Originally, the martial art Te ("hand") developed in Okinawa as a system of self defense. Due to Okinawa's frequent contact and exchange with China, it is certain that indigenous Okinawan fighting methods were influenced by Chinese martial arts at some point in their development. However, with only oral tradition and no formal contemporary written records, it is unknown when exactly the distinct art of karate first emerged in Okinawa. It is believed that karate developed approximately 500 years ago, when the dynastic ruler King Shoha unified the region after decades of warfare and issued an edict banning the possession of weapons on the island. At a later point in history, a similar law forbidding the possession or use of weapons was reissued and enforced by the Satsuma clan, which had invaded Okinawa in the early 1600s and brought it under the rule of the Japanese Shogunate. It is believed that in this environment karate developed as a form of unarmed combat for personal protection, and it was taught and practiced in secret. Karate developed as an open hand fighting system which used punches, kicks, strikes and smashes as its technical arsenal. Grappling, throws, locks, restraints and vital point strikes were also incorporated into combat training.

The Okinawan karate master Funakoshi Gichin was born in 1868. His life was dedicated to mastering his art and promoting its values and in 1922 he introduced karate to mainland Japan when he was invited by the Ministry of Education to give a demonstration in Tokyo. Funakoshi had studied a number of karate styles with various Okinawan masters, most notably Azato and Itosu, and rather than teaching a pure style of karate, he combined the teachings of his instructors in what was later called Shoto-ryu or Shotokan. Funakoshi is universally considered the founder of modern karate.

In 1924, Keio University established the first university karate club in Japan, and by 1932 all major Japanese universities had karate clubs. These universities were the main sites of both karate study and advanced research in anatomy, physiology and kinesiology, which resulted in a scientific reworking of karate to better conform to the new information on human movement. This began the modern era of karate.

Finally, karate training aims to develop moral character above all. Funakoshi Gichin emphasized the spiritual as well as physical aspects of training and distilled his philosophy into one maxim: "The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants."