SEOUL: He is a man caught between two countries, a political protester who has stubbornly steeled himself inside the sterile purgatory of Tokyo's Narita International Airport.

Each day, Feng Zhenghu sits on a bench in front of the Japanese customs booths, calmly looking on as tens of thousands of arriving passengers pass him by, resigning himself to residence in a diplomatic no-man's land.

He refuses to pass through government customs because that would mean entering Japan - something Mr Feng has decided he will not do. He wants to go home to China.

Eight times since June the activist, 55, has been rebuffed by Chinese officials in attempts to re-enter his homeland.

On four occasions, airlines in Japan did not allow him to board. On four others, he got as far as Shanghai's Pudong International Airport before being sent back to Tokyo.

During his last attempt on November 2, Mr Feng drew the line: arriving back at Narita, he refused to enter the country.

Mr Feng, an economist turned human rights author and blogger, was sentenced in 2000 to three years in a Chinese prison for writing a book that he said criticised Chinese regulations against foreign company investment.

He also believes a speech he once gave criticising the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown is being held against him.

Speaking on his mobile phone recently, Mr Feng said he would rather languish in a Chinese jail than live as a free man in Japan or anywhere else.

Although he is angry at his government, Mr Feng misses his homeland - his family, friends, the feel of the place he has spent most of his life. ''I just want to go home,'' he said.

For 18 days he has kept a lonely vigil at the south arrival wing of Narita's busy Terminal One. He sleeps fitfully in a chair, often using his suitcase as a pillow. He rises at 6am, jarred by the first passengers arriving on international flights.

On a white T-shirt, he has scrawled messages about his protest in English and Chinese - pulling the garment over his luggage to create a small billboard of protest.

One message reads: ''The Chinese Government is shameful.''

He uses his mobile phone to accept calls and send messages. He also keeps a diary on his computer. He has not showered in weeks, instead splashing water on his face in the public bathroom.

He eats only snacks - including sweets, ramen noodles and cookies - offered by well-meaning passengers and supporters.

Embarrassed airport authorities say they would prefer Mr Feng enter Japan so they can finally be rid of him.

''Every day, the officers gently try to coax me to leave,'' he said. ''They say 'It's a beautiful world out there. There's lots of good food to eat. All you have to do is walk through those doors.'''

Yang Jianli - a onetime Chinese political prisoner who met Mr Feng this year at a human rights conference in the US - is funding a campaign to supply him with food and emotional support.

Mr Feng's sister, Natsuki Suzuki, who lives in Japan, has not been allowed to visit her brother. But she calls him often on his phone. ''My brother is stubborn,'' Ms Suzuki said. ''He insists there is only one way for him to go - back to China.''

Los Angeles Times