Who’s Cheating America? Gung Ho Edition!

Ah, remember the days when we Americans weren’t afraid of China? Back when our boogeyman was Japan? You know, the days when bumper stickers said “BE American, BUY American” and movies like this one ruled the screen?

Why were the Japanese so much better than us in the ’70s and ’80s? Because they cheated? Of course not! It was because they were exemplars of sound engineering and solid teamwork. It was because of the way their workers believed in their company and did everything they could to help it succeed. They didn’t have nasty unions and strikes. Their workers kept their heads down and did their work, except when they were politely pointing out possible improvements to the glorious process of making glorious cars. And they exercised in big groups every morning, and, um, they didn’t jack around sabotaging cars for kicks on Friday afternoons like American workers.

That’s what we were told. That’s what we believed. (Even if it wasn’t quite accurate.)

How times have changed:

Japanese auto parts maker Koito Manufacturing Co. Ltd. has agreed to pay $56.6 million and plead guilty to conspiring to fix the price of headlight fixtures and related products for more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday.

Hmm. Headlight fixtures and related products? Come on. That’s just a tiny piece of the car. It’s not like this is some huge widespread problem, right?

The Tokyo-based company has also agreed to cooperate with the DOJ’s ongoing probe into the auto parts industry, which has already netted 23 other corporate guilty pleas and more than $1.8 billion in fines.

Okay, okay. That sounds pretty widespread. But… maybe this isn’t a Japanese problem. Maybe it’s the Americans who caused the trouble – and Koito was just dragged along. Right? They’re the only Japanese auto parts maker who make headlights, and all the Americans are cheating, so they were dragged into it…

Koito is not the first Japanese auto parts maker to admit to fixing lamp ballast prices either.

Really? More than one? Just fixing lamp ballast prices? Who were the others?

Stanley Electric Co. Ltd. admitted to taking part in the scheme for the same period of time and agreed to a $1.44 million fine in November.

Stanley Electric! Are they Japanese now? Maybe it’s the American heritage. No other Japanese companies, right? They exercise together in big groups! Why would they need to cheat?

Both companies are also facing a civil damages suit filed by a group of car dealerships in July.

The proposed class of auto dealers accused Stanley, Koito, Ichikoh Industries Ltd. and Mitsuba Corp. of scheming to drive up prices for automotive lamps by rigging bids for supply contracts with certain car manufacturers, including Toyota Motor Corp.

The dealerships said the four conspirators tinkered with the parts’ prices by pre-ordaining which of them would win and which would lose during what should have been competitive bidding wars for contracts with car makers.

Okay, okay. But that’s a private suit. Who says that’s accurate? Maybe this is just xenophobia rearing its ugly head again, as plaintiffs’ lawyers try to lump all Japanese companies together. It’s not fair to drag these companies into American courts, subject them to American regulations, and then expect them to face American justice, American-style. The cards are stacked, the dice are loaded, the… uh…

Two of the companies named in that suit, Koito and Ichikoh, had been hit four months earlier with fines totaling $49.1 million from Japan’s Fair Trade Commission for allegedly conspiring to rig the bids for automotive lights.

Okay. I give up. In trouble at home, in trouble abroad… take your medicine, Japanese fixers of lamp ballast prices! Pay your fines! And stop cheating America!

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