Japanese newspapers began in the 17th century as yomiuri (読売) or kawaraban (瓦版), which were printed handbills sold in major cities to commemorate major social gatherings or events.
The first modern newspaper was the Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser, which was published bi-weekly by the Englishman A. W. Hansard. In November of the same year, Hansard moved the paper to Yokohama and renamed it as the Japan Herald. In 1862, the Tokugawa shogunate began publishing the Kampan batabiya shimbun, a translated edition of a widely-distributed Dutch government newspaper. These two papers were published for foreigners, and contained only foreign news. The first Japanese daily newspaper that covered foreign and domestic news was the Yokohama mainichi shimbun, first published in 1871.
Newspapers at this time can be divided into two types, Ooshimbun (大新聞, "large newspapers") and koshimbun (小新聞, "small newspapers"). People commonly referred to Ooshimbun as "political forums" because these papers were inextricably tied to the Popular Rights Movement (自由民権運動, "Jiyuu minken undou") and its demands for establishing a Diet. After the government's official announcement of the formation of the Diet, these newspapers, such as the Yokohama mainichi shimbun and the Chuugai shimbun, became organs of the political parties. The early readers of these newspapers mostly came from the ranks of the former samurai class.
Koshimbun, on the other hand, were more plebeian, popular newspapers that contained local news, human interest stories, and light fiction. Examples of koshimbun were the Tokyo nichinichi shimbun, the predecessor of the present day Mainichi shimbun, which began in 1872; the Yomiuri shimbun, which began in 1874; and the Asahi shimbun, which began in 1879. In the 1880s, government pressure led to a gradual weeding out of Ooshimbun, and the koshimbun started becoming more similar to the modern, "impartial" newspapers.
Throughout their history, Japanese newspapers have had a central role in issues of free speech and freedom of the press. In the period of "Taishou Democracy" in the 1910s to the 1920s, the government worked to suppress newspapers such as the Asahi shimbun for their critical stance against government bureaucracy that favored protecting citizens' rights and constitutional democracy. In the period of growing militarism to the outbreak of total war in the 1930s to the 1940s, newspapers faced intense government censorship and control. After Japan's defeat, strict censorship of the press continued as the American occupiers used government control in order to inculcate democratic and anti-communist values. In 1951, the American occupiers finally returned freedom of the press to Japan, which is the situation today.