Everyone In Japan Is Thin And Beautiful (And So Can You!)

Raise your hand if you think it’s ridiculous that we even have the concept of “The Freshman Fifteen“. Ok, now if you’re raising your hand, you should probably put it down because there’s no reason to sit at your computer and raise your hand.

Plus, I found it difficult to keep typing with one hand in the air.

It is ridiculous, though. The fact that so many of us go to college and end up gaining a bunch of unnecessary weight is just sad. However, it happens to way too many people. Our society is so based around a sugar-heavy, carb-heavy diet and a sedentary lifestyle that it’s become commonplace to get fat after high school.

But what if we could fix this problem? What if there was a way to fix it that didn’t involve going on some rigid, radical diet or a overly complicated exercise program?

Well, that fix exists, and I only had to travel 8,000 miles to find out what it is.

Live Like You’re Japanese.

About two hours into my trip to Japan, the biggest things I noticed were the people. Well, actually not the biggest, because they’re not big. Almost nobody in Japan is overweight in the slightest.

As I continued through my journey, this fact kept become more and more noticeable. Of course, I’d always heard that people were healthier in Asian countries, but you really don’t appreciate that fact until you actually see it. Everyone is healthy. It’s crazy.

In fact, it’s not just that they’re skinny – they’re also beautiful. I’ll be honest, it was pretty hard to keep my eyes off the girls there. I’m not just talking about the ones my age; even women who were probably in their 40′s looked absolutely great. People there seem to defy aging until they reach their elderly years. Telling whether someone is in their 20′s or 40′s usually comes down to looking at their face, because you often can’t tell from anything else.

So I set about researching exactly why Japanese people are so much healthier and thinner than we are. As it turns out, they aren’t spending hours in gyms, plodding away on treadmills and stationary bikes, and they definitely aren’t doing Weight Watchers and tracking points.

No, the health of the Japanese people cannot be attributed to any adherence to a program or special diet. It’s a lifestyle thing. 

The way they live, day to day, simply keeps them healthy. It’s engrained in their habits and society, meaning it’s something they barely think about.

That got me to thinking – what if we could adopt a similar lifestyle? What if we could build lasting habits that didn’t require conscious thought, or confidence-killing struggles between our goals and our desire for certain kinds of food?

This post is about building that kind of lifestyle. First I’m going to lay out just how our habits differ from Japanese habits, and then I’m going to show you how you can adopt these Japanese habits I experienced in order to live a better life. Since getting back from my trip, I’ve started the process myself – and I already feel better. So let’s get started!

Japan Vs. America: The Showdown Begins

I’m going to break this comparison down into three rounds: food, exercise habits, and finally society (because I think that’s an important factor). Let’s begin with food.

Round 1: Food (Tabemono)

To be blunt, Japanese people eat better food than we do, and they eat less of it than we do.

I’ll start this off with a personal example. A few days into our trip, we stumbled across a place called Mos Burger, which is a pretty basic Japanese burger joint. The food was good, but when I left I felt a bit unsatisfied. Why?

Well, for the ~$6.50 I paid for my meal there, I got a small burger about the size of a dollar burger from Wendy’s (I haven’t been there in so long I don’t remember the name), a small packet of fries that would probably be a kids’ size here, and glass of soda – not a giant cup, as our mediums are here, but a small glass.

As a 195-pound guy with a typical American appetite, this really didn’t fill me up. However, I realized that this is a normal portion in Japan, and it honestly should be a normal portion for anyone. There’s no way I need three cheeseburgers and a large fry to feel full – that’s just how we’ve learned to be here in the states.

And that’s really a huge part of it. Japanese portions – both at home and in restaurants – tend to be smaller than what we get here in the U.S. When we dine out, we get our money’s worth, dad gom it, and that means $10 gets you a 1lb patty and a big plate of fries with lots of ranch dressing.

heart attack grill (image courtesy of Flickr user The Heart Attack Grill)

Now that's a meal.... or three

Also, people actually eat at mealtimes. Here in America, we tend to eat our big meals and snack all day. When I did my internship last summer, I had a can of mixed nuts and M&M’s that I would munch on for the entire work day. I noticed lots of similar snacks in other people’s cubes as well. For us, eating is as much a boredom-killer as a hunger-killer.

