OSAKA — The proposed merger between the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave has not only shaken the baseball world but also heated up the rivalry between Osaka and Kobe for economic, social and cultural dominance of the Kansai region.

The owners of Orix and Kintetsu have said they want the merged team to alternate between Osaka Dome, the current home of the Buffaloes, and Yahoo BB Stadium in Kobe, home of Orix, for three years.

After that, however, the team would have to find a permanent home, and both Osaka and Kobe are determined to be the host.

Of immediate concern to Osaka is what would will become of Osaka Dome. Already deeply in the red, the loss of the Buffaloes would aggravate the situation further.

“Osaka Dome and the surrounding neighborhood would become a ghost town if the Buffaloes leave,” said Naoko Shimizu, a local merchant. Kobe has similar concerns over Yahoo BB stadium.

Since the merger was proposed, fans in both cities have been busy conducting petition drives to oppose it, enlisting players from both teams, while the mayors of Osaka and Kobe have voiced concern about the merger even as they encourage efforts to have a new team remain in their city.

As many Kansai residents admit, the recent events are not just about baseball.

“Over the past years, since Kobe recovered from the 1995 earthquake, it has stepped up its competition with Osaka for regional influence by building an airport (to open in 2006), aggressively pursuing foreign and domestic investment, and making it clear it doesn’t want to live in Osaka’s shadow,” said Manabu Ando, a Kobe-based financial consultant.

“Many Kobe residents are worried that not having a baseball team will mean a loss of prestige, and will see it as a loss to Osaka. They feel Osaka already has the Hanshin Tigers, and Kobe needs its own team for its own identity.”

For Osaka, the loss of the Buffaloes to Kobe would also hurt the city’s image.

“If the Buffaloes leave for Kobe, it will be a psychological blow because it will send a message to all of Japan that Osaka is continuing to decline and cannot support two teams,” said Hajime Wada, a member of the Kintetsu Buffaloes fan club.

Whether the teams, or even the two leagues, merge, political leaders in both cities say they will fight hard, and may use public money, to keep their teams.

“This fight is about the future of Kansai, and the role of both cities in the region,” Ando said. “The pride of both cities is on the line.”

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