Karate was developed on the small island of Okinawa, just south of Japan, from a variety of influences, but especially the Chinese combat systems that came with trade and political connections.
On Okinawa, three main strands of karate (at the time meaning Chinese Hand, but sometimes just referred to as 'te') developed and intermingled around the cities of Shuri, Naha and Tomari, all within just a few miles of each other.
For most of its history, karate was taught privately on a person-to-person basis, until the early twentieth century when it was introduced to the school system. From here it was exported to mainland Japan and the styles we know today came into being. By this time, as part of its modernisation, karate had come to mean 'empty hand'.
Shotokan was developed by some of the students of Gichin Funakoshi (the 'father of modern karate') in Japan, who was largely responsible for bringing Okinawan karate into the public eye (though not alone). Shotokan has its roots in Shorin Ryu and shares strong connections with Shotokai and Wado-Ryu, among others (the creation of Taekwondo was strongly influenced by Shotokan). Funakoshi's karate came mainly through the masters Matsumura, Asato and Itosu.
From Japan, initially through the American air bases on the mainland and in Okinawa, karate has spread to all the corners of the earth. It came to Britain in 1957 through Vernon Bell, who eventually invited the first JKA Shotokan instructors to the country in the mid-60s (these were Kanazawa, Enoeda, Kase and Shirai).
While it is always developing, and new schools spring up from old styles, the form is very successful and remains fairly consistent. To watch a person practice karate is to see a deep-rooted history brought to life.
Not to hit someone
Nor to be defeated
It is to avoid trouble
- Konishi Yasuhiro
Funakoshi was born in Shuri, Okinawa, in 1868. At school he was close friends with the son of the karate teacher Anko Asato, and soon became his student. He also studied under Anko Itosu and Sokon Matsumura. After being chosen to demonstrate karate for the visiting Japanese Crown Prince, Funakoshi went to the mainland to help spread karate to a wider public. Here he had many supporters, including the hugely influential Judo pioneeer, Jigoro Kano. Funakoshi's dojo flourished and became known as the Shoto-kan (Shoto was the pen-name he used for his poetry) and from this two of the largest schools of Japanese karate came into being - Shotokan (of Nakayama and the JKA) and Shotokai (of Egami). Funakoshi died in Tokyo in 1957. His key works include the books Karate-Do: My Way of Life, and Karate-Do Kyohan.
Kanazawa was born in Iwate, Japan, in 1931. While at Takushoku University he started his study of karate under Masatoshi Nakayama (as well as the elderly Gichin Funakoshi) and quickly rose up the ranks. In 1957 he won the kumite title at the first All Japan Karate Championship while nursing a broken hand (he won kata the following year). Soon afterwards he graduated from the JKA's instructor training programme and was sent to Hawaii to teach, before moving to Europe and, eventually, the United Kingdom. Here he founded the KUGB, and later, after leaving the JKA, the SKIF, which became one of the largest international karate organisations. Kanazawa died in 2019 but remains one of the most influential karate instructors, with his teachings and text books setting the standard for teachers and students the world over.
Kubota was born in Kumamoto, Japan, in 1934. He became a student of the martial arts at age 4 as his father was a jujitsu and jukendo master, and during WWII he started to learn karate from two Okinawans who were stationed in his village. He left home for Tokyo at a young age and continued to learn karate in the city from a variety of teachers, as well as helping the police in some rough neighbourhoods. Soon he had his own dojo, training the local police as well as US military personnel. He relocated to the United States in 1963 and founded his own Gosoku-Ryu style (influenced by Shotokan and other styles plus his own practical experience) - continuing to train police and government agents, as well as a number of Hollywood stars - he even became an actor himself.
The history of karate gets foggy very quickly as it enters back into the nineteenth century, and much of what we 'know' is from folk memory and obscure scraps. The chart below depicts the lineage from information available, though there will be many other influences on each teacher that cannot be known or which are only hinted at. It is known that Shaolin style and White Crane style kung-fu were both influential on Okinawan te. The figures with the strongest influence on Shotokan would probably be Matsumura and Azato, along with Itosu.