Concerns about rebuilding costs and radiation push Japan's Nikkei down 1.7 percent. But stocks in Europe edge up and US futures point to stronger open.
However, market sentiment remained fragile and vulnerable to developments in Japan's struggle to contain radiation from a leaking nuclear power plant and the international military strikes in Libya.
The tensions were evident in the performance of Tokyo's Nikkei 225, which closed down 1.7 percent to 9,449.47 after the government announced that damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami could reach $309 billion.
The Nikkei's retreat weighed on Asian markets and on early trading in Europe, but an expected rebound at the Wall Street open helped turn around the fortunes of Europe's main markets.
"After a modest bout of risk aversion during the Asian session, markets are a little more upbeat as we move closer to the North American open," said Benjamin Reitzes, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets.
Investors' appetite for riskier trades, such as stocks, has been volatile in recent weeks in light of Japan's natural disasters, fears of a potential meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the escalating conflict in Libya, where coalition forces including the U.S., Britain and France continue to launch strikes to protect civilians from government troops and to enforce a no-fly zone.
In addition, jitters over Europe's debt crisis have resurfaced ahead of a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, with investors particularly worried about the fate of Portugal and Ireland.
Portugal's government is likely to fall following an expected defeat in a Parliament vote later Wednesday and the new Irish government is showing few signs of backtracking on its commitment to a super-low corporate tax rate, meaning it is unlikely to get easier terms for its bailout loans.
Against that backdrop, investors are refocusing on Europe's debt crisis after a couple of weeks when most attention has been centered on North Africa and Japan.
Movements in bond markets indicated increasing pessimism among investors. The yield on Portugal's ten-year bonds is up 0.10 of a percentage point to 7.57 percent, a whisker short of euro-era highs, while Ireland's yield is up 0.08 percentage point to 9.91 percent.
The euro, meanwhile, was trading only 0.2 percent lower on the day at $1.4162.
An intense sell-off caused trading to be halted on the exchange for half an hour. After reopening, the benchmark EGX 30 index was trading down 9 percent at 5,137 points by early afternoon, recovering slightly from a drop of nearly 10 percent earlier.
Mainland Chinese stocks rose with the Shanghai Composite Index gaining 1 percent to 2,948.48, and the smaller Shenzhen Composite Index up 1.2 percent to 1,299.99. Benchmarks in Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand also rose.
Oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange hovered around $105 a barrel as violent uprisings in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East kept traders nervous about possible crude supply disruptions. OPEC-member Libya, which produces enough oil to meet nearly 2 percent of world demand, has almost totally stopped shipping it.