Her mother is dying of what she suspects is bone cancer, and her father is very old and also believes death is coming. To Chiyo's dismay, her older sister Satsu is not sold into the Nitta okiya with her. Determined to run away, Chiyo remains in the okiya to begin training as a geisha, along with another young girl her age living in the same okiya, whom she (and everyone else) has nicknamed Pumpkin. The okiya is run by three women: the elderly and grumbling Granny, the money-obsessed Mother, the okiya's mistress, and Auntie, a failed geisha who trained alongside Mother as her "sister" and the only one of the three who is generally nice to Chiyo.
Unfortunately, Hatsumomo somehow learns that Mameha has something going on (although Sayuri herself is still unaware at this point of the plan), and ruins the image Dr. Crab has of her. It takes some amount of convincing from Mameha and Sayuri's combined efforts to enlighten Dr. Crab on this matter. Ultimately, he wins the bid for Sayuri's mizuage, paying a record sum that is enough to more than repay all of Sayuri's debts to Mother. This leads the latter, who had already been considering adopting Pumpkin as her heiress, to adopt Sayuri instead, ultimately destroying the two girls' friendship – Pumpkin was looking forward to the adoption so that she could have some kind of security in her old age. Hatsumomo, on the other hand, starts to spiral downward, now that she is no longer in favor, and is eventually thrown out of the okiya.Nobu, on the other hand, bids to become Sayuri's danna (principal patron with a role akin to a husband), but loses to an army general. This, Mother believes, is because of the current political climate – Japan is on the brink of entering World War II. When the war breaks out, Sayuri is evacuated to another city to work in the factories. This is as good as a death sentence, as the factories require hard labor and are targets for bombs. Also, subsequently, the General is demoted and is unable to use any influence to send Sayuri to a safer spot. However, help unexpectedly arrives in the form of Nobu, who sends her far north to a kimono maker. Nonetheless, Sayuri and those close to her must endure a life of hard labor during the war that follows. After the end of the war, Nobu visits Sayuri and asks that she return to Gion, whose doors have opened again, to help entertain the new Deputy Minister Sato, whose aid can be instrumental in saving Iwamura Electric, the company the Chairman founded and Nobu runs, which was all but destroyed during the war.Sayuri, Mameha and Pumpkin entertain the Minister together regularly. Some time after, Nobu formally begins proposals to become Sayuri's danna, leaving her in despair because this would mean the end of any hopes to a relationship with the Chairman. On a weekend trip to the Amami Islands with Iwamura Electric, Sayuri devises a plan to humiliate herself with the Minister in front of Nobu, who, she is sure, will never forgive her for being with the Minister (whom Nobu despises despite his need of help from him). She arranges for Pumpkin to bring Nobu to a place where he will "stumble" upon Sayuri and the Minister making love. However, Pumpkin still harbors resentment towards Sayuri's adoption, and knows she is fond of the Chairman. She brings the Chairman to the theater instead of Nobu. Humiliated, Sayuri believes that her dream of being with the Chairman is lost forever, but afterwards, she receives a call to meet with Iwamura Electric. She is saddened as she anticipates meeting Nobu and discussing his patronage, but is surprised when the Chairman shows up rather than Nobu. Sayuri reveals that her acts in Amami were for personal reasons. The Chairman, in turn, expands on his feelings of debt toward and friendship with Nobu, and how he was not able to take away the woman his friend showed so much interest in. When he learned through Pumpkin that Sayuri's intention was for Nobu to see her with the Minister, he decided to tell Nobu what he had seen. The latter refuses to ever see Sayuri again, therefore freeing the Chairman to advance. She and the Chairman kiss, Sayuri's first kiss of true love.The story ends with Sayuri recounting her subsequent life with the Chairman as her danna, and her eventual retirement as a geisha.
She never freely admits that she has a son with the Chairman, but speaks of moving to New York City in order to avoid complications regarding inheritance of Iwamura Electric. The story concludes with a reflection on her life in New York and the important people in her life.