The Martial Arts leading to modern Karate-do are thought by many to have originated centuries ago in China. It is known, however, that in the 6th Century AD a Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, travelled from the Indian subcontinent to the Temple of Shaolin in China. On his journey, and at the temple itself, he discovered devout monks observing spiritual Zen practices with great zeal, but who were physically feeble and weak. Bodhidharma undertook to improve their fitness as a part of their religious observance, since physical well-being is a core precept of Zen philosophy.
Over the centuries the arts practised by the Shaolin monks spread, not just in China but beyond her borders, eventually reaching Okinawa, one of the Ryukyu chain of islands (now a part of Japan). Okinawa was a feudal land, with strict division of the population by class. In the 15th, and 17th centuries, the ruling families, always wary of uprisings and revolution, are believed to have forbidden Okinawan peasantry from carrying arms. Perhaps openly, perhaps in secret, the native Okinawan people developed the Okinawa-te Martial Art, a true forerunner of modern-day Karate-do, in order to protect themselves and their families against bandits and raiders.
In the last decades of the 19th century, Gichin Funakoshi, himself an Okinawan, learned the techniques of Karate-do at the hands of the great Okinawan Masters Azato and Itosu (amongst others). Later, in 1921, Master Funakoshi gave a demonstration of the developing art of Karate-do to Prince (soon to be Emperor) Hirohito. The next year, 1922, Master Funakoshi established the first Dojo for Karate-do in Tokyo, Japan.
Following the Second World War, there was a huge American military presence in Japan, and throughout the Far East and the Pacific. It is therefore, perhaps, inevitable that the introduction of Karate-do to the West is courtesy of the Americans. In 1955, Tsutomu Ohshima taught Karate-do in Los Angeles, and the following year he formed the Shotokan Karate of America association.
In 1956, Shotokan Karate-do found its way to Great Britain when Vernon Bell (who himself trained, in the 40's and 50's, in Yoseikan Karate-do, strongly linked to Shotokan) began to teach a few select students on the grass tennis-courts at his parent's bungalow in Hornchurch, Essex.
If the reader would like to learn more of the history of Karate-do, there is no better introductory source of reference than A SHOTOKAN KARATE BOOK OF FACTS (VOL's. I, II and III), by Clive Layton, Michael Randall, and Michael Harvey.