Ever since last summer, when antinuclear demonstrations materialized in response to the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, there’s been an ongoing argument about just how many people show up for these protests. Conventional wisdom says the organizers exaggerate the numbers while the major media underestimate them. The tabloid Nikkan Gendai reports that police make their own estimates of crowd size “for security purposes,” but, officially, they don’t disclose them. Journalist Yusaku Tanaka told the paper that police start counting at the beginning of a rally but neglect to take into account subsequent crowd swell. Reporters in the police-affiliated press clubs get estimates from anonymous sources and then arrive at an average.

Journalist Takeshi Hirose, who started writing about Japan’s nuclear power industry long before the Fukushima accident, listed on his blog the numbers reported by individual media outlets for the June 29 rally outside the prime minister’s official residence. The organizers claimed 150,000 people showed up, while the reported police estimate was 17,000. Asahi Shimbun said 150,000-180,000, and TBS 200,000. Veteran journalist Shuntaro Torigoe, who covered the demo for Asahi TV’s “Hodo Station,” thought there were 40,000-50,000 people. The relatively conservative Sankei Shimbun ventured 20,000 and the relatively liberal Mainichi published both the organizers’ and the police’s estimates. NHK simply said the number was “higher” than the number that showed up for the previous week’s protest. The Yomiuri didn’t mention any figures, because it didn’t cover it.

Though the numbers varied, everyone except the Yomiuri reported something, and it wasn’t necessarily the police estimate, which is why Hirose marks June 29 as the date when the major media’s “stance toward coverage of the antinuclear movement” changed. There had been demonstrations in front of the PM’s residence every Friday night since March 29, ostensibly to protest the restart of the Oi reactor in Fukui Prefecture, but the mainstream vernacular press had provided almost no coverage. On June 29, according to Hirose, most media, TV news shows in particular, had finally been given “the go-ahead” to cover the demonstrations.

The Japan Visual Journalists Association (JVJA), a group of freelancers, decided that the best way to convey the size of the protests was through aerial photography, but hiring a helicopter with a fixed video camera is expensive, so Hirose established a fund. He opened a bank account and sent the number to friends and acquaintances, asking for small donations (“the equivalent of one glass of sake”). He thought he could collect about ¥500,000. A week later he looked into the account and found ¥7.9 million. “The majority of people who donated, I didn’t even know,” he told Tokyo Shimbun.

The JVJA images offer a clearer representation of the size of the demonstration, and most were probably viewed via alternative media on the Internet. Moreover, people who participated in the protests learned about them through social media, not mainstream media. This is one reason they have had little practical effect on the government, which doesn’t recognize anything unless it’s on TV.

When Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was reported to have said to his security detail on June 29 that the demonstrators outside his residence were making a lot of noise, the patronizing tone offended some people (Noda denied making the remark). More to the point, it implied how out of touch he was. After the government ignored petitions and restarted the Oi reactor without fully implementing new safety measures, many concluded their elected officials do not represent them and resorted to the only democratic action they had left: direct protests.

That’s why the numbers are important. Several weeks ago on the TV Asahi political variety show “TV Tackle” comedian Makoto Otake asked why no one could agree on the size of the crowds. Former Sankei reporter Tsuneo Yamagiwa practically exploded, insisting that the people who show up for these demonstrations are not “ordinary people” but “professionals,” a term that suggested bearded anarchists with Molotov cocktails.

The antinuclear contingent is sensitive to such charges. The main organizing group for last Monday’s rally in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park (organizers: 170,000; police: 75,000) pointed out to the Asahi Shimbun that while “one could see many labor union banners” they couldn’t compare in number to the home-made placards hoisted by so-called average citizens. Any sort of demonstration with an antiestablishment theme is going to attract the usual complement of leftwing diehards, but the central meaning of the current antinuclear movement is that it has grown organically out of anger rather than a fixed ideology. Hirose has said that these protesters “are not out to destroy the power companies.” They want the government to address their concerns in a forthright manner.

Nevertheless, their stated aim is to quit nuclear power, which the government has no intention of doing. The government’s strategy is to ignore the protests, hoping they’ll just go away. As summer drags on more people will buy the argument that the country needs nuclear energy for its immediate electricity needs, an argument refuted in a July 18 Asahi editorial that said conservation measures were working and power demand dropping. Still, according to a new Kyodo News survey, 51 percent of those queried disapprove of the resumption of power generation at the Oi facility, while in May, a Mainichi survey found a 64 percent disapproval rating. This trend could be reversed again by the government’s public hearings on nuclear policy, which have provoked skepticism because many believe the government has already decided what it will do. As the old Japanese saying goes, it’s easy to heat something up but it cools down just as quickly. Antinuclear forces know that if they are going to see results they have to keep the fire up.