Background We conducted a retrospective study in our hospital in which we compared D1 with D3 through D2 lymphadenectomy for gastric cancer in terms of morbidity, postoperative mortality, long-term survival after surgery. Methods 567 patients who were performed curative intent between 1980 and 2003 were enrolled. 187 in the D1 group, 189 in the D2 group and 191 in the D3 group. Every procedure was verified by pathological analyses. The primary endpoints were 5-year overall survival. Results Median follow-up periods were 36 months and 60 months for D1 group and D3 group. Overall 5-year survival rate was significantly higher in patients underwent D3 surgery than in those performed D1 surgery (37.4% vs 48.7%; log-rank, p = 0.027). For the cases followed up to 120 months, the 10-year overall survival rate was 29% (95% CI, 22.1% to 35.9%) for the D1 group and 33.7% (95% CI, 26.6% to 40.8%) for the D3 group (log-rank, p = 0.005). Conclusions D1 surgery should be operated only for patients with Borrmann I disease. As D3 gastrectomy is associated with low mortality and adequate survival times when performed in selected institutions that have had sufficient experience with the operation and with postoperative management, we recommend D3 lymphadenectomy for patients with curable gastric cancer.