History of Karate
The history of Karate is full of uncertainty and mythology. It has been suggested that 1,500 years ago a young buddhist monk (Bodhidharma) invented a method of self-defense that was possibly the original form of Karate during the 5th or 6th Century AD. Travelling from India to China through the Himalayas, he used his hands to defend himself against wild life and hostile natives. His religion prevented him from carrying (and using) weapons. Once in China, he blended in with the local residents, and developed a system of exercises and physical techniques of Yoga, which consisted of stretching postures and deep breathing. Eventually, his system developed into a very strong martial art that gave those who practiced it, strength and confidence.
Prior to Bodhidharma's system, there were many other forms of well established fighting systems. It is therefore very difficult to know with certainty whether his system was in fact the one that gave birth to Karate as the martial art humanity came to know in the 20th century. It may be that his system was only one of the many systems that contributed to the development of Karate.
These martial arts (including Bodhidharma) were transferred from place to place by merchants. Okinawa, an island between Japan and Taiwan, was one of the places that benefited in this way from travelling merchants.
Okinawans, at that point in time, were known to practice an ancient Chinese martial art called Chuan-Fa (the precursor of Kung Fu), and another fighting system called "Tode".
The combination of these fighting systems became a unique breed called Okinawa-te (or just "Te", which means "hand"). The original Te consisted of punches, kicks and jumps, as well as blocking techniques.
No doubt, there was a system in place. However, it wasn't until a guy called Sokon Matsumura put together a collection of prescribed moves, that Karate started resembling the martial art we know at present. The moves were called "Kata".
The history of Karate known to us, tells us that Okinawans used this system out of necessity. As the island was also constantly invaded by foreign miliatry forces, who forbade possession of weapons, Okinawans continued practicing their empty-handed fighting system.
From then on, several styles of Karate branched out from the original system.
The word "Ryu" means "Style".
Thus, for instance, the style developed in the sity of Shuri, became Shuri-Te (Remember the "Te"?), and eventually became Shorin-Ryu. (Shorin is the Japanase word for Shaolin, which suggest that Shorin-Ryu is a direct descendant of Bodhidharma's system).
Wikipedia has a more thorough outline of the history of karate.
You can also find a very good summary at the Karate International website which offers a very detailed history of karate.
Today there are four main styles of karate-do in Japan:
Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, Shotokan, and Wado-ryu:
Goju-ryu developed out of Naha-te, its popularity primarily due to the success of Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915). Higaonna opened a dojo in Naha using eight forms brought from China. His best student, Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) later founded Goju-ryu, 'hard soft way' in 1930. In Goju-ryu much emphasis is placed on combining soft circular blocking techniques with quick strong counter attacks delivered in rapid succession.
Shito-ryu was founded by Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952) in 1928 and was influenced directly by both Naha-te and Shuri-te. The name Shito is constructively derived from the combination of the Japanese characters of Mabuni's teachers' names - Ankoh Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna. Shito-ryu schools use a large number of kata, about fifty, and is characterized by an emphasis on power in the execution of techniques.
Shôtôkan-ryû - Shotokan was founded by Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) in Tokyo in 1938. Funakoshi is considered to be the founder of modern karate. Born in Okinawa, he began to study karate with Yasutsune Azato, one of Okinawa's greatest experts in the art. In 1921 Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Tokyo. In 1936, at nearly 70 years of age, he opened his own training hall. The dojo was called Shotokan after the pen name used by Funakoshi to sign poems written in his youth. Shotokan Karate is characterized by powerful linear techniques and deep strong stances.
Wado-ryu, 'way of harmony', founded in 1939 is a system of karate developed from jujitsu and karate by Hienori Otsuka as taught by one of his instructors, Gichin Funakoshi. This style of karate combines basic movements of jujitsu with techniques of evasion, putting a strong emphasis on softness and the way of harmony or spiritual discipline.