Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical fiction novel by American author Arthur Golden, published in 1997. The novel, told in first person perspective, tells the story of a fictional geisha working in Kyoto, Japan, before, during, and after World War II and ends with her being relocated to New York City.
The novel opens in 1929, nine-year old Chiyo Sakamoto and her 15-year-old sister, where Satsu, are sold by their father to work within the entertainment districts of Kyoto. They are taken from their home, the coastal fishing village of Yoroido along the Sea of Japan, and travel to Kyoto by train; upon arrival, Chiyo is taken to the Nitta Okiya (geisha boarding house) in Gion, whereas Satsu – deemed less attractive and therefore a poor investment – is instead taken to a brothel within Kyoto’s pleasure district.
Chiyo is taken inside, and is introduced to Auntie, Mother (Auntie’s adoptive older sister and the matriarch of the house) and Granny, their elderly and poor-natured adoptive mother and the okiya’s former “mother”. Both Auntie and Mother are strict, though Auntie is kinder to Chiyo, whereas Mother is driven by money and business. Chiyo is also introduced to Hatsumomo – the premier geisha of the okiya, its primary earner, and one of the most famous, beautiful and ill-mannered geisha of Gion. Hatsumomo takes an instant disliking to Chiyo, and goes out of her way to torment her. Auntie warns Chiyo against both angering and trusting Hatsumomo, knowing the ill-mannered geisha’s true nature very well.
Chiyo begins her “training” at the okiya, which consists of household drudgery, before she is deemed worthy enough and starts her geisha training.
A few years later, a downtrodden Chiyo is given money and a handkerchief in the street by a kind stranger known to Chiyo as the Chairman. She donates the money to a shrine in Gion, praying to become a geisha of sufficient status to entertain the Chairman, and keeps the handkerchief as a memento. Soon afterwards, Pumpkin prepares to make her debut as a maiko, and the “younger sister” of Hatsumomo, whilst Chiyo remains a maid; this is, however, until Mameha, another famous geisha in Gion, persuades a reluctant Mother to reinvest in Chiyo’s training, with Mameha acting as Chiyo’s mentor and “older sister”.
Under Mameha’s care, Chiyo becomes a maiko with the given name of Sayuri, and is reacquainted with Chairman Iwamura (who appears not to recognise her), his closest friend and business partner Nobu, and a number of other prominent men. As Sayuri gains popularity, Hatsumomo – who has been refused succession of the okiya through adoption by Mother – tries to hurt Sayuri’s reputation and career in the hopes of Mother adopting Pumpkin instead, through whom Hatsumomo can run the okiya by proxy.
Upon Sayuri’s promotion to fully-fledged geishahood, Nobu expresses an interest in becoming Sayuri’s danna (patron), but loses to General Tottori; with Japan on the eve of war, Mother decides that a connection to the military is more important to the okiya. In 1944, geisha districts are ordered to close, and with many geisha conscripted to work in the factories, Sayuri desperately asks Nobu for help to avoid being conscripted into factory work. He sends Sayuri far north to live with his old friend, Arashino, a kimono maker, where she stays for much of the war.
At the end of the war, Nobu visits Sayuri, asking that she return to Gion to entertain the new Deputy Minister, Sato, whose aid Nobu desperately needs to rebuild his and the Chairman’s business, Iwamura Electric. Sayuri returns to Gion to find Pumpkin working in a new okiya; despite hoping to rekindle their friendship, Pumpkin later sabotages Sayuri’s plan to scare Nobu off from proposing to be her danna, as revenge for taking her place in the adoption so many years ago.
A few days after her plan fails, Sayuri is summoned to meet a client at a teahouse. Believing Nobu has called her to discuss the arrangements for becoming her danna, Sayuri is surprised to see the Chairman instead, and confesses that she has worked for years to become close to the Chairman. The Chairman admits that he has always known she was the girl he met on the street, and confesses his feelings for her as well, but felt he owed Nobu – his oldest and closest friend – the chance to be with Sayuri out of kindness. He also admits to having asked Mameha to train Sayuri.
Sayuri peacefully retires from geisha work when the Chairman becomes her danna. It is heavily implied that they have an illegitimate son together. Foreseeing the consequences this could have regarding the inheritance of Iwamura Electric, she relocates to New York City and opens her own small tea house for entertaining Japanese men on business in the United States. Sayuri severs her links to the Nitta okiya and in effect, Japan. The Chairman remains her danna until his death and the story concludes with a reflection on Sayuri and her life.