Tiger studied PPE at Oxford and spied on Britain for Japan before the war. He joined the Kempeitai (the wartime Japanese Gestapo), before resigning and bribed his way to be trained to be a kami-kaze, but never completed the mission due to the surrender of Japan. Being a believer in "demokrasu", he became the head of the Japanese Secret Service during the American occupation of Japan. Tanaka is a womanizer who has nearly been married three times but was talked out of them by his Australian associate, Dikko Henderson. Tiger is stoically bitter about the influence of American culture in his country, decrying it as the price of defeat.
Introduced to James Bond by Dikko, the two negotiate for British access to the Japanese intelligence feed on the Soviet Union. In exchange for the data, Tanaka compels Bond to undertake the assassination of a foreign botanist named Doctor Guntram Shatterhand, who is later revealed to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld in disguise. Tanaka personally takes charge of Bond's training for the mission, instructing him in Japanese customs and enrolling him in a ninja training school, showing Bond tricks of concealment and attacking with suprise. He then leaves Bond on an island near the castle with local Ama diver, Kissy Suzuki.
After Bond completes his mission, killing Shatterhand and destroying his Garden of Death, Tiger visits the island in search of him. He leaves with a heavy heart, not knowing that Bond is living there with Kissy in a state of amnesia.
Tiger Tanaka also features in the Raymond Benson novel The Man with the Red Tattoo, in which he has retired from intelligence work with the Koan-Chosa-Kyoku, but still retains authority as a director emeritus. He has also developed heart disease, and suffers a heart attack shortly before the climax of the novel, but survives.
Tanaka's physical description and personality are based on the Japanese writer Torao "Tiger" Saito, whom Fleming met in Tokyo while researching the Far East for a series of travel articles, later published as Thrilling Cities. Many of the descriptions of Japanese customs in You Only Live Twice come from Fleming's conversations with Saito.