His shelves are adorned with pieces he’s created over the years like pots, cups and bowls, all of which have his unique spin on what it means to be Japanese American — a coffee mug with Japanese textile patterns, or mizusashi, Japanese ceremonial water jars that feature distinctive wave patterns to simulate movement.
“I have created some mizusashi and when I think about it, it’s really my version of them because that’s a very Japanese thing. There’s probably all these rules, but I was looking at what these Japanese artists were and trying to reinterpret them back into my Japanese American aesthetic.”
But he insists that while his pottery does have a Japanese influence, he doesn’t necessarily consider them Japanese.
Part of that is because having grown up in Seattle, he admits he views art through an American lens.
“I don’t live in Japan. I don’t speak Japanese. So I can only see it the way I see it,” he said.
One of his most popular works are coffee cups adorned with traditional Japanese designs.
“I would make tea cups and I would realize I don’t really drink tea. I drink coffee all day. I use the Japanese influence taking patterns from a lot of Japanese textiles, for example, and I’m putting that layer on the outside. So in that sense, I am designing it with a Japanese aesthetic, but with what I consider a very Western thing with coffee,” he said.
Even though he enjoys making ceramics, Hasegawa said he gets just as much fulfillment teaching his students at Mt. Hood Community College.
“My best day is often the days I’m working in the studio, but I also love teaching. I’ve really loved interacting with people and helping them learn new things and helping them grow as a person.”
Operating out of a small one-story building in the heart of the Mt. Hood college campus, Hasegawa leads a small group of students learning how to make ceramic art.
The class is basic — the students learn how to create simple pieces like plates and cups.
But what makes his classes so enjoyable, at least to students like Arthur Malliet, is Hasegawa’s upbeat nature.
“John has a very beginner friendly approach,” said Malliet. “He is so high energy and so fun to teach. It’s hard not to just kind of want to be friends with the guy.”
Recently Hasegawa added a new element to his classroom that helps with that beginner friendly vibe, and it was almost by accident.
“I got into YouTube because the COVID-19 pandemic happened, we shut down the college. There were no in-person classes. And I thought I guess I can do ceramics online. And then I had to figure out a way to make something that could be deliverable to my students.”
With a phone and camera, Hasegawa began filming livestreams of his pottery to share with his students. Eventually, he brought that technology to the class when schools began opening up again.
Since then, he’s used technology to teach his students in ways that he’s never been able to do before.
“All of these things could be all tied together where they can have two simultaneous views. I could switch the view around very quickly, I can move the camera to where the student could see it. After about a year of doing that over Zoom, I thought, these videos are good enough to put on YouTube and that was the start of my channel!” he said.
Hasegawa said the most important art pieces he created were for Ireichō, a national project created to honor the stories of over 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated in U.S. camps during World War II.
One of the three major elements of the project is a massive book containing the names those who were incarcerated. The book is currently on display at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Hasegawa fashioned the two small, rectangular tiles, one in white, the other in red, out of the soil from all 75 campsites. Project organizers then embedded the tiles into the front and back covers of the book.
Hasegawa left one side of the tiles unpolished so that when people touch it, they are touching the soil from those camp sites.
Duncan Ryūken Williams heads the project and said that Hasegawa’s unique skill and understanding as a ceramics artist as well as his own Japanese American heritage made him the perfect choice to create these tile pieces.
“John understood what it meant for 74 other people representing other camps to have collected the soil from those sites as well. And so I think he had a very personal investment and understanding also of the kind of aesthetic and the overall. it wasn’t just about the making of the particular pieces and what they represented,” Williams said.
Hasegawa said the soil is the most precious material he owns.
“Even just touching it is an honor, having it here and even being included in the project. It was a little bit stressful being in charge of this really sacred stuff and that I didn’t know if it was gonna work.”
Hasegawa also had a personal stake in the project. His mother, Kumiko, was interned at Camp Santa Anita from March to September 1942 before being relocated to Camp Amachi from September 1942 to October 1945.
In 2019, Hasegawa took his children and family to the site as a way for them to remember and take in the importance of what happened so they can pass on their stories to future generations.
“It wasn’t this abstract place. I got to stand there at the place, we got to feel the earth and got to see and smell it and everything.”
He took the experience and history he learned and put them all into creating the tile pieces for the Ireichō project.
For John Hasegawa, the Ireichō project forever changed how he works and how he views his art, and pottery as a whole.
“I’m a potter at heart. I make things that I want people to enjoy drinking out of and eating out of. But now because of this project, I feel like it’s maybe as simple as finding the joy in little moments as you’re creating these pieces,” he said.