"When Mei Xiaoao heard the news of his father’s death on April 23, 1973, it came via a long-distance phone call from Beijing. The government had sent Xiaoao down to the countryside as part of a Cultural Revolution campaign that saw millions of young urbanites travel to rural areas to work the land. He barely made it back from Inner Mongolia in northern China in time for the funeral five days later.
In the late 1940s, Xiaoao’s father, Mei Ju-ao, represented China as a judge at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, often referred to as the “Tokyo Trials.” As Xiaoao remembers it, his father’s small funeral ceremony at the cemetery was typical of those given to foreign affairs officers. The only thing that struck him as slightly unusual came in Ju-ao’s obituary, printed in a corner of party newspaper People’s Daily.
The simply worded obituary had real political import. The inclusion of his father’s title was a form of rehabilitation, confirming that he was no longer deemed a “class enemy” by the Communist Party. For the Mei family, it meant the end of Ju-ao’s persecution for serving in the pre-1949 Nationalist government, for receiving a so-called bourgeois foreign education, and for having traveled extensively in the West.
At the age of 12, Ju-ao was admitted into a good prep school on the site of what is now Tsinghua University, moving from Nanchang, in eastern China’s Jiangxi province, to Beijing in pursuit of a good education. After graduating, he received financial assistance to study literature at Stanford University in California, and later received a law degree from the University of Chicago. After spending a year traveling around Europe, Ju-ao returned to China in 1929. In 1946, after the conclusion of World War II, he was sent to Tokyo to pass judgment on Japanese war criminals.
The year his father died, Xiaoao was 21 years old. He knew little about what Ju-ao did for a living, only that he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1969, as the winds of the Cultural Revolution swept across China, Xiaoao left Beijing for Inner Mongolia. Looking back now, he thinks he was too young to go then and was just following the crowd, calling it all a bit “confused.”
Ju-ao’s death brought Xiaoao back to Beijing, where he found work in a factory that produced screws. After the reinstatement of the gaokao, or college entrance examination, in 1977, Xiaoao was admitted to Beijing Normal University as a so-called senior undergraduate, a euphemistic way of referring to those whose formal education had been disrupted by the Cultural Revolution.
“Ours was called the ‘Class of ’77,’” Xiaoao says. “The youngest students were only 17 or 18 years old; the oldest were 32 or 33.” After graduating, Xiaoao returned to the screw factory. Then in July 1983, he transferred to the Social Sciences in China Press, where he organized resources and data for their library.
Only in the mid-’80s, long after Ju-ao had died, did Xiaoao start to get to know his father. The year 1985 was the 40th anniversary of China’s victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and a reporter from state news agency Xinhua interviewed the Mei family for an article on Ju-ao’s work during the Tokyo Trials. While organizing Ju-ao’s papers, his family found a stack of lined sheets wrapped in a bundle. Inside were several of Ju-ao’s journals, dating from the period after he was sent to Tokyo to act as China’s judge in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East."
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