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Methamphetamine, mafia hotels, sumo wrestling, and a real estate bubble!

Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior - Mark Panek

This book was one of those rare pleasant surprises where you enter with certain expectations, and it far surpasses them. I had no idea how many interesting subjects it would cover.


On the face of it... well, the blurbs on the back, really... it is the story of Hawaiian native Percy Kipapa, and how he managed to become one of the very few foreigners to ascend to the top ranks of Japanese sumo fighters. To Japanophiles, sumo fans, and anybody who routes for the underdog, the first half of the book (or thereabouts) is a fun, funny, and inspiring tale. There are lots of fish-out-of-water moments (so common to foreigners living in Japan), perseverance-pays-off moments (so common to most inspirational sports stories), and a great "hometown boy makes good" crescendo at the height of his career. The title Big Happiness is the literal translation of Percy's Japanese sumo stage name- reflecting his gregarious "Aloha" personality in the face of all adversity. It would all be so cliché if it were fiction... but this stuff really happened.


But then it becomes another book entirely. An injury makes Percy opt for retirement, so he returns to Hawaii, to his loving, tight-knit family - where he is promptly murdered. The rest of the book becomes at first a whodunit, followed by a courtroom drama.


And that alone would be enough to make this a complete, fascinating, if not entirely uplifting tale... but it doesn't end there.


I must confess that most "human interest" type stories don't really grab me. What I found fascinating in Big Happiness was how the author dug back into Percy's past... into the past of the community where he grew up... to paint a picture of Hawaii very different from the emerald waters and pristine beaches tourists know so well.


Percy was born in 1973, when locally-grown marijuana flourished. Nixon declared his "War on Drugs" just about that same time, and within 10 years, militarized Drug Enforcement Agents were shutting down MJ growers throughout the state. Much like the Prohibitionists of the 1920's, Nixon's anti-drug supporters figured that destroying the supply would make demand go away. As with alcohol, it didn't. Instead of marijuana bringing in millions to local growers, the 1980's saw Hawaiians (and disproportionately native Hawaiians) send their dollars out of state to large-scale mainland growers- some of them allied with the DEA to finger small-time dealers. To compensate the new suppliers for the risk they incurred importing the drug into the state, natives paid a premium. Marijuana prohibition not only dealt a blow to the Hawaiian economy, it also drove the development of an underground drug pipeline from the American mainland to "the islands". When crystal methamphetamine started to make its appearance on the American mainland in the late 1980's the network to import and distribute this new product was already in place.


The second factor fueling the early 1990's Hawaiian methamphetamine outbreak is the Yakuza... the Japanese mafia. Mr. Panek's meticulous research here traces meth from the streets of Hawaii to their distribution through Yakuza-owned hotels and Yakuza-connected importers, back to the Yakuza-owned meth labs in South Korea. It's the book's sour connection to Japan which counterbalances the hope and opportunity, and escape from the drug culture which Japan represented to Percy Kipapa.


Panek doesn't stop there. He then shows how drugs were just one factor in the shocking socioeconomic decline of native Hawaiians, over the past 30 years: The overheating Japanese economy of the late 1980's fueled a real estate bubble which drew many native Hawaiians off their ancestral lands where many had lived prosperous lives on small family- owned farms. That land in turn became private golf courses, condominiums, and hotels which provide locals with a few short-lived construction jobs, and a few longer-term jobs as groundskeepers, hotel maids and bartenders... but nothing as prosperous, sustaining, or dignified (as many of the Hawaiians see it) as the family-centered fruit farming of past decades.


The book ends with disenfranchised native Hawaiian families at Percy's funeral, ravaged by meth addiction, incarceration, and financial ruin. The prospects appear bleak for those who wish to hold on to their few remaining acres of ancestral land, in the face of the large monied powers waiting to "develop" them into homogeneous, alien, corporate hospitality businesses. I am left with the impression that native Hawaiians have been overrun by a juggernaut of international socio-economic forces which have left them little better than the Native Americans who live on reservations back on the American mainland.


It's a hell of a book for anybody whose view of Hawaii heretofore was shaped by the controlled images of the Tourism Board's PR propaganda, and the multimillion dollar ad campaigns of the travel and hospitality industries.