In Japan, however, people eat their meals and that’s about it. Work hours are long there, and the corporate culture is such that it isn’t really acceptable to be eating at your desk all day.

People snack less on the go as well, because it really just isn’t cool to do so (we’ll get to this in the Society Round). Most people don’t drive cars in Japan; they walk and take trains. They don’t have comfortable little moving boxes with drink holders and door compartments for shoving Snicker wrappers. Heck – there are barely any trash cans in public to speak of.

At mealtimes, Japanese people tend to spread their food out among multiple dishes that often take up the entire table. This serves to make less food seem like more, and to make it take longer to eat.

Chopsticks serve a similar purpose; using them to eat your food takes quite a bit longer than using a fork or a knife. They’re a utensil that actually hinders your ability to eat, which is a good thing – it makes you slow down. 

When you eat slowly, your body is able to tell you when it’s really had enough. Here in America, we tend to eat so fast that, by the time the stomach can catch up and tell us to stop, we’ve already eaten too much.

“It’s hard to enjoy your food if it goes by too quickly” – Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Japanese food tends to be a lot healthier as well. Yes, they have McDonald’s there. Yes, they have lots of convenience stores that sell big chocolate chip melonpans and tons of interesting sodas that taste way better than ours do – trust me, I spend way too much yen at these kinds of stores.

However, this isn’t the bulk of what the Japanese eat. Far from it.

With regards to their rare snacking, many Japanese will opt for an onigiri – a triangular ball of rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with tuna, beef, or veggies. Quite a lot better than a donut.

Japanese meals are extremely varied and diverse, but they often contain foods like fish, rice, seaweed, lots of veggies, bone broth, and a ton of other good stuff. Much better than a cheeseburger or a pizza.

japanese food

This was delicious

You might be thinking, “But Japanese people eat so much rice! How can they do that and stay so thin?”

It’s true that rice is pretty carb-heavy, and that they eat a lot of it. However, as a single part of the diverse group of foods they eat, it doesn’t really do that much damage. Plus, as far as grains go, rice is pretty kick-ass. Check it:

  • it’s a non-toxic source of glucose
  • it’s free of gut irritants (that wheat has)
  • it’s associated with lower cardiovascular disease (wheat is associated with higher risk)

Wanna read more about why Asians can eat so much rice and not get fat? Check out Mark Sisson’s awesome post on the subject.

That leads me to my last topic in this round: drinks.

Here in America, we drink a lot of calorie-heavy beverages. We drink milk, soda, juice, beer, and lots of other stuff, and we drink a lot. We’re a fan of big gulps here in the states. When I used to eat at the dining centers, my friend Collin and I would each get three glasses of milk with our food and usually have one done before we even took a bite.

“If milk came out of garden hoses, I’d just stick a hose down my throat and turn it on full blast. YOLO” – Collin Gross (I may have made that up)

Contrast that to Japan – most of what people drink is low or no-calorie. It’s mainly water and unsweetened tea. In fact, many restaurants we went to didn’t even offer drinks on the menu; you just get a small glass of water or tea. You can ask for refills, of course, but you can never just sit there and chug.

So, once again, Japanese people tend to eat better food than we do and less of it. Now let’s take a look at their exercise habits.

Round 2: Exercise (Undousuru)

So, is part of the Japanese lifestyle getting up every day at 5 AM and doing kettlebell swings in their apartments? Not quite.

Actually, going to the gym and consciously exercising really doesn’t have anything to do with why Japanese people are so healthy. That kind of exercise is what I call planned exercise, and it’s what most of us have to do to stay active. Unfortunately, a lot of us tend to skip workouts all too often for planned exercise to work too well.

“Just buy this plastic thingy and wiggle around on it for 15 minutes, three times a week, and you’ll have a shredded six-pack, toned biceps, and a huge penis!” – some TV guy, probably Vince if he’s finally out of jail

In Japan, people are always doing unplanned exercise – the kind of exercise that just arises through everyday living.

This is because Japan is a country that necessitates exercise – especially walking. The cities aren’t built for cars at all; most people take public transportation to get where they need to go.

