The Saturday editions of all national dailies highlighted the disclosure by Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga on Friday that Nobu Iwatani, a Hokkaido University professor who had been detained in Beijing since mid-February for unspecified reasons, was released and safely returned home on Friday afternoon. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson separately acknowledged the release of the professor, explaining that although he had been apprehended for collecting classified Chinese materials, he was released because he expressed “regret and remorse.”
The papers emphasized that it is extremely unusual for the Chinese government to release a foreign individual being held on espionage charges this early, suspecting that Beijing made a concession in view of the warming bilateral ties evidenced by President Xi’s planned state visit to Japan next spring. Mainichi pointed out growing opposition within the ruling LDP to inviting the Chinese leader as a state guest in the face of Iwatani’s detention. The paper quoted Foreign Minister Motegi as saying when announcing his release: “We’re dealing with outstanding issues one by one without fail so that we can welcome President Xi in a positive environment.”
According to Yomiuri, when meeting with Chinese Premier Li in Bangkok on Nov. 4, Prime Minister Abe called for the swift release of Iwatani by saying that if the detention were prolonged, it would make President Xi’s trip to Japan “difficult.” Premier Li reportedly said in reply that he would “take note” of the request. The daily claimed that the researcher was arrested for possessing documents related to the Kuomintang, which he allegedly purchased at a secondhand bookstore in the Chinese capital.
The papers added that at least nine Japanese nationals are still being detained in China for espionage, with Asahi and Sankei conjecturing that the Chinese government chose to release Iwatani amid rising concerns within the Japanese academic community about the case having adverse effects on bilateral educational exchanges.