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Tanaka was born in Indonesia and emigrated to the United States at the age of one with her mother. She lived in New York and later moved to California.
Tanaka attended high school with pornographic actresses Kitty Jung and Jasmine Mai. Jung suggested that Tanaka enter the pornographic industry. She shot under the names, Sasha Lei and Mulan Wang, until Ed Powers gave her the name Tia Tanaka.
At one point in 2006 she was attending university majoring in psychology.