Mark Panek’s Big Happiness tells the true story of Hawaiian sumo wrestler Percy Kipapa and his tragic murder on May 16, 2005. On the surface, the investigative journalism narrative reads as a mystery, a meditation on what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and a commentary on the ice epidemic and the tangled Yakuza-Hawaii webs of commerce, money, and prestige. It’s compelling and raw. Knowing one of the key participants personally, I found it both hard to read and tough to put down.
You see, it’s also the story of one of my childhood calabash cousins, Tyler Hopkins.
After I left Hawaii for the mainland, Tyler went to Japan and became best friends with Percy. According to the Mark Panek, who knew the adult Tyler in ways I didn’t, Tyler’s life paralleled Percy’s in every significant way. Big Happiness details how they rose to become professional Hawaiian sumo wrestlers in Japan and what happened after they retired and returned to Hawaii.
I remember when Tyler was first going to Japan. He told me about it at my wedding reception at Mid-Pac Country Club thirty-one years ago, the last time I saw him in person. He was happy, and the extended ‘ohana was excited. Sumo was something my big-hearted and athletic cousin was sure to succeed at. His future was assured. Good for him!
Tyler’s sumo name was Sunahama. Living far from Japan and Hawaii before the age of internet video, it was hard for me to follow his career. Over the years, whenever I met up with my calabash Hawaiian ‘ohana, I asked aunties, uncles, and cousins for updates. Each time I was told he was doing well—first climbing the sumo ranks and then retired and working in Hawaii. Tyler was always on the verge of doing something—tourism with Japanese groups, teaching Japanese, finding his groove as a school counselor, or starting a new business venture.
In Big Happiness, Mark Panek paints a different picture.
I knew to be a foreign sumo wrestler in Japan would be rough. I knew the pressures local kids face to “make good.” I knew how the ideals of sacrifice of self for a greater good—however that’s defined—were ingrained in Tyler. Suck it up was something our uncles told us all the time, and it applied to everything from wiping out on a wave and spitting sand to breaking a bone playing baseball to studying hard in school when playing seemed more fun to never, ever failing to be loyal to ‘ohana no matter what the personal cost.
I even suspected how the Yakuza would be involved.
But what I didn’t understand was ice. Or how much that changed Hawaii in the years after I left. I also didn’t think too deeply about how few opportunities Tyler would have had once he returned to Hawaii. Unlike Japan, there aren’t cushy jobs in corporate America waiting for retired sumo wrestlers.
I’m old enough to know that there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help Tyler. But my heart hurts when I remember the kid I had to swim out and rescue when his raft went out too far at Waimanalo Beach or the time we made homemade pizza and Tyler complained I added too much cheese. “No such thing,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his opu and the scar he got when he fell through a glass shower door and almost died, “there is.”
But mostly, I can see all too clearly a moment Mark Panek describes during the trial where Tyler almost snaps. I thank God that Mark intervened.
Big Happiness by Mark Panek is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. For anyone wanting an insider’s view of sumo wrestling or the life of local boys in Hawaii, this book is a must read. Compelling, real, and full of heart and tragedy, it’s a story of sacrifice, privileges of race and class, and the devastating effects of ice and all the vested interests in keeping the status quo.
Jennifer Griffith’s newest novel, Big in Japan, tells the story of Buck Cooper, a Texas gentleman with a heart as large his home state and a body and self-esteem problem to match. What starts as a supporting role in a family business trip to Tokyo ends with Buck staying in Japan training to be a sumo wrestler as the kohai to the Kawaguchi Stable’s star ozeki, Torakiba. Torakiba is the senpai from hell, subjecting Buck as his kohai to humiliating tasks including foot washing and warm watermelon spit. There’s also a love interest, Cho-cho san, who like the butterfly she’s named for flits in and out of Buck’s life, motivating him to prove to himself and the sumo world that he’s got what it takes.
Buck may be big in Japan, but in Hawaii sumo is huge. The first foreign-born non-Japanese sumo champion was Jesse Kuhaulua, fighting name Takamiyama Daigoro. He was born on Maui and his career spanned twenty years from 1964-1984. Growing up in Kahului, we all knew Jesse and followed his career avidly. When he came home to visit family, the whole town came out to greet him. I can still see him in his traditional Japanese attire as he majestically strolled across our school’s parking lot, smiling and waving at us as we peeked out from behind the monkey pod tree. Other Hawaiian-born sekitori followed including Konishiki who earned the rank of ozeki, Akebono who earned the grand champion rank of yokozuna, and my cousin William Tyler Hopkins, fighting name Sunahama Shoji, who earned the rank of juryo 5 before retiring in 1997 at age 25 due to injury.
Since I knew a little about sumo and what it takes to succeed in Japan as a foreign-born wrestler, I was intrigued by Griffith’s premise. While Big in Japan does touch on some of the modern criticisms and controversies in sumo wrestling, at its heart it’s a love story with coming of age themes told with a humorous, light touch. It’s Buck’s story of leaving home in order to find his true self. Westerners will get a taste of some of the cultural differences and an idea of what it takes to be a sumo wrestler, but it’s Buck’s inner and outer transformation combined with his hilarious inner monologue that’s the draw here. Griffith sometimes compares her books to cotton candy—something sweet, light, frothy, enjoyed, and gone, but I think this novel has more weight behind it, more like a makizushi meal than a simple sweet treat.
Big in Japan, written by Jennifer Griffith and published by Jolly Fish Press is available in hardback, trade paperback, and eBook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other purveyors of fine literature.
Griffith’s blog can be found at: http://www.authorjennifergriffith.com/
For more information about Jolly Fish Press and its titles, please visit: http://www.jollyfishpress.com/