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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hankyu as Hanshin benefactor elates Tigers fans, leaves shoppers puzzled


Staff writer

OSAKA — Tuesday's official announcement that Hankyu Holdings Inc. had acquired a 63.71 percent stake in Hanshin Electric Railway Co. has made Hanshin Tigers fans happy but left shoppers wondering what will happen to their favorite department stores.

The sale paves the way for the two Osaka-based firms, longtime rivals in the railway, hotel and department store industries, to merge their managements starting Oct. 1. The key to Hankyu's public tender offer, which ended Monday, was an agreement from Hanshin's largest shareholder, an investment fund formerly run by bureaucrat-turned-financier Yoshiaki Murakami, to sell its entire 47 percent stake.

"This is great news. Hanshin Tigers fans like myself were concerned the Murakami fund bought shares in (Tigers' owner) Hanshin Electric," said Yoshimitsu Sakai, a 59-year-old bank employee. "We were afraid the fund's managers would meddle in management decisions."

"The Murakami fund managers were all from Tokyo and have no loyalty toward, or understanding of, the Hanshin Tigers," said Tetsuya Nitta, a 42-year-old employee at a trading company in Kobe. "The team, and the company, are better off with the Hankyu merger."

But in Osaka's Umeda district, where both Hankyu and Hanshin base their flagship department stores, reaction to the news was greeted with caution.

"The Hankyu and Hanshin department stores have long been rivals," observed Masami Kodama, a 61-year-old Osaka housewife who prefers Hankyu. "Hankyu has always been seen as more exclusive and upscale, while Hanshin has always been known for its bargains. It would be a shame if this merger means the two become virtually the same."

"I think Hanshin Department store has a better and cheaper selection of household goods," said Shigeko Nakagawa, 54, who prefers Hanshin. "I'm worried the merger will mean higher prices and a smaller (product) selection."

Commuters on the Hankyu and Hanshin train lines also had mixed reactions.

"It would be great if the merger means it's easier to transfer from one line to the other," said Yuji Takatani, a 35-year-old employee at an Osaka publishing firm. "But it won't be so great if service on one line or the other suffers because of differences in management style."



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