Talking To Tigers (Kansai Scene, April 2004)

The chopsticks say it all, really. When you sit down to eat at the izakaya Tora, you see a notice on the chopstick wrapper: “kyoujin fan okotowari”. NO Giants fans! (in the same tone as “no minors!” or “no spitting!”)
You have been warned.


Unless you’re just coming off a plane, you know that baseball’s Hanshin Tigers are coming off their best season since 1985. A new baseball season begins in April, and we thought we’d ask a few Tigers fans how they felt about it. Tora (Tiger), the unofficial izakaya of serious fan club members, seemed like the ideal place to go.


In 2003, the bandwagon was overflowing with politicians, businesses, civic boosters of all kinds cashing in on the Hanshin Tigers’ first pennant win in 18 years. For one giddy autumn, the Hanshin logo graced every available space in Kansai, from election posters to beer cans. Even competitors at last Fall’s international judo tournament in Osaka were encouraged by an official to “never, never, never give up, just like the Hanshin Tigers” (which probably gave much-needed inspiration to the judoka from Africa, Europe, and the Americas). Their subsequent honorable defeat to the Daiei Hawks in the Japan Series barely dampened Osaka’s rediscovered spirit.
The Hanshin Tigers had just lost a pre-season game to the Hawks that afternoon, so when Taka the photographer and I arrived at Hankyu Imazu station, in Nishinomiya, we were a bit nervous about how we would be received. We’d heard the stories about irate Tigers fans who suspect spies in their midst.Would they…?
Well, no.
Though still charged up from the game, the patrons of Tora were more than willing to answer, in rapid-fire Osaka-ben, a few questions in my plodding, textbook Japanese. Although my methods were not exactly scientific (and the music and singing and spontaneous cheerleading lessons drowned out some of the answers), here’s what a fairly representative cross-section of fans had to say. Koshien, take note!
Let me set the scene: a long, narrow shop consisting of one long counter, with twenty stools, and a few benches along the wall for extra patrons to sit and wait their turn at on a busy night. Those walls are covered, from top to bottom, with posters, calendars, photos (many autographed, several old, black-and-white) of the Hanshin Tigers. The television on the wall plays loops of the latest game. Tigers songs blare from speakers seemingly at random. Virtually every customer wears a team shirt with the name of their favourite player emblazoned on the back. If they couldn’t tell us something, who could?
Two young salarymen, brothers Hirofumi and Takafumi Otsuki, said they’d just come from the game, and went to Koshien whenever they could (they lived nearby, in Nishinomiya). Why? “Our jobs are hard, We’ve got a lot of stress. Going to a game helps to work it off.” Why did they think the Tigers won last year, after sleepwalking since 1985? Well, said Hirofumi, because of the great supporters (this raised a cheer from those around him). And also the former manager,Senichi Hoshino.
I asked a truck driver,who said his name was “Hoshino” (alias?), if he had any advice for the new manager, Akinobu Okada. “Yeah,” he answered,taking time out from leading a particularly elaborate cheer,” Stay away from Shinchi (the exclusive bar district in Osaka). The girls cost too much.” I took his word for it.
At this point, a couple of drummers from the official supporters club came in (without drums, I should add), and I quietly bought another beer as the singing of the team song “The Wind of Rokko Mountain” welled up yet again.

Judging from the names on the backs of the shirts and happi, the Tigers to watch for this year are Tomoaki Kanemoto, Atsushi Fujimoto, and Norihiro Akahoshi . I noticed a line of five women wearing Akahoshi shirts: what’s with him,I asked. Yuriko, a college student from Neyagawa, spoke up: “He’s fast, and he’s cute.” Her friends firmly nodded in agreement. Again,who was I to argue? I was outnumbered four to one.

I spoke with the Master, Ohira-san, who told me to watch out for Mike Kincaid, a new foreign player, who might just be the next Randy Bass (the bearded gaijin god of 1985). He also very diplomatically told me he supported new manager Okada “from this year. Because he’s the manager now. And he used to be a great player (from, of course, the golden year of ’85).” As for the Dotombori jumping craze of 2003 (actually revived for the World Cup in 2002), he wasn’t impressed. “What do I have to go there for? There are plenty of Tigers fans here!”

