Keeping Old Nisei Values Relevant
Jodie Chiemi Ching
For the past 60 years, Seki Machine Works has serviced every industry in Maui County. “Name any industry,” challenged 55-year-old yonsei Tom Seki, and they’ve done it — including automotive, marine, medical, hotel, astronomy, heavy equipment, water, sewage and the highway.
The metal fabrication and automotive shop was founded in Wailuku, Maui by Tomeichi Seki and his brother Yonichi on June 20, 1959.
Tomeichi took a big risk and purchased a crankshaft grinder machine for $11,000, which, in 1959, was the same purchase price as a house.
Being mechanically illiterate, I asked my husband, Alex, to explain what a crankshaft grinder does. He said a crankshaft is an important part in a car engine that turns repeatedly when the engine is running (think of the motion of a manual car window crank). Over time, parts of the crankshaft become worn, making the part unbalanced, preventing the engine from running smoothly. The machine will smooth out parts of the crankshaft so it will rotate with better ease and balance in the engine.
In an effort to help deepen my understanding of the business, Tom asked, “You know how car brakes get shaved down?” (And I clearly understood that, since I am guilty of letting my brakes go, far after they started to warn me with their loud embarrassing squeaks.) “We can rebuild those,” he said.
“Oh! Got it!” I said.
Tom continued to explain that, simply put, they can make tools and other metal things, or repair and improve something brought in by a customer.
Prior to opening Seki Machine Works, Tomeichi had retired from American Can, which provided cans for pineapple canneries. At the time, his older brother, Yonichi, a Japanese language schoolteacher, was out of work due to Japanese schools closing down. So, Tomeichi decided to open a metal shop as a way for Yonichi to earn money.
Tomeichi’s son, Roy (Tom’s father), was very skilled and finished a two-year technical school program in Los Angeles in a year and a half. Roy joined the military and was stationed at Schofield Barracks, and became a military tank inspector thanks to his unique mechanical skill.
He eventually married his high school sweetheart, Anna Katayama, from Baldwin High School. Together they had two daughters and a son: Lee, Pamela and Tom.
When Tom was old enough, he began working at the shop part-time while going to Maui High School. Then he attended the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa and majored in communications. Tom also interned at Public Broadcasting Service, and on school breaks, he would fly home to Maui and help in the shop. He remembers learning from his father, with fellow worker, Ben Corpuz. Roy told them, “Shut up. I’m gonna show you this one time.” And with the threat of “the stick,” they paid very close attention. Still an employee, Corpuz has worked for the family for over 25 years, along with Bert Kuwahara.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in communications, Tom was unable to find work in his field. Television production became more automated with robotic cameras and technological advancements. So Tom became a mortgage broker in California, and in 1992, he opened a local mortgage-lending branch on Maui.
It was through one of his employee’s, Tyrone, that Tom met his wife, Rae Stelton. One day, while helping to move a sofa into Tyrone’s girlfriend, Wendy’s, apartment, Tom saw a photo of Rae on the refrigerator. Tom mentioned that she was cute and soon they were strategically invited to a party, they started dating and eventually got married.
Tom was at the mortgage company for only a year before working at Seki Machine Works full-time in 1993. A few years later, Tom and Rae had a daughter, Tia, in 1996.
Tom became more involved in the shop’s management after his father had a stroke in 2004.“I learned everything from him,” said Tom about his father, who passed away in 2007.
Working with his hands all these years, enabled Tom to fill a wide range of requests. We asked what his most unusual request was. Recently, he was asked to make a Captain America shield inspired by the popular Marvel movie series.
Modernization and technological advancements have forced Seki Machine Works to evolve over the years. Cars are made of more plastic than metal; the industries like medicine, astronomy and engineering are more sophisticated; and it’s not likely that Tomeichi and Yonichi were ever asked to make superhero weaponry.
But, Tom has not changed the work ethic passed down from his parents and grandparents. “If you say you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it,” said Tom. Roy nurtured his son in the old Nisei way, with tough love. When Tom went to his father to ask if he was doing something right, he would just say, “Well, obviously, you’re asking me a question.” Somewhere deep inside, he knew his son had it in him to figure things out for himself.
As for the future of Seki Machine Works, Tom is unsure of what will happen. He doesn’t have anyone interested in taking over the business. At least for now, Tom intends to just keep on “cranking.”