As antigenic peptides in the context of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I molecules are recognised by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL), the downregulation of HLA class I molecules is one of the reasons why tumour cells can evade CTL-mediated anti-tumour immunity. In this study, we investigated HLA class I expression in oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC) (n=70) and in their metastatic lesions (lymph nodes (n=40) and liver (n=3)), by immunohistochemistry with anti-HLA class I monoclonal antibody (EMR8-5). As a result, the downregulation of HLA class I expression in primary lesions of ESCC was observed in 43%, and that in metastatic lymph nodes was noted in 90%. Furthermore, patients with preserved HLA class I expression in primary tumours showed a better survival in comparison to those with downregulated HLA class I molecules (P<0.01). Furthermore, multivariate analysis using Cox's proportional hazards model revealed that the downregulated expression of HLA class I in primary lesions was an independent, unfavourable prognostic factor (P<0.01). In conclusion, the downregulation of HLA class I expression frequently occurred in primary tumour and, to a greater extent, in metastatic lesions of patients with ESCC and was associated with patient survival.