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Japan has bigger problem than revolving door PMs

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Challenges await Japan's new leader
  • Voter apathy big problem Japan after ushering in yet another Prime Minister
  • Yukio Hatoyama resigned this week after failure to relocate Okinawa base
  • New PM Naoto Kan has already spoken about regaining the public's trust
  • Young people in Japan are disillusioned with high unemployment rate, national debt

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- Every international journalist covering Japan has been talking about the country's revolving door of prime ministers this week.

But believe it or not, having a series of prime ministers who have all served a year or less is not so unforgivable by Japan's electorate.

A more dangerous problem in this latest political upheaval is expressed by Maya Sugiyama, a 20-year-old commuter we met this morning. Sugiyama was heading into work, one of the many young people trying to make ends meet in Tokyo, the world's most expensive city.

Japan's young have a disproportionate rate of unemployment compared to their elders. They also feel the shrinking of the world's second largest economy and in public opinion polls say they lack a sense of hope in a country rapidly aging and racking up the world's highest debt-to-GDP ratio -- a debt they fully expect they'll be saddled with.

"Because the prime minister changes so often, I can't trust anybody," said Sugiyama. "They're all the same. I have no interest."

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  • Tokyo
  • Yukio Hatoyama
  • Naoto Kan

Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan roared into power eight months ago, promising a change in the way the political business is done in the country. The DPJ promised more power to the people and less power to the bureaucrats; less political corruption and more political action. Voters felt it was a new dawn in politics for Japan.

But Hatoyama stumbled early, unable to contain the problem of relocating the U.S. military base in Okinawa. Eight months later, his poll numbers, which started at 71 percent, had fallen to 17 percent.

Voter let-down and the resulting apathy from Hatoyama's fast fall is a much bigger problem, says Doshisha University Professor Noriko Hama, than the seemingly big problem of Japan's revolving door of prime ministers.

Professor Hama believes this is a critical time for democracy in Japan. Voters could become "so exasperated and so disappointed that they actually turn their backs on politics and no one goes to vote anymore," warned Hama. "I think that would be the really frightening situation."

Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke at length and multiple times in the early hours of his tenure about regaining the public's trust, eyeing the upcoming parliamentary elections in July. He knows what's at stake for his party  that is clear.

Analysts warn there's also the bigger issue of keeping the public engaged in the political system, that in the last four years has only expanded the rift between it and its people.