John McLaughlin was born in 1898 in Sharon, Massachusetts. His mother had a very large collection of Japanese objects. McLaughlin's education and exposure to Japanese culture are some of the early influences that began to shape his personal interests and profoundly affected his professional choices later in life.
He moved to Japan in 1935 and McLaughlin studied Japanese art and language, which was a rare opportunity for an American during this time.
Upon returning to Boston in 1938, McLaughlin opened an art gallery called The Tokaido, Inc. Here he sold Japanese prints and imported objects from China and Japan.
In 1946, McLaughlin moved to Dana Point in Southern California where he became one of the few American abstract artists. He created bilateral paintings with symmetry on the left and right sides of the canvas using vertical and horizontal rectangles.