Tōhoku Baseball Fans Get a Champion Team to Call Their Own

Society Lifestyle

On November 3, the Tōhoku Rakuten Golden Eagles won game 7 of the Japan Series to stand atop the Japanese baseball world for the first time. Their victory has meant more to residents of Tōhoku than simply a successful run for a corporate-sponsored team, though. Jason Coskrey looks at the regional bonds the team has forged since its 2004 launch.

The North Rejoices in Its Team

In the weeks since the Tōhoku Rakuten Golden Eagles beat the Yomiuri Giants to win their first Japan Series, people have flocked to Marty Kuehnert—the team’s first general manager and still a senior advisor—to offer their congratulations when they see him walking his dog, Cody, in the morning, or otherwise out and about in Sendai.

It’s been the same for many who have a connection to the Eagles, either presently or in the past. They’ve been inundated with an outpouring of gratitude by Tōhoku residents who’ve been on cloud nine from the moment Eagles ace Tanaka Masahiro slipped a forkball past Yano Kenji for the final strikeout of the Japan Series.

“Anybody that’s had any association with the team, no matter how long ago it’s been now, we’re all being congratulated,” said Kuehnert. “That shows you how excited everybody is. It’s really an important part of their lives.”

Putting Down Strong Roots

That excitement is generated from a link between the Eagles and Tōhoku that’s perhaps stronger than those the other 11 Nippon Professional Baseball teams share with their respective prefectures.

The Rakuten franchise was established in the region in 2004—rising from the ashes of the Kintetsu Buffaloes–Orix BlueWave merger that birthed the Orix Buffaloes—and tried to foster an immediate connection by placing “Tōhoku” prominently in the team name.

At the time, many NPB teams, used as outsized advertising vehicles, were named only after their parent companies. The marketing success of soccer’s J. League, which eschewed corporate names in favor of regional monikers, has likely helped to reverse that trend somewhat in recent years.

“Miyagi Prefecture is relatively small population-wise,” Kuehnert said. “Really, if you don’t claim the entire population of Tōhoku, you just don’t have a big enough population base to support a team. It was our intention from a marketing standpoint to embrace the entire six-prefecture Tōhoku region.

“I think they all wanted a team too, so they embraced us. It was a win-win. But there is a strong Tōhoku color. Actually, one of the songs the fans sing regularly out in the left-field stands is a chant where they call our team the ‘Tōhoku Golden Eagles.’ They drop the ‘Rakuten.’

“From Rakuten’s standpoint, there’s still interest in getting the advertising value for the company. I’m sure that was a big part in [owner Mikitani Hiroshi’s] idea of buying the team. But the fans really identify us as their team.”

Through Hard Times to Reach the Top

Eagles fans have stood with the team through far more valleys than hills over the past nine years, so this season’s success has really resonated throughout Tōhoku.

“They’ve been ecstatic,” Kuehnert said. “When we came to Sendai at the end of 2004, and had our first season in 2005, I think the people of Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture, Tōhoku in general, probably had a little bit of a complex of being perceived as country folks. Inaka-mono.

“For Sendai to get a team . . . they were proud in 2005. That meant they were a big city now. They were one of the big boys.”

The bond was only strengthened in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Eagles players visited disaster areas, and Mikitani, among his various donations, placed flat-screen televisions in evacuation centers so displaced fans could follow the team and regain a sense of normalcy, even for a short time.

“It left an indelible impression on these guys’ minds,” Kuehnert said. “It’s not as if they came back here and didn’t go see what had happened. They saw it right away. I’m sure all of them just can’t forget it. I think all of them genuinely feel that they’re playing for the people of Tōhoku.”

For residents who have gone through so much in the past few years, the team’s rise, however trivial in the big picture, was something positive they could rally around.

“It really is nice for the people up here who are still going through trials and tribulations,” Kuehnert said. “They’re going to be in temporary housing for years and years. For those people especially, we’re all happy. It really gave them something to cheer them up and cheer for. So all of us are happy that happened.”

(Originally written in English on November 25, 2013. Title photograph: Tanaka Masahiro and other Rakuten players wave to fans during the November 24 victory parade in Sendai. Photo by Sankei Shimbun.)

Tōhoku Sendai sports baseball Rakuten Tanaka Masahiro Eagles Marty Kuehnert