TOKYO—When meeting to fix prices on auto parts, Mr. X, a Japanese supplier executive, and his fellow conspirators chose out-of-the-way spots, such as a Big Boy restaurant in a neighboring state.
"It had to be a restaurant where other carmaker people never come," said Mr. X, who asked not to be named. "Because if they found out I was meeting with the other sales guy, they would know what we are doing."
It didn't take long before everyone knew what they were doing.
The onetime high-flying executive from Japan, who lived a comfortable expat life in the Midwest, was one of dozens of white-collar criminals nailed by what has snowballed into the biggest-ever antitrust dragnet in U.S. Department of Justice history.
But Mr. X's guilty plea and his time in a U.S. prison came with a special offer from the company for which he fixed prices.
“The story goes like this: ‘I understand you can always say no, but if you accept the request to go to jail, we'll support you 100 percent,' ” he said. “If I fight and lose, I lose everything. But if I don't fight the company, the company ... will support me for the rest of my life.”
Today, Mr. X has done his time and is back at work with his company.
But Mr. X's rehabilitation is hardly rare. As one after another Japanese auto supplier gets snagged, it is the unwritten rule, say insiders and lawyers, that middle managers sometimes take the fall for superiors and get rewarded for not airing the company's dirty laundry in public court.
For more than three years, the international crackdown on price fixing at Japanese auto parts makers has showcased the cooperation of trust-busting authorities in the U.S., Japan and Europe.
But the handling of some cases and a trend of execs trying to evade justice also have exposed a rarely seen underside of Japan's business culture still at odds with international norms.