The late Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) is famous for allegedly saying, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” It might be apocryphal—the Dirksen Congressional Center has found no evidence that the late Illinois Republican ever made the quip—but it certainly resonates as the political parties spar over sequestration and Americans become even more accustomed to thinking somewhat casually about what should be unfathomably big numbers.
In Japan, however, billions are for amateurs. With public debt more than 200 percent of GDP, the Japanese have long measured their red ink in hundreds of trillions of yen, at least until now. The Japanese crossed into uncharted fiscal territory Friday following news that the country’s gigantic national debt has for the first time just exceeded ¥1,000 trillion—in other words, more than one quadrillion. The country’s outstanding public debt, including borrowings, increased 1.7 percent in the second quarter of 2013, Japan’s Ministry of Finance announced, putting the national debt at a record ¥1,008.6 trillion ($10.46 trillion).