"Shotokan" refers to a style of karate, an ancient Chinese martial art, that incorporates punching, kicking, meditating and breathing techniques. The real origin of karate goes so far back, it is little more than a legend. The legend goes that a buddhist monk named Bodhidharma started it in the Chinese province of Hunan around 500 A.D. He lived among the Shao Lin monks, teaching them exercises and breathing designed to aid them in their strenuous spiritual rigors. It was originally called kempo and spread throughout China. Different styles developed, with the northern provinces adopting more hard, aggressive techniques, while in southern China, the movements were soft and circular.
For centuries, China ruled Okinawa. In 1477, king Sho Shin outlawed the use of weapons and it was around this time that kempo started to mix with the indigenous fighting style of Okinawans which was simply referred to as "te". It is thought that the word "karate" was an amalgum of these culture clashes with the word "kara" used to mean both "Chinese" or "empty" and "te" meaning "hand". So "karate" could mean either "Chinese hand" or "empty hand". In 1609 Japan invaded Okinawa and tightened the restrictions. The Japanese enforced the ban on weapons and forbid the practice of any martial art. Nevertheless, empty handed styles of fighting continued to be practiced in secret, the teachings passed along within families and eventually making its way back to Japan where karate became so popular it is widely assumed that it originated in Japan.
The man truly responsible for what we know as shotokan was born in Okinawa in 1868 when the practice was still officially banned. Gichin Funakoshi was a schoolteacher, who, like his ancestors, trained shotokan in secret until the ban was lifted in the early 20th century. In 1922 the Japanese Ministry of Education held a martial arts demonstration in Tokyo which Funakoshi attended. It was a turning point in his life. At this event, Funakoshi captured the enthusiasm of practitioners across many cultures. He ended up staying in Japan and devoting himself to teaching karate for the rest of his life.
Although, clearly, the actual fighting style had been around for centuries, Funakoshi's emphasis on training the spirit as well as the body struck the right chord at the time. He said, "The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants." He also standardized the routines and teaching techniques in such a way that the knowledge and exercise were more palatable for a wider variety of people. It was his goal to make karate accessible to everyone.
In 1935 Japan's first free-standing karate dojo was built under the leadership of Funakoshi. The sign over the door read "Shotokan", for "shoto" meaning "pine waves" and "kan" for building. Funakoshi was very fond of the meditative sound of wind moving through trees. So, shotokan is not a martial art style in the literal sense. Rather, it is like a brand name that has become so closely associated with what it is, that you refer to the thing by its brand.
The tenets of shotokan karate rely on simple, hard techniques. Kicks are often low, with sweeps to the ankles and shins commonplace. High kicking is not discouraged, but certainly not emphasized. Punching has equal emphasis with kicking and the strikes are straight and hard. Stances are low, with solid foot placement as opposed to rapid weight shifting or bouncing on the balls of the feet. There is no room for improvisation in shotokan. Correct posture and precision of technique are primary requirements with repetition of movement until it can be duplicated exactly. The purity of the technique is a reflection of the purity of the spirit. "You know your kata after you have done it 1000 times," says Shihan Kenneth Funakoshi, who heads the Funakoshi Shotokan Karate Association. The student is expected to perform the techniques even under harsh conditions. Padding is not usually worn. Attacks drive straight forward while defenses usually involve a pre-emptive strike. Rarely does a shotokan practitioner bob and weave like a boxer or shift and spin like a tae kwon do-ist. The goal is simple, powerful strikes honed to such a degree of perfection that nothing more complex is needed.
Criticisms of shotokan are usually that it is too rigid and lacks finesse. The simplistic nature of the attacks has much less variety than many other martial arts. However, its fans might say that it is an art in a much truer sense than fighting styles that have become a mere sport and that the aggressive techniques are much more effective in actual confrontation.