She is not alone: this is a common experience of many Japanese workers as there are so few foreign workers in the Japan workplace. Expatriate workers are typically limited to senior management and IT specialists (often contracted or externally-outsourced). Yet senior expatriate business managers list effective English communication as one of the highest-sought qualities in new employees for Japan offices. With such a high expectation yet limited opportunity, how to effectively communicate in person without risk of embarrassment?
Firstly, realize your language limitations. Most businesspeople in Japan are hampered by speaking ability and by listening to native speakers at high speed, not so much by written materials. One way to improve speaking ability is to try to read material that is related to your communication goal--out loud--every day. This simple exercise can help boost your confidence and your comprehension. An example might be explaining the contents of a menu (out loud—this is key), or describing the individual responsibilities of your account managers.
Other tips: Attend a language workshop with a specific goal in mind, or talk to colleagues in similar situations and ask them for specific expressions they’ve learned.
Acknowledge your weaknesses to the VIP. Honesty goes a long way, and leaving doubts in a senior VIPs’ mind about your abilities can be damaging. This should be handled professionally and early on after meeting each other, e.g. “I don’t want to sound difficult, it’s just that I rarely have the chance to speak English. So please excuse me if I’m having trouble.”
It’s also better to avoid laughing at your mistakes and commenting on your weakness dismissively, e.g. “Oh, sorry, my English is so bad!” It often comes across as insincere to many Westerners. A better apology could be, “Sorry about that; I’m still learning.”
Ask for help when necessary. Dictionaries and online translators are improving in quality, but if you are unsure about a translation, you should feel free to ask your colleague/manager if a word or phrase is appropriate. It saves time, it can serve to improve workplace relationships, and it demonstrates your willingness to improve your skills. However, in some situations (e.g. when in a group meeting) you may not be able to ask for clarification due to time constraints, so you may want to record the meeting for later study.