Like most martial arts, Shotokan karate has its roots in ancient China, from where it was brought to Okinawa, then to Japan, and then to the rest of the world. Our art is usually classified as "hard," complementary to "soft" circular martial arts such as Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan. Shotokan is quite linear and is centered around the principle of harnessing the body's internal energy and concentrating it all into the point of contact, so as to deliver a single, final blow. It is said that Okinawans routinely used their fists and hand edges to smash through the bamboo armor worn by invading Japanese. Shotokan karate can be devastating to an opponent and so must be practiced with appropriate control.
Around 520 A.D., Daruma (Bodhidharma), the founder of Zen Buddhism, was teaching at the Shaolin Temple (Shorin-ji) in the Hunan province of China. Seeing that many of his disciples lacked the endurance necessary to follow his strict program, he originated a method of physical training called Ch'uan Fa. This was introduced to many parts of China, and later came to be called Shorin-ji Kempo. Over the centuries, many different styles developed.
Shorin-ji Kempo, later known as Kung-fu, was imported to the island of Okinawa in the southern part of Japan during the T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618 - 906). Here it was combined with native martial arts and underwent tremendous development. For long periods in Okinawan history, common people were refused the right to carry weapons. Thus, they had to heavily depend for their defense on the art they now called karate, which they learned in secret and passed on from generation to generation.
Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, was born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1868. As a young boy, he trained in Shuri-te (with master Azato) and Naha-te (with master Itosu), both traditional Okinawan styles. A blend of these two arts was then brought by Sensei Funakoshi to Japan, when he was invited in 1917 to perform at a physical education exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education. He was asked back several times in the following years, including by Japan's emperor in 1922, at which time Sensei Funakoshi decided to teach and promote his art in Japan. He eventually helped found the Japan Karate Association (JKA) and became the first Shihan of JKA in 1948. Sensei Funakoshi passed away in 1957, at the age of 88.
Initially, karate was written with two Chinese characters meaning Chinese hands, Kara being the major province of China, and Te meaning "hands." Gichin Funakoshi changed the first character from Chinese to Empty, thus forming the modern term for Karate - empty hands. The word "empty" can be interpreted at two levels: one as meaning weaponless, and a deeper one signifying the fundamental teaching of Zen: empty yourself to achieve unity with the Whole. Funakoshi Sensei also coined the term Karate-Do, meaning The Way of Karate. The life of this gentle, modest man was guided throughout by the principle that karate is a means of perfecting and strengthening the human character.