SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: October 21, 2019

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):Hokkaido University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On October 21, 2019, it was reported that Chinese authorities detained a professor of Chinese history from Japan’s Hokkaido University on suspicion of spying.

Reports indicate that the professor traveled to China in early September 2019 to participate in two weeks of research activities. Several sources claim that the scholar was invited by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated research institution, and that he was detained upon arrival at his hotel.

News of the scholar’s detention was not immediately made public. On October 21, a Japanese official reported that the scholar was taken into custody for allegedly “violating Chinese laws.” He further stated that Japanese authorities are in contact with the scholar.

As of this report, neither Japanese or Chinese authorities have disclosed the identity of the detained scholar or details related to the basis of his arrest.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detention of a scholar in connection with nonviolent academic activity — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting, retaliating against, or otherwise interfering with the nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On November 15, 2019, the scholar, Nobu Iwatani, was reportedly released and has returned back to Japan. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry reported that Chinese authorities had “seized materials related to Chinese state secrets” in the scholar’s hotel bedroom on September 8. The spokesperson further told reporters that the scholar had confessed to illegally collecting state secrets, expressed regret, and was granted bail. Chinese state authorities have not publicly stated the contents of the alleged materials, whether they were classified, or whether the scholar was pressured to confess as a condition for his release. At least two media sources alleged that the scholar was taken into custody for possession of a book containing documents relating to the Kuomintang (KMT), often translated as the “Chinese Nationalist Party,” which was first established in mainland China in the early twentieth century and is currently headquartered in Taiwan.

UPDATE: A reported by Japan Times reported that Iwatani “specialized in studies on the Chinese Nationalist Party during the Second Sino-Japanese War.” This warrants mentioning given the reporting of his possession of books relating to the KMT.