Two Japanese men detained in China in May are being held for alleged espionage, both governments said Wednesday. Japanese diplomats have urged Beijing to release them.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference the two Japanese nationals are being held by authorities respectively in Zhejiang and Liaoning provinces.
They are from the private sector and are not Japanese government officials, Suga said, adding that Japanese diplomatic missions in China have been providing “proper assistance” to the men.
Suga declined to reveal further details, but Japanese media, quoting diplomatic and government sources, said the two are being held for alleged spying. The unusual lengths of their detentions was one factor the reports focused on. Under China’s law, the maximum penalty for spying is death.
China’s government confirmed the arrests: “Relevant departments in China have arrested two Japanese nationals on suspicion of carrying out espionage activities,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular press briefing.
Hong did not elaborate when asked why China had not previously announced the detentions. Earlier Wednesday, Suga appeared to deny that the Japanese government has deployed spies in China or any other country.
“Absolutely, our country hasn’t done such a thing,” the government’s top spokesman said.
Separately, a high-ranking Japanese official said Tokyo decided to go public about the pair’s detention because they have now been held for a significant period of time.
“There are many cases of detaining (Japanese nationals in China). But the two have been held for very long,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another high-ranking official questioned China’s basis for the move, telling reporters that it seems authorities there are “making an excuse to link (the two) to suspected espionage.”
Further details, including about how the two were detained, were not immediately known, but observers say China may have regarded their activities as endangering national security.
One of the sources, who is privy to Japan-China relations, said one of the two men was detained near a military facility by authorities in Zhejiang Province in May on a charge of espionage. The man’s release will likely take time, the source said, adding he is not resident in China and was held after traveling there from Japan. Another source familiar with bilateral relations said the second man was seized several months ago near Dandong in Liaoning Province, close to China’s border with North Korea.
Both men, said to be in their 50s, are civilians from Kanagawa and Aichi prefectures, respectively, a Japanese government source said.
In addition to the two men, a Japanese government official said that a man in his 60s from Hokkaido was detained in Beijing in June. His charge is as yet unknown.
Under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has stepped up its watch over foreign organizations and individuals. A new counterespionage law, which tightens rules to target foreign spies more closely, came into force in November last year.
Subsequently, authorities tightened surveillance of employees of foreign companies and foreign tourists.
Last week, China acknowledged it has been investigating an American woman who entered China in March and was detained for allegedly committing activities deemed a threat to national security.
Sandy Phan-Gillis has been held for more than six months and is being investigated for “spying and stealing state secrets,” according to a statement released in the United States by her husband.
In 2010, four Japanese nationals working for construction firm Fujita Corp. were temporarily detained in China on suspicion of entering a military zone in Hebei Province and taking photographs without permission.
Of the four detained on Sept. 20 that year, three were released ten days later and the fourth just under three weeks after their arrests