The laughter and loud shouts of 40 toddlers and mothers at play mark the unique features of Hitachi Ltd.'s Family Education Centre. In Japan care facilities for mothers and their children under three are almost unknown. And even this center, located in Hitachi's company town, Hitachi City, 90 miles from Tokyo, is not what you might think. It is not designed for working women and their children. Rather it was established back in 1971 to help mothers enjoy being mothers. It's a part of Hitachi's social-contribution program quietly underway since 1910 -- unusual in Japan, where for the most part corporate philanthropy and volunteerism have been viewed as a quirky import. That perspective began to change when the Kobe earthquake struck in 1995. Since that disaster, volunteer activity has increased. Reflecting a conservative take on social development, Hitachi -- a manufacturer of industrial machinery and electronic components --has established various foundations aimed at making a difference, often in the lives of children. Other programs provide sponsorship for scientific education and youth initiatives. The idea for the Family Education Centre came from Hitachi's third president, Kenichiro Komai. On his retirement in the early '70s he was struck by the growing lack of discipline in the community and decided to create a program focused on teaching mothers how to raise their children. He established the Odaira Memorial Foundation (named for the corporation's founder, Namihei Odaira) to manage the family center, produce magazines and books on parenting and schooling, and fund other activities associated with education. Hitachi has no influence on the work of the Odaira Foundation, but continues to offer support, despite the corporation's record net loss of 338 billion (US$2.79 illion) in fiscal 1998, caused mostly by restructuring and weak semiconductor prices. The center's land is provided at a low rent by Hitachi Works. The corporation pays the salaries of several Odaira staff. Subsidiaries and former Hitachi presidents give donations and other assistance. The family center in Hitachi (and a sister facility in Yokohama) focuses on developing parenting skills and the growth of children by emphasizing the fun in the parent-child relationship. A sore point in Japan, perhaps. A 1998 study by the Ministry of Finance found that the percentage of Japanese women who think raising children is enjoyable was 20.6% in 1979 and was only slightly better in 1994 at 22.9%. In contrast, American women were 48.6% positive in 1979 and 71.5% positive in 1994. The center aims to give parents-and especially mothers-often isolated from support groups by living in new dormitory towns, knowledge about child raising, ideas on how to build community networks, and perhaps a chance to become a local role model. One morning a week for 12 months, 160 pairs (mother and child) divided into four groups attend the school. Children must be between two-and-a-half and three years of age when they enter the program, which is open to anyone. There are always more applicants than spaces, says Yasuko Ozaki, the center's chief of classes, so participants are selected by lottery. "We don't give lectures," says Ozaki, "but many recent mothers have little chance to enjoy playing with their children so we give them this opportunity." Showing mothers how to enjoy being with their children is the best lesson, Ozaki believes. The children and mothers mix modeling clay and sand, sing karaoke, and help grow and pick sweet potatoes. The children also are allowed to run wild (with supervision). Groups form around different handicraft tables, and the women have a chance to make friends and exchange information. Interspersed with these activities, teachers and researchers offer advice on any problems between the mothers and children, form discussion groups, and organize talks by distinguished psychologists and sociologists. "The children and mothers can do different things separately --children with children, mothers with mothers. It's great for relieving stress," exclaims Kazuko Fujita, one of the mothers attending the program. To date 3,726 pairs have graduated to return to their community, create networks, and perhaps raise more children, reports Ozaki, defining the center's results.