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I was wondering if the kanji for both sister-in-law and step sister is 義妹 (younger sister) or 義姉 (older sister) and there's no way of differentiating them other than context?

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If your question is how to tell meaning of 義姉, you need to guess from contexts in the present-day colloquial language.

Strictly speaking, [義]{ぎ}[姉]{し} or [義]{ぎ}[妹]{まい} only means (or meant) sister-in-law or sworn sister. Here are definitions in デジタル大辞泉.

ぎ‐し【義姉】

1 義理の姉。妻または夫の姉、兄の妻など。

2 血縁関係はないが、姉妹の約束を交わして姉としている人。

ぎ‐まい【義妹】

1 義理の妹。夫または妻の妹、弟の妻など。

2 血縁関係はないが、姉妹の約束を交わして妹としている人。妹分。

In colloquial language, [義]{ぎ}[姉]{し} and [義]{ぎ}[妹]{まい} have taken in the place of [継]{まま}[姉]{あね} and [継]{まま}[妹]{いも} which mean elder/younger stepsister.

If your question is how to distinguish step sister from sister-in-law, you can use [異]{い}[母]{ぼ}[姉]{し} (elder sister from a different mother), [異]{い}[父]{ふ}[姉]{し} (elder sister from a different father) and so on, which sound very formal.

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  • Does that mean colloquially 継姉 and 継妹 are just less used compared to 義姉 and 義妹?
    – user3992
    Mar 5 at 16:31
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    Yes. I have never heard 継姉 and 継妹 in daily conversation and I found many people use 義姉 and 義妹 instead, although I think people can understand 継姉 and 継妹 when they hear them by analogy with 継母, which is sometimes used in fairy tales. Mar 5 at 22:16
  • I think it's because using 継 (2 syllable) is longer than using 義 (1 syllable). Anyway thanks for the explanation!
    – user3992
    Mar 15 at 3:49

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