Abstract Background Laminaria japonica has frequently been used as a food supplement and drug in traditional oriental medicine. Among the major active constituents responsible for the bioactivities of L. japonica, fucoxanthin (FX) has been considered as a potential antioxidant. This study was conducted to examine the effects of L. japonica extract (LJE) or FX against oxidative stress on hepatocytes and to elucidate the overall their cellular mechanisms of the effects. Methods We constructed an in vitro model with the treatment of arachidonic acid (AA) + iron in HepG2 cells to stimulate the oxidative damage. The cells were pre-treated with LJE or FX for 1 h, and incubated with AA + iron. The effect on oxidative damage and cellular mechanisms of LJE or FX were assessed by cytological examination and several biochemical assays under conditions with or without kinase inhibitiors. Results LJE or FX pretreatment effectively blocked the pathological changes caused by AA + iron treatment, such as cell death, altered expression of apoptosis-related proteins such as procaspase-3 and poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase, and mitochondria dysfunction. Moreover, FX induced AMPK activation and AMPK inhibitor, compound C, partially reduced the protective effect of FX on mitochondria dysfunction. Consistent with AMPK activation, FX increased the protein levels of autophagic markers (LC3II and beclin-1) and the number of acridine orange stained cells, and decreased the phosphorylation of mTOR and simultaneously increased the phosphorylation of ULK1. And the inhibition of autophagy by 3-methylanine or bafilomycin A1 partially inhibited the protective effect of FX on mitochondria dysfunction. Conclusion These findings suggest that FX have the function of being a hepatic protectant against oxidative damages through the AMPK pathway for the control of autophagy.