Welfare commissioners cover a broad array of tasks, including regularly checking in on elderly and disabled residents, looking for signs of child abuse, providing local residents with information about services, and even helping them dispose of garbage.

Although demand for welfare commissioners is on the rise due to the graying of the population, municipalities are having a harder time finding enough of them to meet the need.

Here are basic questions and answers about what welfare commissioners do and the difficulties they have faced in recent years.

What do welfare commissioners do?

At the most fundamental level, their job is to determine which residents in their appointed areas are having trouble in their daily lives, and offer them support and advice. They regularly check in on elderly residents and others who might need help, and steer them toward appropriate services if necessary.

They report any suspected cases of abuse or other trouble to the appropriate institution, such as the local government or child welfare services.

Typically, welfare commissioners are retirees in their 60s who have lived in the area for a long time and are very familiar with the neighborhood. On average, they devote 10.7 days a month to the job, according to the welfare ministry.

How many welfare commissioners are there in Japan?

As of March 2010, there were 228,550 welfare commissioners, which is 5,355 short of the number needed, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

From 2007 to 2010, the shortage worsened in 35 prefectures, ministry data show. Despite a rise in some prefectures, the trend is worsening nationwide, the data say.

Prefectures decide how many of the commissioners are needed based on the number of households in a given area.

For example, in Tokyo’s 23 wards, one welfare commissioner is responsible for 220 to 440 households, according to the welfare ministry.

Sometimes commissioners are required to travel outside their territories to visit people within the same municipality to cover the shortage, said Junko Kanamori, an official in charge of social welfare and public health for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Tokyo had a shortfall of 440 welfare commissioners in January, she said.

Can anybody be a welfare commissioner?

No. Welfare commissioners must be nominated by residents’ associations or administrative officers. Those who pass a screening by the municipalities are appointed by the welfare minister.

Commissioners can be reappointed at the end of their three-year term. Some have served for over 30 years.

Nominees must be at least 20 years old and Japanese citizens. The welfare ministry recommends choosing those under the age of 75. In 2006 about 60 percent of the nation’s welfare commissioners were in their 60s.

By law, welfare commissioners are also child welfare caseworkers.

Do they get paid?

No, they are volunteers.

However, the receive about ¥58,000 a year from the municipality to cover transportation costs and other expenses.

Why are municipalities having trouble finding people to do the job?

Welfare commissioners’ responsibilities have expanded just as municipalities have become less willing to give out personal information in an increasingly digital age, which has made the job harder, experts say.

Municipalities have become more reluctant to provide names, addresses, ages, medical conditions and other information since the Personal Information Protection Law went into effect in 2005, experts say.

According to a welfare ministry survey conducted in 136 municipalities in 2010, about 85 percent of respondents said they provide some kind of private information to welfare commissioners. Percentages were high in cities with over 300,000 residents than in small towns and villages, the survey said.

Sixty-two percent of the responding municipalities said they provide data on residents over 65 who live alone. But only 19.8 percent disclose information on disabled people living alone, the survey showed.

Municipalities say that their hands are tied by ordinances against disclosing personal information and that they fear receiving complaints or that information will leak.

“Even if they want to, they can’t work without necessary information, such as where old residents live in their appointed areas,” said Masayuki Watanabe, a deputy general manager at Zenkoku Minsei-iin Jido-iin Rengokai, a federation of welfare commissioners and child welfare caseworkers. “Some quit due to such difficulty in the middle” of their term.

The welfare ministry is asking municipalities to provide welfare commissioners with the information they need to do the job.

But while welfare commissioners are obliged to maintain confidentiality, there is no penalty if they don’t.

Have any welfare commissioners abused their position?

Yes. In 2005, Kazuko Esumi, a welfare commissioner in Nagoya, was arrested for murdering an 83-year-old woman she was providing support to. The Nagoya District Court sentenced Esumi to life imprisonment in 2009 for killing the woman and withdrawing money from her bank account with a stolen cash card.

Welfare commissioners across Japan feared the case would destroy the mutual trust they had built with residents.

In other cases, residents’ personal information has been leaked unintentionally, according to the book “Minsei-iin no tame no Chiiki Fukushi Katsudo” by Masahiko Kobayashi and Masaki Harada.

Is their burden increasing?

Yes. Cases of child abuse are on the rise and more elderly are in need of care, Watanabe said.

“The job description of welfare commissioners has widened and the severity of each case has intensified,” Watanabe said.

Kanamori of the Metropolitan Government also noted that a string of news stories about the solitary deaths of shut-ins is making people reluctant to become welfare commissioners because they assume the job comes with too much responsibility, she said.

Also, because more condominiums in urban areas have doors that lock automatically, it is harder to get into the buildings where people in potential need live.

How can I contact a local welfare commissioner?

In many cases, municipalities provide contact numbers in leaflets posted in the communities. Some even list their names and phone numbers on websites.

It’s also possible to contact local authorities directly.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp