Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers are the best-supported team in Japanese baseball despite not having won the league since 1985. And we don’t use the term ‘best-supported’ lightly: the romance of the sleeping giant draws fans from across the land. On game day we found a technicolour pageant of partisanship.
Fumiya Hojo, in the canary yellow uniform of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, steps out of the dugout, a wooden bat dangling from one hand. He plants his feet and takes a couple of hard practice swings. Then the Tigers’ 24-year-old shortstop looks to the pitcher’s mound where the visiting team’s left-hander from the Dominican Republic will soon be hurling balls at him at speeds of up to 150km/h.
It’s a clear midsummer evening, just past 18.00, and the stifling heat and humidity inside the Tigers’ Hanshin Koshien Stadium near Osaka has turned the stands into a ripple of movement: everyone in this sell-out crowd of 47,508 seems to be fanning themselves furiously to make up for the absence of a breeze. As the latecomers find their seats, uriko – young women in clashing pink, red and orange outfits and knee-high socks – roam the aisles carrying 20kg kegs of beer in search of thirsty spectators.
In the distant right-field stands, Hiroyuki Nishio is following the batter’s every move. Dressed in yellow and black with Hanshin Taigaasu Oendan (Hanshin Tigers Cheering Squad) stitched across his back, Nishio stands on a ladder facing the crowd, a sea of yellow. Baseball is a sport of pauses between bursts of action and in this momentary lull in the play, Nishio senses his opportunity. He blows his whistle, claps his gloved hands and starts waving his arms like an orchestra conductor. To the banging of a drum and the uneven blaring of trumpets, Nishio leads thousands of fans in a rousing singalong of a “hitting march” for Hojo: “Down the road / The Tigers have hope / Onward we go now / Light it up, Hojo! / Smack it far, Ho-jo!”
Throat-shredding shouts and air-jabbing are part of Nishio’s act. As head of the Hanshin Go Tora Kai, the official cheerleading corps, Nishio helps Tigers fans channel their love for the team. “Without somebody taking charge, our cheering would lack force,” says the 50-year-old self-employed painter from Kyoto. “If you can get thousands of fans singing together and shouting encouragement to the players, it’s fantastic. There’s nothing more thrilling.”
At stadiums across Japan, these brass-and-drum ensembles are the soundtrack of professional baseball. Starting from above the outfield wall, the oendan songs echo around the field and fill the homes of TV viewers. A few decades ago, passionate baseball supporters had a different outlet: fighting with rival teams’ fans. That rarely happens now thanks to officials’ efforts to ban troublemakers and the cheering squads’ rules of etiquette. “Each side gets a turn. We have to be careful not to make noise when the opposing team’s fans are cheering,” says Nishio.
Tonight’s match pits the Tigers against their nemesis, the Yomiuri Giants from Tokyo – part of a three-day series in the marathon March-to-October season. Tigers fans love to hate the Giants and they have travelled from Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and all places in between, hoping to see their boys humiliate the visitors.
This rivalry between two of Japan’s oldest pro clubs stretches back more than eight decades. It pre-dates the 1948 formation of the Nippon Professional Baseball Organisation and the division into two leagues, Central and Pacific. And it goes beyond sport. Tigers and Giants fans think of their rivalry as an extension of the culture wars that the country’s two most prosperous regions – Kanto in the east (Giants) and Kansai in the west (Tigers) – have been waging for as long as anyone can remember.
Baseball demands patience from its fans. They are made to wait for innings to start, batters to stand at home plate and pitchers to throw the ball and set things in motion. With a nine-inning game usually lasting more than three hours, the synchronised singing and rhythmic thwacking of plastic “kungfu bats” give the crowd something to do. So does the beer: a capacity crowd like tonight’s will gulp down 30,000 cups. “The best saleswomen can sell more than 300 beers a night,” says one who has a fake hibiscus in her hair and a tank of Kirin Ichiban Shibori beer in her backpack. “It’s busy. Probably because of the heat.”
