Three weeks after Japan’s biggest antinuclear demonstration, there is still some dispute over how many people actually attended. The organizers estimate 60,000 and the police say about 30,000. Except for the Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers, which accept the police figure, the mainstream vernacular media have settled on 50,000.

That the number is closer to the organizers’ than it is to the police’s is a fair indication of the media’s softening to the antinuclear position, something they avoided until a few months ago. Ever since it became obvious that a good portion of the public has turned against Japan’s official nuclear-energy policy the press has gradually had to acknowledge this trend, but subsequent coverage of antinuke sentiments has been exactly that: focused on “sentiment.”

Japanese television isn’t very good at reporting breaking news, which is why coverage of the Sept. 19 demonstration in Tokyo was negligible on the day it took place. NHK included a two-minute report on its local 6 o’clock bulletin that made it look like another holiday festival, and there was absolutely no mention on the nationwide 7 o’clock news. In the following week, however, many news programs ran features on the demonstration, concentrating on celebrities: Nobel prize-winner and rally organizer Kenzaburo Oe giving a speech; former high-profile TV commentator Keiko Ochiai marching with a banner; actor and anti-nuke activist Taro Yamamoto as a “special guest.”

TV Asahi’s morning news show pointed out that it was the biggest demonstration since the early 1960s, when young people took to the streets to protest the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. When a reporter interviewed Ochiai about the Sept. 19 demonstration, the 66-year-old writer said, “My generation will soon be gone.” What she meant was that the future didn’t belong to her cohort and that younger people would have to live with the dangers of radiation; but given the emotional context of the reporting, it sounded like nostalgia for the good ol’ days.

What the segment lacked was any sense that the Sept. 19 demonstration could actually accomplish anything, probably because the reporters and commentators in the studio didn’t want to come across as wet blankets. Everybody at the rally obviously had such a good time, why spoil it by pointing out that the government wasn’t paying any attention? TV Asahi journalist Koji Kawamura crystallized this attitude when he said, “What’s important is that (the people who attended) are standing up for something,” a comment that contrasted with Oe’s stated reason for holding the demonstration. He said it was the only exercise of democratic action that was left to the antinuclear forces. Where Oe’s comment was desperate, Kawamura’s seemed resigned: One could admire the demonstration without taking it seriously.

The reason for this lack of seriousness is the mass media’s prejudice that organized anti-authoritarian actions are driven by ideology. For months after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, the only commentary you heard was from nuclear experts who had a stake in the matter, because what they said supposedly came from a “rational” position that is no longer exclusively theirs. The anger that people feel toward Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government organs that support the energy industry has, in the words of the Asahi Shimbun, been fueled by “real-life problems.”

Young mothers are at the forefront of the protest, not left-wing yahoos. Some media still find it easy to romanticize such opposition as the sort of lost-cause activism that characterizes redress movements, such as those initiated by the victims of Minamata Disease, the mercury poisoning disorder initially caused by Chisso Corp.; the hepatitis C scandal of the 1970s-’90s; or even the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombings.

But redress, which is sought through legal channels, isn’t the point here; changing the system is, and that is something democracy promises but rarely delivers in the real world. The Asahi Shimbun’s coverage of the demonstration was more tentative than that of Tokyo Shimbun or the Mainichi, but the Asahi provided the most penetrating analysis by pointing out that the rally was an example of “indirect democracy,” the implication being that citizens cannot expect elected officials to represent their interests unless they happen to dovetail with the “national interest,” which is determined independently by people whose job it is to determine such things.

As lost causes go, the grassroots movement to force a referendum on the nuclear-energy question isn’t romantic enough to interest the media, though several newspapers have mentioned it in passing. So far, no one, not even Tokyo Shimbun, whose coverage of the demonstration was the most thorough of the vernacular newspapers, has talked to the citizens’ group Minna de Kimeyo (Everybody Decides), which continues to organize frequent symposiums on the referendum issue.

Expecting the Japanese government to allow citizens to vote directly on nuclear energy is like expecting the Chinese government to hold general elections. The Constitution states that the Diet is the highest decision-making device in the country, so special laws need to be passed for each proposed referendum before any can be carried out. That means politicians have to make it a reality, and so far the only political group to come out in support is Minna no To (Your Party), which has submitted a bill for a nuclear-power referendum. In response to a questionnaire from Minna de Kimeyo, the Liberal Democratic Party objected to the implied purpose of such a vote, saying it “undervalues the job of elected officials,” which is exactly the point.

Those who attended the Sept. 19 demonstration didn’t think their representatives were representing them with regard to nuclear energy, so they tried to make themselves heard through that other necessary component of democracy, the press, which obliged with coverage but on its own terms. During his keynote Diet speech, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he would “listen carefully to the voices and heartfelt cries of each and every person in the nation.”

Listening is nice. Hearing is something else entirely.