This means having to walk to the station in the morning, stand on crowded trains, walk between transfer points, and then walk to your destination once you get to the correct station. In between lie lots and lots of stairs. There’s not a lot of sitting on your butt involved in getting around a place like Tokyo.

lol quinton

Don't be fooled by the smile... there were a million more stairs and he was SO MAD

In America, sitting on our butts is just about all we do. Most of us sit at work or class all day, and then we come home and sit around playing video games or watching TV. Maybe we go and work out for half an hour, but then for the other 23.5 hours of the day we’re on our duffs.

When we need to go somewhere, there isn’t a whole lot of walking involved. We certainly don’t have to walk 10 blocks to a train station and then 10 more from the next station to our destination (unless you live in New York). We just get in our cars and drive to where we want to go – and once we get there, we’re so lazy that we actually complain about having to park near the back of the parking lot when it’s crowded. Say it with me now… it’s fucking pathetic.

Sadly, this is how America is built. We’re a nation of drivers, and we have an infrastructure built to suit that lifestyle. Even if you want to walk somewhere, oftentimes your destination is just too far away. We’ve separated our homes from the places we need to go simply because we can drive there.

“America is a car country, and has been for about a hundred years. We don’t – and haven’t for over 50 years – have to walk to get around.” – Mark Sisson, Mark’s Daily Apple

Also, Japanese city infrastructure simply isn’t as “accessible”. Well, not to overweight people, at least; it’s way more accessible for blind people, as almost every sidewalk has a strip of bumps on it to guide them.

However, for people of considerable girth, the cites aren’t so forgiving. I came across lots of escalators that had metal poles at their entrances, creating gaps only thin people could go through comfortably. Seats on the trains are built for thin people, and bench seats all have cushion indents, so it’s very obvious if you’re taking up more than one spot.

So when it comes down to it, Japanese people pretty much have to exercise more than we do. This sort of slow, frequent exercise is excellent for health – daily walking is shown to help us live longer, have greater insulin sensitivity, and has lots of other benefits as well.

Can’t say the same for jamming to Livin’ on a Prayer in your Honda Civic.

Round Three: Society (Shakai)

Japanese society plays a large role in keeping its people healthy, just as ours plays a large role in how easy it is to get fat.

In America, getting fat is almost seen as no big deal. Over half of our population is overweight, according to my TV, so if you do it, who cares? It’s not like it’s a rare thing to see.

Couple that will all the ridiculous books, documentaries, and Oprah segments that blame everyone but the individual for our health epidemic.

“Oh, it’s not your fault – blame the grocery stores for making healthy food more expensive than Twinkies. Blame the government for subsidizing corn production. Blame your genetics. Blame McDonald’s for putting addictive chemicals in their food. BLAME PAULA DEAN FOR USING HER EVIL VOODOO POWERS TO RIVET YOUR EYES TO HER SHOW AND IMPLANT IRRESISTIBLE URGES TO CONSUME GALLONS OF BUTTER IN YOUR BRAINS.” – idiots

Now, add those together, and couple that with American sensitivity. Yep, we’ve definitely got some of the thinnest skins in the world, and it’s a damn shame. If you point out the fact that someone’s gained weight, it’s a insensitive insult instead of a caring attempt to point out a health issue.

With all of these societal issues stacked up, it’s no wonder people feel no pressure to stay healthy. They absolutely overwhelm any jealousy over movie stars and fitness models we may have.

Now let’s look at Japan. Japanese society puts massive pressure on people to stay healthy.

You have to really look at the core of the Japanese society to get at the main reason for this. And at that core, you find this truth: Japanese society is much more about conforming to expectations and fitting in than American society is.

We here in America put much, much more emphasis on individual expression, independent thought, standing out, and sticking it to the man. It’s why Japanese people line up for trains while New Yorkers just crowd the platform and elbow each other. It’s why Japanese people are so ridiculously polite and quiet. It’s why, out of the 40 people on a train car, my friend Ryan and I are the only people wearing Pikachu and Cheshire Cat hats and cracking jokes while everyone else quietly looks at their phones.

That expectation to conform extends to the body as well. It’s basically expected that you be thin in Japan, because everyone else is. Now, that doesn’t mean that the few overweight people in Japan are shunned or anything – that doesn’t happen at all – but there’s still this unspoken expectation. Since people are born into a society that conforms, they place the expectation on themselves – even if nobody is outwardly saying it.

subway packers

Fit in.