There’s another possible reason: the excitement of just being in Japan’s oldest ballpark. Built in 1924, Koshien is holy ground for the country’s most popular spectator sport. Every summer it becomes the venue for the national high-school baseball championships. The tournament has been the proving ground for promising prospects since it was first held in 1915 and is so popular that public broadcaster nhk airs games live and the Hanshin Tigers temporarily play their home games elsewhere. “Every kid who plays baseball here has a dream of one day standing in this stadium,” says Kyuji Fujikawa, the Tigers’ star relief pitcher who spent two years with Major League Baseball teams in the US and whose 156km/h fastball has been dubbed the “fireball”.
Japan’s obsession with baseball goes back to the 1870s, when itinerant teachers from the US introduced their national pastime to Japanese high-school students. The laws of the game and uniform styles were imported. But the unwritten rules of player conduct, the emphasis on team play and the pageantry set apart what the Japanese call yakyu (“field ball”) from the American version. You’ll never see a pitcher in the US bowing and tipping his cap after an errant throw decks a batter, or sluggers tossing stuffed miniature mascots to spectators after a home run.
The Hanshin Tigers’ history gives the team an aura of greatness but they haven’t won the Japan Series championship since 1985. This season the Tigers are a dismal fourth out of six teams in the Central League. But fans still plan their lives around games. They show up, make noise, occasionally shout abuse at players and are fiercely loyal: the team’s home-game average attendance of 42,000 last year was the highest in Japanese baseball.
Tonight they’re displaying their devotion in typical outlandish fashion: striped tails, tiger masks and custom-made, elaborately embroidered uniforms. A few have achieved minor celebrity status. In the rowdy right-field stands people talk about Junko-san, a middle-aged woman in handmade costumes of Tiger logos and pinstripes who dances in the aisles. Tracking her down is like chasing after a will-o’-the-wisp. We find her in someone else’s seat snacking on rice crackers. “I started dressing like this in the early 1980s,” she says. Over the years her outfits have become gaudier and she now has a wardrobe co-ordinator. “Being a Tigers fan is a sickness but I am not interested in a cure.”
Down on the field, the Tigers’ struggle continues. After an hour-and-a-half of play, with the sky turning scarlet, they’re scoreless and trailing the Giants by three runs. At this point in the fifth inning the crowd seems to think that watching the game is less important than getting dinner. Queues form in the hallways at the counters for sushi, yakitori chicken, stewed beef bento boxes and curry rice. There’s saké and plum liquor and something called the tropical crêpe.
In a pit between the outfield seating sections, a man in a cage is throwing pitches for carnival-game prizes. You can’t see the field from this position but televisions play ToraTele’s coverage of every hit and catch. There’s a breeze down here, which is what lured Tomoko Matsumura from her usual perch at the top of the right-field stands.
“I schedule my entire year around Tigers games,” says Matsumura, a 36-year-old from Kyoto who wears a cartoon tiger on her T-shirt and has an unwavering commitment to the team that she inherited from her parents. “It doesn’t matter to me whether they win or lose, or have a good or bad season. A lot of Tigers fans feel the same way. Everyone is here to show their support for the cause.” Above us, they’re singing again. It’s the Tigers’ fight song “Rokko Oroshi” (“Wind Off Mount Rokko”); despite the team’s predicament there’s hope for a comeback.
Another inning goes by and the stands are again astir. Everyone has inflated yellow balloons for the Lucky 7: the cathartic, seventh-inning Koshien tradition of releasing balloons that go careening around the stands and rocketing into the sky. More balloons will fly if the Tigers can pull off a win tonight.
But by the final inning the Giants have extended their lead to five. Nishio, of the Tigers’ cheerleading corps, is on his feet and shouting again. He tells the crowd that the home team is about to score six times. A late surge is not unthinkable: last year the Tigers bounced back from a 0-9 deficit to beat Hiroshima Carp 12-9. In the stands they cry “Rosario! Rosario!” They’re singing for first baseman Wilin Rosario to unleash his “Dominican power explosion” and he obliges with a hit into left field. Within minutes, the Tigers score three times. But then the rally sputters and the game is over. Nishio signals for the music to stop and gets a faraway look. He’s deflated.
While fans go from row to row picking up rubbish, Nishio gives his squad a peptalk outside. The drum has a hole and the flags need patching before the next game. “The beauty of baseball is, there’s no time limit. As long as you don’t give up and you keep scoring there’s always a chance for a last-minute comeback,” he says. “My job is to keep the cheering going until the very end.” Sometimes it seems the team could borrow a game plan from their fans.