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Big Happiness

The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior

Mark Panek

Publication Year: 2011

Big Happiness is extremely important to our community. Mark Panek’s biography of Percy Kipapa speaks to the consequences of the destruction of Hawai‘i’s rural neighborhoods, unchecked development, the ice epidemic, the failures of government, sumo, intricate family and neighbor relationships, and more. What is most impressive is Panek’s ability to weave all of these complex topics together in a seamless narrative that connects all the dots. Part mystery, part investigative journalism, part poignant Island portrait, this work contains an emotional element that binds the reader to the subjects in a dignified yet touching way, showing compassion and even affection for people while revealing their flaws and shortcomings. This book will resonate with an Island audience and with anyone interested in Hawai‘i. —Victoria Kneubuhl, Hawai‘i writer and playwright

"This book tells of personal triumphs and failures, and also the triumphs and failures of families, communities, organizations, agencies, governments, and churches dealing with the multiple consequences of ‘progress’ in contemporary Hawai‘i. There have been heroes and villains at all levels—frequently, the same individuals and agencies are both at the same time. The story of Percy Kipapa is especially poignant because professional sumo gave him a unique opportunity to transcend Hawai‘i’s culture of colonialism, racism, poverty, and drug addiction, which in the end all brought him down anyway. Mark Panek has done a masterful job of weaving these strands together."—Reverend Bob Nakata, former Hawai‘i state senator

"Spanning the history of Waikane and the brutality of Japan’s national sport, Big Happiness is a remarkably ambitious piece that links one man’s murder to the ice epidemic, land development, and political corruption in Hawai‘i. Mark Panek’s meticulously researched, skillfully written, heartbreaking story, filled with voices that ring true, is an indictment of an entire system that crushed a gentle giant. While other Hawai‘i writers dwell in ‘take me back to da kine’ nostalgia, Panek tells it like it really is." —Chris McKinney, author of The Tattoo and Mililani Mauka

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Author’s Note

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pp. ix-x

This is a work of nonfiction—a term that has come to require some explanation. It is a true account of the places, people, and events impacting the way that Percy Kipapa’s life turned out, an account that is drawn from interviews, newspaper archives, history texts, court records and other primary source material, and my own friendship with Percy. Since I am ...

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pp. 1-11

Here is how it happened: Percy Kipapa of Waikāne lay face down on the ground desperately sucking for air, his mouth opened wide, dry all the way to the back of his throat. His huge upper body heaved up and down. His mind raced as he prayed that whatever it was they were hitting him with would stop sending its stinging jolts of pain across the bare ...

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Chapter 1 Homesick

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pp. 12-19

When Percy first started,” George Kalima told me, “he used to mouth off: ‘Yeah, I can do that!’ Us, we already seen it all, and we weren’t veterans yet, but we were a year or two ahead of him. He was thinking he was going dominate already and fly up the ranks. You look on the TV, it seems easy to you, until you go there and you think, ‘Whoa, what are all...

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Chapter 2 Respect

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pp. 20-39

The deep roar from the back room was so loud, angry, and sudden that it caused Percy to jump straight to his feet to see what it was that the sekitori wanted this time. Akebono may have been from Waimānalo, but you wouldn’t know it. He acted more Japanese than local: practice...

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Chapter 3 Honor

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pp. 40-48

The image struck Percy whenever he looked at the sekitori, in some ways just another big local guy with a warm, round Hawaiian face. Or Troy, another Samoan face from the Farrington High defensive line. What Percy noticed most around the local boys—even more than how at...

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Chapter 4 Invasion

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pp. 49-67

Nearly two years into a life of being beaten regularly, toiling in the lower ranks while showing no real hope of rising any time soon, and eating all the abuse dished out by every one of his senpai, one might wonder why Percy didn’t just completely take the fall for Troy and go home. At...

