• Kyodo

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Four of six Japanese nationals detained in China in March for their suspected involvement in unspecified “illegal activities” are now back in Japan after having been released, Japan’s top government spokesman said Thursday.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking in a daily press conference, refrained from commenting on why they were released or why they were detained in the first place “as others remain in custody.”

“We are in contact with the Chinese authorities,” he said. “The protection of Japanese nationals is the government’s most important duty, and we are giving thorough support to those still in custody.”

The news of the release of four of the men came after Chinese authorities informed Japan’s consul general in Qingdao, Shandong province, on Wednesday of the release of two of them.

Three of the six men were detained in the eastern province of Shandong and the other three in the southern island province of Hainan.

NC Geophysical Survey Co., which is based in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, subsequently identified the two men as its employees who were detained in Shandong. It later said another of the freed Japanese is its employee who was detained in Hainan.

One of the two men still in detention is also believed to work for the survey company, which was operating in Shandong and Hainan after receiving orders from two Chinese hot spring developers to assist in geological assessments of sites in the two provinces.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in May that the Japanese detainees were under investigation in accordance with China’s law.

The reason for the detentions is unclear. Chinese authorities may suspect them of stealing national secrets, as there have been previous cases in which foreigners were held for collecting geographical and geological data.

A source familiar with the matter earlier said China’s state security officers detained the three men in Hainan for posing a threat to national security.

Since 2015, Chinese authorities have detained at least six other Japanese citizens on suspicion of spying or for unknown reasons. Under Chinese law, the maximum penalty for spying is death.

The Japanese government has expressed concern in those cases over the lack of transparency for Beijing’s standards for detention.

China has been stepping up its watch over foreign organizations and individuals in the name of protecting national security since President Xi Jinping came to power more than four years ago.

Not only Japanese, but a number of other foreign nationals have been held in China, particularly after a counterespionage law took effect in 2014, and a national security law in 2015.

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