Invasion and metastasis are the major causes of treatment failure in patients with cancer. Here, we investigated the effects of ginsenoside Rh1 on tumor invasion and metastasis in human hepatocellular carcinoma HepG2 cells and its possible mechanism of action. Rh1 showed concentration- and time-dependent inhibition of HepG2 cell migration and invasion. Matrix metalloproteinase-1 (MMP-1) gene expression and its promoter activity were also concentration-dependently inhibited by Rh1 treatment. The inhibitory effect of Rh1 on MMP-1 expression was due to inactivation of the mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) ERK, JNK, and p38 MAPK. By transient transfection analysis with the MMP-1 promoter (− 2846 to − 29 nt) and AP-1 promoter, MMP-1 and AP-1 promoter activities were induced by phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) but were significantly inhibited by PD98059 (ERK1/2 inhibitor) or SP600125 (JNK inhibitor). The induction of MMP-1 and AP-1 promoters by PMA was attenuated by Rh1, and both promoter activities were synergistically inhibited by co-treatment with PD98059. To evaluate the effects of Rh1 on AP-1 dimers, expression analysis and electrophoretic mobility shift (EMSA) assay using radiolabeled AP-1-specific oligomers at proximal site (− 73 nt) and distal site (− 1600 nt) of the MMP-1 promoter were performed. The results showed that Rh1 inhibited the expression of c-Jun and c-Fos but did not affect the DNA binding ability of AP-1-specific oligomers. However, Rh1 attenuated the stability of c-Jun. Therefore, Rh1 has potential for development of novel chemotherapeutic agents for treatment of malignant cancers, including early hepatocellular carcinoma related to MMP-1 expression.