Despite the fact that Zeami Motokiyo was famous in his lifetime, relatively little is known about him. This is partially because, in his time, actors had very low social status. In fact, without the help of powerful patronage, Zeami might never have received the level of literary training one needed to learn the canons of Japanese poetry, which figure so heavily in the aesthetics of his dramaturgy.
Zeami began his career as a child actor in the troupe of his father Kan’ami (1333-1384), who took his troupe to shrines and temples for performances at festivals all over the country, staging his plays for a variety of local patrons. When Zeami was a boy of twelve, the shgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the political ruler of the nation and a powerful patron of the arts, saw his performance and was so captivated by the beauties of Zeami’s technique as well as his person that he decided to patronize Kan’ami’s troupe and have Zeami educated properly. It is clear from reading Zeami’s treatises, written in his mature years, that he had become extremely well versed in the arts of poetry, literature, and philosophy, subjects to which a low-ranking person such as an actor could normally expect to have no access whatsoever.
Zeami’s father died when the young actor was only twenty-two, and Zeami spent the rest of his career as head of the theatrical troupe his father had led, serving as administrator, actor, playwright, and theoretician. As long as the patronage of Yoshimitsu continued, Zeami enjoyed high favor; when Yoshimitsu’s successor Yoshimochi took power, however, Zeami began to lose favor in the court. In 1428, when Yoshimochi’s younger brother Yoshinori became shgun, Zeami and his family began to suffer real hardships. Eventually, at age seventy-two, Zeami was exiled to the remote island of Sado. Tradition has it that he was pardoned and permitted to return to the capital shortly before his death in 1443, but details concerning these matters are conflicting and obscure.