Because of the absence of many historical documents and the lack of written records during the era which gave Karate its birth, this summary is not to be taken as 100 percent authentic, but only as a reasonable accounting of Karate from its beginning to one of America's most exciting contact sports.
In tracing the actual beginning of Karate, we must go back to the Buddhist religion and a man known as Siddhartha Gautama, who was the Buddha himself. Gautama was born about 563 B.C. and died around 483 B.C. at the age of 80.
About 1,000 years later, the founder and teacher of Zen Buddhism, Durama, crossed the Himalayas from India to China to teach the Liang Dynasty Monarch on the tenants of the Buddha. Noticing the Monks were weakened by many hours of kneeling and meditating, he began to teach them a system of physical and mental discipline embodied in the I-Chin Sutra, which he had been taught or developed himself throughout his travels. Durama later built his own monastery which was called Shaolin-Szu, and the Monks became known as the most formidable of fighters. In later years, the Art which they practiced came to be known as Shaolin-Szu, or Kempo, which means "fist way".
Over many years, this system of unarmed combat underwent intensive changes as it slowly spread its fame throughout the orient. Okinawa is the main island of the Ryukyu Island chain which is located in the East China Sea. They are scattered like stepping stones Southwest from Southern Kyushu, to Taiwan. Okinawans combined Chinese Kempo with Okinawa-te and further advanced this form of empty handed fighting.
About 500 years ago, the famous King Hashi succeeded in uniting the Ryukyu Islands into one kingdom. To insure rule by law, all weapons were seized from the people and it was made a crime against the state to possess any weapons. About 200 years later, Okinawa became a part of the Satruma Clan of Kyushu, and a second ban of weapons was declared. During these centuries that Okinawa was occupied by these Japanese war lords, the art of empty-handed fighting, now known as Karate (Kara-empty, te-hand), underwent its most advanced development to date. Through their many years of secret practice, the Okinawans became so proficient that they could attack and destroy the other soldiers with their "bare hands". Their weapons (hands, feet, fists, etc.) were as effective as any other weapons of that day, and in the 16th Century, they attacked and over-threw the small Japanese occupational force.
The next important chapter in the progress of Karate was to take place in Japan around the turn of the 20th Century. The Okinawan Grand Master at that time was Sensei Chokun Mobotu. However, he was so radically anti-Japanese that the Okinawans, who were again subject of Japan, were afraid to send him to show the Japanese this science of self-defense. Instead, they sent a more polished gentleman of lower rank named Gichin Funakoshi.
Gichin Funakoshi was born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1869. At the age of 11, he began his study of Karate under the two top Masters of that time. Upon arrival in Japan, around 1917, he began to teach his system of self-defense, but he also continued to learn. Many of the Japanese hand-to-hand fighting techniques were added, and Karate again underwent further development. He stayed in Japan and eventually married a Japanese woman. He traveled throughout the country giving lectures and demonstrations. He opened several dojo, accepting all worthy students and introducing Karate to the schools and Government of Japan. From there, Karate began to grow and eventually spread to the Western Worlds.
In 1946, Master Robert A. Trias opened the first known Karate school in the United States. Two years later, in 1948, he formed the now largest Karate Association in the country(until 1988), the United States Karate Association. The seed was planted, and Karate began to grow.
In America today, there are many Karate schools. There are also many styles and systems. Although the basis of Karate began thousands of years ago, there has been a gradual changing in the execution of its techniques. Each master of the past has added his own special ideas to produce today's form of unarmed self-defense equaled by no other means...but it is not over; it is just the beginning. Changes are being made even now by the Karate Masters of today. Karate is on the move! It's history is being written day by day as it continues to strive for self-betterment in the art and character of its practitioners/ followers.