Guest Post written by William Hennelly, an editor/writer and Seido Karate black belt
Down the block from the Flatiron Building in Manhattan sits another local landmark — the headquarters of the World Seido Karate Organization. Since 1976, the school founded by Kaicho (“Grandmaster”) Tadashi Nakamura has trained thousands of martial arts practitioners at 61 West 23rd Street, where it also has operated the Seido Juku Benefit Foundation, a charitable nonprofit.
Nakamura, 77, is a revered karateka worldwide, particularly in his native Japan, a status he earned in 1962 by knocking out a muay thai fighter in Bangkok in a much publicized international clash of fighting styles. But now Kaicho and his son, Nidaime (“Successor”) Akira Nakamura, 44, who is Seido’s chief instructor, are faced with a daunting opponent outside the arena — the New York City real estate market.
The owners of the 1886 Italian Renaissance-style building that houses the headquarters — or “Honbu” in Japanese — are repurposing the building, and all existing tenants must vacate by year-end. The family that owns the luxury men’s fashion company Ermenegildo Zegna, based in Milan, Italy, along with Taconic Investment Partners LLC, a Manhattan-based real estate developer, bought the building in June 2016 for $65 million, according to The Real Deal. The previous owners were the Drachman family of Long Island and their relatives, who had the seven-story building for more than 50 years.
The search for a new Honbu has been underway for some time, and Nidaime is currently looking at three rental properties near the current 23rd Street location. Seido recently launched a GoFundMe.com campaign to raise $250,000 toward escrow, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, a new dojo floor, office and locker rooms with ADA-compliant bathrooms. Live and online auctions also are planned.
In his office at Honbu, Kaicho recently recounted how he would traverse the neighborhood in the 1970s, scouting locations, when he came across the building that what would become Honbu. “In the daytime, not many people walking around, then very, very quiet at night,” he recalled of a neighborhood that was not as prosperous and desirable as it is now. It’s that desirability that has made the neighborhood a costly place to operate what is essentially a family business.
The New York dojo is something of a karate museum. Its gleaming wooden floor has been polished by decades of vigorous martial arts activity seven days a week. “We have a veterans program, we run a disabled program, a program for blind students with Seido Juku Benefit support,” Kaicho said. “Not many organizations do that. We are all proud of that. I hope people keep this kind of spirit… Lots of wonderful, different kinds of memories, which is our treasure. It’s almost a miracle, same location for 43 years.”
The dojo’s walls are festooned with various proclamations by US presidents and New York City mayors. Over the years, Seido students from across the globe have come to visit and train at Honbu, as have some celebrities. Dolph Lundgren, who played the Russian heavyweight boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, stopped by once in the hopes of meeting Kaicho. In 2018, two of the stars of the 1984 movie The Karate Kid — Ralph Macchio, who portrayed Daniel LaRusso, and William Zabka, who was Daniel’s rival Johnny Lawrence — traveled to New York for an interview with AdWeek magazine to discuss Cobra Kai, the YouTube Red sequel to their movie franchise.
Seido also has stood witness to other events in history. In 2001, the Seido community was stunned by the loss of Sensei Pat Brown, a New York City fire captain who gave his life in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In 2012, undaunted Seido karatekas practiced with no heat and electricity in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. And while Seido is proud of its illustrious past, it is up for a new challenge.
“The members of the organization must now take the time to reflect on the rich history of the space and appreciate the time left to train and grow there, but also look now to the future, to bring the same energy and dedication to bear in finding, securing and building a new home for the World Seido Honbu,” Nidaime wrote in a letter to members in June.