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When I looked up "lesbian" in jisho.org, I came across the six kanji term "女性同性愛者", which I'm concerned may sound too formal or clinical, like using "homosexual" as a noun in English, plus katakana words of varying lengths.

The English edition of Wiktionary doesn't have a Japanese language translation for "lesbian". Looking up weblio doesn't help much, because the entries for the English word "lesbian" mainly provide information addressing native Japanese speakers.

The accepted answer on Yahoo answers gives a couple of different answers, and doesn't seem that authoritative: https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070712193145AAHuB7J

I would prefer a term that's acceptable for polite, respectful but friendly conversation.

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    @ishikun English-speakers seldom use "homosexual" as a noun nowadays. People who use that tend to be old, politically incorrect and probably anti-homosexual. It's safer not to use it. But to answer your question, it's because I'm talking about a particular woman rather than an individual of unknown gender. – Andrew Grimm Dec 16 '16 at 2:10
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    I think it's hard to say that "homosexual" is seldom used especially because all these terms have different connotations for different people, its definitely a loaded topic. – ishikun Dec 16 '16 at 2:39
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In most of the cases レズビアン or simply レズ will generally suffice in conversations. As you guessed correctly, 同性愛者 sounds formal and stiff, and 性的少数者/LGBT would sound even more technical and formal.

However:

  • レズ (and its male-male counterpart, ゲイ) may sound a bit vulgar and direct (if not derogatory), and newspaper articles targeted at the general public tend to avoid using this term.
  • Some people are very keen and strict on the terminology around this area. I can easily imagine some people who hate to be called レズ, while some people take pride in being called as such.

So depending on who you are talking to, you may want to play it safe and describe it indirectly (eg "~は女の人が好き") instead.

百合【ゆり】 (lit. "lily") is another indirect term for this, but AFAIK this is mainly preferred in otaku-ish, fictional contexts. There is even a magazine for this.

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    実際にレズビアンのコミュニティで使われているのは「ビアン」だと聞いたことがあります。聞いたのが数年前なので今もそうかはわかりませんが。 – broccoli forest Dec 16 '16 at 5:58
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性的少数者 or "sexual minority" is the correct translation of LGBT. The L in LGBT being lesbian, thus a likely answer is レズビアン, if you look at the examples (shown below and in the link) it is used in a neutral context. That being said, I think for all these terms everyone has their own perception of it and there is no "correct" answer other than to ask the person you are referring to which term they prefer.

I thought this was a good read.

Lesbian love

女同志の恋愛

offensive term for a lesbian who is noticeably masculine

顕著に男勝りなレスビアンにとって、不快な用語

English writer whose novel about a lesbian relationship was banned in Britain for many years (1883-1943)

英国の作家で、レスビアンの関係に関する小説が長年英国で禁止された(1883年−1943年)

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レズ can be seen as a bit derogatory since it's outside of the community and could come from source which are disapproving. From within the lesbian community, ビアン is more usual or neutral. If you're specifically keen to speak of lesbians in terms of their gender presentation, more masculine presenting lesbians are often called ボイ and lesbians who present a softer, more 'femme'identity might be called ネコ.

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