This will be remembered as the year Osaka finally overtook Tokyo. Not in trade, population or cosmopolitan appeal -- fields in which the two cities have been competing for centuries -- but in baseball.

Osaka's home team, the Hanshin Tigers, clinched the Central League pennant last month for the first time since 1964. For many fans, the greater joy was in denying the top spot to Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants, who have taken it 13 times in that period.

On victory night, Osaka's streets erupted into clamorous celebration. Firecrackers popped, bars slashed prices, boys plunged into an old moat, girls donned special Tigers underwear. The team fight song blared until morning. Eighteen cases of acute alcohol poisoning were reported.

It is hard to exaggerate what the team is doing for morale among the 2.6 million people of Osaka, who have long lived in the shadow of Tokyo and its 8 million citizens 250 miles to the east.

In feudal days, Osaka was the country's premier commercial city. It peaked in the 18th century, with close to half a million inhabitants operating a hive of rice exchanges, theaters, docks, geisha houses, cottage industries and banks.

Osaka's standing continued to slip after Japan began its opening to the West in 1854. Tokyo was the favored spot for the industry and learning that was being imported. After Japan's 1945 defeat in World War II, the American occupation was commanded from the capital.

"Tokyo came to control everything," lamented Masatane Nakatsuka, president of the Osaka 21st Century Association.

Osaka's economy continues to grow, but market share -- the key barometer for Japanese economic planners -- is slipping. In 1971, Osaka prefecture accounted for close to 11 percent of the country's manufacturing. By 1982, it was below 9 percent.

Figures like these have helped make "revitalize" and "internationalize" watchwords for city elders and business leaders. They have joined hands to form the 21st Century Association, which is overseeing much ceremonial activity but also some important projects for industry and infrastructure.

The centerpiece is a new international airport, with construction set to start next year after more than a decade of debate. Land was not available, so a 1,250-acre island will be created for it in 60-foot waters three miles out in Osaka Bay.

It will rank among the world's largest land reclamation projects, consuming 20,000 truckloads of earth and sand on some days. Commercial flights are supposed to begin seven years after construction begins, with the facility's size to be expanded later to 3,000 acres if demand requires.

It will never close.

"A city is something that should be accessible to the outside world 24 hours," said Osaka Mayor Yasushi Ooshima. Tokyo's two airports shut down between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. to control noise.

Work is also under way on a 65-acre Osaka Business Park to concentrate new business in the downtown area. A twin-tower office complex being built there by the giant Matsushita electronics group is nearing completion.

Other projects, such as a decentralized research complex ("Academia Polis," it is being called) are going up elsewhere in Japan's Kansei region, of which Osaka is the capital. The idea is to catch up in high-tech industries that are becoming the mainstay of the Japanese economy.

To make things more livable in the meantime, a "sports island" is being constructed in Osaka Bay. Planners are discussing building more such recreational islands totaling 750 acres starting in 1990. The fill would be the 14.5 million tons of trash and sewage that the city generates in an average year.

The city is at its most picturesque at its center, the restored Osaka Castle, one-time redoubt of the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi. There, citizens come to race toy sailboats in shaded moats, wander through a museum of local history or jog alongside imposing stone battlements.

Its dourest face is the Kamagasaki district, home to a scorned class of day laborers. In the early morning hours, thousands of prematurely aged men in boots and grimy jackets gather at a labor exchange waiting for work, downing bottles of sake together if it doesn't arrive.

"An old man like me can make just enough to eat for a day," remarked Kazuo Fujii, 58. For the past 12 years, he said, he has been buying and selling second-hand goods at tables he sets up outside the exchange building.

In sum, Osaka displays the cluttered but well maintained visage of all Japanese cities. Where it differs is in clinging to parts of the culture and world outlook that evolved in its commercial heyday two centuries ago.

For generations, Osakans' standard greeting was the query, "Making any money?" That has died out, though it continues to be part of the image of Osakans held by other Japanese. But few people here deny they are a commercially minded group.

Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Susumu Furukawa put it like this in a recently published interview: "Kansei people earn their living by actually working, whereas people of Tokyo, the seat of government, live on taxpayers' money . . . . Osakans are frank and businesslike and do everything, even quarrel, in a clear-cut, open way."

To Toshimi Hisai, a 12-year-old girl who is a tireless Tigers fan, it is simpler: "People here are warm-hearted."

Osakans have a distinct cuisine, which among other things makes sushi square and with hard-packed rice, in defiance of Tokyo's oblong, looser variety. They maintain a regional accent that mocks the tones of standard -- that is, upper-class Tokyo -- Japanese.

There are scholars who lament that modern life is whittling away these differences.

"Television today has cooking programs that are broadcast everywhere," complained prominent Osaka historian Mataji Miyamoto. "That is helping kill off the local color." But to others it is the price of joining the outside world.