Sam Holden ’12

Major: International Relations
Profession: Writer, translator, preservation activist
Hometown: Denver, CO

What are you doing now?

It’s hard to define what I do, but lately I tell people that I’m a Tokyo-based writer, translator and preservation activist. Most of my income comes from my work as a Japanese-English translator and editor for Tokyo art museums, architects, academics, companies, and other clients. However, my true passion is renovating old buildings and creating communal spaces that reflect an alternative vision of what the city can be. In 2018, I co-founded and renovated a small cafe, hotel, and history gallery called Tokyo Little House. Right now, I am in the middle of two other renovation projects to create new community spaces: a volunteer-driven transformation of several decaying houses in a seaside town near Hiroshima, and the preservation and revitalization of a treasured century-old public bath in Tokyo. For the latter project, I co-founded a non-profit organization and secured funding through New York-based World Monuments Fund. Nowadays, I am constantly changing hats between thinking as an architect, carpenter, project manager, designer and historical researcher. I am also writing more about “post-growth Japan,” including a recent essay on the Tokyo Olympics in the Los Angeles Review of Books. A slightly longer introduction can be found on my website.

How did you get there?

I have had a roundabout career path. I studied international relations at Pomona, mainly because I knew that I wanted to think about global problems and go overseas after living in Japan as a high school exchange student. After graduation, I moved to New York for two years and found a job as an assistant reporter at a Japanese newspaper bureau. In 2014, I received a Japanese government scholarship to attend graduate school, earning a master’s degree in urban and cultural studies from the University of Tokyo. By that point, I felt that I didn’t want to continue to a Ph.D., and seizing on a stroke of good luck, I joined a few local acquaintances to start our small business. While I learned how to make a living in Tokyo, I kept thinking about my graduate research interests in vacant spaces and public baths, which eventually led to my two other community projects today.

How did Pomona prepare you?

Certainly, an interdisciplinary education was an essential foundation for my career. I took Japanese (as well as German and Spanish) language courses and learned about the formation of modern Asia with professors including Sam Yamashita. Char Miller and others inspired me to think critically about cities and our environmental future, while my international relations major helped me develop a global perspective (I studied abroad in Germany) and think deeply about issues of economic development. Pomona also provided summer research funding for me to go to Japan twice, first to produce a short documentary on Brazilian migrant communities after my first year, and to explore ideas of life beyond economic growth after my junior year, which led into my senior thesis. From there, I was able to take my interest in post-growth Japan and develop my intellectual framework in graduate school, confident in my ability to move into new disciplines like sociology, anthropology and geography even though I never studied them at Pomona.

My Japanese professor Kyoko Kurita recently wrote an essay on the liberal arts for a Japanese newspaper, where she described the development of a strong sense of self that can endure through hardship as a key part of a Pomona education. That really rings true for me. Throughout my 20s I was constantly unsure of where I was going — navigating career possibilities, settling in another country, exploring multiple academic disciplines, starting a business, hustling to stay afloat, building community networks, founding a non-profit — but now I’m 31 and I look back and think, yes, this is exactly what I was trying to do all along! “Se hace camino al andar” — you make the path by walking, a quote from an Antonio Machado poem that I still remember from Mary Coffey’s Spanish literature class. Often in times of distress, I would think back to my Pomona education that encouraged me to follow my heart and think outside the box and knew that I would make sense of things over time.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I recently received permanent residency in Japan, so I expect that I will continue to live in Tokyo or the countryside, keep renovating spaces, and hopefully start writing a lot more. After seven years of research, thinking, and observation here, I have a lot that I want to say about my experiences and why the lessons of post-growth Japan are urgently relevant to the world today. Five years from now, I hope to have written a few books in English and Japanese.

Any advice for prospective or current students?

Fulfilling the demands of any particular major or career track is less important than allowing oneself space to discover the questions you want to think about — the answers will come later. Seek out professors who cultivate your curiosity and peers who can open your mind to other realities.