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Dark side of sumo

by Mark Schilling

BIG HAPPINESS: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior, by Mark Panek. University of Hawaii Press, 2011, 320 pp., $18.99 (paperback)

Hawaii was once a prime recruiting ground for professional sumo. The pioneer was Jesse Kuhaulua from Oahu’s Happy Valley, who entered the sport in 1964 and rose to the third-highest rank of sekiwake (under the sumo name Takamiyama), while becoming the first foreigner to win a top division title, in 1972.

After retiring in 1984, he opened Azumazeki Stable and recruited fellow Hawaiian Chad Rowan, who as Akebono ascended to sumo’s summit of yokozuna in 1993 — another foreigner first.

Akebono’s success, as well as that of Salevaa Atisanoe (Konishiki), who held the second-highest rank of ozeki, and Fiamalu Penitani (Musashimaru), who was Akebono’s rival as yokozuna, encouraged other young Hawaiians to try sumo.

One, Percy Kipapa, is the subject of Mark Panek’s new biography “Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior.”

This exhaustively researched, engrossingly written, deeply personal book is about far more than Kipapa, who as Daiki (literally, “Big Happiness”) rose to the second-highest juryo division but left sumo in 1998 after seven injury-plagued years in the sport. Returning to Hawaii, he battled drug addiction before being stabbed to death by a fellow user in 2005.

Panek, a University of Hawaii professor who became acquainted with Kipapa, his family and his circle while researching an earlier biography of Rowan, uses Kipapa’s story to examine wider issues affecting the native Hawaiian community, from rapacious land development to the methamphetamine or “ice” epidemic that has devastated many lives, Kipapa’s included.

Also, based on extensive interviews with former wrestlers at Azumazeki Stable, Panek has recreated Kipapa’s sumo career in meticulous detail, beginning with a blow-by-blow description of a brutal kawaigari (tough love) practice session. Intended to stoke Kipapa’s fighting spirit, it took him to the brink of unconsciousness.

Panek may not be the first to illuminate the dark side of the sport, but he goes farther than most as both a reporter and critic, from his harrowing account of Kipapa’s long battle with debilitating injuries to his portrait of Kuhaulua (better known in Japan as Azumazaki) as a callous taskmaster who forced the ailing Kipapa to fight when adequate rest and proper treatment might have prolonged his career.

“The whole thing,” Panek concludes, “had been just about money.” That is, the money that went into Kuhaulua’s pocket for keeping Kipapa in the sumo ring.

The heart of the book, however, is the story of Kipapa’s postsumo struggle to readjust to life back home — and the forces that conspired against not only him, but his family, friends and neighbors on the rural windward side of Oahu, including his beloved Waikane Valley. In this relatively remote part of the island, the natural beauty of the land is offset by a high level of poverty, crime and addiction.

In these sections, Panek seems to be writing primarily for a Hawaiian readership who understand the Hawaiian pidgin, which most of his sources speak, without translations (though there is a helpful glossary in the back) and know the many place names that might be baffling to outsiders (especially without a map in the book to aid them). More seriously, in his advocacy for the native Hawaiian community he adopts an us-vs.-them stance that can occasionally sound parochial and exclusionary.

But his account of Kipapa’s death, including the arrest and trial of his accused killer, is a as compelling as any mystery novel. Panek even plays detective, taking up the Kipapa’s case where the police left off — and makes a plausible argument that Kipapa was knifed because he knew too much about another murder committed by his killer.

He doesn’t succeed in persuading the cops to reopen their investigation, but his eloquence as a writer, diligence as a researcher and insight as a longtime observer of the Hawaiian scene makes “Big Happiness” a larger, more important book than its subject suggests.