However, that quietness doesn’t quite extend to the act of pointing out a change in health or weight gain. People in Japan are less sensitive about it, and are more apt to point it out. In fact, this is common in most countries that aren’t the U.S. – people just tend to be more blunt.

Individuals tend to notice health changes themselves as well, and are more apt to do something about it – again, out of that urge to conform.

“The “WTF, I’m fat!” alarm sounds sooner in Japan than in the United States.” – commenter on this post

When you couple this expectation to conform with the fact that the cities are less accessible to those who are overweight, and the fact that the largest t-shirt size there is about the size of an American large, you get a society that keeps its people healthy.

How to Apply These Habits to Your Life

Alright, so you should now have a pretty good idea of how Japanese people stay healthy through their food, the exercise they do, and their society. How can you apply these principles to your own life?

Since this post is already long enough, I’m simply going leave you with a short list of things you can do in order to use the Japanese way of living to build lasting habits.

  • Stop eating out so much – learn to cook meals at home
  • Ditch the canned and frozen dinner – buy REAL FOOD and learn to prepare it. Get more meat and veggies, and eat more rice and less wheat
  • Store less food – walk/ride your bike to the store more often. This gives you more “unskippable” exercise and lets you buy more fresh food
  • Stop treating food like something that should be worked in “real quick” in a busy day. Alter your schedule so you have adequate time to prepare and eat your food slowly.
  • Gradually start reducing your portions. Eventually your stomach will shrink to its normal size and you’ll no longer feel like you need so much food to be full
  • Drink less calorie-heavy drinks. Switch to water or tea.
  • Get a juicer and make fresh veggie/fruit juice every day. This isn’t really a Japanese thing to do, but I do it every day and it works wonders :D
  • Stop going to fast food places. Eating out should be a special occasion, so get the good stuff when you do it.
  • If you’re on a meal plan and have an “all-you-can-eat” dining center, limit yourself to one plate, or at least get only one plate at the start and make yourself actually get up for seconds instead of loading up in one trip.
  • Force yourself into getting more unplanned exercise. Instead of studying in your dorm or apartment, find a cool spot on campus or in a coffee shop a little ways away, and walk to it every day.
  • Stop being over-sensitive and let your friends know they should do the same. If you’re really good friends, you should care about the well-being of one another. Don’t be afraid to point out if someone is being unhealthy, and don’t be offended if someone does the same to you. If you are unhealthy, having that fact pointed out may hurt – but it’s a lot better than your friends just silently allowing you to hurt yourself physically.
  • Last one – Visit Japan to experience the Japanese’ healthy habits firsthand :D

So, what do you think of the Japanese lifestyle? Do you plan to apply any of these habits to your own life? Is there something I missed that you’d like to include? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Also – if I got anything wrong about the Japanese culture, feel free to let me know. I was only there for two weeks, so I’m going off of limited observation and research I did while writing this article. I might still be a baka gaijin.

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Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Facebook

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27 Comments:
  1. Excellent advice. Hit the point completely. I love Japanese culture and food. I live in the UK and I wish it was like that here. Sign* but at least I can change if no one else does. :)

  2. I’ve actually taken some consideration in silverware, i was able to buy these really small silver ware and it has drastically made my eaten habits better, i still get the big portions, but not as often., and to do that i bought smaller plates. I still drive everywhere i go, but instead of playing video games like Halo 4 mon-fri, i play them on Saturdays and Sundays. Mon-Fri, i go and look what my city has to offer. Met some really nice people that i thought were going to mug me, lol. But, its was just there look. Also take in consideration that japan does not have the population and the Extreme Diversity in people, that the U.S. has. I see that countries with low diversity in cultural s, are really clean, nice countries.  Loved that article. 

  3. Lots of great information, and I can tell you present it from the place in you that really wants to help people. Just want to remind readers that weight is a complex issue that doesn’t directly relate to health. I’d argue that for most people who are unhealthily overweight or underweight, there are mental aspects that being Japanese-minded won’t fix. Self-hate or using an inflated body to ‘protect’ from physical abuse can be a lot harder to overcome than managing portion sizes or eating fewer carbs.

