Flown home on a Chinese government flight from Japan, the crew of the fishing trawler seized by Japan in the East China Sea appear to have returned to a hero's welcome. Xinhua's online coverage featured a picture of a beaming crew member emerging from the plane safely on Chinese soil, and official reports are emphasising the innocence of the fishermen in the whole affair. One was quoted as saying that Chinese had been fishing near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands for “generations”- clearly, efforts are being made to demonstrate the abnormality in the actions of the Japanese authorities, and not those of the Chinese sailors.
The safe return of the crew is a attempt by the Japanese to demonstrate that their actions up to now have been driven purely by legalities, rather than a desire to to rock the boat of Sino-Japanese relations. This idea is further reinforced by the fact that the captain of the Chinese trawling vessel remains in Japanese custody, despite Beijing summoning Japan's ambassador in China no less than 4 times to make protests over the issue.
Japanese prosecutors have until the 19th September to decide how to proceed in the case of the captain, and there is no doubt that China will continue to pressing for his release. In many ways, Japan's decision to send the crew home after nearly a week after they were initially detained has rather weakened its case against the captain. Establishing culpability for the collision between the Chinese and Japanese vessels is likely to have not taken that long, and the fact that Japan has arguably bowed to Chinese pressure for the crew's release may only encourage the Chinese government to 'up the anti' in order to secure the safe return of the remaining Chinese detainee. Unfortunately for Japan, it is now locked between prosecuting the captain and upsetting its diplomatic dialogue with Beijing further, or letting him go and harming its own claims to sovereignty over the disputed islands. The alternative would be to release him as a sign of 'good faith'- unfortunately, this will be construed by many as a sign of weakness.