Pugilistic disciplines, of which karate is one, seem to be as old as mankind. The clenched fist is man's natural weapon. The earliest known depiction of a boxing encounter is from a Sumerian relief from the third millennium BCE. Chinese martial arts, from which karate descended, can be traced to the fifth century CE.
During the Middle Ages, Chinese merchants and soldiers brought their martial arts to Okinawa. Since weapons were prohibited on the island, local farmers and fishermen simplified the Chinese forms into a remarkably effective system of unarmed combat. Training was secret and confined to family and clan members.
In the early 20th century, Okinawan masters made their art public, and also introduced it to the rest of Japan. The man who brought karate to Japan was a schoolteacher named Funakoshi Gichin. Master Funakoshi was chosen because of his mastery of karate, and also because he was highly educated.
Master Funakoshi's exhibitions in 1917 and 1922 were well received, and he established a number of karate schools and university programs that continue to this day. Throughout the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, Master Funakoshi molded karate into a coherent whole, laid the foundations for a grading system, and shifted the focus away from lethal technique by placing more emphasis on the art's spiritual side. He was also one of the earliest advocates of karate training for women. Throughout his long career, he always placed perfection of character above the physical aspects of the art.
He founded the Japan Karate Association in 1948, and became its first chief instructor. He died in 1957 at the age of 88. Master Funakoshi never gave a name to his style of karate, but after his death it became known as Shotokan, because Shoto was the pen name under which he wrote traditional poetry.
Master Funakoshi was succeeded by Master Nakayama Masatoshi. Like Funakoshi, Nakayama was a student of Chinese language and literature, and he spent many years in China where he studied various Chinese martial arts. Master Nakayama further developed karate along scientific lines, made it into a competitive sport, and introduced it to the rest of the world by sending some of the ablest instructors to teach abroad. Master Nakayama died in 1987, but his legacy, and Funakoshi's, lives on.
Today, Shotokan karate is practiced by millions of men, women, and children in virtually every country in the world. The art is still very much like it was centuries ago, but society has changed, and people practice it for different reasons now. People no longer need to fight to the death with their bare hands, but they are still drawn to karate's unique combination of fighting skills and physical fitness. Karate practice offers an interesting and rewarding way to achieve those goals.
Today, there are a number of Shotokan organizations, and they all trace their lineage to the founding of the Japan Karate Association in 1948. Some of the best training camps and tournaments are sponsored by the International Shotokan Karate Federation, the BKC's parent organization. The ISKF was founded by Master Okazaki Teruyuki, one of Master Funakoshi's original disciples.