第二ボタン (daini botann) refers to the second button from the top on a shirt or a jacket. In Japan, a graduating boy gives this second button on their school uniform to a girl he likes. This usually occurs at or immediately after a high school graduation ceremony, when the boy threads the button out of his shirt and gives it to a (usually younger) girl, for whom the gift of this button is considered a tremendous honor.
My informant spent most of her youth in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, and went to a traditional Japanese high school in the seventies. In Japan there are three years of middle school, and three years of high school. She received a 第二ボタン from a boy two years her senior when she was a first-year in high school, which apparently circulated all kinds of rumors at her high school–a first-year receiving a 第二ボタン from a graduating boy was rare and an even greater honor. They knew each other through a club, but she was interested in another boy. Girls were expected to receive the 第二ボタン even if they weren’t interested in the boy, however, and so she accepted it, but nothing actually came of the button-giving.
The depth of this custom depends on the feelings of the performers. On one hand, it can be almost strictly ritualistic. A boy gives his 第二ボタン because he is expected to do so, to a girl he perhaps likes a little bit more than others, or a girl he considers a good friend. Oftentimes, when the boy does not have any particular preferences, girls who are interested in the boy press forward to ask him for the button. On the other hand, however, it can be an extremely romantic gesture. If the boy gives the 第二ボタン to a girl whom he regards with serious interest and the girl responds favorably, it often results in the forming of a relationship. It is all in the way that the performers use the custom. My informant received her second 第二ボタン from her current husband, whom she was already dating when they both graduated.
But most importantly, why the second button? Why not the first, or the third? When I asked my informant this, she said simply, 「一番心臓に近いから」which translates to, “because it’s the closest to the heart.” There are other reasons but this was the one, she said, that everyone seemed to know and regard as most significant. The 第二ボタン had been close to the boy’s heart for the three years of high school, and so receiving it was symbolic of receiving his heart. They had learned that the custom came from soldiers giving their 第二ボタン to the girls they loved before they left for the war. Graduation is obviously very different from leaving for war, but both have the same sense of anxiety about the future, about saying everything that needs to be said, because it might be the last time they see the girl they like, with no school environment to connect them anymore.
My informant was unsure as to whether this custom was performed in all of Japan, or only in the Okinawa prefecture, which is relatively isolated from the rest of Japan. She is also unsure as to whether it is still performed–but when I asked one of my friends who currently goes to high school in Okinawa, she said that it still occurs, albeit less ritualistically and more only if the boy really, really likes a girl. This, I think, is probably because of the advancement in technology and the ease with which they can contact each other even long after they graduate; there is less of a need for such dramatic shows of affection if classmates can keep in touch through Facebook and their mobile phones.