Three of the four Japanese construction employees being detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of entering a restricted military zone were released Thursday in a sign that Sino-Japanese relations may be on the mend.

The move was viewed as a positive step by China to mend the tattered bilateral relationship, which was strained by Japan’s arrest last month of a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

But Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara stressed that one of the Fujita Corp. employees is still in captivity and that he will demand his release.

“There is one person who still has not been released. Neither has China given a clear reason why these men were placed under house arrest” in the first place, Maehara told reporters. “I will continue to seek an explanation and demand the immediate release of the remaining” detainee.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, the three men were released Thursday morning “after admitting to having violated Chinese law and showing regret for their mistake.”

The report added that the fourth employee, Sadamu Takahashi, was still under investigation.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Banno said at a news conference in the afternoon that a Japanese Embassy official in China spoke with the three men, who are in good condition. But he refused to reveal any more details “for safety reasons.”

The three men China released were identified as Yoshiro Sasaki, 44, and Hiroki Hashimoto, 39, both of Tokyo, and Junichi Iguchi, 59. Iguchi and Takahashi work at Fujita’s local subsidiary in China.

The three arrived in Shanghai in the afternoon after leaving Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, where they were detained. They could return to Japan as early as Friday, a diplomatic source was quoted as saying.

Fujita spokesman Koichiro Takayama told reporters in Tokyo that the company hasn’t been able to contact the men and he had no idea when they would be able to return to Japan.

“For now, we’re just relieved,” Takayama said.

According to Fujita, a Chinese worker who was accompanying the four Japanese when they were arrested has also been released.

“We will keep trying to get the employee left behind released as soon as possible,” Takayama said.

The four men and the Chinese employee, were taken into custody Sept. 20 for allegedly entering and filming a restricted military area in Shijiazhuang.

The five had gone to Shijiazhuang to look for potential sites for building a plant to process chemical weapons left behind by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

Many in Japan feared the Fujita employees were arrested in retaliation for Japan’s arrest Sept. 8 of the Chinese fishing boat captain. Beijing has flatly denied this.

The fishing boat incident damaged Japanese-Chinese relations rapidly and led China to suspend high-level and cultural exchanges, and halt talks on a bilateral treaty to jointly develop gas fields in the East China Sea.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan criticized China’s actions at a Lower House committee session Thursday morning.

The collision “occurred near the Senkaku Islands, which are an integral part of our nation’s sovereign territory and we dealt with the situation solemnly in accordance with domestic law,” Kan said. “I think it is a major problem that China’s reaction was to refuse to acknowledge” Japan’s domestic procedures.

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