    Eating disorders are deadly, and not just for sufferers who weigh 100 pounds.

  4. I agree that Japanese home cooking is really healthy, but I’m not sure how much I agree with this article.

    Ok, maybe the food portions thing is a perspective issue because I’m from Singapore where food portions are quite tiny (America was a huge shock). But for most guys, they actually ask for 大盛り (the large portion) when they order their meals. And university students are really huge fans of all-you-can-eat buffets :p

    But my university (Kyushu University) actually serves mostly fried food. Arguably, it comes with salad, but most of us get sick of the oil after a while (or at least, we complain a lot).

    Oh yeah, I wanted to write about the snacking thing. I can’t speak for the whole of Japan, but most Japanese university students snack a lot. Either that or only students in my school snack a lot. It’s either Pocky or chocolate, or something chocolate-based.

    But I totally agree on the whole walking/biking thing. I actually think that’s the main reason why Japanese people are so slim. That and the huge pressure to stay slim.

    Well, just my two yen anyway. ^^

    • Eustacia,

      Great to hear your perspective. I think you’re right about the walking thing; I’ve read that, in recent years, the diets of younger Japanese people have started drifting closer to the Standard American (crap) Diet, which is a shame. So while they’ve definitely got a healthier population than we do, it’s getting worse.

      However, I do have to say that Japanese fast food places and convenience stores seem to offer healthier options – at least in my experience. Whereas all you’ll find at the gas stations where I live are burritos, hot dogs, and maybe some sandwiches, in Japan I can get curry and other things for cheap :)

  5. Yes! I stayed with a japanese family for 2 weeks on exchange just recently. It took 1 hour to get to school and half of that was walking then after school we would take the train for 15m than just bike the rest of the way home. We only ever ate at mealtimes and the food is so much healthier and filling (the only sweet thing they bought from the kiosk was pocky) and the mother got up at 5:00am every school morning ( 6 days a week) just to start our bento boxes. I wish we were this smart!

    • The walking sure does add up when you think about it! My feet were definitely sore at the end of each day in Japan; however, it doesn’t feel like exercise because it’s just what you have to do to get around. It’s necessity – which is what makes it so great :)

  6. This article is wonderful. I was never over 110 lbs until I was in my mid 40′s. Always thin thin. I can relate to the Japanese diet. When I was young I ate small portions. More active (walked, rode bikes and public transit). I rarely thought about food. Ate what I needed. My mom finally stopped bugging me. Said I ate like a bird. Computers, cars and 24/7 advertising of food, restaurants, food shows etc. Ain’t helping. On the other hand we’re also now overwhelmed with getting healthy and/or thin. It’s just a theory, but I think the more we try to do it the worse we get. I haven’t owned a car in years otherwise I think I would be seriously overweight. Loved the article your humor–and frankness are cool. Americans are overly sensitive in this country. Spoiled and privileged.

  7. Totally enjoyed this post. You captured the culture as I saw it too when I visited. (But – cough cough – the business guys sure drink heavily at night. But even then since they’re working until 8 pm, it starts late.) I saw the same healthy eating and lotsa walking in Korea. Especially the oldsters – quite fit! Thanks for writing this!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! I wonder how those business guys can afford to drink so much – booze is expensive in Japan! The Shibuya bar we went to charged me 650 yen for a rum and coke, which was mainly just coke :P

  8. I wish I could walk/ride my bike everywhere where I live, but it just can’t be done. It get’s so friggin cold here and everything is sooooo cold !

    So anyways I lost a whole bunch of weight and although my friends and school mates accepted me it was the older aunties going craazy about ‘how thin I have gotten’ and how ‘weak’ I look. I am 110 pounds and 5’4 ! That isn’t bad.

    • I’m guessing you live up in Canada? Haha – here in Iowa it’s also too cold to go biking very often. I went for a 1.5 mile walk this morning, and my face was absolutely numb when I got back.

      Also – that’s a fine weight. It really bugs me when crazy family members freak out when someone tries to get healthy. It’s like you’re threatening or somehow criticizing their own lifestyles just by virtue of changing your own, so they feel they have to tell you it’s a bad thing. It’s definitely not, so great job!

