I am editing a text in English that doesn’t really have anything to do with Japan, but with India. In it, there is a letter from 1798 (translated from the original Danish) which contains the following:

The bearer of this [letter] is Madam Gauttier, the widow of a French Lieutenant Colonel Gauttier, a man whom I held in the greatest esteem. My dear Brother has formerly known her as Madam Clausman. The lady has shown the goodness to bring to my dear Brother a Japanese mandarin’s cambay, which is the winter gown of a distinguished Japanese. I have been promised the undergarment for this dress and will send it as soon as I get it. It deserves to be preserved because of its rarity.

I’ve never heard of anything that may be termed a cambay before, so naturally I took to Google—with dismal results.

Cambay is of course the name of an erstwhile Indian state, indeed one that had a thriving textile sector, but the letter specifically says that a cambay is a Japanese type of garment, so textile from Cambay in India doesn’t seem to be what is referred to here.

Sadly, I can find absolutely no hints or references to any kind of Japanese garment called any variation of cambay that I can come up with (cambey, kambai, kanbai, kambei, cambi, etc.—the last one is apparently a fashion designer), so I’m no further.

A rather wild guess on my part is that the first part of cambay may be 寒{かん}, since it is described as being a winter gown (and if cambay is some ad-hoc transliteration of a Japanese word, it does look like onyomi). Or perhaps, if it is important that it is specifically a mandarin’s garment, 官{かん}.

But what is bay, then? Some old word for ‘clothes’? Perhaps something like 被{ひ} or 披{ひ} ‘cover’ (in somewhat bizarre transliteration)?

In short: what is a cambay? Is it any kind of Japanese anything, or was the writer of the letter (who was, after all, a Dane stationed in India, and probably knew little or nothing about Japan) simply mistaken?

  • I'd like to see what the original Danish said, as "cambay" appears here to be either an existing English word unknown to us now, or a transliteration of a transliteration.
    – JAF
    Jun 29, 2017 at 17:32
  • @JAF So would I, actually. I wonder why I hadn’t considered that before. I just ordered the original material from the archives, so perhaps I’ll find it’s been misquoted or reads otherwise in the original Danish. Jun 29, 2017 at 17:36
  • 1
    Could it be related to kambase = face, visage; honour? The Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam (1603) has this entry: Faigan. Cambaxeuo vogamu. i, võmeni cacaru. (拝顔:かんばせを拝む。i, お目にかかる。) glossed as Venerar vendo pessoa nobre. ("To treat with respect when seeing a nobleperson"). It has an extra せ (then pronounced [ɕe]), and it's not really about clothing; but the first part sounds like cambay, and it has to do with nobleperson's external looks. Jul 4, 2017 at 14:23

3 Answers 3


Looking at your original question summary:

In short: what is a cambay? Is it any kind of Japanese anything, or was the writer of the letter (who was, after all, a Dane stationed in India, and probably knew little or nothing about Japan) simply mistaken?

  • A "cambay" is a kimono.
  • The term does indeed come from the name of an Indian place where textiles were a major industry.

Digging around, I stumbled across an explanation in Google Books, in the 2018 title Fashion, Identity, and Power in Modern Asia. That link should take you right to the relevant page 311, with this text (emphasis mine):

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the kimono, taken to Europe by the Dutch, became a favored garment of the new elites and these robes were made with Indian textiles in the Western Indian port of Khambhat or Cambay. Variously called "the Japan", Cambay robe, or banyan (a word originally used in the mid-fifteenth century to designate all Hindu traders and brokers, that is men of substance), it became a marker of status and distinction, and India became the source of the Japanese robe.

Please post if the above does not address your question and I can edit to update.

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    Well, the book in question has been out for nearly three years now, so there’s no question of this making it into the book – but it is nice to finally have some corroboration that a cambay is (or was) a thing! Jun 5, 2020 at 6:42

I guess it may refer to 合羽 (かっぱ; kappa)?

It was originally a loanword borrowed from capa (="cape") in Portuguese. According to Wikipedia and this article, kappa in those days was actually considered as a status symbol for rich people. They say that many people wore so gorgeous kappa to show them off that the government had to prohibit wearing kappa. Try Google Image Search with 江戸時代 合羽.

Today, かっぱ is just a mundane and old-fashioned word for (レイン)コート.

  • That could be. The -mb- doesn’t seem like a likely transcription/transliteration outcome of p, but they often get things royally screwed up, so it’s hard to say. Mar 1, 2017 at 10:59

The first thing that comes up my mind is 甚平(じんべい; jinbei).

It is a traditional inexpensive clothing for summer but not for winter and the kanji 甚 doesn't sound kan or cam anyway. But its radical is 甘(kan) and also, as a reminder, there are some kanji, which sounds kan and are partly composed of 甚, such as 堪 and 勘.

If you only focus on a Japanese gown during winter, I suggest 褞袍(どてら; dotera), which is also known as 丹前(たんぜん; tanzen).

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