Making of "kiccho" lucky willow branch decorations for Setsubun on Feb. 3 reaches its peak at Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine in Shingu in Wakayama Prefecture, western Japan, on Jan. 20, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

The following is the latest list of selected news summaries by Kyodo News.


Lunar New Year holidays begin in China with no COVID restrictions

BEIJING - The weeklong Lunar New Year holidays in China began on Saturday with no COVID restrictions after the country significantly eased its antivirus measures, but the expected large-scale human migration is prompting concern over possible outbreaks in rural areas with less developed health care systems.

President Xi Jinping has called for efforts to improve medical care for those most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus in rural areas and requested stricter measures to prevent cluster infections at nursing homes and welfare facilities to protect the elderly.


Education minister Hipkins to be New Zealand's next prime minister

SYDNEY - Education minister Chris Hipkins is set to become New Zealand's next prime minister after he was the sole nominee Saturday in the contest to replace Jacinda Ardern as Labour Party leader.

Hipkins, 44, also the minister of police, must still receive formal endorsement from his party colleagues at a caucus meeting on Sunday to confirm his leadership of the ruling party, Labour Whip Duncan Webb said.


U.S. accuses North Korea of providing arms to Russia for war on Ukraine

WASHINGTON - North Korea continues to assist Russia's military operations against Ukraine by providing weapons and ammunition to a private military company, the White House said Friday.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the Treasury Department will designate the Russian company, the Wagner Group, as a "significant transnational criminal organization" and impose additional sanctions on it next week along with its support network on multiple continents.


Japan astronaut applicants take final exam on mock lunar surface

TOKYO - Aspiring Japanese astronauts have taken their final exams on a mock lunar surface at a training facility near Tokyo, with the successful candidates to be revealed next month.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency opened the facility at its Sagamihara Campus in Kanagawa Prefecture to the press on Thursday. Footprints and rover tracks cover the 23-meter-long, 18-meter-wide space that simulates the powdery regolith on the lunar surface.


NTT to market technology to analyze connected car data in FY 2023

TOKYO - Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. has developed technology that instantly analyzes data collected from tens of millions of connected cars, with an eye to commercializing it as early as fiscal 2023 starting April.

The technology, which enables the swift sharing of road information transmitted by cars including that related to traffic congestion and accidents, allows vehicles to travel safely and efficiently, and is expected to become fundamental for the spread of automated driving, the Japanese telecom giant said.


Japan PM Kishida orders COVID-19 classification downgrade in spring

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged Friday to downgrade the legal status of COVID-19 this spring to a Class 5 disease, the same level as seasonal influenza, a move that would lead to a major shift in the pandemic restrictions that have been in place for around three years.

In Japan, COVID-19 is currently categorized as "equivalent to Class 2" and is subject to extensive steps, such as limitations on the movements of infected people and their close contacts. The measures are stricter than those against Class 2 infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.


Some fret COVID downgrade as too rapid, fearing more infections

TOKYO - Teachers, students, medical experts and other citizens voiced anxieties Friday over the downgrading of COVID-19's legal status this spring, fearing that the action will remove anti-infection measures that have become an entrenched part of daily lives and heighten infection risks.

Restaurants, shop operators, travel agencies and airlines welcomed the new classification of the coronavirus or called it overdue, after their revenues fell sharply under three years of coronavirus restrictions, including requests for people to stay indoors or on businesses to shorten opening hours.


Japan convenience store sales rise 3.7% to all-time high in 2022

TOKYO - Convenience store sales in Japan rose 3.7 percent from a year earlier to a record 11.2 trillion yen ($87.2 billion) in 2022, helped by the first increase in customer visits in four years amid eased COVID-19 restrictions, an industry body said Friday.

The same-store sales of seven major convenience store operators grew for the second consecutive year, thanks to robust sales of items such as boxed lunches, rice balls, frozen food products and soft drinks, according to the Japan Franchise Association.