Okinawan society was subjected to a succession of government edicts banning the carrying of any weapons, from the early 1400s with the advent of the first Sho dynasty, through to the later 1800s when Japan's Satsuma clan ruled Okinawa, or the Ryukyu Islands as they were known then.
This gave great impetus to the secret development of indigenous martial arts for sef-defence, among both the Okinawan gentry and the common folk of the day. The specialty of these martial arts was of course that they did not use any traditional weapons. These martial arts began their development in the major cities of Okinanwa - Shuri, Naha and Tomari, deriving greatly from the martial knowledge brought by traders and monks from overseas.
The common folk had access to farm implements that were easily adapted to martial purposes - such as the well known nunchaku, sai and bo - leading to the creation of a martial discipline known as Ryukyu Kobujutsu. In contrast, the nobility favoured the practice of unarmed martial technique much more, resulting in the birth of Okinawa-te, or 'Okinawa-hand'.
In time, Okinawa-te came to be known as To-te (Chinese hand), presumably because of the early Chinese influences and also because it was fashionable at the time to associate things with China. The character used to write 'To' could also be pronounced 'Kara', thus leading to the initial use of the term 'Karate' to describe the Okinawan martial art.
In the late 1800s, a respected Okinawan schoolteacher by the name of Gichin Funakoshi began instructing Okinawans in Karate, combining the teachings of his instructors Yasutsune Azato and Yasutsune (Ankoh) Itosu, both famous Karate masters of the time. By this time, Karate was more openly practised, and duing a visit of the Japanese Crown Prince in 1921 Funakoshi was asked to stage a Karate demonstration.
This so greatly impressed the Prince that Funakoshi was asked to demonstrate again in the imperial court in Tokyo as part of a demonstration of Okinawan culture. During this demonstration, Funakoshi's karate caught the interest of Jigoro Kano, the famous founder of Judo. Following an invitation from him to demonstrate, and then teach, karate, Funakoshi remained in Japan and began promoting karate with the aid of many wellwishers including Kano. It was also during this time that Funakoshi changed the character used to write 'Kara' to one meaning 'Empty' or 'Void' (also pronounced 'Ku') instead of 'Chinese', in his effort to make its identity wholly Japanese. Incidentally, the coloured-belt system used in most karate-schools today was borrowed by Funakoshi from Kano's system for Judo, subsequently being adopted by the rest of the karate world.
It was in 1936 that karate supporters fom all over Japan collected funds and built the first karate dojo in Japan, naming it 'Shoto-kan' or 'the Hall of Shoto' after Funakoshi's pen-name Shoto (meaning 'Pine Waves'), with which he signed his poems. Thus the style of karate taught here, and subsequently promoted all over the world by students of this school, came to be known as Shotokan karate.