There are things in life you do because, really, you have no choice. You do what your heart tells you is right.

A while back I got an email from James Hachiya, a 62-year-old landscape gardener in Burien. He told me his heritage compelled him to spend his weekends working for free at the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden.

“It’s the Japanese concept of ‘On,’ roughly translating into duty or obligation,” he wrote, “that drives me to volunteer there. I owe that ‘On’ towards them.”

He was referring to Hal and Fran Seike, featured in a Nov. 11, 2017 story: “A Nisei garden of memories in SeaTac, and a soldier’s blood spilled in WWII.”

Kiyoshi “Hal” Seike, right, and  Fuyuke “Fran” Seike stand in the Seike Japanese Garden in SeaTac in 2017. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Hal died April 12 at age 94. Fran, 91, is still in good health, and pondering taking up driving again so she can get out of the house.

The Seike Japanese Garden covers about an acre of the 10 ½-acre SeaTac park. In recent years, Hal didn’t have the physical ability to maintain the family’s labor of love.

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And it is truly a labor of love, dedicated to the middle of the three Seike brothers, Toll Seike. He was a private in the legendary 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Japanese Americans. 

Toll was all of 21 when he was killed Oct. 29, 1944, in a horrific battle near Bruyeres, France. The Department of Defense called it “one of the great ground battles of World War II.”

With its specially placed rocks, a pond with a bridge, Japanese maples, sculptured black pines and a variety of shrubbery, the garden needs a lot of maintenance. The basic principle is using miniaturization to represent large-scale landscapes, explains the book, “The Art of Japanese Gardening.”

Says Amanda Leon, president of the botanical garden’s foundation. “James is our angel. If James wasn’t around, well . . . I don’t know. We do have a gardener on staff, but he isn’t trained in Japanese gardening. Each of those trees has a totally different character and growth habits.”

Hachiya has the skills for the intricate art of pruning a tree in a Japanese garden. It means, for example, as he was doing recently, carefully “candling” a pine of new upright buds – they look like green candles — so the tree can be shaped.

The Seike family used to own the Des Moines Way Nursery, started in 1953. It lasted for half a century, closing in 2002 when the Port of Seattle bought the property for its third-runway expansion.

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It was at the nursery that Hachiya befriended Hal.

“They were always nice to me, often giving me deals,” he remembers. “I’d go there and chew the fat with him.”

Landscaper James Hachiya on July 30 keeps up the intricate pruning in the 1-acre Japanese public garden in SeaTac that Hal Seike started in memory of his brother, a Nisei soldier killed in WWII. Seiki kept up the pruning of the trees until his 90s. When he died recently at age 94, Hachiya, a landscaper who Seike had mentored, took over the intricate pruning in the Japanese style. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Hachiya says the expectation in ethnic families is often, “You become doctors, Microsoft,” although it wasn’t quite that way in his family. His dad was a landscaper; his brother, Robert, worked for many years as a landscaper.

Hachiya says that as a youngster helping his dad in the summers, he used to think about the labor-intensive work, “This is the last thing I want to do.”

But then in high school something changed. Hachiya became fascinated by the traditional Japanese garden. “I think it was in a Sunset publication that I read about bonsai,” he says.

He bought books and learned the necessary skills from Jimmy Nakahara, a long-time local Japanese gardener.

Landscaper James Hachiya checks out what needs to be done next on July 30 in the 1-acre Japanese public garden in SeaTac that Hal Seike started in memory of his brother, a Nisei soldier killed in WWII. Seiki kept up the pruning of the trees until his 90s. When he died recently at age 94, Hachiya, a landscaper who Seike had mentored, took over the intricate pruning in the Japanese style. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

“I chose this because it feels good,” he says. He’s had a landscape business since 1982, easing up on installation work and doing mostly maintenance. He says some of his clients have a tree in the Japanese style, “but it’s mostly a mish-mosh.”

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Hachiya never married. There was one woman, but, he says, “I think she wanted someone more financially secure.”

He liked talking to Hal, gardener to gardener. He liked talking about the traditions of Japanese gardens.

When Hachiya read that 2017 story about Hal and Fran going to the garden every week, rain or shine, in the snow, to pull weeds and rake leaves, “I stepped up.”

The debt of gratitude.

“Hal, he left it up to me,” Hachiya says about maintaining the garden. “He kind of trusted me.”

You don’t break that kind of bond.

There was a small memorial ceremony for Hal at Tahoma National Cemetery that provides interment for service members. Fran says her husband died of congestive heart failure.

By the time Hal reached an age to be drafted, the Korean War was on. He ended up doing payroll in the Army. The other brother, Ben Seike, who died in 2014 at age 93, was a Japanese interpreter in World War II in the Philippines with the Military Intelligence Service.

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The Seikes were the quintessential immigrant story.

Shinichi Seike, the father, came to the U.S. at age 31. He began by opening a store in the Chinatown International District, then buying 13 acres in what’s now SeaTac and building a home there.

The father planned for Hal and Ben to study horticulture at Washington State University so a plant nursery could be started on the acreage.

That dream was on hold for eight years.

In 1942 the Seike family had six weeks to get ready for forced relocation to various camps. They’d return in 1945.

In 1948, a photo shows, a soldier stands before the father at a belated memorial service for Toll, handing him the American flag that is folded 13 times into a triangle.

Shinichi Seike, father of Toll Seike, at his son’s memorial service on Sept. 25, 1948,  at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Seattle. 
(Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum)

Hal didn’t talk much about those camp years, he said in a 2017 interview. “It’s something of a sore point. We were like prisoners.”

With the success of the nursery, a local landmark, the father brought in a designer from the old country and had the Japanese garden constructed. For him, it was a showcase for the family’s accomplishments and to honor the son killed in that horrific battle.

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When the port bought the 13 acres it also contained that garden.

It took some doing, but in 2006 a good portion of the original Seike garden was literally lifted and moved to its current location, including rocks that each weighed a couple of tons. The state Legislature had come up with $246,000 and the city of SeaTac with $50,000.

But the cost of maintaining the garden as it was intended never stops.

Hachiya talks about his craft in almost mystical terms, even when he must pause and repeat himself because of the roaring decibels of jets in take-off directly above.

“To understand a pine tree, you go to the pine tree,” he says.

He frets about the wanton vandalism at the garden.

Somebody tried to bust a bamboo fence he made. Somebody broke a branch from a delicately sculptured tree. There’s graffiti.

“It tests my mettle,” says Hachiya.

Still, he’s told, this is a truly beautiful site.

Hachiya figures he can keep maintaining the garden into his 70s.

“The key thing is passion,” he says.

It always is.