In 1929, the nine-year-old Chiyo Sakamoto lives with her ailing mother, emotionally withdrawn father, and older sister Satsu in a small fishing village in Western Japan. One day, the wealthiest man in her village, Mr. Ichiro Tanaka, takes notices of Chiyo’s beautiful blue-grey eyes. After striking a deal with Chiyo’s father, Mr. Tanaka sells Chiyo to an okiya, which is a boarding house for geisha. Geisha are women trained to entertain men with conversation, dancing, and singing.
At the okiya, Chiyo works as a maid while she trains to be a geisha. The other people living at the okiya are the young apprentice geisha Pumpkin, the greedy and materialistic Mother who runs the okiya, and the beautiful but cruel geisha Hatsumomo. A few months after arriving in the okiya, Chiyo becomes so homesick that she tries to run away to her home village. The doors to the okiya are locked at night, so Chiyo climbs to the roof, but she falls and breaks her arm. Enraged at Chiyo for trying to run away, Mother stops paying for Chiyo’s geisha education. Instead, she tells Chiyo that she will work as a maid in the okiya until Mother sees fit to release her.
For two years, Chiyo works as a maid. One day, she goes on an errand and realizes that her life lacks purpose and direction. As Chiyo sits by a stream and begins to cry, a handsome man named the Chairman comforts her. Touched by his kindness, Chiyo decides that she must try to become a geisha so she can increase her standing in the world. Only then will she be able to surround herself with kind men instead of people like Hatsumomo and Mother.
Not long after this encounter, a geisha named Mameha arrives at the okiya and takes notice of Chiyo’s beauty. Mameha convinces Mother to reinvest in Chiyo’s education by saying that she will take on Chiyo as a “little sister”—a geisha apprentice. Since Mameha is one of the city’s best geisha, Mother sees an opportunity to make money from Chiyo again and agrees to Mameha’s plan. Chiyo thinks that Mameha is only taking her on as a protégé in order to infuriate her rival Hatsumomo.
Over the next two years, Chiyo completes her geisha training and makes her debut as an apprentice geisha. Following the geisha tradition of adopting a new name, Chiyo takes on the name Sayuri. At one event, Mameha introduces Sayuri to the wealthy businessmen Toshikazu Nobu and Chairman Ken Iwamura. Sayuri realizes that Chairman Iwamura is the man who comforted her years ago. However, Sayuri doesn’t get a chance to talk with the Chairman because Mameha tells her she must cultivate a relationship with Nobu instead. Mameha wants to make Sayuri a success in Kyoto by having Nobu and a doctor nicknamed “Dr. Crab” start a bidding war over Sayuri’s mizuage—the ceremonial taking of a young geisha’s virginity. After months of cultivating relationships with the two men, Dr. Crab ultimately pays a record amount for Sayuri’s mizuage.
The plan works and Sayuri gains a reputation as a highly coveted geisha. As part of geisha traditions, Mother adopts Sayuri, because she becomes the highest-earning geisha in the okiya. Over the next few years, Nobu continues to ask for Sayuri’s company. Though she likes Nobu as a person, she wishes she could spend more time with the Chairman instead. When World War Two breaks out, the government closes the geisha districts so that the women can more actively contribute to the war effort. Nobu uses his influence to find Sayuri the safe and relatively easy job of sewing parachutes in a village outside of Kyoto.
After the war, Nobu comes to find Sayuri. He says that he needs her to return to Kyoto and help him entertain a Japanese official named Sato. The American government wants to seize Nobu’s business assets, but Sato can use his connections to prevent this from happening. Sayuri agrees and returns to Kyoto.
At a teahouse, Sayuri—along with Pumpkin and Mameha—entertain Sato, Nobu, and the Chairman. For the next year, they meet on a weekly basis and Sayuri feels her attraction to the Chairman growing. Sato successfully convinces the Americans not to bankrupt the business. With the business secure, Nobu proposes himself as Sayuri’s danna—a patron who gives a geisha lavish gifts in return for sexual privileges. Because Nobu provided her a safe place to live during the war, Sayuri feels as if she is in his debt. She reluctantly agrees, wishing that the Chairman could be her danna instead.
To celebrate the good news, the group goes to an island near Okinawa for a weekend vacation. Sayuri realizes that if Nobu stumbles upon her sleeping with Sato, then Nobu will think that she has dishonored herself and withdraw his proposal to be her danna. Sayuri hopes that this will leave her free to pursue a relationship with the Chairman. Sayuri arranges to meet Sato at an abandoned theater and tells Pumpkin to bring Nobu at a set time. Pumpkin, however, brings the Chairman instead, who sees Sayuri and Sato having sex. Thinking that her chances are ruined with the Chairman, Sayuri feels crushed and utterly despondent.
A few days after returning to Kyoto, Sayuri receives an invitation to meet the Chairman at a teahouse. At the teahouse, the Chairman confesses that he fell in love with Sayuri the moment he saw her as a young girl crying by the stream. Surprised that he even remembers her from that day, Sayuri says that she only slept with Sato in order to make Nobu give her up so that she could possibly have the Chairman as her danna. Overcome with emotion, the Chairman pulls her close and kisses her.
A few weeks later, the Chairman becomes Sayuri’s danna. They live happily together over the next few years. Sayuri even gives birth to the Chairman’s son. Eventually they immigrate to New York City, where she recounts her memoirs to the Japanese history professor Jakob Haarhuis.