Three of the four Fujita Corp. employees detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of entering a restricted military zone returned to Japan on Friday.

The three men are Yoshiro Sasaki, 45, Hiroki Hashimoto, 39, and Junichi Iguchi, 59. China said the fourth detainee, Sadamu Takahashi, 57, remains in custody pending further investigation.

After arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda airport in the afternoon, the three men, along with two Fujita executives, held a news conference at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. They apologized for the actions that led to their detention and asked the Chinese authorities to release Takahashi soon.

“We are extremely sorry for causing all Japanese people great concern,” Sasaki said. “We want to ask the Chinese authorities to release our colleague Takahashi as soon as possible.”

A Chinese worker who was accompanying the four Japanese at the time of their arrest has also been released, Fujita 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, Hebei Province.

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 the war.

They said they were not aware they had entered a restricted military zone. “If we had known, we would not have entered the area,” Sasaki said.

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

The company said they were detained and interrogated at a hotel from Sept. 20 to 21, then moved to another hotel, before being transferred to a facility believed to be a military accommodation after Sept. 24.

They were kept apart until being allowed to take a walk on Sept. 28, the company said. “The interrogations were gentlemanlike and consideration was given for their meals and their handling at the facilities,” it said.

The latest move was viewed as a positive step by China to mend the battered 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.

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

Sasaki said he knew about the fishing boat collision before they were detained and had been instructed by Fujita to be careful during the trip.

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