In the afternoon of July 15, 2016, Hideji Suzuki got out of a taxi at the Beijing airport to catch a plane back to Japan following a five-day Japan-China friendship event.
He recalls that after he walked a few steps, five muscular men suddenly surrounded him and asked him in Chinese whether he was Mr. Suzuki. He said yes and was shoved into a white van. The men told him he was being detained on suspicion of espionage, blindfolded him and seized his phone.
Mr. Suzuki, 59 at the time, says he had visited China more than 200 times as a leader of youth exchange groups. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “In a civilized country, this shouldn’t happen.”
It is the type of scene that has repeatedly unfolded in China for Japanese businesspeople, academics and others, chilling relations between Asia’s two largest economies. The most recent case came last month, when a China-based executive at
Astellas Pharma Inc.
was detained in Beijing on suspicion of engaging in espionage.
Japan isn’t the only nation to see its people abruptly grabbed in China. Two Canadians seized in 2018 and other Westerners have been taken under similar circumstances.
But in Japan’s case, it has become practically commonplace. According to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, the Astellas executive was the 17th Japanese detained by Chinese intelligence since 2015.
The spate of detentions follows the adoption of an anti-espionage law that took effect in 2014, a year after
In 2019, a researcher at Hokkaido University, one of Japan’s leading public universities, was detained. He was released 2½ months later after an appeal from then-Prime Minister
Five Japanese are currently held in China—two already sentenced, one on trial and two, including the Astellas executive, under arrest or in detention, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry. China has said it handles such cases in accordance with the law.
The detentions are part of a larger global standoff as the U.S. and allies like Japan deal with authoritarian states led by China and its strategic partner Russia. President Biden last year declared a national emergency to deal with “hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of United States nationals abroad.”
In late March, Russian security services detained Wall Street Journal reporter
In China, “security and public safety is the top priority,” outweighing the government’s wish to invite foreign investment, said Ichiro Korogi, a China expert at Kanda University of International Studies.
Companies, he said, “are sending workers to a battlefield. There is no war, but this is very much like a Cold War.”
The detained Astellas executive, who is in his 50s, had worked in China for more than two decades and helped others in the Japanese business community, according to Kenji Minemura, a senior research fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies. Mr. Minemura, a former China correspondent for the Asahi newspaper, said he has known the executive for many years.
“He loved China,” Mr. Minemura said. “He voluntarily raised his hand to work in China.”
has called for the executive’s early release. Astellas has declined to comment beyond saying that it is working with the government.
On Friday, China’s ambassador to Japan, Wu Jianghao, said it was becoming “increasingly certain” that the spying allegations against the executive were correct. Mr. Wu said China would handle the case in accordance with the law.
Mr. Suzuki, the man detained in 2016, had been involved in Japan-China relations for decades and taught the subject for six years at colleges in Beijing to Chinese students learning Japanese.
He returned to Japan last October after completing a six-year sentence on an espionage conviction. He denied the charges. Since his return, he has given lectures and written a book, soon to be published, about his ordeal.
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The harshest part, Mr. Suzuki said, was the first seven months when he was put under what China calls residential surveillance in a government facility.
The thick curtains in his room were always kept shut and fluorescent lights were on around the clock, he recalls. He was forced to sit still on the bed doing nothing when he wasn’t being interrogated, and two men watched him at all times, including when he was in the toilet.
He recognized one of his interrogators. The man had carried bags for him at a 2010 tree-planting event to promote goodwill between Japan and China. Other Chinese people he knew through his youth-exchange activities had talked about him to intelligence authorities, he later learned.
“It was sad but couldn’t be helped, I told myself,” Mr. Suzuki said. He said he understood that if someone got into trouble with the security authorities, it “would hinder even the person’s grandchildren from attending a college.”
At first he had no idea why he was detained. During his trial, he learned that one reason was a conversation at a Beijing restaurant in 2013 with a friend who was also a Chinese official. At the meal, Mr. Suzuki says he brought up news that North Korean leader
had executed his uncle as a traitor and wondered if his friend knew anything about the case.
By the time he emerged from prison, the formerly pudgy Mr. Suzuki had lost 40 pounds. He said meals in prison usually consisted of a vegetable dish and rice, with chicken served a couple of times a month. Now 66, he says he is in good health.
Security specialists advise businesspeople in China to avoid unnecessary meetings with Chinese officials and avoid talking about politics, especially sensitive topics such as Taiwan, Hong Kong or Covid-19. Japan’s Foreign Ministry warns that any type of survey or research may be viewed as spying.
Despite the risks, even Mr. Suzuki says that simply cutting off business relations with China isn’t an option. China is Japan’s largest trading partner.
“We live next to them. We cannot move,” says Mr. Suzuki. “We need to manage to get along with each other.”
Write to Miho Inada at firstname.lastname@example.org
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