The metastatic lymph-node ratio has important prognostic value in gastric cancer; this study focused on its significance in early gastric cancer. In total, 1,472 patients with early gastric cancer underwent curative gastrectomy between 1992 and 2001. Of these, 166 (11.3%) had histologically proven lymph-node metastasis. Prognostic factors were identified by univariate and multivariate analyses. Metastasis was evaluated using the Japanese Classification of Gastric Carcinoma (JGC) and the Union Internationale Contre le Cancer/Tumor, Node, Metastasis (UICC/TNM) Classification. The metastatic lymph-node ratio was calculated using the hazard ratio. The cut-off values for the metastatic lymph-node ratio were set at 0, <0.15, >or=0.15 to <0.30, and >or=0.30. The numbers of dissected and metastatic lymph nodes were correlated, but the number of dissected lymph nodes and the metastatic lymph-node ratio was not related. The JGC and UICC/TNM classification demonstrated stage migration and heterogeneous stratification for disease-specific survival. The metastatic lymph-node ratio showed less stage migration and homogenous stratification. The metastatic lymph-node ratio may be a superior method of classification, which provides also accurate prognostic stratification for early gastric cancer patients.