He graduated from the University of Tokyo in the field of economics in 1972, and has an Master of Business Administration from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio (1979).
In 1973 he began his career with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan (METI). In 1989 he joined the Organisation for Economic Company-operation and Development (Organization of European Cooperation and Development) as the Deputy-Director for Science, Technology and Industry, and served in 1991-1995 as the Director for Science, Technology and Industry. In 1995 he returned to METI where he served as Director for Industrial Finance Division and as Director for Policy Planning and Coordination Division.
In 1998–2000 he was posted at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, District of Columbia, as Minister for Energy, Trade and Industry.
After returning to Japan in 2000 he took a post of the Executive Vice President for the Research Institute of Economy Trade and Industry, and in 2002–2004 the post of the Director-General for the Multilateral Trade System Department of METI. From 16 August 2004 to 31 August 2007 Nobuo Tanaka was the Director for Science, Technology and Industry at the Organization of European Cooperation and Development, and head of the internal Organization of European Cooperation and Development Steering Group for the Centre for Entrepreneurship. On 1 September 2007 he succeeded Claude Mandil as the Executive Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. On 1 September 2011, he was succeeded in this role by the Former Minister of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands, Maria van der Hoeven.
He is now Global Associate for Energy Security and Sustainability at the Institute for Energy Economics, Japan ("Eneken") in Tokyo. He is also a Professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo.
He is also a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in New York where he has given lectures on subjects like Post Fukushima energy policy, the Shale revolution and energy security, China energy and sustainability, and the Integral Fast Reactor during frequent weekly visits to the Columbia Morningside campus each academic semester.
He is a vocal advocate for advanced nuclear energy for Japan and international cooperation between Japan and the Republic of of Korea to build the first commercial Integral Fast Reactor in the world. On May 28, 2014 he hosted the Global Leader Program for Social Design and Management (GSDM) 15th Platform Seminar, The 79th Public Policy Seminar at the University of Tokyo titled "Peaceful and Safer Use of Nuclear Power: Role of Integral Fast Reactor". His research paper on the role of the Integral Fast Reactor is scheduled to be presented in the Spring of 2015 in New New York
Nobuo Tanaka is married and has two children.