with other metals we get this very sharp cutting edge which doesn’t break or rust. It’s actually abrasion and rust resistant so the knife will last you a lifetime if you look after it.
Please could you explain the actual process from taking iron ore to become a finished knife?
We are essentially making a metal sandwich whereby the bread is the two layers of stainless steel with the VG10 steel made from the purest iron in the middle. This is called ‘san-mai’ which means ‘three layers’ and this is how the best knives in the world are made – ‘san mai’ gives strength, flexibility, durability and that razor sharp edge which stays razor sharp for a very long time.
The raw materials are ground and then welded to each other. Then, the ‘sandwich’ is hot-rolled in a furnace at 800 degrees to stretch and mould the raw material and, of course, to meld the three layers together. This is done with a ‘Belt Hammer’ which is the main forging tool and so integral to the final product.
Then, it is cooled naturally to stabilise the internal steel structure. When cooled, it is cold-rolled to harden and shape it more. Then, it goes through a heat treatment process called ‘annealing’ which makes the material more ductile and make it more workable. It also relieves internal pressure and homogenises the metals’ properties. Then, it goes through what is known as ‘pickling’ whereby strong acids are used to remove surface impurities, stains, rust, scale and things like that which don’t look nice but can also harm the knife if not tackled in the treatment stage of manufacturing.
Anyway, that’s the last thing you do before the sheets are cut into their final shape. So, when they have that cutting edge clearly visible we work on modifying the shape and sharpening the edge. It is heated and cooled several times to produce the best results. Then, we use a whetstone to make it razor sharp and then, finally, it is polished with a burnishing machine. It’s a long process; the heating and natural cooling to room temperature takes the most time and can’t be rushed or the metal will weaken and possibly break. So, yes, it’s painstaking work but we like to think that, for our customers, it’s worth all the effort.
I’m sure many of our readers would love to know how to keep their knives as sharp as the day they bought them. Can you offer any tips on how to sharpen the knives you make?
Yes, well, first I should say that when I see western movies or TV programmes and I see a butcher or another person using a metal knife sharpener to sharpen his metal knife, we Japanese can’t believe it. Metal on metal sharpening is unheard of in Japan for kitchen knives; it is so strange for us that you would damage and weaken your blades like this. We always use a whetstone and people who buy our knives are recommended to buy a good one to keep their knives perfectly sharp. We recommend the Matsunaga Toishi and the Naniwa Toishi; they are the best whetstones for keeping our knives sharp.
There maybe some young readers out there who want to learn how to be a knife-smith. Can you tell us what kind of attributes you are looking for in an apprentice?
We get kids coming here from Tokyo and other cities saying they want to be knife-smiths and that’s good; I mean it’s good to know that there is still an interest in this craft in the modern age. But it’s obvious that they want to become a knife-smith: that’s why they’ve come for the interview. What I am looking for is someone who already knows the history of knife-making, how it has developed over the centuries, the basics of how they are made, where our knives are being used nowadays – in which countries, for example – and why they are so popular. Then I will think, “This kid has the right attitude.”
Basically, they will need to be prepared to work hard, they will need a keen eye – almost to the extent of perfectionism – and most importantly, they will need to be patient. There is no special training program; they will learn all the tasks involved and we aim for them to become experts at each over time. A proper apprenticeship – to become a real master knife-smith – can take between 20 and 30 years.
What do you think the future holds for Echizen knives?
Ha! You have saved the most difficult question until last! What can I say? In an industry as competitive as this one, and with the world moving as fast as it is, it will be a challenge for any business to keep up. Well, all I can say is that I hope we will still be making knives 700 years from now. My main concern is that my son is 33 years old and still single. It doesn’t matter how good your knives are if you have nobody to pass on the knowledge to.
I wish you, your family and your company all the best for the future. Thank you very much for your time.