Although the ancient origins of karate are extremely vague, we do know that about 1400 years ago, Daruma (Bodhidharma), the founder of Zen Buddhism, used techniques basic to karate. According to legend, Daruma traveled from India to China to teach Buddhism. His training methods were so demanding that his disciples dropped from exhaustion. In order to build up their strength and endurance, he developed a method of training the mind and body. His training was taught in the monastery of the Shaolin Temple in China, where the techniques were refined and developed into fighting forms known as Shaolin Boxing.
In the 16th Century, Shaolin Boxing found its way to Okinawa from China. It combined with native Okinawan techniques to develop into several Okinawan styles. During several periods of Okinawan history, the owning and carrying of weapons was banned. Each ban resulted in great advancements in the techniques of unarmed combat. Secret training flourished, and the styles became more efficient and deadly.
This fighting system became known as Okinawa-te (Okinawa hand), then karate (empty hand), and finally karate-do (the way of the empty hand).
There were originally three styles of Okinawa-te, named for the towns where they were located: Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. Shotokan karate is a modern Japanese style, descended from these traditional Okinawan styles.
Gichin Funakoshi is widely regarded as the father of modern karate and is certainly the father of Japanese karate. He was an Okinawan schoolteacher and an enthusiastic karate-ka. Born in 1868, he began to study karate at the age of 11, and was a student of the two greatest masters of the time, Yasutsune Azato (1827-1906) and Yasutsune Itosu (1830-1915). He grew so proficient that he was initiated into all the major styles of karate in Okinawa at the time.
In 1916 he gave a demonstration to the Butokuden in Kyoto, Japan, which at that time was the official center of all martial arts. On March 6, 1921, the Crown Prince, who was later to become the Emperor of Japan, visited Okinawa and Master Funakoshi was asked to demonstrate karate. In the early spring of 1922 Master Funakoshi traveled to Tokyo to present his art at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo organized by the Ministry of Education. He was strongly urged by several eminent groups and individuals to remain in Japan, and indeed he never did return to Okinawa.
Master Funakoshi taught only one method, a total discipline, which represented a synthesis of Okinawan karate styles. This method became known as Shotokan, literally the clan or the house of Shoto (which was the Master's pen name for his poetry and calligraphy). Shoto means waving pine. Funakoshi selected this name as a pen name because he enjoyed hearing the sound of the wind through the pine trees as he took evening walks in Okinawa.
In 1936, Funakoshi built his first dojo in Tokyo. His students named it the Shotokan, meaning Shoto's club. Funakoshi did not actually name his style of karate, but the name of the dojo came to be associated with the style itself.
Master Funakoshi died on 26 April 1957. During his lifetime, he trained many famous students, including Shigeru Egami, Masatoshi Nakayama, Keinosuke Enoeda, Tsutomu Oshima, Hidetaka Nishiyama and Teruyuki Okazaki.
From Japan shotokan has spread worldwide, including Ireland where it is practiced by several organisations, all affiliated to the Japan Karate Association.