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Chapter 5 The Minute Man

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pp. 68-78

With plans all laid out to send Percy home, Yokozuna Akebono, who had just won his second straight tournament and third of the year, spoke to Boss. “I seen in Percy what I seen in myself,” he recalled. “He reminded me of me when I first came up here. I was thinking sumo was...

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Chapter 6 No Weapons

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pp. 79-98

On May 17, 2005, the KITV Web site led with the headline “Former Sumo Wrestler Killed in Kahalu‘u Stabbing,” which was accompanied by a picture of Percy’s smiling face. I hadn’t believed it when a friend had called from O‘ahu to say, “I’m sorry to hear about your friend.” As I ran...

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Chapter 7 Zapped

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pp. 99-109

At Percy’s funeral I’d found myself wondering how it could have happened in Kahalu‘u, of all places. How could Percy have been killed in Kahalu‘u, so close to that valley of his where people still grew their own food, where so much was still done as it had been done since his grandfather’s day? When I learned more about how the community had been able...

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Chapter 8 Gaman

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pp. 110-123

The roar coming from Yokozuna Akebono’s room made Percy jump, suddenly ready to rush in and open the windows, or run downstairs for a cold drink, or head out to the video store—whatever he was asked. He almost got to his feet, too, when it hit him just as suddenly that he was now alone, also in his own room, and that someone else would attend to...

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Chapter 9 ForeignTerritory

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pp. 124-146

Percy’s father sat waiting for me, a big stack of photo albums on the carport table in front of him. “It’s just some pictures we took over the years,” he said after greeting me and sitting back down. “And there’s some pictures people sent from Japan, and some papers I collected regarding his sumo career.” I flipped through one of the albums and picked out Percy in...

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Chapter 10 The Ice Is Broken

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pp. 147-168

Tyler wanted me to start this book with the car story, because when I told it to him he said it really captured the way Percy would go out of his way for people, the little things that would go wrong along the way that he’d optimistically brush aside and work to correct. He said it really...

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Chapter 11 The Users

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pp. 169-192

Throughout the summer two years before Percy was killed, the nine representatives and the nine senators sitting on the Hawai‘i State Legislature’s Joint House-Senate Task Force on Ice and Drug Abatement did the kind of work that would renew a faith in government even among the most cynical haters of politicians. The task force convened “informational...

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Chapter 12 The Trial

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pp. 193-236

By the third afternoon of Percy’s murder trial, seating in Judge Karl K. Sakamoto’s tiny courtroom was getting harder to come by. And though both families were starting to line up outside the locked door a good fifteen minutes before each recess was set to end, the potentially volatile scene remained surprisingly calm throughout the trial, with Kurt’s...

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Chapter 13 Honeyboy

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pp. 237-256

Keali‘i Meheula’s conviction hadn’t brought Percy back to his family, of course, but it also hadn’t uncovered what had really happened, and why, on May 16. Glenn Kim’s strategy to expose the defendant as a liar had been enough to win. But it hadn’t even tried to explore why Meheula would plunge a knife into Percy’s heart at a time and in a place where he...

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Chapter 14 The Fall

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pp. 257-288

When the bombs started raining down on her family’s Waikāne land just after Pearl Harbor, Percy’s great-aunty Ellen Roberts heard more than just the earth-shaking explosions. The blasts announced yet another offensive in the invasion her own father had begun fighting off just after the Great Mahele, when the 1,756.8-acre “Ahupua‘a of Waikāne” kuleana...

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pp. 289-293

Covered in sweat and sand all alone in the clay-floored training area, his thick chest heaving up and down as he gulped for air, the sekitori grabbed a towel. Five days into the May 2006 tournament, all of the underlings had either gone off to their matches in the Kokugikan or to the kitchen to prepare his lunch...


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pp. 295-298


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pp. 299-313


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pp. 315-320

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860929
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834685

Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Kipapa, Percy, 1973-2005.
  • Wrestlers -- Hawaii -- Biography.
  • Sumo.
  • Oahu (Hawaii) -- Social conditions.
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