  9. Very informative read! This really jump starts the research I intend to do on the Japanese diet and look forward to applying the knowledge you presented =)

  10. Hi Thomas, I absolutely love love love this article! Great job. I loss nearly 100 pounds in 2007 and kept it off and now I’m going all the way for bikini thin (from size 6 to size 4). So I have already adopted much of what you wrote. I walk a lot and only use my car some weekends. I make sure I eat veggies everyday and drink mostly water now of lemon tea. I really enjoyed your social aspect of conforming. You made me a brand new believer in the benefits of conforming. The topic of people being sensitive if anyone acknowledges they gained weight was simply brilliant. I would also like to add the flip side of that as I have also experienced a lot of hate for losing weight. I mean it is serious; some friends and family cannot stand the sight of me in my newly found beauty and happiness and I have been almost forced to diminish in some peoples’ company or they will try to find some way to verbally attack me. It’s taken me a while to learn how to deal with this hate (mostly from women). Do you have any advice? I mean I can’t exactly say “don’t hate me because I’m thin and beautiful” LOL. Sometimes I think the hate runs even deeper; I think they hate that I’m a real nice person too…smdh. But I wouldn’t trade my thin happy self for NOTHING. I even wrote a book to try to help others with the weight loss struggle entitled “How I Mastered The Mind Game Of Weight Loss” and it’s online at http://www.publishersgraphicsbookstore.com by Nedra Ward. Thanks again Thomas, you are lengthening lives and making people lose that weight and get happy!!!;)

  11. Great read! I like to read articles about Japan to make me get motivated to lose weight (although I’m not overweight at all). My legs were certainly going to fall off after 2 weeks of constant walking (to fit all the places my friends and I wanted to go in that time frame) but I miss the walking, especially around the train stations with food and shopping areas…and those (French-looking) pastries..mont blancs, crepe cakes as well as traditional Japanese sweets (mitarashi dango, warabi mochi, matcha ice cream and parfaits) were too tempting. My friends and I had Mister Donut almost every other day but I think I stayed the same weight despite the walking because of the sweet binge. Hahaha. Well, it was definitely worth it. Wish I could go back soon but school and $$ is preventing me.

    • Oh man, those French-style bakeries were so good. Honestly the constant walking was the only reason I didn’t get huge over there; I ate so much. It was awesome though. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t look at my bank account and seriously think about just hopping a plane and going back. It’d destroy my account for sure… but I love it there :)

    • Edit: didn’t see that link before for some reason. Wow, that’s crazy! I didn’t hear anything about that when I was in Japan, but it certainly seems like they don’t need a law like that. Here in America, however…

  12. Excellent post. It’s not only in Japan but Taiwan has thinner people despite having so many good things to eat! When I lived there, I was my lightest since college. I was only exercising twice week, though it was intense. I ate pretty much whatever I wanted.

    One difference must be the way the food is prepared. Here when we eat out, we know it’s going to be super salty, huge portions, and packed with a ton of calories. In Taiwan, I ate out all the time cause I had no kitchen, but I didn’t gain weight. I also walked a lot in addition to taking public transportation.

    So I think the way food is prepared has something to do with it as well.

    Great post!

    • I think that’s one of the biggest parts of it! For one, all the traditional food in Asia isn’t full of HFCS and it isn’t cooked in crappy vegetable oils. It’s just super-nutritious and usually pretty low-carb.

      Also, walking everywhere is a workout in itself. It might not feel like it, but it seems that doing a lot of low-intensity, slow movement is actually essential for good health. The high-intensity stuff is the other side of the coin. If you agree with the Primal way of thinking, the idea is that our ancestors spent a lot of time moving slowly, and then had bursts of high-intensity movement (going in for the kill). So we should be adapted for that kind of lifestyle.

  13. Really great blog post Thomas. I really love my juicer a lot and it’s probably one of the best things I could buy ever. The riding the bicycle is so crucial I feel. I started to ride mine more and love it. Especially, since I hate driving it’s a huge plus for me.

    • That’s the biggest plus for me – I just really don’t like driving. The only reason I’ll ever opt to drive in a group is if I really feel like listening to my own music. Otherwise I’m cool to let someone else waste their gas, and sadly (or happily?) they’re always willing to do it.

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