Kakutani initially worked as a reporter for The Washington Post, and then from 1977 to 1979 for Time magazine, where Hersey had worked. In 1979, she joined The New York Times as a reporter.
Kakutani worked as a literary critic for The New York Times from 1983 until her retirement in 2017. Her periodically harsh reviews of some prominent authors have garnered both attention and, on occasion, criticism. For example, in 2006, Kakutani called Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass". Franzen reportedly subsequently called Kakutani "the stupidest person in New York City". Another example is that, in 2012, Kakutani wrote a negative review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile. In 2018, Taleb stated in his book Skin in the Game that "someone has to have read the book to notice that a reviewer is full of baloney, so in the absence of skin in the game, reviewers such as Michiko Kakutani" can "go on forever without anyone knowing" that they are fabricating and drunk. According to Kira Cochrane in The Guardian, such counterattacks may have bolstered Kakutani’s reputation as commendably "fearless".
On July 19, 2007, The New York Times published a pre-release story written by Kakutani about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. An account of the ensuing controversy, including the critical comments of some Harry Potter fans, can be found on the Times Public Editor's blog.
Kakutani was parodied in the essay "I Am Michiko Kakutani" by one of her former Yale classmates, Colin McEnroe.
She is referenced in an episode of the HBO series Sex and the City. In "Critical Condition" (season 5, episode 6), Carrie Bradshaw releases a book that Kakutani reviews. Various characters deem the critic's name "too hard to pronounce," including Miranda Hobbes, who memorably states, "Just don't say her name again — it will drive me over the edge."
Kakutani is mentioned in an episode of the short-lived ABC sitcom It's Like, You Know... (season 2, episode 4).
She is mentioned in an episode of HBO's Girls (season 3, episode 5).
In The Affair, a publisher who wants to print Noah Solloway's second novel tells him that "Michi Kakutani will flip for this, and she hates everything" (season 1, episode 10).
She is mentioned by Jimmy from the FXX show You're the Worst who says "If you look past Michiko Kakutani's thinly veiled ethnocentrism and scorching ephebiphobia..." when discussing the response to his novel. ("Crevasses": season 2, episode 2)
She is mentioned in the fourth and final season of The O.C.
She is mentioned in the novel Purity by Jonathan Franzen as the author of a damning review of a newly released novel.