A family member of Rakuten Group Inc. employee receives a dose of the Moderna Inc. booster shot at the company's head office in Tokyo, Japan, on February 18, 2022. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Tokyo: Japan will loosen border controls to allow more people to enter the country, especially students, while extending infection control measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus in several areas, including Tokyo.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Thursday the country would this month raise the number of people who can enter Japan to 7,000 a day from 5,000 at present, while exempting students from the daily limit and treating them as a separate category.

Kishida told a news conference the government would ease border restrictions further but gradually depending on the virus situation globally.

The further easing of the country’s strict border measures comes amid criticism that Tokyo’s calibrated approach allowed only a trickle of foreigners.

Some 150,000 foreign students have been kept out of Japan since 2020, along with workers desperately needed by an ageing nation with a shrinking population, prompting warnings of labour shortages and damage to Japan’s international reputation.

While the number of new COVID-19 cases has started to fall, hospitals remain under stress as they battle the Omicron coronavirus variant. February was also the deadliest month of the pandemic so far, with 4,856 fatalities, according to a tally by national broadcaster NHK.

The central government has received requests from five prefectures, including Kyoto and Osaka in western Japan, to extend infection control measures set to expire on Sunday, chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said on Wednesday.

Kishida said the virus curbs including shorter hours at eateries and bars would be extended for another two weeks for 18 regions including Tokyo.

As Japan has joined sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, Kishida said Japan decided to freeze assets of Russia’s “oligarchs” and reiterated it was ready to take in Ukrainian refugees.

Separately, discount Japanese retailer Pan Pacific International, formerly Don Quijote Holdings, said on Thursday it would accept 100 refugee families from Ukraine. It did not provide any further details.

The government would use more than 360 billion yen ($3.11 billion) from its emergency reserve to support Japanese households and firms battered by rising energy costs, Kishida said, adding details of such measures to be announced on Friday.

Kishida also warned of broad-based price increases beyond rising energy costs and said he would ask ministers to sketch plans to address inflation in various areas.