Tigers,Tigers Burning Bright

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2003

Can a Kansai institution convert pennants into pennies?

by Dominic Al-Badri

TRADITIONALLY, OSAKAN MERCHANTS HAVE greeted each other with a gruff "Moukari-makka?" (You makin' any cash?) rather than the more common "O-genki desu ka?" (How are you?). Alas, in these depressing times, the answer has invariably been "no." Osaka has the highest unemployment rate of Japan's major cities (over 7 percent) and the largest population of homeless to boot. But in recent months, something has helped dispel the gloom: the unexpected success of the Kansai region's favorite whipping boys and perennial losers, the Hanshin Tigers baseball team.

What other baseball team but the Tigers
would have a motto -- out of sheer necessity
-- which runs "Never Never Never Surrender"?

Like Tokyo, Kansai has numerous big department stores and conglomerates: Kintetsu, Hankyu and Hanshin are the main three. Hankyu shed its baseball team (The Hankyu Braves) some years ago when they morphed into the Orix Blue Wave, who now call Kobe home. Kintetsu has the Buffaloes, who operate out of the enormous Osaka Dome. The Tigers, meanwhile, belong to all of Kansai. Orix Blue Wave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes have their fans -- baseball nuts one and all -- but the Tigers are different. The Tigers embody the true Kansai "fighting" spirit, an unpretentious, down-to-earth realism that flies in the face of Tokyo's perceived snobbish aloofness.

The Tigers were founded in 1935, and for their first few years ruled the Central League roost. After World War II, however, Tokyo-based arch-rivals the Yomiuri Giants took over as top cats, a position they have retained, for the most part, ever since. Nothing excites the whole of the Kansai region more than when the Tigers whip the Giants. People dance in the streets, sing on the trains and cheer all the way home. "We stuffed the Giants!" That this has rarely happened in recent times doesn't matter. The Kansai spirit doesn't falter, it doesn't wilt. What other baseball team but the Tigers would have a motto -- out of sheer necessity -- which runs "Never Never Never Surrender"? Only Tigers fans need that kind of faith. And they believe it because they have to. Finally, this year the fans' faith and patience -- taxed to the max as it is -- shows signs of being repaid. And with it comes the hope that Kansai's economy will finally rebound.

It's been a long wait, and there have been a few false dawns along the way, but Kansai residents are following the Tigers' progress with a fervor not seen since 1985, the last time the team brought the pennant home -- and won the Japan Series for the only time. That year saw wild scenes of celebration that established a tradition of jumping into the Dotonbori Canal from the Ebisubashi Bridge in central Osaka, much to the chagrin of the police. Some 60 exuberant fans from among the thousands who had gathered to sing, dance and shout braved the long arm of the law -- and the far more real risk of contracting some foul, water-borne disease -- by jumping into the filthy canal. So the legend goes, fans who bore a resemblance to the Tigers players were encouraged to leap from the bridge and take the plunge. One by one, team members' lookalikes -- real or imaginary -- entertained the crowd until only one man was left: star American slugger, the hirsute Randy Bass. This caused a brief lull in the proceedings -- there being no Americans among the crowd -- until some bright spark's eyes lighted upon the USA's roving epicurean ambassador, Colonel Sanders, standing in front of one of his gourmet, fried-chicken restaurants. Before any of his employees could stop the delirious, frothing mob, he was hoisted aloft and thrown into the canal, never to be seen again. The story goes that divers were sent down to recover the colonel's body, but try as they might it couldn't be found. Ever since, the Curse of the Colonel has haunted the Tigers: Until the Colonel rises again, the Tigers are doomed like Sisyphus -- however hard they might try, they will never reach the top.

(As an aside, the behavior of the Tigers fans in '85 set a precedent in Osaka for jumping off the Ebisubashi Bridge as a means of celebration. This reached its apex last year when Japan beat Tunisia in the soccer World Cup: some 500 fans ignored police warnings -- and somehow managed to avoid the heavy-handed police presence -- and jumped into the canal. KFC had learned its lesson, and all statues of Colonel Sanders were securely fastened to prevent a repeat of the unwelcome diving lesson. This, however, didn't deter fans in nearby Kobe from kidnapping the colonel and chopping his hands off, Sharia style.)

True or not, the effects of the curse have been obvious to even non-sports fans. From 1986 onward, the Tigers have spent virtually the entire time in the basement, last or next-to-last in the league. Brief rallies in 1992 and 1999 brought in the fairweather fans and swelled the crowds, but they were merely brief cracks in the clouds. Things reached farcical levels for the three-year period 1999-2001 when the media was far more interested in the vast amounts of money team manager Nomura Katsuya's extraordinarily colorful wife & TV "personality" Sachiyo was meant to have kept hidden from the taxman. Eventually found to have hidden JPY200 million, she became a favorite target of the weekly news magazines and mainstream press alike. True fans despaired of her behavior, and there was an all-around sigh of relief when Nomura, though not such a bad fellow himself, quit as manager and attention could once again return to the Tigers' losing ways.

Studies conducted after the 1985 Tigers' victory examined the effect it had had on the region's economy. Concluding that it had boosted it to the tune of some JPY200 billion, it became clear that the Tigers' fortune meant far more to Kansai inhabitants than merely that of a winning baseball team. With the Tigers on a real roll at the moment, Osaka Prefectural University has released a report which looks at the possible economic spin-off should the Tigers finally break the Colonel's curse. A detailed analysis which only looks at the immediate economic benefits, rather than the associated spin-offs which characterized the 1985 estimates, the report nonetheless suggests a Tigers victory could be worth JPY73.4 billion and lead to the creation of some 8,000 jobs. The Hanshin department store in central Osaka alone is reckoned to be in line for an extra JPY1.24 billion passing through its tills; merchandising, advertising revenue and sales of sports newspapers could each double that figure, while the irregular fans who only support the team when they're winning are estimated to contribute a massive JPY25.3 billion to the coffers.

Already, lengthy queues can be found at the Tigers merchandise shop located in the Hanshin department store, and the club has even opened a new shop for fans in Kyoto, a city not normally known for its love of baseball. In these trying times, even more than usual is at stake for the Tigers, who are being willed to win by the entire region. Games are sell-outs and the atmosphere at the club's legendary Koshien Stadium (real grass! gorgeous view of the mountains!) verges on the Nurembergesque. With the economy as sluggish as it's ever been, Osakan merchants are, more than ever, hoping that when asked "Moukari-makka?" they'll finally be able to reply "Bochi bochi den na!" (Yup, not doin' too bad!). @

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