It is widely believed that karate traces its origins to around the year 500 A.D. when a man by the name of Daruma Boddhidarma, the eventual founder of Zen Buddhism, travelled from India to China for unknown reasons, and began to spread his beliefs there. He found the monks who wished to study with him unable to endure the physically and mentally rigorous nature of the meditation methods he advocated. In order to help these monks attain the necessary physical and mental acuity needed, Daruma devised a series of exercises and fighting techniques designed to strengthen the mind, body, and spirit which were based on his observations of animals and nature. Since the region surrounding the temple in question was plagued with dangerous theives at the time, the training was also used to return the area to a sense of stability and safety. As a result, the fame and notoriety of the Shaolin temple spread throughout China, and the fighting art of Shaolin Kempo or simply Shaolin was born. From China, there are several theories as to how the art spread from China to Okinawa. Some argue that Shaolin was brought by a fisherman (some say a thief) whose name is lost to history, who landed on Okinawa by accident. Others say Shaolin followed the spread of Zen Buddhism to Okinawa. Regardless of how it came to be there, the Shaolin style of martial arts arrived in Okinawa. There it was added to and modified by the inhabitants to include a more ancient form of unarmed fighting present on the island and came to be referred to simply as "Tote" or "Te." The resulting art came to include more grappling and heavy, powerful striking techniques.
On Okinawa, two main styles developed, Shorei, and Shorin. The Shorei style is supposed to have been more well suited to larger, more strongly built practitioners, and its techniques are characterized by great power and strongly rooted stances. The Shorin style, in contrast, was said to be more well suited to small, agile people. Its techniques are characterized by being lighter, faster, and more graceful.
In 1868 a man by the name of Gichin Funakoshi was born in Okinawa to an upper class family. At age 12, he began studying the martial arts under the instruction of two well known instructors, Yatsune Azato and at the introduction of Azato, Yatsune Itosu. Funakoshi was a dedicated student and came to master the techniques and forms of both styles. He worked as a primary school teacher for many years, and eventually began to combine the teachings of both styles into one curriculum of study.
In 1922, through the help of Jigoro Kano the founder of Judo, Funakoshi was invited to hold a demonstration for the Japanese Ministry of Education. Following the demonstration, Funakoshi was invited to remain in Tokyo and teach his program, which he renamed from the characters for "Chinese Hand" to "Empty Hand." Funakoshi chose to adopt the same uniforms and belt ranking system already in use and well recognized by the practitioners of Kano's Judo, in order to make a smoother transition to acceptance by Japanese society.
Funakoshi taught at many of the universtities around the Tokyo area, where he found ready acceptance and interest. In 1935 the first official karate dojo was built for Funakoshi through the efforts of his students. The building was named The Shotokan (literally, the hall or buiilding of Shoto). Shoto was the name under which Funakoshi wrote Japanese calligraphy, and means "waving pines." It was only later, as other systems of karate developed, that students of Funakoshi's began to be referred to as "students of The Shotokan" only as a means of differentiation from others' systems. Eventually, people began referring to the system taught by Funakoshi as "Shotokan," although it should be noted that this is not something that Funakoshi or his students actively decided themselves.