Japan’s loudest baseball fans are desperate to end the pandemic’s silence

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Fans watch a pre-game performance before the game between the Hanshin Tigers and Hiroshima Toyo Carp at Koshien Stadium

OSAKA (JAPAN) — In a country of baseball fanatics, fans of the Hanshin Tigers are considered Japan’s most rowdy — so they’re itching to let go as a pandemic ban on cheering drags into a third season.

In the pre-coronavirus era, the Tigers’ Koshien Stadium near Osaka was a riot of noise and colour, with fans shouting, singing and playing trumpets in fervent support for their team.

But since Covid, they have been silenced and their voices replaced with recorded chants piped into the stands over loudspeakers after cheering in Japanese sports stadiums was banned to combat the virus.

Tigers supporters, who often outperform home fans in away games and are easily identifiable by their strange and beautiful yellow and black outfits, say they are “praying” for the day when they can once again shout their full support.

“I think people will be so happy that they will all take their clothes off,” 57-year-old lifelong Tigers fan Hideyuki Takashima told AFP.

As the new baseball season began in March, fans across the league were allowed to return in full numbers after attendance was capped to maintain social distancing.

But signs urging them to wear face masks and not to sing, sing and speak in a loud voice remain in place.

Some Tigers fans, like 59-year-old Hiroshi Umehara, say the cheers can “just slip out” after a drink or two, but others are finding other ways to release their pent-up emotions.

“I wait until I get home and then I let it out, I sing in the bathtub,” said 56-year-old Shigeyuki Morishita.

– ‘Lifestyle’ –

The Tigers have only won the Japan Series title once, but they enjoy massive support in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, known for its raw humor and down-to-earth character.

When the team won the title in 1985, fans celebrated by jumping into Osaka’s Dotonbori Canal.

Yuko Kawase, who attends the games in a homemade kimono covered with the team’s logo, says it’s “a way of life.”

“It’s like sitting on the bench with them and competing with them,” said the 47-year-old, who attends around 80 or 90 games a season and also travels to the team’s training camps.

“Hanshin fans don’t see it as a sport or a pastime – your life is Hanshin. No tigers, no life.”

The Tigers’ years of lack of trophies stands in stark contrast to Japan’s most successful team, the Yomiuri Giants.

The Tokyo-based Giants have won the Japan Series 22 times and are considered their country’s version of the New York Yankees due to their unmatched dominance and buying power.

Tigers fan Kawase says she refuses to attend regular-season games at Yomiuri’s Tokyo Dome Stadium and can’t even bring herself to say the word “Giants,” calling the team “G” or ” the orange lot”.

Another Tigers supporter, who goes by his name “Angel,” says the rivalry between the Tigers and the Giants reflects the difference between Osaka and Tokyo – the capital is perceived as more tense.

“The Giants don’t have such passionate fans,” said Angel, dressed in a full tiger suit with striped face paint.

“They only support their team when they are doing well. They suddenly abandon her when she is not feeling well.”

– ‘Win or lose’ –

At the moment it’s the tigers who are definitely not doing well.

They got off to their worst start to the season, losing 18 of their first 21 games.

The kimono-wearing Kawase says fans are quick to boo players for poor performances, but says those who do are “not true Hanshin supporters”.

“If we win the rest of the games this season we will win the title, that’s what the fans comfort each other,” she said.

“Whether we win or lose, if the Tigers play, we will go and watch them.”

No timeline has been set for the end of Japan’s cheer ban, but Tigers fans are largely resigned to the fact that it’s still a few months away.

They long to sing the team anthem “Rokko Oroshi” and release balloons into the sky after the seventh inning, a tradition that has also been put on hold since the pandemic.

Kawase says she can’t wait to feel the “togetherness” at the stadium when the rules are finally lifted.

“When you have tens of thousands of people all expressing themselves and not having to worry, it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere,” she said.

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