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Why do we call a Japanese kitchen knife a ‘hocho’?

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Hōchō is the word for kitchen knife in Japanese. What's the origin of the word?

You’ll see many knives on Knife Japan that are listed as a something-something-bocho. Santoku-bocho. Bannou-bocho. Bunka-bocho.

Those are three common Japanese knives used in home meal preparation. A nakiri-bocho is more oriented to vegetables and also usually used at home. Sashimi-bocho, deba-bocho, usuba-bocho are traditional Japanese knives that are used by chefs and specialists as well as we mere mortals. It’s likely that none of this is news to the reader.

Hold right there. If a knife is called a hocho in Japanese, then why do we say ‘bocho’?

It’s a quirk of the Japanese language to harden a soft consonant when we use two nouns together to make a compound noun. When we add the Japanese for ‘knife’ – ‘hocho’ – then we usually change the ‘ho’ sound to a ‘bo’ sound. We don’t say ‘deba-hocho’, instead we say ‘deba-bocho’.

It’s more than a quirk actually – it’s a grammar rule we must follow. The mountain cherry trees that dot our mountains and burst into blossom each spring are called ‘yamazakura’. Mountain is yama or , cherry is sakura, or . Written together, 山桜 is yamazakura, not yamasakura.

Back to knives – why is it we have the word ‘hocho’ in Japanese, and use it for kitchen knives?

That’s akin to asking why we call a knife a knife. But if you look for the source of the English word you’ll only find where the word comes from. For the Japanese word, we not only find the where, but also the when, the why and the who.

The story of the Master Kitchen Servant

Generic products often take on the name of the inventor, the first company to bring them to market or the most famous example. In the UK and elsewhere a vacuum cleaner is commonly called a hoover. In Japan, a paper stapler is a hotchkiss from the Hotchkiss boys of Connecticut and a car horn is a klaxon, from the Klaxon Manufacturing Company. A kitchen knife is a hocho.

Like a lot of Japanese culture we have to look to China for the back story. Specifically the Three Kingdoms period – around two thousand years ago - and a master chef in the service of the ruler Wen Hui.

In ancient China, as in modern China, kitchen was written as 庖. The character denoting 'an adult servant man 21 to 60 years old working in the workplace' (or ding, for short) was written as 丁. Thus the ancient Chinese for an adult male working in the kitchen was 庖丁.

One such chef (we'll call him a chef) is mentioned in the Chinese classical work of literature ‘Zhuangzi’, which describes his great skill in preparing nourishment for ruler Wen Hui.

You’ve seen the movies – those ancient Chinese could do all sorts of incredible things. It is said that our kitchen servant's cutting skills were such that over nineteen years he used his sword on several thousand oxen without ever sharpening or chipping the blade.

Good work, and you'd have to be impressed. Upon hearing our chef's philosophy and watching him quickly dissect a cow (using the force) Lord Wen Hui certainly was.

To quote Zhuangzi:

The ruler Wen Hui said, 'Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them the nourishment of (our) life.'

It is said that the same swordy slicey thing that this celebrated kitchen worker used to such good effect in cutting up cows and other edibles became known as a 庖丁刀 - a kitchen-adult-male-worker-sword - and the usage goes back to that one guy, the particular form of blade he popularised, and the admiration for his skill.

When the term 庖丁 was introduced into Japanese the original kan-on classical reading of this kanji would have been houtei. In the earlier go-on reading it would have been byoucho

(Go-on and Kan-on are two of the several possible ways of reading Japanese kanji. Go-on readings were introduced into Japan from China during the 5th and 6th centuries, kan-on readings in the 7th to 9th centuries, so we're going back a ways with the Japanese connection.) 

Over time 刀 - the sword reference - was lost, although whether that happened in ancient China or after the term was imported into the Japanese language isn’t clear. In any case, at some point in time we were left with 庖丁. 

Now, over a thousand years down the track, the Japanese for kitchen knife can still be written 庖丁- and over that time the word morphed into a combination of the kan-on and go-on readings to become hocho.

 isn't actually modern kanji and in everyday life you will more commonly see hocho written as the modern 包丁, but the classical kanji is often used on knife boxes and in knife-related design today.

It’s notable that in China, the country where the Japanese kanji characters and the reason we use them for a kitchen knife originated, change is a hallmark of history and a kitchen knife is no longer called a 庖丁刀 but rather a 菜刀 (Càidāo). If you cleverly wrote a letter in Chinese to a modern Chinese reader and told them that you’d bought a new 包丁 they would have no idea what you were on about.

You’d have to tell them you bought it from Knife Japan, so they could put two and two together.

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This short piece was inspired by a visit to the Fuji Cutlery Corporation website, which has some fascinating facts about Japanese knife making culture and history.

For readers interested in where we get the word knife, this Oxford University Press blog entry is well worth a read.

Hotchkiss and Japanese paper staplers are the stuff of legend.

Klaxon for car horn - who knew

And if you have an idle afternoon why not dip into Zhuangzi and follow up on the story of Master Kitchen Ding.