Was mystery floating man spying on space center?

by Eric Talmadge

The Associated Press

Hidekazu Kakoi was looking for a good spot to drop his fishing nets about 10 km offshore when he noticed something bobbing on the horizon.

Thinking it was a buoy, he pulled his boat closer and discovered a man, alone, grasping a duffel bag and slowly drowning. There was no ship in sight, no obvious explanation for how he might have gotten himself into such a predicament.

But that was just the start of the mystery.

Now recovering on tiny Tanegashima Island off Kyushu, the mystery man has refused to say a word to authorities since Kakoi rescued him last week.

The duffel bag floated away, and local officials say all they have to go on is the fact that he’s Asian, wore a tank-top that had a Korean label and fell — or jumped, or was pushed — into the water with his shoes on.

“He’s still not talking and we have no idea where he came from,” Shoji Nakamura, an official on the island, said Wednesday. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The mystery has the island buzzing, and is starting to get national attention.

Is the man a North Korean spy? A Chinese drug-runner? A hapless Japanese landlubber?

“There’s all kinds of rumors going around,” Kakoi, who rescued the man last Thursday, said by telephone from his home on the island. “Of course, he wasn’t in much condition to tell me anything when I pulled him in.”

Amid the otherwise frustrating lack of clues, one fact is raising eyebrows — the Korean label on the man’s shirt.

Tiny and remote, Tanegashima is home to Japan’s main space center. Virtually all of Japan’s rockets are launched from pads on the island. Two years ago, Japan put up its first spy satellites from Tanegashima, the first of several intended to monitor missile deployments and a suspected nuclear weapons program in North Korea.

North Korean spies are known to have regularly infiltrated Japanese waters, and in the late 1970s and 80s even kidnapped at least a dozen Japanese citizens and whisked them off to the motherland — sometimes in boats — to teach their agents the Japanese language and culture.

Five known surviving abductees were finally repatriated two years ago, and their stories have become a well-known cautionary tale here to avoid beaches at night.

So, could he be a spy?

Local police say that is a possibility. They also believe he might have been running drugs, most of which also come into Japan from the Korean Peninsula or China, or was involved in some other sort of smuggling. No Japanese fishermen or divers have been reported missing in the area, so they believe that possibility is low.

“He’s got some reason why he doesn’t want to talk,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’ll just have to wait until he’s ready.”

Police say the man appears to be in his 20s or 30s and is of an average build.

Over the past week, police have tried to talk to him in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English, but to no avail.

Officials have ruled out the possibility that amnesia or some other injury is causing his silence.

“It seems he doesn’t talk on purpose,” the official said. “If he was deaf, we would think he would use a sign language or write something down on a paper or something to communicate. But he doesn’t do anything.”

Fisherman Kakoi said the man never called out for help while in the water, though he appeared to be conscious.

“For a while we just looked at each other. I was scared,” he said. “But then I pulled him in. His hands were purple. I didn’t ask if he was a criminal — I just wanted to get him to a doctor.”

“But now I wish I would have gone back for the bag,” Kakoi said. “That might have answered all our questions.”