By Chico Harlan
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 9:54 AM
TOKYO - China on Thursday released three of the four Japanese citizens who had been detained since last week, accused of illegally videotaping a military site. The three were released, according to China's Xinhua news agency, after admitting their violation and showing "regret for their mistake."
The decision follows Japan's move last week to release the Chinese captain of a fishing trawler that rammed two coast guard patrol boats near disputed islands in the East China Sea. That Sept. 7 incident spawned several weeks of acrimony between the Asian neighbors, with China imposing trade restrictions on exports and high-level leaders cutting off contacts.
One man, identified as Sada Takahashi, remains under "house arrest" and faces further investigation, according to Xinhua. Still, China's move likely signals a willingness to gradually repair bilateral ties. Japanese officials said on Thursday that Takahashi should be released on humanitarian grounds.
The four men, employees of Tokyo-based Fujita construction company, had been detained outside of Shijiazhuang city, in Hebei Province, for the last week. Fujita officials have said that the men were in China on business, bidding on a construction project that involves the disposal of chemical weapons abandoned after World War II.
According to Liu Ning, an independent researcher of Japanese studies based in Beijing, China's step-by-step resolution of the Fujita case is deliberate - similar to the trawler case in Japan, where 14 crew members were released while the captain was held for an additional week.
"That's why China didn't release the four at one time," Liu said. "They will 'investigate' furthermore. But since the four people took pictures together, if they commit the crime, they commit the same crime. It's ridiculous to keep one and release the rest of them."
Experts in both Beijing and Tokyo widely viewed the detention of the Japanese citizens as a means for forcing the release of the trawler captain - though China has denied such motivations.
In recent days, China has resumed the exporting of rare earth elements, necessary for many of the high-tech products manufactured in Japan. Still, the countries are battling over compensation for the damages in the boat collision. Moreover, both countries claim a right to the uninhabited islands in the middle of the East China Sea, and decades of squabbling has provided no resolution.
Special correspondent Zhang Jie, reporting from Beijing, contributed to this report.