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In a fresh upset to international students hoping to enter Japan, government officials said the country will let in only 87 overseas learners next month.

The chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, told national media that the selected students—who are funded through the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology—will be allowed into the country because they are due to graduate within the year.

“We decided to allow them to enter the country, taking into account their individual circumstances from the perspective of public interest and urgency,” he said.

The announcement comes as the country tackles a spike in COVID-19 infections. On Jan. 19, Japan reported more than 40,000 cases in a day for the first time—triple the caseload it reported a week prior, according to Nikkei Asia.

In a briefing with reporters, an official reportedly said that the government understands the importance of international students to Japan’s economy and research—and that it would continue to review its approach regarding other students.

But the message appears not to have reassured many of those waiting. More than 28,000 people have signed a petition urging the government to reopen to international students as soon as possible.

In November, students saw a flicker of hope when Tokyo said it would begin allowing their limited entry in late 2021. But before the month was over, the country had shut its borders to all international visitors, with concerns mounting over the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Davide Rossi, founder of the site—who has been advocating for international students’ return to Japan and is among those who have signed the petition—called the recent government move a “minor exception its rigid border rules.”

“This is only 0.06 percent of the total number of students waiting to enter the country, some of them for two years,” said Rossi, who estimated that about 147,000 students are waiting to enter Japan. “Disappointment is growing.”

The current approach unfairly penalizes international students, added Rossi.

“The majority of people in Japan can go out and in, while only a minority is stuck in limbo. If it’s OK for re-entry to go out and then re-enter Japan, why is it not OK for new entry such as international students, skilled workforce and spouses and dependents?” he said.

Rebecca Mazzocchi, a master’s student from Italy studying environmental studies at Japan’s Sophia University since September 2021, tried to see the silver lining in the situation.

“For the government to still activate a plan to let—still very few—students in could be a beginning for them to do something more in time for the spring semester,” she said.

But she was not getting her hopes up too high. “We will see what happens,” said Mazzocchi. “Nonetheless, I am preparing for alternative options if in spring nothing has moved.”

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