Because of the absence of many historical documents and the lack of written records during the era which gave karate its birth, this summary is not to be taken as 100% authentic, but only as a reasonably accurate accounting of Karate from its beginning to one of America's most exciting means of self-defense or sport.
Karate, which means "empty hand" in Japanese, is a science of unarmed self-defense and counter attack. Rather than using a weapon, the person using Karate employs parts of the body (the hand, fist, finger, elbow or foot) to ward off assault and to injure the attacker by striking him with a severe blow to some vulnerable areas and weak spots.
Karate, as we know it today, takes its beginnings from India in the age of the birth of the Buddhist religion. Although, they didn't use the word "Karate", the priests of the early Buddhist church evolved various spiritual disciplinary systems for the refinement of the body. Bodhidharma arrived in China about 520 A.D and eventually received an audience with the emperor and obtained permission to reside at the Shaolin Szu Monastery in Honan Province. This location became the birthplace of Karate.
Upon arrival at the Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma found the monks in poor physical condition due to the inactivity resulting from hours of kneeling and meditation. Like many people before and since, he sensed the intricate relationship between mind, body and spirit. Therefore, he began teaching Buddhist Monks the system of integrated physical and mental discipline embodied in the Indian I-Chin-Sutra which he had been taught as a youngster while a member of the Kshatriya (a warrior class in India). His exercises were further developed and integrated with various forms of Chinese unarmed combat and became what was known as Shaolin Ch'aun Fa. His eighteen original techniques later evolved into 170 movements. With the seed now planted, these teachings spread throughout China usually taking the name of the priest, or the place where it was being taught.
Of all the countries that have contributed to the evolution of the art of modern Karate, tiny Okinawa was one of the most influential. It is generally accepted that Okinawa was first inhabited by shipwrecked survivors of vicious typhoons. These survivors were diplomats, priest, and scholars, traveling to Japan from China. Certainly some of the Chinese survivors must have been skilled in various systems of unarmed combat, including Ch'uan Fa.
One of the most important chapters in the history of Karate, and a direct link to the present day Karate, was its development in Okinawa. In 1477, the Sho Dynasty consolidated its civil administration with the prohibition and confiscation of all arms, leading to an increased interest in fighting with hands, feet, farm implements and self-made weapons. This became known as Okinawa-Te.
Further interest was fanned in Okinawa-Te when a Kyushi lord terminated the Sho Dynasty with the capture of Okinawa and enacted a fresh prohibition against weapons in 1609. Okinawa-Te advanced tremendously as a result of such oppressive measures, giving rise to the styles of Shuri-Te, Naha-Te, Tomari-Te, Bushi-Te and Shaolin-Te among others. Due to the fear of civil authorities, it was necessary to teach Okinawan systems with the utmost secrecy and they were not to come out into the open again until 1900.
At the turn of the century, Karate was still a secret art, taught only to a select few, as it had been for three hundred years previously. In 1901, Master Ankoh Itosu broke this tradition by teaching Karate as part of the regular curriculum of the Okinawan normal school. Once Master Itosu took this bold step, many other great masters came to light and systemized their teachings. Some of these great masters included: Sokon Matsumura, Choke Motobu (Shuri-Te), Kanryo Higashionna, Chojun Miyagi (Naha-Te). Another great master of the time, Gichin Funakoshi (Shotokan) introduced Karate to Japan in 1920.
1935 - Board of Okinawan Black Belts changed the characters of "Kara-Te" from "China hand" to "empty hand".
1946 - Following World War II, American soldiers who had been exposed to Karate while stationed overseas came home and began to teach what they had learned, with the first commercial school being opened by Robert Trias in Phoenix, Arizona. Peter Urban began teaching Goju Ryu in New York, and Ed Parker began teaching Kempo in Los Angelos soon after. Robert Trias incorporated some of the Goju Ryu katas into the Shuri Ryu style, thus giving birth to Shorei Goju Ryu. Grand Master Trias is, therefore, not only the father of American Karate, but also the father and founder of the American Shorei Goju Ryu system currently being taught and practiced throughout the United States.
1953 - Master Trias was named as "Style Head" of Shuri Ryu, and was, therefore, forced to drop the Goju Ryu from his future teachings.
1955 - The term Tae Kwon Do was adopted to represent Korean fighting by General Choi.
1979 - Herb Johnson was named as "Style Head" of American Shorei Goju Ryu by its founder, Robert A. Trias. "Shorei" means graceful and beautiful, "Go" means hard, "Ju" means soft and "Ryu" means way or system.
In America today, there are many styles and systems of Karate. Although the basics of Karate began thousands of years ago, there has been a gradual changing in the execution of its techniques. Each Master of the past and present added his own special ideas to produce a unique form of self-defense equaled by no other means.
But it is not over. It is just the beginning. Karate is on the move! Its history is being written day by day as it continues to strive for self-betterment in the art and the character of its followers.