One thing I couldn’t get anyone to talk about was who they thought would win the pennant this year. I put this to a red-faced man with a white towel on his head (tied up in the back like wings). “Nnnnnnnnnnnn, muzukashii,” he replied, and the “nnnnnnnnnn” became infectious and spread to everyone around him. Tigers fans are madly loyal, but also famously superstitious. There are people who still believe that Colonel Sanders put a curse on the team after his likeness was stolen from the front of a KFC and chucked into the Dotombori after the Japan Series celebrations of 1985. Nobody wants to jinx the team by tempting fate again. “The Giants are strong this year…,” several people said, hedging their bets, “and Nagashima is ill…” another added, cryptically (Shigeo Nagashima is the revered former star batter and manager of the rival Yomiuri Giants, who recently suffered a mild stroke). “Japanese fans are sentimental..,” added another. Even the famously hard-bitten Tigers? Who’d have thought?

So in the end, we didn’t come away with any great predictions for the coming year. But the true believers don’t deal in that sort of thing. The worship is an end in itself, and if the signs are auspicious, and the gods are pleased, the devotion will pay off. If not, there’s always that very useful Japanese sports fan’s phrase to fall back on: shikatta-ga nai. And in the meantime, have a beer. Sing a song. And enjoy the wind off Mount Rokko.

“I’ve been a Tigers fan since before I was born,” Kiyoshi Tsujimoto, lawyer, Osaka.

The Hanshin Tigers were founded in December,1935, and they played (and won) their first season the next year. They and their arch-rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, are the only two teams from the original one-league all-Japan pro baseball system (1935-1949) to survive without a name-change or a move to a new city. Ironically, though, for a team so closely associated with Osaka, the Tigers have never called anywhere else home but Koshien Stadium, across the river in Hyogo. Koshien predates the Tigers: it was built in 1924 for the twice-yearly high school baseball tournaments of the same name, which are still played today (and during which the Tigers are still forced to go on the road, or play a few games in the decidedly arriviste Osaka Dome).
Tigers fans can thus argue quite convincingly that they are steeped in far more tradition than even the hated Giants. Since the beginning of the two-league system in 1950, however, the Tigers have only managed to win the Central League pennant four times: in 1962, ’64, ’85, and now 2003. Hard-core fans will quickly remind you that in the old one-league system, they won in ’36, ’37, ’38, ’44, and ’47 (of course, the only thing Giants fans remember about the old league is 1936, the year they were founded).In 1985, the Tigers won their first, and to date only, Japan Series (the Giants have won the vast majority of the rest). From then until last year, they managed season after season to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.

Osaka has hosted other teams over the years: the Hankyu Braves (1936), who are now the Orix Blue Wave of Kobe , the Nankai Hawks (1938), who are now in Fukuoka and owned by Daiei, and the perennially also-ran Kintetsu Buffaloes (who started life in Fujiidera as the Pearls, of all things, in 1950). They now play out of Osaka Dome and so are now Osaka’s only true inner-city team. Besides a couple of pennants in the 1970s, the Buffaloes do have one major, albeit back-handed, footnote in baseball history: their management was so inept and obtuse in the 90s that it drove their star pitcher, Hideo Nomo, to quit and try out for the American major leagues. His success prompted Ichiro Suzuki to leave the Blue Wave for Seattle and Hideki Matsui to defect from the mighty Giants to play for the Yankees.

Although the various migrations of the old teams have made many Osakans Hanshin fans by default, old loyalties die hard. My barber foams at the mouth whenever the Tigers’ pennant victory, or the fans’ patented way of celebrating it, is mentioned. “Bosozoku-ya! I wish they’d all jump in the Dotombori!” He still supports the Hawks, nearly 20 years after their departure from long-gone Nankai Stadium in Namba. He’s not alone.

Article originally appeared in Kansai Scene, number 47 , April 2004


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