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Tatsuo Asakura

by Judit Kawaguchi

Tatsuo Asakura, 29, is a driver on the Flower Nagai Line, a tiny one-car train in the middle of Yamagata Prefecture’s rice and wheat fields. Although it’s the only form of transportation for school children and the elderly who live in farmhouses scattered around the valley, the dire financial straits of the company that owns the train line have been threatening to put a halt to its scenic rides for years. By 2005, it was all coming to a tragic final stop when the local government warned the troubled company, Yamagata Railway, that the bailout was getting too difficult. To keep the little train running, Asakura saw tourism as the only hope, and, unbeknownst to his superiors, began offering hilarious guided train rides to visitors. From a mere 350 out-of-town passengers a year in 2005, he increased their number to 7,000 in 2006 — today, more than 20,000 tourists enjoy the fun trip with fairytale views. His 4-year-old son is often with him, on the right track to become as cool as his dad.

No matter what your position is, the company is yours; it belongs to you. I was the youngest at Yamagata Railway, assigned to toilet cleaning, but I kept thinking that my company was in deep trouble. I felt responsible for saving it.

One small thing accomplished is a lot more valuable than many big ideas up in the air. For 20 years, my coworkers suggested ways to increase revenues, but none of those ideas were ever realized. I thought that anything done would be better than sitting around talking. I organized a moving art exhibition as a start.

Look at your home turf like you’re not from there, like a traveler who sees it for the first time. When people are on a trip, they are in happy travel mode, willing to see everything in a positive light. I see my town like this every day.

We can’t be “No. 1,” but we can surely be “the only one”! That’s what my buddy Ito said when I was feeling down about my company’s poor performance. He recommended that I show my own colors. I figured I could be a tour guide on the train who explains the history and culture in our local dialect, which in itself is very funny for out-of-towners.

Sometimes one must do things in secret — or even fib — for the common good. I had to keep my mission undercover because I was 100 percent sure that everyone in my company would be against it. Even after snowballing ticket sales, they were telling me to stop offering tours because I was not a professional guide. I do not need to be! The gap — an amateur doing a pro’s work — was my advantage.

If you do it with passion, people feel it. I want to save my train, so I tell all tourists how much we appreciate them and need them. How they are saving our line so the grandmas and grandpas can go to the hospital and kids to school.

Language is not important: feeling is. As a guide, I describe what passengers see in short sentences: “Look, a cherry tree! A river; it’s very narrow. On your left is a parking lot. Usually it has three cars and now — only one!” People roll off their seats in laughter.

Sometimes information is not enough. You can get all the info you need sitting in front of a computer. At first I made a thick booklet that included Yamagata’s history, geography and its culinary culture, and I was going to tell my passengers about everything just as other tour guides do. But on my first day when I had only said “Hi” and everyone was already smiling, I changed my plan — they didn’t want an education, they wanted fun.

Good things will happen to you if you clean the toilet. Cleaning the dirtiest place purifies our heart. I always do it at work and feel so happy. Let’s face it, we judge people by their toilet. No matter how clean the rest of the place is, if the toilet stinks, we run.

If you’re getting drunk every day, even if you do it with different people, you’re still doing the same boring thing: just getting drunk. I went to university in Tokyo, and after graduation I stayed there to have some more fun. I worked at izakaya (Japanese pubs) and partied every night. I felt my job was a bore and my life, too. I had no drive. Then one day it dawned on me that hangovers were no joke. I laid off the booze and moved home.

If you worry too much, you can’t do anything fun. The snow in winter is 150 cm high, and we plow a tunnel in it as we ride. Imagine! I love it. I knew everyone in the world would want to see it, so I advertised it. But my coworkers worried the train might break down, and we would get stuck. I think that is even more exciting for our passengers! We have hot tea and snacks aboard, so let’s enjoy it, I said. In three months, we had 2,000 passengers and no accidents.

I can’t teach anyone anything about success. I just noticed that our area was so beautiful and came up with a way to make its charms appeal to others. That’s all. I don’t want to be famous or loved. I just want my line to be loved, because it’s really cute. Come and ride it!

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/