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.