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A Grandmother’s WWII Incarceration Inspires Jordan Tachibana’s Quest for Social Justice

How Santa Clara prepared her to turn her passion into actionable change.
May 11, 2023
By Tracy Seipel
Jordan Tachibana '23 stands before a 1948 U.S. flag inscribed with signatures of Japanese Americans incarcerated in internment camps.
| Jordan Tachibana '23 stands before a 48-star U.S. flag signed by Japanese Americans formerly incarcerated in internment camps. Photos by Jim Gensheimer.

Jordan Tachibana ’23 has a tough time keeping up with her 92-year-old roomie.

“She probably has a better social life than I do,” says Tachibana of her grandmother, aka “The Energizer Bunny,” who walks two miles a day in her hot pink running shoes, waving to neighbors along the way.

Kay Tachibana is a marvel to her eldest granddaughter, and a testament to “ganbare,” the Japanese word for persevering, no matter the challenge ahead. In the early 1940s, it served as a mantra for Kay and 120,000 other Japanese Americans, many of whom lost everything they had—and their freedom—when they were sent to U.S. incarceration camps after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

The stories about her paternal relatives’ ordeal always bothered Tachibana. Rounded up in Washington and boarded onto trains at gunpoint, they were taken to Tule Lake in Northern California, the largest of 10 U.S. internment camps, and housed in barracks surrounded by barbed wire and 28 guard towers.

By third grade, Tachibana remembers raising her hand during a California history lesson and asking, “Did you know the government put my grandma in jail?” 

She would not let it go. For a high school history project, Tachibana submitted a re-written chapter for the school’s textbook she thought misrepresented the true hardship of the internment camps. “It was important to me that American history was factually correct and reflected what had actually happened,” says the political science major.

As Tachibana prepares to graduate in June, her family’s saga has spurred her quest to become a lawyer and work to prevent these and other kinds of injustices. From courses on political science, constitutional law, civil and human rights to internships in public policy and with members of Congress, her Santa Clara experience, she says, has given her the crucial foundation to prepare her for that mission.

“I got to walk through the halls of the Capitol building, serving a member of Congress,” she says of her internship with U.S. Rep. Sara Jacobs in Washington D.C., via the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. “My ancestors never would have dreamed of that while they were in the incarceration camp. That’s what really keeps me going.”

This summer, Tachibana starts a job with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, which she hopes will help prepare her for law school, a career in constitutional and national security law, and her ultimate goal of becoming the first Asian American U.S. Attorney General. Some people have urged her to be more realistic.

“But people who know me better, like my friends and family, say, ‘Yeah, I can see that.’ They know I’ll figure it out on my own.” Afterall, she’s the daughter of a Bronco.

A Bronco tradition

Decades ago, Jordan’s dad Alan Tachibana ’76 was a talented high school athlete and walk-on to the Santa Clara men’s baseball team. With a degree in commerce from the Leavey School of Business, he began a career as a quality assurance manager, later marrying Texas transplant Monica Spahn. Wed in 1998 in a Buddhist temple, the couple have raised Jordan and her younger sister Taylor in their mom’s Catholic faith. But they also made sure to encourage their daughters’ knowledge of their Japanese American religious and cultural heritage.

“My parents are very forward thinking,” Tachibana explains. They gave their daughters gender-neutral names, for example, in an effort to avoid discrimination by future employers reviewing the sisters’ resumes. It’s had an effect, she says. “In email responses, I get called ‘sir’ all the time.”

Yet when it came to college, she resisted following in her father’s footsteps, heading to the University of Oregon to study business. It wasn't long before she realized Oregon wasn’t the right fit, and in 2019 Tachibana moved home to attend Foothill College. By 2021, she had reconsidered her father’s alma mater, with its smaller class sizes and easier access to faculty. She also decided to switch majors to political science.

“When I was looking at Santa Clara, there were so many alumni who have great careers in politics,” says Tachibana, rattling off the names of California Gov. Gavin Newsom ’89, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63, and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ’79.

A passion for the law

But it’s law, not politics, that intrigues her most, going back to her grandmother’s incarceration, which she calls a violation of due process.

“And we see that again today, how legal doctrine is being used as a weapon to oppress minorities and people of color,” Tachibana says. “There needs to be more people on the inside who understand what it’s like, who understand that there needs to be limitations.”

At Santa Clara, she has blossomed under the guidance of her advisor and Lecturer Kenneth Faulve-Montojo in political science. 

“He’s an advocate for students; he connects them with opportunities they didn’t know existed,” says Tachibana. “He’ll say, ‘Apply for this. Try this out. Let me know what you think.’ He’s the reason I applied for the Panetta internship.”

Professor Terri Peretti, who taught her two courses in constitutional law, is another major influence. “I would not be as motivated and as invested in a career in public service without her,” says Tachibana.

And she credits a recent internship with U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, along with guidance from his chief of staff Geo Saba, for helping to foster her passion for national security issues and foreign policy.

Another inspiration: Her internship at the San Francisco-based Fred T. Korematsu Institute. It led Tachibana to give a TEDx talk at Santa Clara, where she told the story of Korematsu, who had refused to report to an incarceration camp in 1942. Tried and convicted, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. In 1983, his conviction was overturned in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, but not by the Supreme Court.

A 1948 American flag recently signed by Japanese Americans survivors of U.S. incarceration camps during WW II.

Close-up of a 48-star American flag recently signed by Japanese American survivors of U.S. incarceration camps during WW II.

Through her work with the institute, she met Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Johnny Gogo, who in 2021 began collecting 48-star U.S. flags that once flew across America and its 10 incarceration camps. In his free time, the judge visits with former incarceration camp survivors, always taking with him a flag they can sign so that history won’t be forgotten. Tachibana made sure her grandmother was among the first to inscribe a flag: Keiko Saito, Tule Lake, 1942-1945, 1303-A.

A very Jesuit kind of idea

Looking back on her time at SCU, Tachibana says she appreciates how her family’s journey and the University prepared her to turn her passion into actionable change.

“Now that I’ve gotten this great education, I’m going to work on civil rights and national security law,” the SCU senior says. “I’m going to use it to help everyday people—the kind of people who are not generally acknowledged by larger bodies or institutions.”

Wherever she goes, she says she will always carry the ethos of SCU alum Leon Panetta, and a message he shared with her cohort at the Panetta Institute before the college students left for their D.C. internships. He told them: Strive to listen to a diversity of voices, especially in today's highly partisan environment. Make the effort; don't waste an opportunity.

Tachibana echoes his sentiment. “Even if someone is all the way out there, and you may not agree with them on everything, maybe there is one issue you can agree on, and find some common ground,” she says. “If you can start there—if you can start, period—that’s the most important part. Don’t turn your back on them; try to bring them back to the table. Because that’s what makes the foundation of our democracy stronger,” she says.

“It’s a very Jesuit kind of idea, not turning your back on people.”