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Japanese or Western Handles, Which is Better?

For some, the decision is a foregone conclusion given that for years, mainstream marketing by Wüsthof/Henckels/Victorinox and others has told us that full tang, bolstered western handles are the best and only construction worth choosing if you’re serious about your knives.

I have found this mindset quite entrenched within society when I chat with clients and or people at the various knife shows I attend. However, is this standpoint still valid with Asian style knives becoming more prevalent in the market? Was it ever valid?

Lets explore the main differences, shall we?

TophamKnifeCo - 210mm Gyuto Chef with stainless damascus ferule and maple burl
210mm Gyuto chef knife with wa eastern style handle

Japanese / Wa / Eastern Handles

  • Hidden tang (the portion of the blade that is inserted into the handle, for Japanese knives, it only goes about halfway through)
  • Lighter overall (have more wood and less metal in the handle results in a lighter knife)
  • Weighted more towards the tip of the blade.
  • Arguably less durable (depending on materials) but very easy and inexpensive to replace.
  • Good for larger hands that feel cramped in western handles.
  • Traditionally octagonal in shape, but also can be a D-shape, which is an oval or egg-shaped handle with a ridge running along the same side as the edge bevel (right side of the handle for a right-handed knife).
7 inch Western Santoku with Brass and Tambotie handle
7″ Santoku with full tang western handle, including brass bolsters

Yo / Western Handles

  • Full tang (riveted/pinned) (the portion of the blade that goes into the handle, normally goes all the way through the handle)
  • Heavier overall (more metal in the handle and less wood, create a heavier handle)
  • Weighted more towards the handle.
  • Arguably more durable but also more expensive to replace

Hygiene

A common question for professional users is about hygiene. The choice of handle materials certainly a talking point here, but most manufacturers use plastic or resin impregnated materials anyway, so much of a muchness.

Custom makers too will use selected materials for their knives regardless of their chosen designs, so there is more variance in customs but a good dense wood, that is resistant to rot and has low water adsorption will be fine. In my post on end-grain cutting boards, the science shows that wood is just as hygienic, if not more so that plastic.

From a structural point of view, both styles of handle construction have their vulnerabilities in this regard. Western handles are usually riveted on (manufactured) or pinned and this can allow food, dirt, etc to get under the scales at any point around the handle. If you’ve ever seen under the handle, you’ll know what I mean. Eastern handles only have a single area, where the blade enters the front of the handle for debris to enter.

If hygiene is of utmost importance to you, a solid, one-piece stainless knife like the Globals are your best bet.

Conclusion

Arguably a full tang is stronger than hidden tang construction methods, but I would warrant that if you are subjecting a kitchen knife to the point where it’s tang is going to break or fail, you’re not using it correctly. So it’s a null point at the end of the day.

So like with most things, it comes down to aesthetics (which looks better to you), feel (what fits and feels better in your hand) and balance (do you like a light or heavy knife or blade forward or handle bias?).

There is no wrong or right, just the personal preference of the user.

I have both styles in my own kitchen and while the Japanese styles do slightly outnumber the western styles, I use them interchangeably and it’s more down to the blade and task that influences my decision.