On a recent day, a group of primary school students fed chickens kept on the school grounds, cleaned their coop and the area around it and then enjoyed touching and holding the birds.
"It feels like placing a hand warmer in a glove," a student said after putting his hand under one of the birds' wings. The students were in the fourth year at Hoya Daini Primary School in Nishi-Tokyo, Tokyo.
Learning about life through raising animals is gaining more attention as children can learn a lot by having contact with animals.
According to Prof. Takashi Muto of Shiraume Gakuen University, a specialist of developmental psychology, the optimum period for having contact with animals for this purpose is from 4 to 5 years old, when children can understand animals are living beings, to around 10 years old, when they begin thinking theoretically.
A survey conducted in August by the Aichi Veterinary Medical Association found that teachers of schools raising animals gave such positive feedback as "Unruly students become calm," "Students learn to be more sociable," and "Classrooms began to have warmer atmospheres."
At the Nishi-Tokyo primary school, fourth-year students raise two rabbits and four chickens and take turns feeding and cleaning the cages twice a day in the morning and afternoon. First-year students sometimes join in under the supervision of the older students. When a chicken died four years ago, teachers were surprised when most of the students cried.
Taro Hatogai, a visiting professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and science education specialist, said: "It's sad for students, but seeing their animals die is the most critical element of 'learning the importance of life.' They personally experience what death is like and learn that life is precious."
Witnessing the birth of animals is also a good opportunity to learn about the preciousness of life.
At Higashi-Toyama Primary School in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, two years ago, students sat around a hut to watch a mother goat in labour give birth to two baby goats. When the kids were born, the students were moved. "I cried with joy for the first time," one student said.
However, the number of schools raising animals has decreased.
According to a survey carried out by the Hiroshima Prefectural Animal Management and Welfare Center in 2012 and covering 272 primary schools, kindergartens, nursery schools and similar facilities, 50.4 per cent of respondents said they raised animals compared to 76.4 per cent in 2004.
Asked why schools had stopped raising animals, 57.9 per cent of the respondents pointed to infectious diseases, a problem highlighted by bird flu, while 26.3 per cent mentioned concerns about animal injuries and diseases, 14 per cent said they had no teachers with knowledge of raising animals, and 14 per cent said they had no one to take care of the animals. The data reflect a national trend.
To encourage more schools to raise animals, the Japan Veterinary Medical Association is promoting co-operation among local veterinary medical associations, local governments and schools.
Local veterinary medical associations teach local schools how to raise animals and keep them healthy. They also give workshops at schools to teach students about making contact with school animals. In addition, they give children an opportunity to listen to animals' heartbeats and hold seminars for teachers.
The Gunma Veterinary Medical Association assigns some veterinarians to be in charge of primary schools in Gunma Prefecture. If animals get sick, they treat them, and if they feel something is wrong, they visit their schools to see how the animals are being raised. Since the system was introduced in 1998, fewer school animals have been taken to vets.
"Animals become sick often due to their poor breeding environments," said Yasumitsu Kuwabara, a veterinarian of the Gunma association. He also said that at one school, the number of rabbits increased rapidly, and many injuries were caused through fighting among the animals.
Many schools neglect to feed animals on holidays.
A 2013 survey conducted by the Nagoya Veterinary Medical Association revealed that only 8 per cent of local municipal primary schools raising animals provided care for their animals on weekends.